My Mom, Olga — Part One: The Early Years in Chicago


Mom flashed me a horrified look as she saw what I was doing. I was a fourth grader, and home sick from school that day. She had just answered the phone when all of a sudden I knew I had to throw up. The problem was where. I was standing next to the kitchen sink, but I knew that was out. She was really particular about keeping her sink spotless. I also didn’t want to make a mess all over her clean floor. So I lunged for the junk drawer, pulled it open, and deposited my breakfast all over the pencils, pens, rubber bands, and paper clips. That’s when I saw the look on her face. She was trying to say,”No! Anywhere but there!” But she couldn’t, because she was still on the phone.

When she hung up she said, “Joey, Why didn’t you just throw up in the sink?” I explained my faulty reasoning — which by that time was obvious to me — and she didn’t even get mad, just started cleaning up the drawer. It was just one in a long line of examples of why I liked my mom so much.

Only a few months earlier I had swallowed a penny. She made me go to the bathroom in a laundry bucket in the bathroom for a few days, until she spotted the wayward penny, washed it off, and returned it to me.

Like I said, I really liked her. She was a good woman. Very kind. Here’s her story.


 The Early Years — Chicago

1. Chicago Home jpeg

The Chicago home where Olga was born and lived in until she was married at age 26. Her sisters, Evelyn, Gladys and Barbara are standing on the sidewalk. c. 1920.

She began life as Olga Ruby Miller, born on January 9, 1909 in the family home at 1000 N. Lorel Avenue in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. The large, three-story stucco house, built in 1907, sat on a tree-lined street and occupied a corner lot. Olga’s middle name, Ruby, was given in honor of her mother’s oldest sister, Ruby.

Olga’s mother, Meryl Mildred Miller (nee Hooten), was born on a small farm outside of New Carlisle, Indiana on October 6, 1886. Meryl was the fifth oldest of ten children.

Olga’s father, Emil Oscar Miller, was born in Malmo, Sweden on January 5,1874, one of four children. The family’s name in Sweden was Moller. Emil left Sweden as a lad around 1888 and entered the US through the port of Boston. His first home was with relatives in Indiana where he worked for them, learned English and finished his schooling. He moved to Chicago on his own when he was eighteen.

A family legend purports that Emil arrived in Chicago with only a nickel in his pocket. He was extremely hungry and couldn’t decide whether to spend the nickel on a doughnut, or on a streetcar to get to his destination. No one remembers which one he chose. Either way he ended up getting a job with the Chicago-Northwestern Railroad. The census of 1900 lists his occupation as “locomotive engineer.” He was 26-years-old.

Emil met Meryl Hooten on one of his trips back to Indiana, and they were married on January 17, 1906. Children came along quickly. Their first child, Ruth, was born that next December. Olga was born a little over two years later. She was to be the second of seven children spread over 22 years. Their names were Ruth, Olga, Evelyn, Gladys, Barbara, Richard and Carl.

Their father, Emil, was a strong man, and the children would often ask him to hold his arms straight out and lift two of them up at the same time, one on each side. He much preferred showers over baths, and would remark to the children, “Why would anyone want to soak in their own dirt?” He was a happy and contented man. When his wife would serve him bean soup, he liked to say, ”I don’t care what it’s been. I care what it is now!” He had seen that joke as a cartoon in the newspaper and loved repeating it.

At first, Emil drove freight trains, but later was asked to be the engineer on the crack Chicago-Northwestern passenger train called the Milwaukee 400. It left Chicago at three p.m. sharp every afternoon for Milwaukee. He would arrive in Milwaukee, eat his dinner there, and drive the train back to Chicago, arriving at nine at night.

Olga’s older sister, Ruth, was her best friend growing up. The two remained close their entire lives even though they lived at opposite ends of the country. As children, they shared a bed and before going to sleep, they would often recite the child’s prayer which ends with, “And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Olga knew for sure that if they did die, Ruth was going to heaven because she was so good. She wasn’t sure about herself, though. She’d try to fall asleep with a firm hold on Ruth’s nightgown in case they did die, so she could tag along, too. Smart girl.

2. Olga, age 6 or 7 jpeg

Olga at age 6 or 7 with her sister, Ruth. They’re looking a little serious. Chicago. c. 1915

Growing up, Olga learned to play the violin. Her only outdoor sport was rollerskating and she never learned how to ride a bicycle or swim. She almost drowned once in the waters of cold Lake Michigan when a large wave caught her and held her under for the longest time. Her sister, Barbara, eight years younger, remembered Olga as a wonderful older sister who always had time for her, and paid attention to her and her siblings and read them stories. In many ways Olga acted as a mother figure to her younger brothers and sisters, because their own mom seemed always busy with cooking, cleaning, and having babies. Olga was a gentle soul, known for her kindness and her diligence.

The sisters, and later on, the brothers, would relax and vacation every summer at their grandparents’ farm just outside New Carlisle, Indiana. It was only a few hours journey. There, they played with their cousins, had meals with grandma and grandpa, picked berries, watched fireflies in the evening, and kept a respectful distance from the two scary and strange bachelor uncles who lived in a room off the barn. They loved the weeks they spent there. Because of her fair skin, Olga learned at a young age to protect it from the sun.

Growing up attending a conservative “closed” Brethren church Olga developed a faith in God at a young age. Her father, Emil, was led to faith in Christ by a man with the last name of Gilmour (from whom her brother, Carl, got his middle name). The story of his coming to faith is a good one. He was up in the engine compartment of the train he was driving and he was contemplating what this friend had told him about Jesus . . . that Jesus was actually God in human flesh, and that he loved people so much he willingly gave his life for them. He would tell people later that just as the truth of that began to sink in, the entire engine compartment of the locomotive was filled with a bright light and he felt the actual presence of Jesus right there.

Naturally, Emil was excited about his new found faith and brought a friend or two to church with him. To his surprise, the elders objected, so the family changed churches.

Olga walked with her sisters every day to Austin High School — the Maroon and White — located a mile and a quarter from their house. She graduated in 1925, at sixteen. Olga played in the orchestra, and was an excellent student. Her grammar and spelling were flawless her entire life. Because she wanted to finish high school early, she went to summer school for three summers and graduated in three years instead of four. She studied French all three years, and remembered French vocabulary words years later.


[NOTE: This is part one of a nine part series.]


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This entry was posted on December 3, 2014 by and tagged , , , , , .
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