I love this photo of Emma Lee Pouncey Bertrand. There is something about the set of her jaw, or the carriage of her head, that reminds me of the strength of my Alabama grandmother and her sisters, and the other independent southern women I have known. Her character seems to be written on her face.
Emma was born in Alabama in 1873, the youngest child of Baptist Pastor William Jones Pouncey (then age 70) and his much younger fourth wife, Phoebe Juffus Lockard. Her father died when Emma was 5 years old. Emma was 14 when she was introduced to a Texas sheepman at the home of friends. He was ill with malaria and had just come in from the ranch, dirty and unshaven. The sheepman was more taken with Emma than she was with him – until the next evening, that is, when the sheepman came to call on her, clean-shaven, dressed in good clothes, and with a buggy to take her for a ride. She married him – Peter Gabriel Bertrand, 35 to Emma’s 15 years – a year later.
The young family moved between Alabama and Texas as Peter worked to gain financial stability for Emma and the eleven children (10 of whom lived to adulthood) who came to them. Emma worked just as hard, and was apparently happy. When she had only her first child to care for, she and the baby accompanied Peter out to the sheep ranges during the day so that she could cook for him and share his company. (It was during one of those days spent among the sheep that Sally, the working sheep dog, became a family pet: Emma left her baby girl on a sheep skin rug on the ground when she went to a nearby spring, then turned to see the dog “clawing frantically,” she later said, at the rug. Emma ran back, afraid that the dog was killing her daughter. Instead, she found the dog scratching at the red ants that had crawled onto the baby’s clothing, scraping them off before they could sting the baby.)
Even when she wasn’t with her husband on the sheep ranges, Emma worked hard to help support and teach her family. She sewed all their clothing and did sewing for the neighbor women. Her children learned to chop cotton and contributed their small daily earnings to the family pot.
They moved to Waco, Texas in 1922, when the aging Peter got a job as a night watchman at a textile mill. He was soon injured on the job and unable to work, but Roy, Peter’s and Emma’s only son, stepped up and helped to support his parents and the youngest girls still at home, with restaurant work. (Eventually, Roy became a very popular restaurateur, recalled now as the “Waffle Wizard” of Waco.)
Then the Great Depression came, and the Bertrands had even more difficulty supporting themselves. Emma began taking in boarders to help make ends meet. In 1931, those boarders included a pair of Latter-day Saint elders, one of whom became gravely ill with appendicitis. Emma took care of him as if he had been her own son, and the elders began calling her “Mother Bertrand.”
Later that year two sister missionaries, Callie Jensen and Ethel Durfee, were stationed in Waco. They taught the family about Mormonism. Peter died in June 1932, while the family was investigating the church. Emma and one of her daughters were baptized in September 1932, by Elder James C. Wallentine. Eventually, all of Emma’s children and grandchildren joined the church.
Emma was 60 years old when her life changed – and it was a change. Most of her old friends would have nothing more to do with her. She went about making new friends, mostly among the elders who continued to stay in her home. The elders stayed in touch with her after they went home.
Emma was only the third member of the church in Waco, so she practically became the entire Sunday School faculty and Relief Society. One reporter recalls that “Her pupils to her were more than Sunday morning listeners. She took a special interest in each. She learned of home conditions and pupils’ individual likes. She was always ready to help someone prepare a lesson or a talk for Sunday School.” Young people who had begun attending the LDS Sunday School because it was something to do on a Sunday morning ended up by joining the church, and the branch grew.
In 1935, Emma traveled to Logan where she went through the temple herself and attended to the work for her husband Peter. She was hosted by some of the elders who had lived in her home, including Elder Wallentine who had baptized her, and was introduced to their families. Then she returned to Waco, where her children lived and where her branch needed her.
A report to the Liahona says that “The members of the Waco branch are very enthusiastic over their new project, which is to obtain enough funds for the building of a new chapel. The Relief society is taking the lead and is setting a good example for the other auxiliaries. We wish them much success in their undertaking.” What is missing from this account is the way in which the building fund was started. Emma Bertrand, in whose home the branch met, decided one day that it was time to start saving money to build a chapel. She had a 50-cent piece in her pocket, which she put on the table, declaring, “I’ll start the building fund with this.” Another sister, Jessie Gilcreest, fished around in her purse and discovered that she had 51 cents in pennies and nickels. She put that down next to Emma’s coin, saying “I’ll just take the controlling interest.”
All through the 1930s and ’40s, Emma served as Waco’s chairman of the finance committee, organizing fund raising activities and contributing what she could, even when it amounted to only pennies or nickels at a time. The fund grew, and finally, in the post-War building boom, the Saints of the Waco branch were able to build their chapel – a stone and frame building topped with a copper spire. The building was finally completed in January, 1950, ready to be dedicated as soon as the landscaping was completed.
Emma, though, had become ill in the weeks just before the completion of the chapel. She passed away on January 26. Elder Wallentine, by then a prominent Logan businessman, flew to Waco to speak at her funeral … which was held in the new Waco chapel, the first service to be held there.
By the time of her passing, Emma had 62 descendants, all of whom were members of the Church. She had received hundreds of cards for the Christmas just before her death, most of them addressed to “Mother Bertrand” and sent by the missionaries who had lived in her home and grown to love her. Her good works and the reputation of her family had won her the respect of Waco, so much so that her obituary appeared on the front page of the Waco Times-Herald. Her passing was announced in the LDS Church News, and The Instructor praised her as a “longtime, faithful Sunday School teacher” who had “mothered a branch.”