Thursday, 4 December 2008

Happy Birthday, Grandmother!

33 Things about Grandmother

1. She was born 4 December 1898 in Booneville, Arkansas, the 6th child in a family of 11. At some point the Logan County courthouse, where birth records for that place and time were kept, burned down and so Grandmother was free to choose her birth year as she wished. She admitted adding or subtracting a couple of years on occasion. By the time I came along she was fairly consistent in reporting her age but it wasn't until I found Census records from her childhood that I had any certainty about her real age.

2. She was legally named Ola, but we always knew her as Olga Audrey. Pat told me recently that she took the name Olga because there were so many black women around named Ola, which sounds rather like her (However, the only Ola I ever met was white.) For a while I remember her going by Audrey, but after some confusion with another patient of the same name at the doctors' office, she reverted to Olga. Her sisters seemed to take on different, more interesting or fashionable, names to their names in the Census as well, so perhaps this wasn't an uncommon practice.

3. Mortality was high in Grandmother's family. Her 2 eldest sisters were half-sisters whose mother had died in a fire. Her eldest brother, Noah, died at only 18 months of age, before she was born. When Grandmother was 11 a younger sister, Lois, died of diphtheria at the age of 4. When she was 16, her older sister (Myrtle, aged 23) died from complications of childbirth; when Grandmother was 24, her 21-year-old brother Cecil died, shot in a hunting accident. One can't help but think all these deaths would have affected the way she looked at life; I know it certainly would have my outlook.

4. Grandmother's father was at one time a photographer and sometimes a cook (according to the Census records). English Walker

appears to have come from a respectable family but he turned out to be a 'scamp', to use one of Grandmother's nicer words. Though his first wife, Sarah, was only 4 years his junior, his next wife, my great-grandmother, Mary (also a woman of many middle and nicknames: Mollie, Melinda, Abigail, but always Mary) was much younger: he was 25 and she was just turned 14.

The story I always heard was that she lived across the road from English and Sarah; after Sarah died, Mary helped take care of his two small daughters, Lillie (5) and Pearl (2). She felt sorry for him and so she married him, in 1891. Everyone seemed to think that was such a sweet story; I think it is rather sad. What may also have influenced Mary's decision was that her own mother died when she was only 10 and her father, Marshal, remarried almost immediately.

Though English and Mary had 11 children together, counting her step-daughters, by 1920 the Census shows him living apart from Mary and with another 'wife' in Okmulgee, OK. I say 'wife' because none of the family stories ever mentioned another wife. The next Census shows him living alone, down the street from a brother, in Comanche, OK. Their youngest daughter sometimes claimed English had amnesia and was 'lost', but it's generally accepted that he abandoned his wife and children; divorce and re-marriage doesn't seem to have been the words to use back then. Grandmother always seemed somewhat bitter about men. I used to think this was because she was twice divorced (and perhaps then some, as it turns out), but perhaps it started even earlier in her life.

5. Grandmother was all of about 4'10" or 11" and I always thought of her as being barrel-shaped. Because she wore a girdle, she wasn't as squishy and huggable as my other Grandma. Come to think of it, pretty much everything else about the two was about as opposite as possible. Grandmother had grey-green eyes and either brown or auburn hair in her youth. It was a beautiful snowy white in her later years and that is how I remember her.

6. When I first started doing genealogy research in a serious way, I found a marriage record that suggested Grandmother married someone named H.P. Sartor at the age of 16 (and lied to say she was 18); this marriage was apparently annulled. No one else had ever heard about this, so it was either not her, or this is a skeleton she never mentioned. She married my Grandfather Bernard in 1917 when she was 18. I seem to remember being told they were married about 15 years or so and then divorced when Bernard's drinking got serious. He died before I was born.

7. She married her last husband, Larry, in 1939; they divorced in the early 60's.

8. Larry's next wife was named Tillie. I don't know what, if any, role Tillie played in the demise of Grandmother's marriage, but when I was little I understood 'Tillie' to be a dirty word in Grandmother's house. I always thought it was funny, name, fitting that it should rhyme with 'Silly', but on the whole, it was a word best not said in Grandmother's presence.

9. Grandmother had 2 children with Bernard: my Mom and my Uncle Bernard.

She and Larry adopted 4 children: Rita, Linda, Pat and John. I was never certain whether the 4 children she adopted had been very lucky in that, but hearing the stories that one does these days, I would say they could definitely have done a lot worse.

