The First of Three Remarkable People

I have had the good fortune to have three very remarkable relatives in my life.  None were famous but all were caring, thoughtful and good to the core people.  I wish I could say that I understood how remarkable they were when I was young but I really did not comprehend beyond the thinking mind of a child. I started learning about these very special people while going through family pictures and thus began my journey as the family historian.  This first article is about my grandmother, Eleanora.

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My grandmother, Eleanora – surrounded by her art…always laughing.

As long as I can remember we spent every summer vacation with my grandparents while my parents stayed home to work.  From my seven-year old eyes, my grandmother fit the ideal image of what every grandmother should be like – just like those created by Walt Disney.  Even all the kids who lived on her street loved my grandmother.  She made summer vacations fun by taking us on all sorts of outings like the San Diego zoo, Marine World or the beach. The fact that she always seemed to have money for us when we came running after the ice cream truck made her even more special.  I used to laugh as she took her coin purse out of her bra, along with tissue – a habit that I have adopted a few years ago.  Where ever we were, when it was time for lunch she would prepare huge plates of meats, cheeses and vegetables for sandwiches and we would make our own.  Plus there was always a bowl of fruit with nectarines, oranges, pears and bananas.  Every meal offered lots of choice and quantity.  Through all of those outings I developed a love of nature, the ocean and photography.

When we weren’t on outings there was plenty to do at home as she had an “activity” closet which had every possible game available, coloring books and crayons (always new), puzzle and sketch books as well as the latest books to read.  She always encouraged reading and one year sent me a book, a collection of children’s stories.  I would try to read one each night before going to bed. The stories were wonderful tales of exotic people and places and some of my favorites were Aladdin and his Magic Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Aesop’s Fables and Snow White and Rose Red.  I still have that book and it truly is a treasure.

She had the most magnificent house!  They lived at the bottom of a hill that overlooked the entire San Diego bay and we would see the most beautiful sunsets while eating strawberries and ice cream for desert (something else we rarely did at home).  They had a sunken living room with a small atrium that separated the living room from the kitchen and bedrooms. I marveled at having a garden to look at whenever you wanted.  The master bedroom, where the three of us stayed, had double sinks and a step down tile shower that was large enough and deep enough for all of us to take a bath at the same time.  Even with my young age I could appreciate the aesthetics of the place.

Christmas was even more of the same and there were always so many gifts under the tree – we were truly delighted.   She’d make batches of holiday cookies and if we couldn’t be together she’d mail the cookies to us.  I enjoyed this so much that I started the same tradition with my family.  With my grandmother, there was always an abundance of things to enjoy, lots of outings, activity, food and presents.  I think it was my grandmother’s way of creating balance in our life.

At home, my parents were barely making ends meet and were getting government assistance.  I recall being mortified one day when I went shopping with my step mom and she paid with food stamps.  Going to visit my grandparents was the one time in our lives that we could forget about our struggles.  I found out later in my teens that my grandparent’s had paid the mortgage on our house for some time just so that we would always have a place to live.

My grandparents were RICH, at least we thought so.  But they didn’t live a rich lifestyle.  Their home, car and furnishings spoke of comfort and care, not indulgence and their clothing was fairly plain,  My grandmother almost always wore one of the many floral house coats she owned when we were at home.  The only time she dressed up was if we were going out to dinner or going to church and then she would wear a simple but elegant polyester suit. My favorite part of going to church was when they would break open the hymn books because it meant that she would sing, she had the most beautiful voice.    In all of the years that we would go down for the full summer, my grandmother always had a pleasant disposition and would laugh easily and often.  I only recall her being angry with me once.  I don’t know how she managed to be so consistently nice but it was wonderful!

As I became a teenager I found myself more aware of my grandmother as a person.  I saw a picture of her when she was very young and she was very slender and absolutely beautiful.  I had never questioned the shape of her body until I saw that picture and I wondered what I would look like when I got older.

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A young Eleanora, circa 1920

Both of my grandparents were painters, wherever they lived they had a screened porch that was their painting studio.  As I got older my grandmother’s painting style change dramatically from her usual landscapes to abstract art.  I had a favorite, a painting that reminded me of a giant red treble clef with graduating shades of red on a green, almost Chartreuse background.  Her most famous painting was the ‘cracked mirror’ which won an award and was displayed at the San Diego Museum of Art.

When I became a young adult I was happy that she was able to be with me when I got married and that my daughter was able to meet her wonderful great-grandmother.  She had expressed some strong concerns over the group that I had become involved with, a real concern as it was circa Jones-town and we would end up with me trying to reassure her that I was fine. On one of my last visits she confided that she still didn’t know much about what I was involved in, but she saw that I was a very good mother and I was obviously doing something right.

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Joseph and Eleanora with their grand children and great-grandchildren. 1983

Now, in her early eighties she was experiencing quite a few health problems and confided in me that she had lived a full life and was tired.  Having recently moved from the house in San Diego to a very nice mobile home community, living in a triple wide next to the golf course.  She told me she was just holding on long enough for my grandfather to establish friends but she was ready to die.  What neither of us knew that day is that my grandfather would die before her, three years later, and that she would live for another thirteen years, spending most of them with her daughter, Joanne – wonderful, glorious years they would be.

