Monday, February 2, 2015

My Grandmother, a Women Ahead of Her Time

My maternal grandmother was a study in contrasts. She was a woman ahead of her time in some areas but also clung to ritual and proper behavior in others. To me, she was "Grandma" and seemed to stay the same age even though I aged. But her life was connected to the times she lived as well as the past and pushing forward Looking back, I suspect she was frustrated by limits put on her by society, just as she seemed desperate to make sure we followed the rules that were being cast away by our generation.

She played the piano for us. She could play just about anything by ear but also played intricate classical music. One of the favorites was "Up a Lazy River" which she played with all the flourishes, almost every time she visited. She and her sister, Alice, used to earn money for school (Oberlin College) playing the piano at the local movie theater. What? Playing the piano at the movies? Yes, it was the time of the silent movies, Charlie Chaplin style. They'd be the first to see the movies and played the music to bring attention to the dramatic moments.  She always said that "Alice was the talented one. That's why I had to excel in academics." Well, I never heard my great-aunt play the piano, but knew my grandmother was good. Even at an early age though, I felt sorry for her that she felt inferior and that it was a competition. Knowing my aunt, I can't imagine her thinking of it in that way.

As a child, I recall going through a trunk of her "flapper dresses" from high school and college.She taught me to do the Charleston. According to her though, she wasn't like the girls in the movies. I'm not surprised - she liked fun, but in a very conservative manner. (The Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey reminds me of my grandmother, though of a different age) She graduated high school in 1927. She was very active in sorority life in college. I remember reading notes from her girlfriends - apparently, she was quite the social butterfly. At a time when other women dropped out of school in 8th grade, and considered it "educated" to graduate high school, she went to college. Even as a middle schooler, I was impressed since I realized how unusual that was for the time period. After that, she got married and she and my grandpa continued their education, getting graduate degrees at Ohio State, even though the Depression had hit.

While she had many friends, keeping up with them for decades, she had a more serious side as well. My grandmother knew the importance of "proper behavior," even to the point of getting carried away. My grandpa was a Methodist minister and she played the role of "Minister's wife." She told me about hosting tea with the ladies of the church and the importance of having a proper home, always ready for people to stop by. Later, my grandpa was the Dean of Students at Adrian College in Michigan. (They later named a building after him.) Her days of serving tea continued. This came up regularly, but especially when she discovered my future husband was headed into the ministry. She was convinced I needed a silver tea service for a wedding present, though matching stoneware would have seemed fancy to us. I tried to convince her that in the 1980s, women didn't do things the way they were done 40 years earlier.

Growing up, we always had Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at her house, often with some friends of the family. it was a dress-up affair. Unlike my dad's parents' celebration, with lots of people grabbing a plate and sitting wherever they could, we all sat stiffly in the dining room. Each place setting had 2-3 forks, knife, and 1-2 spoons, as well as a water glass, glass to drink with appetizer, and drink for the meal. Add a plate for appetizers, the dinner plate, dessert plate, etc. The meat was served at the head of the table and plates presented to each one. We were taught, even as little kids, the proper way to use all of that. Later, I at least knew how to handle myself in the rare moments it came up.
I remember an interview I did with her when I was about 9 or so. We had a school assignment to interview the oldest person we knew and ask about their childhood. One of the things I remember was when she talked about what they did for fun. She loved ice skating with friends and activities with her church group. She explained how they made taffy and about making maple syrup. To me, it seemed like a chapter from one of my favorite childhood books, "Little House on the Prairie," though she was a later time period. As an adult, it occurred to me that she might not have had an indoor bathroom growing up, though she was in town, not the country, so it was possible. The idea of my very-proper grandmother using an outhouse just seemed impossible. I never had the nerve to ask her about it!

As her oldest grandchild, we spent more time together than my sisters and cousins did. My cousins lived far away, so I understood her not seeing them, but I later wondered why she didn't do as much with my sisters. Perhaps it was because she didn't want to have multiple kids at once? We had our annual events, just the two of us, such as the Christmas Tree display at Cheekwood Mansion followed by tea with her friends, or the Steeplechase. I remember the two of us getting dressed up to go shopping downtown when I was in elementary school. When I was older, she took me to the symphony regularly. We often cooked together, especially preparing for holidays, and she shared all the family recipes and told me family stories from her grandparents. Latin was one of my majors in high school, something no one else in my immediate family studied. But she'd taught Latin so enjoyed helping me study. I later learned that she and my grandpa used to write love letters to each other in Latin. I came across them after she'd died.

While we had good times together, she was definitely NOT the cuddly spoiling model of a grandma. We had a lot in common, but I always figured that she would have developed interests with the others if she had just made the effort. Unlike the "everything you do is perfect" grandparenting attitude of some people, I always felt I had to live up to her standards. I knew that she not only felt things had to be done "properly," but realized she was a bit of a snob as well. She tried very hard to convince me to go to a private college and pledge her sorority. She told me many times that I was selling myself short by considering a state school. I rejected her plea to attend Peabody locally and went to a state college 50 miles away so I could be independent.

To say she valued education would be an understatement. Both she and her husband, my grandpa, had graduate degrees. He worked a lot of odd jobs to pay for his classes. He was also a Methodist minister. From everything my mom told me, despite this, he was down to earth. (I see that my mom was like her dad, not her mom.) He died when their kids were teens, and soon after, Grandma began teaching high school Latin and AP English. She once had my dad in a summer school class. He said they clashed big time. Knowing that he hated English class only a little less than people that put on airs, I imagine it didn't go well. 

Later, when my mom fell for him, my grandmother tried to stop them from dating. She looked down on him because neither of his parents had graduated high school. She made sure all 3 of her kids went to college. My mom didn't want to go, but was forced... a complete waste of money since she fought it. While the others told jokes in Latin, she dreamed of being a wife and mother. During the "women's lib" days of the 60s and beyond, while other women were knocking on glass ceilings and breaking barriers, my mom was the rebel of the family. Unlike everyone in her family, she quit college to marry and be a stay at home mom, and loved it. My grandmother considered her a failure. I knew better.

Earlier today, I happened to come across an online listing for my grandmother's master's thesis, "Shakespeare and the Pastoral Tradition." It sounds like something she'd write. it got me to thinking about her. Even though I was probably the closest grandchild, the one that she talked to the most, I still was always aware of a rigidness about her. I think she was showing love in her own way, especially when we cooked together and she told me about the family history. but with every conversation, there was a lesson. She inserted subtle reminders of the importance of appearance, of making the right connections, and doing the proper things in every setting. There was never the pure joy I share with my own grandchildren.  She was a little more relaxed with her great-grandchildren, but it was still more of an observation relationship than an involved one.

But then, as now, I marveled at the barriers she broke through. She was disappointed in me for going to a state college, even though she was glad I did go. I think it relieved her when I went to graduate school. Even though I'd planned to do so since age 6, she tried to get me to consider something other than teaching. She said, "In my day, teaching is one of the few things women could do. You can do anything you want - go for it." Just as my mom disappointed her by choosing a "career" in motherhood, I "settled" by becoming a teacher. I told her i knew I could do anything - but teaching was what I wanted to do. it was the right choice. I hope she figured that out.

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