10. Grandmother's sisters referred to her as the 'wild' one of the family and certainly she was the only sibling to have multiple marriages. I can remember one of her brothers and two sisters. The sisters were both outspoken like Grandmother, particularly Peggy, but Grandmother was probably much more rebellious in her thinking. When I look at the family tree and think about how unconventional my part of it was, that seems to start with Grandmother. We are definitely the Bohemian lot.

11. Grandmother was fairly attractive as a young woman. Mom told me that she went on a double date with her mom when she was 18 and Grandmother was 36. Pat says Mom once told him her mother was her worst competition for male attention as a teen.

12. Grandmother worked in a munitions factory during WW II. At one point when Mom's freelance photography business was booming, she learned how to develop photographs in a dark room and did the developing work for Mom and Eddie so that they could stay out on the road and do the picture taking. I always heard that Grandmother actually prospered during the Great Depression. She rented a large house for something like $75 a month. She rented the bedrooms out to lodgers, mostly married couples, and charged enough for their room and board to turn a profit.

13. When the four kids were young, Grandmother and Larry lived for a while in Shreveport. I only learned this recently, searching through photo albums and quizzing Pat about some of the findings.

14. I always loved Grandmother's houses. They were big with lots of rooms that had multiple doors and were full of hiding places. She kept a formal living/dining room for special occasions. The den or the kitchen was the centre of activity. Though the houses themselves were grand, some of the furniture inside was elegant and she got out her silver cutlery at Thanksgiving, she didn't tend to live in the best of neighbourhoods. Looking at them on Google Earth shows her houses have deteriorated further, particularly the one at 31st and Western. Grandmother's Duncan Phyfe furniture was quite deteriorated by the time I got it as well. Nevertheless, as my second husband grumbled: "Most people buy a house and then get furniture to put in it; we have to choose houses that will take your £$"$! furniture." It should be noted that he is history and I still have the furniture, here in my house in England.

15. Grandmother 'did hair', she was a beautician. I gather she almost always had her own shop and had 'girls' working for her. Mom told me Grandmother used to wear high heels all day in the shop (sounds suspicious, doesn't it?). From my memory, her shop was either in the front rooms of her house or in a small garage apartment across the back yard. On work days she wore a white uniform (with girdle underneath) and white walking shoes. Her red appointment books lived by the phone with a pencil. She bought her shampoo (I remember yellow and blue goo) in huge tubs from the beauty supply; for all it was a disgusting texture, it was excellent shampoo. I avoided having her do my hair as best I could. For one thing when she washed it, she scrubbed too hard; she said I was just 'tender-headed' (as opposed to my Dad's view that I was 'hard-headed'). She once used brush rollers in my long, fine hair, and it was misery getting them out. Mainly I avoided her services because she had an older clientele and I seriously did not want a cap of purple curls like theirs. I had no evidence that she knew how to do anything different and I wasn't taking any chances. Though Grandmother always itched to cut my 'long stringy' hair, she never got her wish. In fact, I was 24 years old before I ever went to a hairstylist and got it cut to a more professional shoulder length.

16. Grandmother was big on religion and she was of the Baptist persuasion, though funny enough both her husbands were Catholic. Grandmother sent all the four kids to church every Sunday and me with them. Some of the yelling that went on in her house was about getting them to go to church. However, she stayed home and watched the services on the TV, sitting in her kitchen. Grandmother talked religion a lot to her customers as she did their hair. She felt it was important to maintain a good reputation so she could keep her customers. The one time I remember falling out with Grandmother was when I was about 8 years old. I remember exactly where I was standing when I decided to challenge her practice of staying home, but sending everyone else to church. Her response, whatever it was, started out with, "Well, Little Miss Shit Ass..." I've no idea what she said after that I was so shocked that she would call me that name. On the other hand, I did know she was capable of this (Mom said, "Well, honey, what did you expect?") and I realised I'd brought it on myself. That's just how Grandmother was.

17. It has to be said, this is the only unkindness I ever remember her directing at me. Whilst everyone else regularly seemed to catch hell from her, I only remember -- with that one exception -- her giving me endless love and patience. She was pretty nice to my Mom, too, but Mom was careful not to rock the boat much; I finally learned to keep my mouth shut as well. She and Mom did have a big falling out once after Grandmother moved in with Mom. I don't know what it was about, but Grandmother moved out into one of the worst apartments I have ever seen in my life (and I've seen some doozies). The landlady took her Social Security check straight off her for the rent, the winter wind whistled through the many cracks and cockroaches ruled. Grandmother was that stubborn that Mom had to beg her to come back and live in a warm, safe house.

