Julie Hilliard—a twenty-eight year old author—sat at the computer, pondered the future, and reflected upon the past. During a recent visit to discuss her latest book publication with the students of Eden Valley Elementary School for “Career Day,” Julie met Abby Leavitt—a red haired, freckled eight year old— who asked a question that resonated with Julie: “Are girls really that tough?” Julie’s answer echoed across more than a century and encompassed not only her own life, but the previous four generations of her family’s lives, as well: “Yes, we are.”
The women in Julie’s family were self-motivated and self-sufficient in their own unique and differing ways and she was certainly no different. Julie was similar to her ancestors in character and she never lacked motivation; she learned her survivalist skills from the best and never faced an impossible challenge. Julie’s life was a blend of each female relative to have come before her. She was as strong-willed as her great-great grandmother; as family-oriented as her great-grandmother; as faith-driven as her grandmother; and as determined as her mother to make a difference in the world by utilizing the gifts that God had given her to use.
The life of Gilda Mattocks, Julie’s great-great grandmother, began in Cardiff, Wales in 1877. The eldest daughter in a family with seven children, the Mattocks’ lived on a sheep herding farm in the northern part of the country. Like many other children of her era, Gilda learned English in school—the first in her family to speak the language—and she mastered reading in her church’s Sunday School class. Once Gilda learned to read and write in both Welsh and English, she taught her newly-acquired English skills to the rest of her family. Her instructional activities paved the way for Gilda’s career ambition as a secondary teacher, but her aspiration was short-lived. In 1892—at the age of fifteen— Gilda Mattocks met John Williams, a mason worker and farmer who emigrated from Wales to the United States with his family after the U.S. Civil War. While in Wales for a summer holiday, John and Gilda became inseparable and soon married. In 1893, Gilda celebrated “sweet sixteen” by moving across the Atlantic to begin a new life as a farmer’s spouse in a new world – America.
By the turn of the century, the young Williams couple tried to make ends meet in the small Midwestern farming town of Eden Valley. Eden Valley—located in Southern Ohio, near the state’s borders with Kentucky and West Virginia—quickly became a popular location for Welsh settlement. The town was initially founded in 1817 by a Welsh farmer named Richard Dunkirk and later established as a community in 1832 when a New Yorker, Jonas Berg, opened a general store with his wife, Yvette. By the time the Williams’ arrived in Eden Valley, a large, commercial railroad was operational and the influx of Welsh citizens began.
Doris Williams, Julie’s great-grandmother, arrived soon after the turn of the twentieth century, the fifth and final child born to Gilda and John Williams. Doris and her siblings attended a one-room schoolhouse and walked four miles—through snow and in heat—to class every day. After the school day ended, the four Williams’ daughters studied briefly and then, helped their mother with household chores. Due to the financial burdens affecting the family, each daughter quit school before graduation and helped with the farm. The girls baked pies or grew vegetables to sell at the local grocery store. While most young women of the 1910s dreamed of marriage and children, the Williams’ girls—including Doris—wished only to work the farm and support their family’s modest success. Gilda taught each of her daughters that every moment in life has a time and a place and instilled the belief that only God knows when things are meant to happen. As her sisters and Doris neared adulthood, their ‘time and place’ became known to each of them. In order from eldest to youngest, each sister met her suitor, married, and began raising a family of her own. Doris’s sisters married younger—all were married by the age of eighteen—but Doris did not marry until the early 1930s, soon after the Great Depression.
Throughout every moment in time—whether good or bad—the one constant in the Doris’s life was her faith. A devout Methodist woman, Doris believed that hardship was nothing more than a test of one’s individual character and, indeed, Doris’s adult life was tested. By 1937, a widowed Doris struggled to raise her son and nephew on a house-cleaner’s meager salary. She held an eighth grade education and did not drive; yet, Doris’s strong survival skills and her faith infused valuable lessons that would benefit her entire family for generations to come. What Doris’s son and nephew lacked in material items, they found in love or within their hopes and dreams. Despite the hardship, Doris and her family lived the American dream.
