Clara Jessie Ballinger Peckham

Clara Jessie Ballinger Peckham

1906 – 2001

Clara Ballinger Peckham in the squash field with her sons Albert and Norman, 1950s. Courtesy of K. Barry Peckham.

A long life deserves a long story, but this will have to do.

Clara was born to Ida Clark Ballinger in Newark, New Jersey, where Ballingers had lived since the city’s founding. Her older sister and she spent time in an orphanage as young children following the death of their mother. This trauma intensified the desire for strong family ties and also a protectionist outlook. Father Albert Ballinger, the painter and paper-hanger, took a second wife within 2 years and brought his daughters back home again.

 Step-mom Elsie raised the 2 Ballinger sisters and produced 2 Ballinger boys of her own. This family of 6 moved to Little Compton early in the Roaring ‘20s and spent several years at Duffield Farm, caretaking, raising chickens and growing prize-winning dahlias. When the Ballingers left town for East Providence, Clara remained behind, staying with Fred and Julia Boddington to finish her schooling at #4 Schoolhouse, where she had taken a fancy to her young teacher, Raymond Peckham.

 The 2 Ballinger sisters also worked for a time at Raymond’s aunt Lidora (Peckham) Sisson’s boarding house near South Shore. Clara married Raymond on her 20th birthday, and they honeymooned in Bermuda, which was a trendy thing for those with means in 1926. The Peckham farm into which Clara married was at its peak before the Great Depression, so this Jersey girl must have felt that she had married well. Raymond and Clara had a bungalow built across the dirt road from his childhood home and their first child, Elinor, arrived in 1927. While Clara got used to motherhood and home ownership, her husband remained socially active and worked with the school committee to build the Josephine F. Wilbur building, bringing to an end the little schoolhouse system in town that had brought him his mate.

 The great Depression showed up 9 months after their second child, a boy named for Clara’s revered father. The young couple took in boarders as early as 1930. At least two, Miss Buxton and Miss Sunderland taught at Josephine Wilbur school. During the lean times in her 20s, Clara raised 4 children and took to heart the identity of frugal Yankee, though her quick-to-anger character chafed against the stereotype. As an “outsider” who married for love, she tangled with her mother-in-law across the street, who was also an “outsider” from New Hampshire. Clara excelled in domestic skills while her husband’s mother was an intellectual who, it appears, was domestically challenged. It has been said many times that father-in-law William would sneak across the road to dine at Clara’s table after an unsatisfying meal with his wife.

The Ballinger kin in East Providence remained dear to Clara and photo albums show many visits to Little Compton by her dad, step-mom and half brothers. The 2 sisters were especially close throughout their lives, and we Peckham descendants knew there would be happy days when Abbie showed up on Peckham Road. The big glass greenhouse is named for her.

The end of Depression years also brought the end of patriarch William. Raymond and his brother Bink were running the farm but had very different ideas about how to proceed. This family property split in two toward the end of WW2, when Clara was a volunteer plane spotter for the coastal defense network. Her son said she could recognize an airplane type by the sound it made and eventually had no need of a visual I.D.  It may well have been this attention to aircraft that inspired 2 of her sons to get their pilots’ licenses.

Clara became the sole matriarch of Peckham’s Greenhouse after the war and put in many hours there during spring as her children went off to boarding school, courtesy of their grandmother. The power spot for Clara in the greenhouse was the seeding bench; her dexterity and speed were unmatched for decades as millions of seedlings got separated and replanted into the flats sold a few months later; lettuce, cabbage and tomatoes, zinnias, petunias and marigolds, it was mostly Clara most of the time, all the way into her 80s. During this time, the dirt road between her house and the greenhouses got paved and acquired the same name she had acquired.

Her first of 16 grandchildren showed up in the early ‘50s. As a kid I was encouraged to regard this grandmother as a zen master of the Yankee Way, having no idea she was a Jersey girl. My impression, molded by her son, was of an efficient and artful craftsperson, very strict but also fair, and with a sense of humor rare and spare in her husband’s nature.

She bred shelties for a decade or so and gave her childhood nickname to the mother of all her pups: “Midge”, as in midget, a reflection of Clara’s small stature, especially in contrast with her tall sister.

When in 1970 the family business transferred to her oldest son, due to her husband’s deepening dementia, Clara eventually made peace with that son’s wife, yet another outsider from the city, and walked across Peckham Road to visit as well as work during the spring planting season. A potato field became vineyards during the ‘80s and Clara was there with clippers to harvest grapes.

She spent nearly 2 decades alone in her 1926 bungalow and lived into her ‘90s, always a Ballinger but also a seminal Peckham on Peckham Road. In homage to her prowess with baking beans, Clara was buried in a bean pot, perpetuating her whimsical nature and “good taste”.

K. Barry Peckham, Grandson

April 14, 2020

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