I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My father's parents

Very little is known about the early years of my paternal grandparents' life together. This is an old photograph of my grandmother, Dorothy Billings, obviously taken in a studio when she was young. There are no pictures of my grandfather, Robert Stewart. My father told me once of watching his father walk out the door and knowing he would never return. Daddy was 12, and it was at the beginning of the Great Depression, in 1929.  Before that, however, they had had four children: Marlow, my dad's older brother, then Daddy (Norman), Edith, and the baby, Jack. I never knew my aunt Edith, but I remember Marlow and Jack very well.
Although you can't actually tell in that first picture, Dorothy was quite tall. We, her grandchildren, were not allowed to call her Grandma, but instead all of us were told to call her "Mommy," as her own children did. In this picture you can see that Marlow was the tallest, and Daddy, next to Mommy, is almost six feet, and then Jack is over there on the right. That look on Mommy's face is what I remember most about her. I don't think I saw her smile very often, but I saw that stern expression regularly. By the time this picture was taken, Mommy had disowned her only daughter. If asked about Edith, she replied, "I have no daughter."

One thing I know for sure: every one of the siblings was above average in intelligence. And they were all alcoholics. I don't know how old Marlow was when he died, but he took an overdose of Seconal along with his usual evening three liters of wine. Nobody knew if it was intentional or not. But I think 50 Seconal along with all that wine was at least suspicious. I was too young to know, but I remember overhearing conversations between my parents about it: Mama thought he did it, and Daddy thought it was an accident.

But this is about my father's parents, which boils down to Mommy by default. Who was she? Well, my first name is Dorothy, after her, except it wasn't my mother's idea. Mama had decided, because I was the first granddaughter and my name had become an issue, to simply name me "Jan Stewart" with no middle name. I can imagine the arguments that must have taken place.

In those days a mother was kept for ten days in the hospital after giving birth, even with no complications. Somehow or other, Mommy was able to get into the hospital records and got her name on my birth certificate (really!). You can see that it's written in at an angle as if it was an afterthought. My mother was furious, of course, and she refused to acknowledge my first name at all. Being called by your middle name tends to be problematic, especially when you move from school to school on a regular basis.

Mommy never talked about her husband Robert or her daughter Edith. She lived in Burbank while I was growing up, in the same house as Marlow and his wife Mary Kay.  When we lived in California, we visited them occasionally, and I remember their backyard because, small as it was, it had a lemon tree, which seemed amazing to me. Once I remember cutting one in half and writing my name on the cement wall of the garage, and Daddy punishing me for incriminating myself by writing "Jan" all over the wall!

Mommy would also visit us, and I remember that she took care of Norma Jean and me when my mother was not around for whatever reason. She was with us when my sister P.J. was born: I was seven and remember that time vividly, since my father came home from the hospital devastated because he had another daughter instead of the son he craved. Mommy, Norma Jean and I tried to comfort him for his "loss." Sheesh!

Once, long ago when my dad was "in his cups," he told me about my grandfather, and that is when I learned that as an adult, he and Uncle Jack went into the California mountains to find their father. Robert lived as a hermit in a small cabin, and he came into the nearest town once a week for groceries and to frequent the local bar. That is where they met him and the three of them got drunk together. I don't know how they had found him. I also learned that some years later he had died of exposure, when he was out hiking and had broken a leg, unable to get back, or to get help.

Mommy was unforgiving of human frailties, and when I think of her, I remember that stern look and her no-nonsense ways. She had a stroke and came to live with us for a short while. She sat around in her housecoat (similar to the one in the second picture) and shuffled around in her slippers. I also remember whispered conversations between my parents, with us children unclear about what was going on. Mommy left after a short while and I suspect she went into a nursing home, but I really don't know. When I was told by my parents that she had died, Norma Jean and I were old enough to see the distress my parents were experiencing, but I never felt like I knew her well enough to grieve for her loss.

She couldn't have been really old when she died, but I have no way of knowing how old she was. Nobody knew her age, including my father. Now that I have written this all down, after writing last week about my unforgiving maternal grandmother, I wonder how much of this tendency lives on in me. Perhaps it's the cause of me wanting to think of myself as being "generous to a fault." I have given away possessions and refused to care about acquiring things, and now I wonder if this might be an unconscious backlash against being accused of having a "hard heart" like Mommy.

I think during this next week I'm going to read a little more in my journals that I kept during the 1980s, to see if I can find some clue to this particular pattern of my life. Now that I am probably nearly as old as Mommy was when she died, and my maternal grandmother lived to 79, it looks like they still live on in some semblance inside me, at least until I am able to separate out the ME from the THEM.

All those turbulent years of striving for happiness are behind me now. I have found it. As I spend my days blogging, writing, working out, hiking in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, conversing enthusiastically with Smart Guy about our respective interests, I realize that I have found something I was looking for during all my past years: contentment.

