Becky Remembers . . . Aunt Jennie (Daphna Virginia Prentiss)
By Becky London
I saw more of Aunt Jennie when I was young, than I did of Grandma London. I don't think Grandma ever liked any other child but Johnny Miller, maybe she just didn't like children because we were very good friends when I was 15 and older. But I started to tell about Aunt Jenny. Somehow she never seemed old when she used to stay with Joan and me. That was until 1912. Then we moved to Piedmont and it was too far away for her to make the trip. But once when I was about 20 I figured out that she was 12 or 14 when the Civil War was started and that would have made her nearly 60 when she used to come to the 31st Street house.
Aunt Jennie was the fastest, hardest worker that I ever saw. She always insisted on preparing all our birthday dinners and all holiday dinners, except Christmas. She would arrive early, put on a big, stiffly starched white apron and head for the kitchen and it seemed no time at all until everything was ready. Somehow she always found a moment or two to show me how I could help. But I doubt if I ever did more than cause her trouble, at first, but just about all I know today about cooking I learned from Aunt Jennie.
Much as I liked "to help" her, what was far better and made me happier came after work was finished and she would sit in the big rocking chair, hold me in her lap and tell me stories about plantation life when she was a little girl. You see Aunt Jennie was born a slave, but she never mentioned that. She was always happy and cheerful, a hard worker, independent and the most loving and affectionate person I have ever known in my life.
There were only a few colored people (that is what I was taught to call them) in Oakland when I was little and the other children in the neighborhood stared at her at first, but soon they became used to her and wished they could hear her tell stories which I tried to repeat to them, but I could never make them as interesting or exciting as she did when she told how she and her mistress "refuged" to St. Louis from the plantation during the Civil War.
Aunt Jennie never learned to read or write. She did learn to write her name and was clever enough to learn about money, but that was all the education, perhaps learning is a better word, that she had. She never knew where in the South the plantation was, nor the family name of her master and mistress. She didn't know when she was born, nor how long it took to journey from the plantation to St. Louis.
In 1876 Aunt Jennie was living with her husband and children in San Francisco. When Daddy was born, January 12, 1876, Grandma wasn't able to nurse him and had to find a "wet nurse." (In case the expression is no longer used, a wet nurse was a woman who had just had a baby and is willing and able to nurse another child.) Grandma found Aunt Jennie and so began the loving relationship between Daddy and Aunt Jennie which lasted as long as he lived. No – longer, because Daddy left Aunt Jennie enough to take care of her as long as she lived.
Daddy always said that the only love and affection he knew as a child came from Aunt Jennie. He never remembered his mother kissing him. Well, I don't either, Grandma was not demonstrative. Aunt Jennie not only loved Daddy she helped him in many ways, loaned him money, backed him in everything he did. She was a wonderful woman and a friend to everyone. Not only to Grandma but to Daddy and me — a loving friend.
Never called, by me, Mammy, always Aunt Jennie Prentiss. She was the person who meant the most to me as a little girl, (aside from Daddy.) She loved me and I loved her. I knew that, never doubted it. It made a great difference to me when I felt I was an outsider, not part of the family with mother and Joan. I'll never forget her. She has a place, a big place, in my memory and in my heart.
Joan and I never lost contact with Aunt Jennie. We saw her often after she "retired." With her that meant that she was waited on instead of working. It was sad when her memory began to fail near the end of her life and she had to be watched closely because she would wander away. But Joan and I took charge of her funeral and saw she had a good one. I don't remember exactly, but I think she died in 1923 or 1924.
According to Jack London scholar, Dr. Clarice Stasz: "Jenny's final years were spent in rest homes, and eventually she became so senile that she was sent to Napa State Hospital, Napa, CA. There she died at about age ninety-one on November 27, 1922."
For additional information on Jenny Prentiss visit Dr. Clarice Stasz's posting at: Jack London Online, Sonoma State University (previously Sunsite Berkeley)
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