In 1956—at the age of eighteen—Doris’s son, Edgar, married Norma Rae Bishop. Not long afterwards, Norma Rae—then seventeen—became pregnant with the couple’s first child, Donna. After Donna’s birth, Norma Rae helped Edgar build the family home from its foundation to its peak. Then, she stayed home and cared for her young daughter while Edgar supported the family as a butcher. Later, when Donna became school-aged and the family was blessed with another daughter—Danielle—Norma Rae received training as a licensed, vocational nurse (LVN). With her LVN certification obtained, Norma Rae began working outside the home. Edgar and she became the first married members of their family to jointly secure employment beyond the walls of their humble abode. By the mid-1960s, the couple enlisted Doris’s help in raising their children, since Edgar and Norma Rae were both working away from home. Doris, then employed by the local drugstore, worked an opposite schedule to that of Edgar and Norma Rae, so the children’s “grandma” looked after them for all but one hour of their parents’ workday. The overlap did not pose a problem for the family because Donna, then nine years of age, had matured enough to assist the family, herself.
As the older sister, Donna helped her family by supporting Danielle with her schoolwork, cooking the family dinners, and completing odd jobs to earn additional income for some of her childhood necessities, such as shoes or school supplies. Donna also babysat her sister during the hour that her grandmother was unavailable during the workday. As a result, Donna developed strong character early in life and learned the importance of being a responsible person. Throughout her teenage years, Donna helped her Grandma Doris care for Gilda, who—by then—was in failing health. It was at some point in those caregiving days that Donna discovered her life’s eventual rite of passage: she decided that nursing would be her chosen career.
Donna’s decision to become a nurse was met with concern by many members of her family. In a discussion at the dinner table, her parents expressed their worry about paying for such expensive schooling and explained that such a career held tremendous challenges. After all, Norma Rae witnessed the occasional medical field hardship in her role as an LVN. To counter their anxiety, high-school scholar Donna vowed to maintain good grades, earn scholarships, and work her way through college to ease the family’s financial burden. Undeterred by her parents’ doubts, Donna also reminded them that her grandmother always preached the importance of believing in one’s hopes and dreams. A career in nursing was Donna’s greatest dream and she refused to consider the idea that her goal was unattainable. Donna graduated from high school in May 1975 with a scholarship to study nursing at Ohio University, becoming the first member of her family to attend college. Her bright future was only beginning.
Donna Williams graduated from nursing school—with honors and her diploma—in 1978. By the age of 20, Donna achieved much more than was expected of her and she was ready to see what paths were in store for tomorrow. Her first job was working for the small community hospital in her hometown of Eden Valley. Soon after beginning her nursing career at Eden Valley Community Hospital, she learned hands-on techniques for making do with less at a facility that was under-funded. Donna quickly improved her skills and met many friends. One friend in particular, Nettie Dixon, invited her to a birthday party at the local police station. The celebration—to commemorate the police chief’s fiftieth birthday—brought together the community’s finest, including five-year veteran officer, Alan Hilliard and novice nurse, Donna Williams.
Alan Hilliard was a rebel on the surface and a kid at heart. Like most peace officers, he enjoyed the occasional box of donuts; but more than that, he enjoyed making a difference in the community. During his time in Southern Ohio law enforcement, Alan made many friends, despite the fact he was still unmarried; he had yet to meet his life’s greatest friend. That meeting came during the police chief’s birthday party when Alan met Donna. Alan and Donna quickly became fond acquaintances and later realized it was their destiny to spend their lives together. After a lengthy friendship and brief relationship, Alan and Donna married in February 1980. By then, Donna was twenty-two years old and her desires were being fulfilled, one at a time.
