Three Owls on a Branch: A Family’s Legacy
By Robin Johnson Moscati
Vice President of Membership, Alexandria Branch, Virginia
“Train up a child in the way [she] should go, and when [she] is old [she] will not depart from it.”
I would like to introduce you to my family — to the women of my family — to the Pen Women of my family. Not one of us is “Wonder Woman,” yet all of us are Wonder-ful Women.
My maternal grandmother, Lilla Wood Daniels, was born on Sept. 21, 1885, the second child of Alice Ellen Fisher and William Ireland Wood of the little town of Corinna, Maine. It was in this village where she attended Corinna Union Academy and graduated at the age of 16.
The same year, she started teaching school in a neighboring town. Age was not as much of a challenge as was teaching Greek. She would read ahead by two lessons, and then instruct her students.
Lilla’s ancestral family had been settlers of the area, which probably gave rise to her lifelong penchant for studying history and genealogy. Oh, how she would have embraced the richness of Ancestry.com as compared to her boxes of handwritten 3-by-5-inch index cards.
In celebration of the centennial for Corinna, Maine, Lilla wrote the history of her town in 1916. The research and quality of her writing for that book led to the town’s adoption of it as the official history book in the public school system for more than 50 years. Likewise, her “History of Stetson, Maine,” which was her father’s hometown, is still quoted in the village’s newsletter. That book was published in 1931, the year of William Wood’s death.
In the teens of the 20th century, Lilla moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a “modern miss” and expand her horizons. She wrote to her mother, “Please send my winter coat,” as she thought D.C. was in the south and would have had warmer winters. Letters from Corinna were simply addressed to “Miss Lilla E. Wood; Washington, D.C.” and they always arrived without delay.
While working in Washington, she met U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Capt. Irving L. Daniels, a World War I veteran, whom she married in 1923. Their happy marriage led to a very happy family: William was born in 1924, Alice in 1926 and Barbara in 1928 (when Lilla was 43).
The family lived in Cleveland, Ohio; Orlando, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; Georgetown, D.C.; and Alexandria, Virginia. In Ohio, Lilla organized both the Cleveland and the Boston, Massachusetts, Pen Women branches. She also served on the newly formed Women’s National Aeronautical Association and ran for town council, especially noteworthy since women gained the right to vote only a few years prior to her campaign.
In Florida and Georgia, she served on committees with the Women’s Club and various gardening clubs, and collected food and clothing for families during the Great Depression.
After moving to Alexandria, she founded that town’s Women’s Club and Pen Women branch (June 19, 1945). In line with her civic and social contributions, her participation in national efforts to save the 1797 U.S.S. Frigate Constitution was highly publicized. This laid the foundation for her book, “Lest We Forget, The Story of ‘Old Ironsides.'”
Her dedication to the Pen Women grew into national responsibilities to include chaplain in the 1940s and national president in 1952-1954. The year her husband died, 1952, marked a personal turning point. During her two-year president’s term, she traveled to 46 of the lower 48 states and attended branch meetings nationwide. This was an extraordinary accomplishment of a road trip with a fellow Pen Woman, since Lilla never learned to drive.
The year of “Lest We Forget” (1928) was a momentous one for my family, because my mother, Barbara Wood Daniels, was born. Barbara followed her mother’s examples of philanthropy, honoring history, and writing.
During the Depression, Barbara dressed as Santa Claus and delivered candy and oranges to neighbors whose Christmas feast was lean. Her heart for giving led her to request dimes for the Mile of Dimes drive to fight infantile paralysis (polio) in lieu of buying presents for her 10th birthday party.
Being a child of the 1930s and ’40s, her life paralleled the accomplishments of “The Greatest Generation.” She collected recyclables for the war effort, danced with soldiers at the Alexandria USO, and waved to soldiers in their route to “shipping out” from Alexandria’s Union Station train depot.
She met her future husband, William “Billy” S. Johnson, Jr. when she was 16 and he was 18. They were both federal employees at Cameron Station, Department of the Army. They got engaged at the open-air movie theater and started their 36-year marriage in Alexandria.
As well as being a young wife in 1946, she was blessed to be the mother of three daughters: Bonnie in 1948, Janet in 1951, and Robin in 1962 (that would be me). Barbara’s career as wife and mother was her crowning glory. Her mother Lilla’s love of learning and keen use of words influenced her, and therefore, also her daughters.
After her husband’s death in 1983, she reinvented herself. She utilized her
nurturing and natural teaching ability as an assistant teacher at Resurrection Children’s Center in Alexandria and at Clarendon Child Care Center in Arlington, Virginia.
Barbara became the surrogate “mom” to the young teachers and the stand-in “grandma” to more than 10 years of preschoolers. While there, she entertained young and old with stories, and with her clever, original paper cut-outs.
Four-year-olds would stand in line to receive their personalized art from Barbara Johnson. These little learners inspired numerous poems and formed a portion of her “Shared Happiness” book. Other inspiration came from her life experiences, childhood, marriage, and children. This work qualified her for Pen Women membership and she joined the Alexandria Branch, Virginia, in 1997. Barbara has said that some of her poems for Pen
Women poetry workshops felt as though they had been whispered to her by her beloved mother.
Now, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that Barbara revisited
her “mom” role when she became “grammie” to her only grandchild (my son), William Moscati, in 1992. I entered Wesley Theological Seminary in 1996 while working full time for the city of Alexandria.
I graduated and was ordained in 2004. William now lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with his wife, Alexandra.
Because of writing sermons for church congregations, I qualified for letters membership as a professional speech writer — the third generation of letters members in the Alexandria Branch for my family. More good news is that Barbara Johnson, who served as assistant treasurer for the Alexandria Branch, now resides in assisted living only six minutes away from my new home in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Good news is usually balanced with bad news. Lilla Wood Daniels passed away in November 1962, when I was 9 months old. I have no memory of her, except through my mother and older sisters — and the Pen Women. Both my sisters are gifted artists. They have not yet joined in the tradition of Pen Women membership, though both would qualify.
There is a line from the movie “The Blind Side” that fits my family’s Pen Women legacy. The main character is asked why he wants to attend a specific college. He responds, “Because that’s where my family has always gone.”
It is like that with the National League of American Pen Women: It’s where my family has always belonged.