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Joe and Eleanora in their new home.

As I look through the old photos, including when she got married and when my father was born, I became more curious about the lives of my grandparents.  Through conversations with my aunt, old newspapers and genealogy sites I have learned that my grandmother was a social worker and lobbied the town they lived in to create playgrounds for children as they had no real place to play.  During WWII she worked at the weather bureau, hand drawing Doppler maps for the military.  Both of my grandparents were very active in their church, she was the church organist and Choir Director.

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My grandfather and grandmother on their wedding day, 1926.

My grandmother’s work in Social Services was short, but her use of the skills she had acquired never left her.  When my birth mother, who had less than desired parenting skills, abandoned her children, my grandmother was there to help my dad get reoriented.  When my youngest sister did not speak, even at three years old, my grandmother took her to her house for a month or two and gave her love and nutrition.  That was all it took to get her to start talking.  Much later, my other sister had a serious conflict with my step mother which resulted in her being sent away to live in foster care for the next ten years.  As far as I could tell, she was a normally child who wasn’t afraid to talk back if she didn’t like something.  I guess my step mom didn’t like that.  I couldn’t understand what the problem was and I’d felt as if I already lost a mom and wasn’t ready to lose a sister.  I remember the day clearly – the day my older sister couldn’t live with us and had to go away.  I was crying when my sister looked at me and said, “I’ll be okay, don’t cry.”

By the time my sister turned eighteen, literally rejected by her family, she was in less than stable shape.  My grandmother brought her into her life and helped her get back on track.  There were some heavy speed bumps and some serious problems to navigate around but she eventually got a bit more stable.  Having no formal education, my sister started to go to school in her twenties and by the time she was thirty she had graduated from high school, continued on to vocational school, receiving a nursing aide certificate. Her life was becoming more and more normal every day.  She and my grandmother had a very close relationship and of all of the grandchildren my oldest sister has spent the most time visiting and sharing the her life with my grandmother.  Further in the box, we found pictures of my sister and her children visiting my grandmother all the way up to the end.  I was so happy that my sister was able to find peace in her life, raising beautiful children that would make any parent proud…and that my grandmother was the one to help her find it.

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An unbreakable bond had formed between my sister and my grandmother.

Another box of pictures revealed photos of my grandmother and her brothers when they were growing up.  My great-grandfather also liked to take pictures and created photo journals of their trips and of the places they had lived.  It was in one of the photo journals that I saw pictures of them in Daytona, the name given to Daytona Beach in the early 1900s.  I was flabbergasted!  Daytona Beach is where I live!  No one had ever mentioned that my relatives lived in Daytona Beach.  All I was told was they were from Ohio.  Yet, here were pictures of my grandmother pushing her youngest brother, Ben in his stroller on the beach…

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and another picture of the older ones (Seymour, Eleanora and Gilbert) dressed for Sunday School outside of their house.  I just love the fashionable big white bow in her hair!

I wondered if my great-grandfather was being literal when he wrote “our abode” on one of the pictures.  So I looked up the newspapers of 1914 and discovered that my great-grandfather had bought property in Daytona in 1914.  I was not able to see the house as it had been torn down but I was able to find where it had been located right along the river.   I also found out that my grandmother had been registered for school in a nearby town.  After seeing the pictures of her on the beach, I now understood that grandmother’s love of the ocean had been with her for a very long time.

The final box that I opened had letters that belonged to my great-aunt Martha.  One, which was written by my grandmother, was so touching and beautiful and demonstrated the love and grace that seemed to be a natural part of her existence.  At eighty-three she wrote a letter to my great-aunt about the passing of her husband (Martha’s brother).   She mentions that she knew that my aunt wanted to attend the memorial but couldn’t and so described it in detail, telling her that she was sending pictures as well so that my Martha would feel like she had been there.  She includes a personal note of her understanding, since the passing of her own younger brother, how bereft one can feel realizing that you are the last one of your immediate family.  And to let her know that she still has “other” family who are near and dear to her and she has “Joe’s” and her family.  She also relayed to her that two days before he passed, Joanne (his daughter) and she told him what a good father he had been, working so hard to give his family all they needed and wanted through the years.  They reminisced about all the good times they had, what a good husband and father he had been and all of the things that he had done including the love and respect he had gained in his successful business career.

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Eleanora, Martha and Joanne, circa 1970

She closed the letter by saying that my grandfather had a long, full life and that they had many happy memories of him and of what he meant to each of them.  Expressing that all of us were sending our love to her and that she would try to be better about keeping in touch.  She then listed all of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in such a way that it was clear that we all were thinking of her.  What made this letter so special is that neither my younger sister or I new of the existence of this aunt. We thought that our family consisted of my grandparents, my dad and my aunt.  I was touched that she had taken the liberty to include me in her wishes of love and I hoped that my great-aunt felt the warmth that she intended to convey from her brother’s side of the family.

I have always felt that I had a wonderful grandmother, now I am certain that I was blessed to have such an excellent role model in my life.  She was the dominant figure in my life.  My grandfather was much less dominant but even more remarkable.  I wished I’d insisted on talking to him more when we had the chance to do so.  I have learned so much about this humble man of greatness…his story will be coming soon.

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