Sunday, March 7, 2010
My father's parents
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.