Reconstructing a Grandmother

From out of the blue, I get a message from Dan, a stranger living on the other side of the country. For years he’s been looking for someone with my last name, someone who might be related to a young woman mentioned, a century ago, in his grandfather’s schoolboy diary. He asks if my grandmother went by Doris, Dolly or Doll.

The answer is yes. I send him a photo of my grandmother in her 50s, very much as I remember her: a square-jawed face set in a permanent rictus of disapproval, as though Leonardo’s paint had declared war against Mona Lisa’s smile.

Dan replies with a photo no one in our family has ever seen: my grandmother as a young woman. While she isn’t smiling – few people sitting for portraits before 1920 did – neither does she sport that bone-deep scowl. 

The photo is inscribed “To Dan from Doll.” Recalling the diary, stored somewhere or other in his house, Dan speculates that Doris and his grandfather – also Dan – were sweethearts. My wife takes one look at the inscription and is absolutely sure of it.

Not me. I find the inscription brief, circumspect and emotionally ambiguous.

In contrast, my own feelings towards my grandmother were, as a child, very clear: I did not like her. I was not hostile to her, but found her remote and indifferent.

She was a tall woman, half a foot taller than my grandfather. Her posture remained entirely erect all her life.  In my parents’ wedding photos, she and my grandfather look away from the camera. His look is distracted. Hers is resigned. Tall, thin-lipped, self-contained and cold: I recall not a single word or touch from her. She lived the last part of her life swathed in a thick emotional callus, proof of John Lennon’s line: one thing you can’t hide is when you’re crippled inside.

By the time I was old enough to form lasting memories of her, dementia had already begun gnawing at the cognitive flesh behind the emotional callus. I remember the phone calls, every ten or fifteen minutes after Dad got home from work. This was the late 60s: only one phone in the house, hard-wired to the wall, and it couldn’t be turned off. It rang before dinner, rang through dinner, and rang after dinner, summoning my father to soothe one anxiety or another. At one point, my mother picked up the phone herself and raged at my grandmother. I’d never seen that kind of anger from her. She returned to our interrupted meal in tears, and threatened to leave if the phone calls didn’t stop.

When my grandmother died, Dad and his brother Phil cleaned out her apartment and brought back with them a steamer trunk, filled with 19th and 20th century photos and bric-a-brac. I was absolutely thrilled: it was like a museum had been installed right in the middle of the house. For my grandmother herself, though, I felt nothing at all.

Recently, I began reading some of her letters and, with growing sympathy,  reconstructing her story. At its core are particularly wrenching losses. When she was ten, her grandfather, father and uncle all died within a few months of one another. That left her mother with four children, a ruined business, and no means of support. Then a younger sister, just out of high school, succumbed to the 1918 flu. By 1921 poverty had forced the family to leave rural Illinois for Chicago. Whatever ambitions Doris might have had for herself, she ended up for a time working alongside her mother, cleaning houses in order to pay the college fees for two younger brothers. She met my grandfather at a ballroom dance: their marriage was her way out.

Financial insecurity remained significant throughout much of her married life. Her husband found himself in and out of work throughout the Depression, evicted from more than one apartment for failure to make rent. She lost one son in infancy and another on Okinawa during the War. My Dad believed that my grandfather’s death, just after I was born, finally broke her.

Aging distills our truest selves, stripping away the layers of socialized behavior learned so that we get along with others, revealing the generosity or cantankerousness at the core. In my grandmother’s case, aging magnified anger, anxiety, and a lifelong dread of loss and loneliness. Her last decade was not happy.

Among her personal effects, there was nothing from her childhood friend Dan. Most 19th century Americans did keep in touch, even with casual friends and distant relatives. It’s possible that, once married, she destroyed his letters: their absence is perhaps the strongest evidence for unresolved affection between them. Yet Dan isn’t alone: there’s not a single letter, postcard, or photograph from any friend in Seneca, Illinois. It’s as if she decided, at some point, that she’d sever herself from the lost continent of her girlhood.

In the photo Dan sent me, her face is softer than I’ve seen it in any other image. Because it’s a conventional portrait, there’s no smile. But there is a latent expressiveness here which later vanished.

When Dan guessed that our grandparents might have been “sweethearts,” I thought of Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia. It isn’t Ántonia who tells the story, but her childhood friend Jim Burden, son of another farm family. He recalls a tender relationship – a loving relationship. Yet it’s not a relationship that steps beyond the decorum of abiding friendship.

Imagine that we are Ántonia’s great-grandchildren. In a shoebox, tied together with twine, we find a bundle of old letters between her and Jim. We don’t have Cather’s novel to explain what we were reading, so we have no sense of Ántonia Shimerda’s Nebraska childhood or the ways that accident, misfortune and decision shaped her life and altered her relationships.

What would we make of this bundle of letters? If we read them now, I expect we’d sexualize their friendship, conforming it ever so slightly to contemporary expectations. In doing so, we would frog-march our own ancestors into a culture that we, not they, have made. Here’s an apt historian’s cliché, borrowed from midcentury novelist L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Yes, they do.

Dan and Doll may have been sweet on each other. Or just close friends. Or even – it a remote possibility – lovers. In the end, all we’ve got is that photograph, an inscription and, maybe, a few lines in a diary. Whatever meaning they once had leeched out long ago.

What’s left is an artifact, proving only that once upon a time there were two people, both now dead, who were not strangers.

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