My Mother’s Mother’s Mother

Flora Silva Purinton, courtesy Barbara A. Desmarais

Flora Silva Purinton, courtesy Barbara A. Desmarais

I have no memory of my mother’s mother, Flora (Silva) Purinton. When I was two she was committed to Augusta Mental Hospital due to dementia; I never saw her again. Everything I know about her, I learned from her personal photo album or by pestering my mother, aunts, and uncles for Grammie’s story. I shared some of Flora’s story in A Flora Bouquet.

Flora and Alice Purinton, courtesy Barbara A. Desmarais

Flora and Alice Purinton,
courtesy Barbara A. Desmarais

As an adult I continued to question my mother and her siblings about Grammie and Great-aunt Alice’s past, hoping they’d add a new tidbit to the narrative. Sometimes they did. My Great-aunt Alice lived with Flora’s eldest daughter, also Alice, for many years so I wrote my aunt to see what she could add to the narrative.

Excerpt from Letter 1 from Aunt Alice, November 19, 1986

Aunt Alice and your Gram were orphaned here – both were born in California of Portuguese parents. [Here Alice wrote “John and Mary Silva” and crossed them out.] Antonio Sylvar Pestruit and Maria Nicarda Pestruit. Just looked this up. Have Aunt A’s letters to priest in California. Don’t look at them very often. That is why I made a mistake (above). Mama was a year or two older than Aunt Alice. Apparently their mother and father separated when the girls were very small – perhaps even before Aunt A. was born. My mother used to tell me about them going to visit their father (who evidently was a fisherman) down near the water – where he lived with somebody they called the stepmother. He seemed to have kept the boys with him. Ma used to speak of a Tony, a George (I think) and a William. She spoke of a baby (brother – I guess) laid out in a casket…, on the table – so there was sorrow there as in all families.

The girl’s mother brought them east by train. Seems she sold their house. Ma spoke of their mother sewing gold pieces in a sort of belt around her waist. She evidently thought she was dying (and probably was – by the way Ma used to tell of the way she acted – and how very pale she was.) The girls were placed in a home on Huntington Ave. Boston – then called by the (awful) name of Home for Destitute Catholic Children. Have an idea that is where most of the gold pieces went – to help care for the girls…. No record was found of a baptismal certificate for Ma. Have an idea that there was a change of residence between Ma and Aunt Alice’s birth. (Just a guess.)

Aunt Alice’s letter fleshed out my grandmother’s early life for me, but also introduced me to my great-grandmother, Mary (Miranda) Silva. Mary has been elusive; I have only two documents that I can definitely attribute to her, but they’re important ones.

1900 United States Federal Census, Branciforte Township, California from

1900 United States Federal Census, Branciforte Township, California

The first is the 1900 census, which shows Mary, a Catholic, divorced from her husband, Antone. Both were head of different households in Branciforte Township, California. Just as my aunt had written, Antone lived with his new wife and 3 of Mary’s children and Mary lived with daughters Flora and Alice. She did own her home, which she probably sold to fund her trip east to start a new life.

Letter from Superintendent of Westborough State Hospital, 1930

Letter from Superintendent of Westborough State Hospital, 1930

By December 1902, Mary and her daughters had travelled by train all the way across the United States to Massachusetts. That’s when the second document, a letter from the superintendent of Westborough State Hospital, an insane asylum, indicates Mary was committed there. The 1903 immigration act allowed federal authorities to deport non-citizens residing in publicly funded institutions including hospitals, asylums, poor farms, or prisons. Mary fit the criteria and in April 1903 she was discharged for deportation back to Portugal. She and her young daughters said their goodbyes on a Boston dock and the girls were returned to the orphanage. Mary may have been aboard a ship that arrived in Liverpool, England, on April 16th, 1903. I hope Mary made it home to her family.

Unidentified woman from photo album of Flora (Silva) Purinton, courtesy Barbara A. Desmarais

Unidentified woman from photo album of Flora (Silva) Purinton,
courtesy Barbara A. Desmarais

When I look through Grammie’s photo album I always stop at a portrait of an unidentified dark-eyed woman. Each time I see it I wonder, is this Mary? Is this my mother’s mother’s mother? I may never know.

Next Blog: Down by the Riverside



About Barbara Desmarais

Writer and amateur historian
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7 Responses to My Mother’s Mother’s Mother

  1. This is so interesting–and sad. That poor woman–her poor children. But they had good lives–I hope things went well for Mama too, and that someday you can fill in her story.

  2. I share those hopes. If I ever find her, I’ll let you know!

  3. Cathy Leonard says:

    Very interesting Barbara. I was told that Flora was chosen and taken in by my great grandparents from a group of Catholic orphans. I don’t remember if it happened in Boston, Portland or Brunswick. I imagine the Church encouraged Catholics to help the orphans. What have you been told?

  4. Yes, from what I’ve read, it was a pretty regular occurrence for the orphans from the Catholic orphanage to be paraded at church for selection by a family. Mom did mention the children being brought by the nuns to church for selection by “good Catholic families.” My guess is that they came by train (with the nuns, of course) and possibly went from church to church (south to north) until the children were all chosen. Or possibly just to Sacred Heart in Portland.

  5. Wow…I like what you do, Barbara and I appreciate all of the time and research that goes into these well-crafted posts. So intriguing to track down history and especially your own. Love the images, too. Hope you’re well…I have been missing you all…it’s been a busy time of year for us. Thinking of you! ♥

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