What lies ahead seems, like it must for most retirees, predictable. But as we all know, everything can change in the blink of an eye: an illness, a car accident, even external economic upheavals. So I am consciously saying to myself, and to you, dear reader, I am, at this moment, feeling pretty darn lucky. Yes, I have lost more than most people must endure, especially to the parents among you, but I am left wondering if I did indeed work through all that grief. I don't remember Stephen very well, but I sure do remember my son Chris, and I still miss him, but when he visits me in my dreams, he is happy.

Until we meet again next week, I will count my blessings and be grateful.

10 comments:

TechnoBabe said...

It is a good thing to have memories of your grandmother like you do, at least that is how I see it. The photos help keep the memories clear. I like your announcement of current contentment. That is a blessing, isn't it? And it is a choice. I have reached a place in my life that I am grateful for each day that I wake up. I am happy to get up and explore my day in my own way in my own little life and with my hubby. And I am so thankful that he is taking his meds and is a joy for me to be living with. I know your happiness in having a husband to converse with and share ideas with and encourage. Hope you are having a wonderful Sunday.

The Retired One said...

It is interesting how the relatives or "ghosts of our pasts" may still influence us at some primevil level. I often think I don't have a lot in common with my relatives, but when there are family gatherings with old uncles or aunts, I see some similarities that I didn't think existed.

Grandma Nina said...

Hi DJ, Families and DNA is so interesting to me. We can't change who we are or where we come from, but we can control who we want to become. Sometimes that means consciously choosing to be the opposite of what we remember and know that we don't want to become. I can't imagine you being like your "Mommy". Your contentment and smile come through in your writing.

Jo said...

Interesting...! There is a new show on NBC called "Who Do You Think You Are" and this week it was Sarah Jessica Parker. It turns out she is descended from a woman who was arrested in Salem for being a witch. The woman was never tried, however. It was very interesting.

We all have such rich family heritage, and I love reading about them. All of the people who went before make up who we are. Their DNA is in us. But we can change the effect it will have on us.

I'm glad you have found contentment now.

California Girl said...

I visit you as you visited me. I read this post with interest. My grandmother was much like yours; she rarely smiled, she had a hard life, forgiving? not too sure about that but I think she resented my grandfather for never pursuing a white collar trade and wanting to be a farmer. She was, as well, my father's mother and born in 1877. She died in 1977, 3 mos after her 100th birthday. She was born in Illinois but Grandma & Grandpa moved to Corona, Ca in the late Forties to be near their four children. Instead of drinkers, she raised two children who had psychological issues. My father and my eldest aunt, the two older siblings, were the caregivers to all as they aged & developed careers, etc. I did not really love my grandma as she did nothing to foster that love. I didn't dislike her, I just didn't understand her. I adored my eldest Aunt, however. She was truly a generous and loving woman. How she came out of that family I'll never know.

Families are so damn strange. Even if I see signs of their DNA in me, which I do, I don't much care. I no longer feel too guilty about my "issues". I try to improve and accept them. It's a daily challenge.

Whitney Lee said...

This post was really interesting. You covered a lot of history and left some things out...like why did Mommy disown her daughter? Why did your grandfather walk out?
I can't help but wonder if Mommy was so stern because she had endured so much. That sort of thing can cause a person to close doors on their hearts, to wall themselves off to keep from being hurt any more than they already have been. Aside from that, she raised 4 kids by herself during the Depression. That would make me stern! Of course, this is about why you are the way you are, not why was she the way she was. But perhaps there's more of a correlation between the two of you than you've considered. You've certainly been through your share of difficulties.
It's wonderful that you have reached that point in your life where you are truly happy. It's even better that you aren't taking your blessings for granted!

Writing Without Periods! said...

What beautiful photographs. And I love your title with those photographs too. Very creative and beautiful.
Mary

Far Side of Fifty said...

What a lovely old photo of your Grandmother. She must have had to become very strong being a single mother. It probably was not easy.
I am glad that you can seperate the me from the them. I think that is the way you have found to deal with them, a better you has emerged from the family you were born into. We can't choose our family..but we can chose our friends:)

Linda Reeder said...

Well, I'm caught up. What an adventure it has been learning about you!
My husband has done extensive genealogy, so I know who I came from, but that is different than knowing their stories. I do know some of those too, and I do have memories of all four of my grandparents. I had a thrilling experience when we traveled to Sweden and Norway to find ancestral villages of both my family and Tom's. I was able to make contact with several fourth cousins in Sweden who still live in that ancestral village. What an amazing day that was.
There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about how fortunate I am. After working hard all of our lives we were able to retire from teraching careers with pensions, social security, and debt free. We have been able to travel to Europe (four extended trips)and to visit our daughter and her family in Colorado. Our son lives here in Seattle. We all keep in touch electronically. It's wonderful! Life is great.

Star said...

Very interesting D-Jan. Our grandparents generation was certainly very different from ours, wasn't it. Their hardships were more in abundance than ours, it seems. I found it interesting how your re-visiting your grandmother's life has sparked off questions in your own. I do the same thing, quite often
Blessings, Star