18. Grandmother always had a dog, sometimes 2, usually small, yappy things. I remember Lady, a sweet black short-haired dog, old when I first knew her; Gidget, a fat Chihuahua with a nasty temper (is there any other kind?); and Andre, a spoilt white miniature poodle with salivary gland problems. Once her kids were all grown, the dogs were her babies. Aside from baking pies, I only remember Grandmother cooking for her dogs. She fed them cooked minced beef and often cooked and de-boned chicken for them. Andre loved milk and she would tease him and make him howl for it; she thought it sounded like he could say 'Milk!" Grandmother was inconsistent with her dogs: one time she would laugh and praise them for something that amused her, another time the same thing would get them punished. Therefore, they were terribly neurotic, though only the last, a German Shepherd named Duke, was actually vicious. She regularly bathed and brushed her dogs, particularly Andre, who hated baths. I don't know if he could say 'Milk!', but he could definitely spell B-A-T-H; it sent him into hiding. If Grandmother came home smelling of another dog, Andre would pee on her bed pillow, apparently to show he was jealous. Grandmother seemed to take this as a compliment. She just bought some plastic pillow covers and avoided other dogs as much as possible. Duke, an abandoned puppy Grandmother found, was always unpredictable, sometimes quite aggressive but mostly shy and skittish. He wasn't that old when he got a tumour on the side of his head. I thought he was a hideous, scary creature with a tennis ball sized mass hanging off the side of his head in stretched out skin and with some sort of skin disease that left his back end bald. Mom and Grandmother tried every remedy the vet offered, but he was eventually -- and with great difficulty -- put to sleep. I was relieved as I had seen Duke jump up on the couch beside Mom and bark right in her face. She scared him off my spraying hairspray at him, but I thought the whole thing was unacceptable. In spite of his looks and his behaviour, Grandmother insisted on having him buried in the back yard, under a circular paving stone and a statue of an angel that she could see from her bedroom window. There were no more dogs after Duke, only Mom's white cat that somehow never actually had a name, though he was a lovely, affectionate thing.

19. I remember going shopping downtown with Grandmother when I was young. Her favourite store was John A. Brown's. It was a posh, up-market store, much nicer than JC Penney or Sears (and of course, more expensive). She put on a suit and heels, gloves and a hat to shop downtown, but I don't think I had to dress up much, just look clean, maybe. We always seemed to find our way there OK, but there was invariably a very long hunt for the car when it was time to leave.

20. Grandmother drove a green Chevrolet with big fins at the back that I thought were really cool. I remember sitting in the car in the drive one day, waiting for her to come out. I entertained myself by reading the name 'Chevrolet' on the glove box over and over again. The fact that it was pronounced Chev-ro-lay instead of Chev-ro-let (I tried it both ways) made me think I was speaking French. Grandmother was a careful driver, if driving 30 miles an hour down the middle of two lanes (where the speed limit is 40) constitutes careful. She didn't seem to care what the other drivers thought or, knowing Grandmother, she took a secret satisfaction in being an annoyance. Peggy's daughter, Judith, told me she remembered riding in the car with my Grandmother once and noticing that the stem of the rear view mirror was broken, so Grandmother wouldn't be able to check behind her. Judith commented on this and Grandmother's response worried her, something to the effect that she'd looked out for other people all her life, it was time they could look out for her for a change.

21. Grandmother was a Democrat; the only Democrat I ever remember meeting in Oklahoma, except for my dear friend Donald P. (and he might be a Democrat for many of the same reasons). There was also Andrea who worked with my husband, but then she introduced herself to me as being a Jewish girl from New York, so she doesn't count. Grandmother delighted in being a Democrat and she loved to argue politics. Not that she had views on foreign or domestic policy. Her arguments were mainly that her preferred politician was a Good Christian Man. Get into a debate with Grandmother about politics and you couldn't discuss the failings of the trickle down theory or consider the Federal trade deficit. It would soon come to light that, basically, if you weren't in favour of her candidate, the Good Christian Man, you were going to go to hell. My first husband thought it great fun to have these debates, though we all hated it when he got her started and did our best to change the subject. In hindsight however, I have to say she was absolutely right about Jimmy Carter.

22. Grandmother pretended she didn't drink and this was true except at Christmas. It was then that she and my Dad played a game where he kept bringing her eggnogs all evening and each time she said, "Oh Lyle, don't put any bourbon (tee hee) in my eggnog, you'll get me drunk (tee hee). I'm not sure how she managed to drive home, but she did. I think there were probably lots of drunk drivers on the roads back then.