In November 1980, Alan and Donna’s daughter, Julie, arrived. Julie, a preemie, made her worldly entrance on Donna’s twenty-third birthday and was a fighter from the start. It became apparent to everyone who came into contact with the Hilliard’s infant daughter that the child had a clear purpose in life. Baby Julie saw the odds stacked against her health and yet, she scaled over every hurdle that life handed her. Julie was a miracle, but miracles sometimes bring a hefty price tag with them. Before the baby ever saw her home for the first time, Julie’s medical costs mounted and her parents faced long hours, working multiple jobs—for years on end—in order to pay for Julie’s bills and the family’s own survival. For Donna, the dilemma was evident: Donna—the nurse—understood that bills needed to be paid, in order for her family’s living to continue, but Donna—the mother—wanted to be with her daughter, night and day. With that train of thought in mind, Donna decided to make a necessary and logical sacrifice.
One springtime day in 1984, Donna called her family to the dining room table for a family meeting. Then, with Julie’s arm wrapped around her teddy bear and Alan’s hand wrapped around a bottle of soda, Donna informed the family that the most sensible part she could play in the family was that of the working mom, while Alan retired to the role of “stay-at-home dad.” The thought of Alan as an at-home caregiver for his daughter made sense, but went against the oft-popular tradition of the male being the main breadwinner in the family. Still, from the financial aspect, Donna made a greater income as a nurse than Alan would ever make at the rural police department. The decision was made: Alan retired to the recliner and Donna continued to work, shuffling her time between their home in Southern Ohio and her new employment in Columbus, a two and a half hour drive away. Donna’s delicate balance between work and home continued for the next seven years.
In the summer of 1991, Julie was 10 years old. While she lived as good a life as any rural fourth grader could, her parents saw the opportunity—thanks in part to Donna’s offered travel nursing job—to give Julie something that they rarely-to-never saw: a glimpse of how wide and diverse our country is. Donna’s first travel nursing contract brought her family to the upper Texas coastal town of Galveston. The appealing prospects of living in Galveston presented themselves from the start; after all, Galveston, Texas is an island, attached to the mainland by one access road and a ferry system. The secluded beauty of an oceanfront home was enticing. The family’s initial journey to Galveston took Julie through five states, across the mighty Mississippi River, into the central time zone for the very first time and the family quickly fell in love with the region. Donna’s travel contract in Galveston lasted four months and ended in November 1991, but the family’s stay proved memorable in the course of their lives. Over the next eight years, the Hilliard family traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, Odessa, Texas—as well as back to Ohio a few times—but the one invariable in their traveling endeavors remained Galveston, Texas.
From 1991 through 1996, the Hilliard’s made a total of four more trips to Galveston, during which their longest stay was nearly two years. By then, Donna’s nursing career approached twenty years and traveling became a challenge to aching knees and Julie’s high school scheduling. Still unwilling to settle so far from their Midwestern relatives, the Hilliard family decided to leave Texas and re-locate to Ohio, once more, until Julie finished high school. In the early stages of 1999, with Julie’s education complete, the Hilliard’s chose to make Galveston County, Texas their permanent home, once and for all. Soon thereafter, the family made what would be their final move when they purchased their two story brick abode on a cul-de-sac in the northernmost part of their Texas town in July of 1999.
Julie Hilliard was eighteen years old when she graduated from high school in January 1999, five months ahead of her friends. Initially, she decided to postpone college—for a brief time—to relax amid the beauty that the Gulf Coast had to offer, but her plan soon changed. From the time she was a little girl onward, Julie’s father, Alan, suffered from various matters of declining health. Besides the obvious financial reasoning, Alan’s wellbeing played a role in Donna’s 1984 decision to continue working, allowing her husband to retire.
An only child, Julie loved both of her parents, but enjoyed a special closeness to her father; he was her childhood “babysitter” and “partner in juvenile crime,” while her mother earned the family’s living and was the disciplinarian. After high school—as the result of Alan’s illness—Julie put her goals on hold to help Donna care for “Dad.” Little did she know, however, that her goals would change and her true destiny would soon shine like the sun.
