Pictures: My grandmother in front of the house in Kentucky. Probably around 1926?
My mother holding her beloved dachshund. This is shortly after her stepfather adopted her. It must be about 1953?
My great grandparents holding their last born son. He is about my mother’s age. This must be sometime in 1944.
My mother on the back stoop at the house on bacon street. Holding a neighborhood cat. This is probably 1947 or 48?
This is my grandmother as I picture her in my head. This is the woman she presented to the world and the woman she became later in life. This was in the 70s.
My grandmother in a dimestore Photo Booth with my mother. It must be 1944.
In 2004 I was 32 and had been teaching college composition since the fall of 2000. The summer of 2000 I had an epiphany (that meant I would leave Colorado and never come back. One that told me I would, inexplicably, return to the place where I grew up. The place I hated to take an adjunct job teaching composition instead of the job I thought I had always wanted… to head an English department, this one at a private high school geared towards elite athletes, and coach skiing ) while sitting on the wood floor of a history teacher’s log cabin that he shared with his pretty blond wife and golden retriever (the man who I’d shared a life with in those Colorado years had married an athletic blond and adopted a golden retriever. I suppose, in retrospect, that I was an athletic blond — but strong in a skier’s way — in a solid and broad immovable way — not whippet, runner thin.)
I had stumbled across the job in Crested Butte — a place where my parents had lived out the happiest years of their marriage, of my youngest childhood — where my mother hiked through the alpine valleys in red clogs and blond braids — me in a backpack. My parents bought an old miner’s claim which they would never build on, the only reminder being the tax bill that would arrive every year after my father’s murder– a platted lot from a town long wiped away in an avalanche — in a valley high above the ski town — they bought it in 1969 and traveled in their red volkswagon van — the red rover — hauling my brothers, half-brothers if you want to be technical about it though we never were, from their mother’s in Florida to our dingy apartment in Dekalb Illinois where someone had pulled the final strings my father had left to get him an academic appointment in a fledgling business program.
In 1970, when he got the job there — when my mother was still a flight attendant for American Airlines — he had just emerged from a binge that brought him to my mother’s NYC doorstep — shivering and filthy, hallucinating, divorced or divorcing his first wife — the time frame was never clear to me. He’d been an academic star once — had two doctorates, had lectured at The Kennedy School, consulted at NASA, moved his young wife, a jersey girl like he was a jersey boy, down to Florida where he’d had a teaching job.
I don’t know what happened in the years between the late fifties when they arrived and the mid-sixties when he collided with my mother in a bar. She was pregnant and had fled to Florida — a place I’ve always hated for the fact that it created my parents.
Florida, to me, was a place of everyone’s last resort and get-rich-quick schemes — a relentless place of drained swamps and tiki bars. In those days it was astronauts and girls like my mother — who had good families somewhere else but it was they themselves who decided they weren’t good. My mother’s life was one ensconced in the affluence of the auto money of Detroit in the mid-century. Hard to think of it now — dying Detroit with its boarded up houses — that my mother’s suburb was once known as ‘sugarville’ — and the man who married her mother (and at eight adopted her) was the head counsel of one of the big three. My grandmother met my grandfather while she was a secretary at Hudson’s Department Store. She was very smart, very beautiful, very insecure until the day she died that she didn’t go to Vassar like my grandfather’s colleagues’ wives — that she was the daughter of a failed Kentucky cowboy and farmer’s daughter who moved North with the jobs during the depression when they lost the farm — both embarrassed and proud that she grew up working at a dime store, cleaning other people’s houses, wearing ugly shoes — the second oldest of nine.
My great-grandmother’s house was on Bacon Street — a white framed house the second floor of which had once burned and had only barely been rebuilt –still charred in places.
My great-grandmother became the respository of her two eldest daughter’s children — leaving their kids with her while she was still having her own.
My mother was raised from the time she was three until she was eight among her cousin and her aunts and uncles who were close enough in age to be siblings. A horse-drawn ice cart still made its way down the streets of Berkley in the early fifties. My great-grandmother had an ice-box and a cast-iron stove. She grew grean beans in a victory garden and my mother always remembers snapping beans on her back stoop. She remembers climbing the apple trees of the old razed farms turned to new subdivisions…roaming the dumps and catching frogs which my great-grandmother obliged in turning into frog legs. In everyone’s recollections my great-grandmother was a mildly depressed and tired woman who was a terrible cook and mild and constant presence just abiding — my great-grandfather a storming man who reminisced about his cowboying days — never happy to be saddled with nine children — he worked on the Ford line.
My grandmother would come to visit my mother on weekends. My mother says she remembers vividly what she calls “pitching a fit” when she was three and her mother left — thinking just how bad she could make her mother feel. She tells me that usually when she wants to point out the awareness of small children.
She couldn’t have been much more than seven when her mother arrived during Berkley Days — my mother all dressed as a cowgirl for the parade and my grandmother put her on her lap and showed her her wedding ring — that she’d gotten married and did my mother know what that meant. It meant she’d be moving to a new neighborhood, a new father, a new life.
My mother’s birth father was a tool and die man, a hot-rod racer and a drinker who’d married my grandmother at 18 and left her at 23 for a 16 year old. He left her with their three year old and a dump truck and started a new life in Florida. My mother is fair, like her father. My mother started a new life with her mother and adopted father — but at 8 she never truly settled into the life that would come — the summer home and the sorority — the younger siblings who were given carte blanche with their spending — the skiing and the sailing, the horse-back riding.
My mother tried. I used to pour over her yearbooks — the smiling pixie’d girl with the pin in the neck of her cashmere sweater — “I was always the also-ran” my mother would sigh — never quite homecoming queen, never the cheeleader but the synchronized swimmer –my mother always wanted to study physical education. She went to University — joined a sorority — drank. And never stopped.
My mother is the kind of woman who, if you’ve loved her you can never forget having an air of tragedy and beauty and unreachable stoicism– a man she worked with when she was in her forties and he was in his late 70s — always said “your mother — she never smiles, but when she does — it’s like this radiant gift and it transforms everything” — and every person who has ever loved her has wanted nothing more than to fix something in her — something deep and broken that is unfixable except by her.
She reconnected with a man at her 25th year reunion — this was the high school hockey player from the working class side of town who traveled on the train to Ann Arbor to propose — who she then treated badly in some way I’ve forgotten — but what I’ve never forgotten is the image he painted all those years later when I was in high school and he told me about throwing that ring into a field and still making payments on it when he married his wife — a woman he later left for one last chance with my mother — who literally moved (in with her current housemate and partner) without giving him her forwarding address.