Thursday, December 1, 2011

Four Daughters

Many of my blog posts of the past have made mention of Gena Branscombe and John Tenney’s four daughters. There have been pictures of the girls added to the blog entries showing a small slice of their family life. I have not written about the lives and careers of the Tenney girls so now it is time to bring them forward as an important part of Gena’s life as a working mother and musician.

Gena and John were married October 5, 1910 at the First Methodist Church of Picton, Ontario. Shortly thereafter, they made their home in New York City.

Family life had to have been hectic with two working parents. Each day Gena devoted time for her career with the help of a nurse to care for the children. As an accompanist she coached and prepared singers for performance. Meetings with woman composers such as Amy Beach, Harriet Ware and others took place in her piano studio. Gena’s involvement with women’s organizations and her conducting duties took a great deal of her time, yet, there was always time for her daughters. What did she teach them about life, the music world and what did she instill in them as citizens of the world?

Gena and John Tenney’s daughters were treated to poetry written by her and set to music. These published songs of lullabies and fairy wonderment were dedicated to her daughters with various pictures of the girls on the sheet music covers. Piano pieces were composed for her daughters and always written with their pianistic abilities in mind. Tea parties and plays with music were held in the nursery. Daughters and mother were willing actors and musicians!

The Tenney’s welcomed their first child, Gena, on November 22, 1911. When young Gena was approximately two years old, Gena Branscombe sent her publisher Arthur Schmidt a picture of her eldest daughter. Sitting at the piano is young Gena, her head slightly tilted up with a smile and confident look that said she was in charge.

Indeed she was confident and her life’s work was dedicated to music, community organization and her family.

By age twelve, Gena Tenney was a gifted musician with pianistic and compositional talent. She wrote her own imaginative poetry often setting her own words to music. Attending Barnard College as a music major, she was president of the student body and delivered the valedictory address at graduation. Her talent and leadership abilities won her two scholarships to the Royal College of Music in London where she studied conducting and composition. While in residence at the RCM she began work on a symphony and conducted three of her mother’s choral works with a chorus she had organized comprised of her fellow students.

Upon her return to the United States she taught music at the Fieldston School. From 1937 to 1942 she was a member of the music faculty at Barnard College eventually serving as head of the music department.

In 1943, Gena Tenney married Philip Phenix and they had two sons, Roger and Morgan Scott. Her organizational and leadership skills were further put to good use when Gena Phenix added community activism to her life. At Riverside Church in New York City, Gena and Philip founded the church’s Food Pantry. Leading the way for racial harmony in our country, ten bus loads of New York City residents attended the Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC because of Gena Phenix. In retirement Gena and her husband co-founded the Bridgewater, Virginia Food Pantry in the village where they retired.

Gena Tenney Phenix contributed to the world at large with confidence and dignity. Her musical abilities bridged childhood talent to the professional world. She opposed intolerance and strove to take care of the disadvantaged. Along with her sister Vivian, they nursed their beloved mother into her golden years

Every family must boast a tomboy among its daughters. Second daughter Vivian Allison Tenney filled that position. Born on May 17, 1913, she knew from an early age she would become a doctor. While a student at Horace Mann School in New York, Vivian was asked by one of her teachers if she would have had a happier girlhood if her mother had stayed home and not attempted a career! Her reply, “We’ve had so much better times and so much more interest enjoying mother’s work with her.” She was only 11 and never understood why the teacher would ask such a question!

Vivian studied pre-med at Barnard College and became one of the first women to graduate from Cornell Medical School. With a specialty as internist and gynecologist Vivian served three summers as a medical missionary in Tennessee while in training.

Held in Eleanor Roosevelt’s correspondence at President FDR’s home in Hyde Park, NY are letters between Mrs. Roosevelt and Gena Branscombe. In a letter dated July 14, 1942, Gena describes Vivian’s work in Ravenscroft, Tennessee among the mining people whose children were dying from malnutrition, the babies literally starving. The Tenney family sent money and powdered milk to help with their daughter’s work.

Government financial help for the area began arriving to assist in
Vivian’s work at the clinic and for use by the mining residents to improve their gardens, farms and overall health. I can only surmise that after reading Gena’s letter, Mrs. Roosevelt, who was dedicated to the less advantaged, intervened for federal help to Ravenscroft.

Dr. Tenney’s advanced training took place at Philadelphia General Hospital, a one-year residency at the Buffalo (NY) State Cancer Hospital and was one of the first women assistant residents at Massachusetts General. For 36 years Vivian practiced medicine in New York City where she was affiliated with Memorial Hospital now part of Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. As her mother, Gena Branscombe, aged Dr. Tenney became her own personal physician and caregiver.

Vivian’s dedication to the well-fare and health of women and children was exemplary. Understanding that mental health and physical illness were closely connected, Dr. Tenney, who was devoted to her patients, worked with them to aid in their overall well-being. Patients stayed in touch with her for years and her impact on the world was felt by many.

Retiring to Bridgewater, VA where her sister and brother-in-law, Gena and Philip Phenix lived, Dr. Vivian Allison Tenney died on September 13, 1990. Strength of character, loving family member, challenging the establishment to become a doctor and leaving an impact on the world as a committed physician to the less fortunate were the essence of her being.

Born third was Betty who entered the world on June 30, 1916. In a letter to her publisher, Arthur Schmidt, Gena Branscombe described Betty as her most energetic child with a strong, humorous personality and sunny disposition.

In late 1918 the Tenney family was taken ill by the influenza outbreak that crossed the country. By January 1919 husband John and young Gena were finally recuperating with Vivian and Betty still quite ill. Gena Branscombe was mother, wife and nurse to her four sick charges. On Sunday evening, January 23rd, Betty took a turn for the worse and passed away. The family gathered together in the nursery to hold a private funeral service on Monday evening and on Tuesday morning Dr. Charles Jefferson of the Broadway Tabernacle Church conducted another family service.

With her father-in-law accompanying her, Gena traveled to Methuen, MA by train taking the little casket for interment in the Tenney family plot. The loss of such a young vibrant child was tragic for the entire family and especially Gena who was pregnant with her fourth child.

The loss of Betty was felt for the remainder of Gena’s life. Her award winning oratorio, Pilgrims of Destiny, has a dedication that reads:

“And to all weaker and unknown ones, who have kept the faith, dying joyously for the sake of a dream, and to my own little pilgrim, Betty, I dedicate this work.”

When I had the privilege of meeting Gena and Philip Phenix in 2000, there on their living room wall was a small oil portrait of her sister, Betty.  She recalled vividly the death of her younger sister, her mother and father’s grief and the impact this little child girl had on their family. 

Fourth daughter Beatrice Tenney was born on June 4, 1919.  She attended the Fieldston School and Barnard College where she was president of her freshman and junior class.  From an early age Beatrice’s serious health issues plagued until her death.  In 1947 she married Edward Brokaw, a film producer.  They resided in California where Beatrice worked as a magazine editor.  Marital difficulties caused her return to New York City in June 1954. 

She found work with the Family Service Society but died suddenly of heart failure on October 27, 1954.  Throughout her life, Beatrice was surrounded by her parents and sisters supporting her through her physical ailments. 

Four daughters of a working mother, woman composer and musician, Gena Branscombe endured the loss of two daughters during her lifetime.  All four girls – beautiful, heart-felt, strong, independent and brought up to make the world a better place.