It was early February 2003. One hundred ten years had passed since Julie’s great-great grandmother, Gilda Williams, first came to America and fulfilled her dream of a new life. Across the years and five generations of Julie’s family many changes occurred, but one true constant remained: the power of a dream. Julie was not immune to dreaming; by the beginning of 2003, she held big dreams of her own. The Hilliard’s daughter wanted to become a professional author. From the time Julie was a toddler, she invented little stories about every aspect of life. From tales about purple spiders who drank root beer— exaggerated scenes from a summertime camping trip—to fair maiden princesses who married dinosaurs, Julie’s creativity was clear and always encouraged by her parents.
Published in a few small literary journals as a teenager, Julie’s love for writing became her greatest passion, a passion further fueled by the advent of the internet. Like the other members of her family before her who had lived and dreamed, Julie witnessed criticism. She heard the feedback from friends—even literary reviewers—who expressed that her writing was not, and would likely never be, “good enough” for wide success. Stubborn Julie, however, loved defying odds; thus, every critic led Julie closer to her goal. With every disparagement, Julie listened, learned, and loved writing a thousand times more. While caring for her father, she spent countless hours on the internet, sharing her writing with other authors and gaining valuable pieces of insightful knowledge for honing her skills. Yet all the while Julie worked on her writing, she was also her father’s assistant caregiver. Some days, Julie typed the opening word or two for a story and then, paused to fix her father’s lunch; after all, her dad’s needs always came first. This trend was her family’s “way of life” for over a century. Only when the necessary work was finished did everything else in life occur.
A long and withstanding belief across the five generations of women in Julie’s family was that hard work and faith often led to destiny. It was Gilda’s destiny to live in America; Doris’s calling to raise her family, alone, Norma Rae’s fate to support her family by working outside the home, and Donna’s fortune to become the college-educated, sole provider for her family. It was Julie’s future to use the technological advances of the 21st century to realize her dream as a writer. In 2004, Julie compiled a collection of eighty-five short stories and e-mailed them to a popular publishing firm for their consideration. Within five weeks of the submission, an editor called Julie regarding a contract for her book and by Christmas of that year—at the age of 24—Julie Hilliard became a published, professional author. Since 2004, Julie has published nearly a dozen books. Included in those books is Pioneer Canyon—a story spanning the last century and loosely based on the challenges and dreams of the women in her family. Julie wrote the book to educate today’s elementary school-aged girls about the paths that women from the past walked and will continue to stride, as they maintain the various roles and lives they enjoy. While back home in Eden Valley, Ohio discussing her book with her second grade teacher’s latest class, Julie met Abby Leavitt – the inquisitive little girl who pondered whether women are tough. In Abby, Julie instantly saw a new visionary in the making.
From the late nineteenth century and a great-great grandmother’s journey across the Atlantic to the twenty-first century and a great-great granddaughter’s sacred lifestyle, as a work-at-home writer and an online student, the changes afforded to women over the last one hundred years are as far-reaching as the various tasks that each woman completed. Just as women of the nineteenth century emigrated to the United States with the uncertainty of raising families on large homesteads in a new world, the women of the today raise their families amid challenges, such as job security and scheduling conflicts. The lives of women have evolved over time, but—in some regard—their roles are the same. Today’s women are still visionaries, only with greater technology to aid them in their abilities; they are still mothers and caregivers, wives and workers—each longing to raise their families, live their lives to the fullest, and leave the world in a greater state of equilibrium than it was before, simply because they lived.
When looking back upon the spectrum of changes that women’s roles and lives have undergone in the last century, I believe Julie Hilliard’s own words have said it best: “Life is simple; love is pure, throughout the changes, we’ll endure.” As women, we do endure and we will continue to go forth in life, as strong and committed as ever. We continue because we are our grandmother’s granddaughters and our mother’s daughters. Our rich heritage and our ancestors’ stamina flow through our veins and shall carry our dreams from our hearts to the heavens for as long as the earth still turns.