Saturday, August 20, 2011

Who Are You?

She was the mother of my mothers half sister. The woman my mother was named for in a moment of kindness. My grandmothers generosity to her young stepdaughter still astounds me.
The first time I went to upstate New York, in my twenties, I called my mom and told her how beautiful I thought it was. She said that she knew. Her sister used to take her camping. She took her canoeing. My mom camping? Paddling a canoe? She never told me this before. I remember being told that after my grandparents married they moved to New York to be with the children my grandfather had left behind. My mother lived in Brooklyn for several years before they moved back here. After the older boy and girl were well grown. I look out for the lake as my husband and I travel. I feel excited as we approach, like I am visiting a well loved and missed location. As we pass the lakes I imagine my mom for a moment. A tall and skinny girl of ten, top heavy with thick hair. Her grown sister paddling them along the water free and happy. My mom said her half sister seemed happy there. She wasn't usually happy. She was an alcoholic like their father. She died young, like her mother. My mom always told me I look a lot like her..
  I imagined her mother, my grandfathers first wife, as a delicate invalid. She died so young she must have had a congenital problem of some sort, I thought. I saw her in floaty lace shifts drifting through her day. Touching her daughters head gently before collapsing to her bed in the afternoon for a rest.

My half cousin sat in my mothers house with a stack of photo's. Old black and whites. My mom as a young woman. My grandmother. Many pictures of people I never met, my grandfather, her mother and father and then last, a tall young woman. It is an outdoor scene in soft tones of varying grays. From the nineteen twenties. Her hair is dark and thick. Cut in a chin length bob full with rich waves. She is wearing a mans shirt and pants! The pants legs shoved into heavy boots. One leg is slightly raised, bent at the knee and a shotgun stock rests against her hip. The double barrel pointing skyward casually in her grip. Her torso is bisected by a side slung shell belt, shoulder to waist, fully loaded.  She faces the camera dead straight her expression forthright with a hint of challenge. Just the faintest touch of humor sparks at the corners of her eyes and mouth. She looks strong and healthy and jubilant. Fiery. I feel an instant tug of recognition. The kind that draws you to others and makes you wish to claim them.
Who is this wonderful woman? This strong rebellious nature in our past?
"This", says my half cousin, " is my grandmother, my mothers mom."
My grandfathers first wife.
My heart sinks. She isn't related to me at all.
I feel like something was snatched away from me.
I wish she were mine.

My parents weren't storytellers. My dad remained close mouthed. Facts would drop out of my mother like accidents. Slips of paper snatched by wind out of a notebook. I think I was probably nine when she said, "I learned to roller skate when I was living in New York with my sister D. My brother H bought them for me for Christmas."

 "When you were living where? With WHO?

My family history is like a filing cabinet full of Missing Persons Reports.

© 2011 All Rights Reserved


  1. What a beautiful story. It is great that you are able to learn about your family. My mom and my grandmother were great story tellers and I have a lot of information from them, but my dad was very closed mouthed too. I found out in bits and pieces what an interesting life he and his family lead.

  2. Keep digging for those treasures. Those stories are pure gold. The older we get, the more we adore hearing the stories, don't you think?

    I loved this, and I loved hearing about the non-grandma. :)

  3. Mine is, too! Very few left who know the stories, or care to tell them. When I think about it, I realize how little I know.

  4. This is wonderful. How funny that your parents don't discuss the past. When my mom was older, the past was all she really wanted to talk about. It's really amazing to find out things about your own history isn't it?

  5. I know nothing of my father, or any of his family. It's sad how these stories fade away and are lost.

  6. " Facts would drop out of my mother like accidents." My inlaws are like that. As they aged, they would talk about things they never told their children as if they were facts that everyone knows.

  7. AE: Thank you. Sadly there is a great deal I don't know. Most of my sources that I know about are gone : )

    blueviolet: Yes. That's part of the problem. I want to know more but have no place to find it.

    Ms.A: Exactly. Even now, my moms address book was lost and I can't find my cousin!

    Linda: I wish I had been more pushy. When my mom developed Alzheimers she was with these people more often than us. But the stories were all lost.

    Marilyn: My dads mother died when he was a toddler and his father remarried and had another child, then dumped my dad on an aunt and abandoned him. He didn't want to know anything else but I would like to.

    DG: Precisely. She did that all the time!

  8. Here from Mommie Dearest and glad to be your newest follower.

  9. What a beautifully written, eloquent story. Wonderful!

  10. "facts would drop out of my mother like accidents"

    i was an adult before i found out that my "scary uncle" (a feeling i grew up feeling SO guilty about) is a diagnosed schizophrenic and that one of my mother's cousins we saw quite often is a lesbian. NOW, NOW that almost everyone of the old generation is gone.. NOW they look into family history. They find a lot, but nobody talked. the greats mostly stopped speaking in native tongues when they got here. photos and stories were tucked away. makes me wonder if i tell my kids enough, or if i will.....

  11. Wow! You never knew that. It's something how the older generations tell nothing unless you ask and ask again.

  12. God I love your writing. Your stories. I could just sit here and read you all day. Oh wait. I have.

  13. Jill: Hi there, thanks for coming by!

    Mommie Dearest: Thank you : )

    Elissa: I think kids know that stuff by instinct soemtimes. I wish I had more to tell. My youngest especially likes to hear stories.

    Nicole: That is true. My mom would come up with tid bits but she rarely seemed interested in what had gone before.

    Lori: Wow, what a lovely comment! Thank you : )

  14. I share that same sadness.

    I was the first one born in this country.

    I feel as if I have no history.

    Just my stories. And when I'd ask my mother to tell me something she'd answer, "why relive that time?"

    I'm right there with you.

    Great post, sorry for your pain, but great post.

  15. Wonderful post. Why is it that by the time we need to know where we've come from, most of those who could tell us are gone? I was lucky to catch my Dad on film, telling some of his stories as best he remembered them, but as much as I learned, I was left with so many more questions unanswered. I'd give anything to have a conversation with my Grandmother and Great Aunts and fill in the blanks. I can't explain why I need to understand the past like I do, but I think it is as much about understanding the times they lived in and honoring them as it is about understanding me.
    If only the pictures could talk, and we all had a few more answers.

  16. Alexandra: You bring up a very good point. Neither of my parents had very great childhoods and I guess it makes sense that they preferred to move forward. But it still doesn't fill in the gaps.

    Mel: I used to listen to my Grandmother and learned a few great stories but not nearly enough. She died when I was 13 so I never had the opportunity to really dig deep. She was the only one I had who knew the past before my parents.

  17. ---I love your writing. So beautiful. You make your reader feel everything. :)

  18. i really was captive of your energy to learn more about your roots. what a compelling interest in your life. you describe that photograph with such detail. i hope you find what you are looking for.
    here from alexandra's place.

  19. Ed: Thank you and thank you for stopping by! I guess I could try harder but I'm too cheap for ; )


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