23. I don't believe Grandmother ever smoked. I mainly remember her eating sweets. There was always candy around her house and she liked to bake pies. I remember her puttering around her kitchen humming Rock of Ages. One time she baked a couple cherry pies. She offered me a piece, but I didn't like pie fillings, I only liked the crust. Amazingly, she gave me permission to break off all the edges of the pie crust -- all the way around -- and eat it, which I did. That memory still moves me today. We both understood it to be a major demonstration of love.

24. Though the kitchen was the centre of her house, Grandmother didn't cook meals for the family that I recall. Everyone seemed to eat on the run, on their way somewhere. There was generally something to eat in the refrigerator, lots of TV dinners or at least a can of soup. I never went hungry, but we never sat down as a group to eat other than at Thanksgiving and even then it was pretty informal. Food was generally eaten in front of the TV. This was another way in which Grandmother's home was different to her sisters' families. Judith said that Grandmother's kids ran wild and ate popcorn for dinner; this was scandalous in the 1950's and 60's, you know.

25. Grandmother's house was always tidy, for all that 'wild teenagers' lived there. Beds were always made and surfaces kept more or less uncluttered, particularly in the formal living and dining room; the kitchen being a busy place was sometimes a little out of control. I grew up thinking Grandmother was a pretty good housekeeper, especially compared with my Mom. However, you never knew what curious things you might find in a drawer that you opened; things were obviously just stashed out of sight. This was another of the things that made Grandmother's house fun.

26. Grandmother's TV was nearly always on, if she wasn't working in her beauty shop. Mom's TV was always on as well, often into the wee hours. Mom was a night owl, but Grandmother kept more regular hours, having a respectable business to run, though she did sometimes stay up to make sure her teenaged children came home. Grandmother watched Carol Burnett and Red Skelton shows a lot as well as her favourite TV evangelists. She followed all the day time soap operas, as her appointments allowed. She also loved Peyton Place, which was considered really racy when it came out; she made me leave the room when was on.

27. Grandmother hated having her picture taken, particularly in later life. If she caught you trying to snap her picture she would actually attack you and do her best to break your camera. Which is why there aren't many photos of her after a certain time and those that exist don't always catch her at her best. Which is unfortunate.

28. Grandmother wasn't great with money. I don't think she made very much and she spent it freely. Mind, raising four children will have been expensive. She got child support from their father, but she had to take him to court at least once to collect it. Later in life, s
he always sent money to the television evangelists; I remember being suspicious when one of the checks came back endorsed 'Wild Life Fund'. When she moved in with Mom, even their joint income was small. This was in part due to the fact that Grandmother refused to claim the Social Security benefits she was entitled to from her ex-husband ("I'm not taking anything from that man"). Eventually, Rita and Mom connived to claim that income on her behalf in order to pay off some debts that had accumulated. Unfortunately, this was shortly before both Mom and Grandmother died, so they didn't really benefit from the increased income.

29. Grandmother's breakfast and often an afternoon snack, was tea and toast. She liked to share her tea and toast with Duke.

30. Grandmother was stubborn in a lot of ways that we couldn't understand. When she sold her last house, she put her furniture up for sale. It was only because Mom found this out and I happened to have some cash from an insurance settlement that I was able to buy it from her, instead of it going to a complete stranger for far less money. She wouldn't let Rita buy her silverware from her either, though she let her sister Peggy buy it. Turns out that Peggy was just the go between and Rita did get the silver after all.

31. After Mom died, Grandmother had to go into a nursing home. This decision was being discussed after Mom's funeral when Aunt Peggy was there from Shreveport. Pat says Peggy warned them that staff in nursing homes didn't always look after all the patients as well as they might, particularly if the patient was not very nice. "And let's face it," she said, "Your mother is not a very nice person." From her own sister. So it wasn't just us, was it?

32. For all that Grandmother could be a difficult person, she strikes me as possibly one of the more interesting people in my family. Looking back I think she must have had a lot of courage to be as stubborn and willful as she was in a place and time that didn't encourage women to be either. I remember her as always being busy, working hard either in the shop or in her kitchen. Whatever her faults, she loved her family dearly, even if sometimes it cam across in a critical or possessive way. It's possible she showed her love best in the way she worked to keep a home and give them the values she thought were important to have.

33. Grandmother lived to be 91 (and a half). She outlived her two eldest children, one by 13 years, the other by 2 months. She enjoyed relatively good health until the last 8 months of her life, when she became bedfast. Though it was hard to tell how much Grandmother understood in her last few months, she did know where she was and always seemed to recognise us when we visited. She didn't seem too unhappy to be in the nursing home, but once there she went downhill quickly, dying of kidney failure on 4 August 1990.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful and thank you. Uncle Pat