Family stories are shared in many different ways, usually passed along from generation to generation through interpretation, which often times creates a different story in itself. However, in the case of Bonnie Tolly and her mother, Gladys Guernsey, they found a unique platform to document their family stories: poetry.
The Guernsey family is a well known family in the Beaverton area, with a road being named after them just south of the city limits. Gladys and LeRoy Guernsey had a family farm in Beaverton in the early 1900s, which is where Bonnie was born and raised. Gladys enjoyed her humble home as she wrote a poem titled To My Dear Home in which she states, “Good morning, dear old home, it’s grand that we’re still here together. We’ve shared the wind and heat and cold, and every kind of weather.”
Gladys spent a significant amount of time teaching, which was a passion that carried on through Bonnie. According to Bonnie’s husband, James Tolly, she enjoyed teaching her siblings at a very young age and began writing poetry like her mother as a teenager, if not earlier.
“She was a real student,” James said. “I remember her telling me that she tried to teach her younger brother to read at a young age, and he’s only about two years younger.”
Bonnie wrote her first poem around 1950 titled I Walked Alone. In the poem, Bonnie recalls some of her early romances with James, “I walk alone, and in my mind, your calm hand touched mine. I walked alone, and thus resigned, your eyes met mine; and time itself was bliss, in reminiscence sweet, recalls one instant your first kiss.” Bonnie had met James as a fellow student in her sixth grade class, they dated for many years, and married in 1953.
After graduating as valedictorian from Beaverton, Bonnie pursued her love for teaching by furthering her education at Central Michigan University (CMU) with a Bachelor’s Degree in Education and a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education. After her extensive time at CMU, Bonnie returned to Beaverton and taught fifth grade at Beaverton Rural Schools for 24 years.
She and James had three children, Gladys, Jim Jr., and Kirk. Tragedy struck the family when Jim Jr. passed away in April of 2002 at the age of 46 due to heart complications. Bonnie also has four grandchildren, Paul, Laura, Karen and Andrew and wrote a great deal about the joys of being a grandmother. In her poem To Karen, she writes to her granddaughter, “The firstborn came, a tiny jewel, a gift of life, to my last born and his wife. You cannot know, I cannot tell, the joy I felt within me swell.”
As a major inspiration to her, Bonnie often wrote about her late mother as well, “I keep seeing you, as I last saw you, a precious lady in pink,” taken from Oh, There’s That Sweet Face. In 1992, Bonnie’s older sister was admitted to a South Bend hospital, during which, Bonnie did not think she would have much time left. She wrote in her poem, I Can’t Believe This Is Happening To Me, “she won’t see spring return, or fall leaves turn in majestic glory, or the first quieting snowfall, or lush growth of mid-July.” Fortunately, her sister was able to recover and Bonnie had wrote a small note on her poem explaining how it was written during a time of uncertainty followed by, “how wonderful that the Lord accepts each of us unworthy though we be.”
All of Bonnie’s poems were collected and organized into a small book by her husband, James. The book features a few of Gladys’ poems as well. Each poem written by Bonnie is dated and some of them offer notes explaining the background of the poem. James had the book published in 2020 as both a memoriam for Bonnie and Gladys but also as a unique window into their family history.
Bonnie passed away in 2008, and has left behind a number of poems that her surviving family may look back on and remember her kind and loving nature. James recalls her sharing some of her poems with him from time to time, and he would give her lessons on the piano, as a lifelong musician. They would enjoy taking many steps together in life, especially their faith, “after we married, we would sing duets together in a local church,” James said.
James plans to find a local retail store in the Beaverton area to sell his book titled, “Poems by Bonnie and Gladys” to anyone interested in local family history or some genuine poetry.