Family Legacy

Bernard and Martha_0015I was sorting through some old family photos the other day when I came across my favorite picture of my grandmother.  She’s standing in the backyard of of her modest brick bungalow, dressed in her Sunday best, complete with hat, white gloves and one of those fox stoles that were so popular back in the fifties.  She’s looking off into the distance, unsmiling, formal, and quietly dignified.   Even though I remember her smiling easily and more often than not wearing a casual cotton “house dress” as she went about her daily chores, there’s something about this photo that really captures the true spirit of the woman I remember from my childhood.

I know only the most basic details of my grandmother’s history.  I know that she was born in 1893 to German immigrants, and grew up speaking German at home and English at school.  I know she married my grandfather when she was almost thirty years old, and that shortly afterwards she had two children, a girl first and then a boy (my father).  To my knowledge, she never worked outside of her home after she was married, and like many women of her generation, she never learned to drive a car.  I know that she lived through the Great Depression and counted herself lucky to have “enough” at a time when so many people were hungry and homeless, and how she regularly handed out sandwiches to those who came to her door, asking for food.  She raised her family and lived her entire married life in the small brick house she and my grandfather purchased shorty after they were married.

I was lucky enough to live near my grandparents for the first eleven years of my life, so I spent a lot of time with them both, but especially with my grandmother.  She came to our house often for family gatherings, or to watch my sisters and I while my mother ran errands, and she almost always brought cupcakes, cookies, or brownies with her.  Even better were the times when we went to her house, where she kept the candy jar full and stocked our favorite brand of root beer in the refrigerator.  She rarely took the time to actually play with us, but simply welcomed us into her home and then got on with whatever job needed doing.  Sometimes we helped her work around the house, other times we headed upstairs to the back bedroom where she kept a toy chest filled just for us.

I wish I had taken the time to get to know my grandmother more, but she died just before I turned eighteen, which was well before I was mature enough to be interested in family history.  I know she stayed close to her brother and sister, getting together with her siblings and their families every week, that she was very active in her church, and enjoyed playing bridge and canasta with her friends.  I know that she lived to see her only daughter die a violent death, and can only imagine her heartache and grief.

Bernard and Martha_0015 (2)But I would like to have known if she was happy spending her life at home, raising children and keeping house, or if she had other hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled?  I wonder if she waited until she was almost thirty to marry (unusually old, in that time) because she was still needed to help her parents and siblings at home, or if she simply didn’t meet the right man until my grandfather came along.  I even wonder about the silly, insignificant things, like why she prided herself on never drinking water with her meals, or where she got the idea that drinking white soda pop gave a person kidney stones.  (She let us drink root beer, but not 7-Up.)

Sadly, there are many things I’ll never know about my grandmother.  But I have my photographs, and my memories of a strong, caring woman who had an ingrained sense of duty, who enjoyed her friends and who loved her family dearly.  And I know, without a doubt, that I’m proud to be her granddaughter.

45 thoughts on “Family Legacy

  1. It’s always sad realising that we’ve gone past the time when we could have asked our grandparents about their lives. There are so many thinks I would love to have known about my maternal grandmother but I was only in my early teens when she died and – like you – I didn’t have the sort of interest then that I do now. Your grandmother sounds like she was a hardworking, determined woman. Mine, like yours, also didn’t play with me, but she did provide food, particularly bicuits (cookies)!

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  2. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to travel back in time and ask our loved ones all those questions we wish we had? My mother’s mom always lived very nearby and I have memories, like you, of going over her house. She made me toasted cheese sandwiches and she had a bingo bag filled with chips I used to play tiddly-winks. She passed away when I was 22. I wish I gotten to know her better too. Beautiful post.

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  3. This is so beautifully written. A lovely view of a grandmother from a young girl’s viewpoint. One reason I’m writing memoir essays like this is for the exact reason you write about here. There are so many questions I wish I could have asked, or that I could even have thought of to ask my parents and grandparents. I don’t want my children to have the same regrets, so I’m trying to write these articles to tell their stories.
    I’m sorry about your aunt. Will you be writing her story?

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    • Thanks, Barb! I think you are very smart to write things down, because your children (and their children, someday) will really appreciate knowing your story. I think that’s why I’m a bit obsessive about writing and keeping photos, myself.
      As for my aunt, I was only two when she died and she had children of her own, so I don’t feel comfortable sharing her story. In many ways, it isn’t mine to tell. But thank you for your kind words.

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  4. This is such a beautifully written and reflective piece on your grandmother. What a wonderful tribute to her memory. It’s a shame, isn’t it, that sometimes we don’t know the right questions to ask our grandparents until it’s too late? And we are left in our own adulthood wishing that we knew more about their lives. Thank you for sharing her story with us 🙂

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    • Thank you, Kim! I think it’s a good reminder to talk to people while we still have them, and maybe to write down some of the stuff about our own lives while we still can, too. Maybe it’s part of why we blog?

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      • You could be right, Ann. I remember when I was young, one of my grandmothers took me through all her old photos and explained who everyone was and told me about her life as a young woman. She passed away just before my 16th birthday and although I have all her old photos, my memory isn’t what it was and I’ve forgotten the stories that go with them. How I wish I’d written them down!! So I agree with your thoughts, perhaps our blogs can be a way to record those stories for future generations.

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  5. I was touched to read of your grandmother’s kindness to others during the Great Depression. She sounds like a remarkable women, although I’m not sure I agree with her views on soda pop.

    I well understand your feelings about not getting to know your grandmother in the depth you could have. Mine also died when I was a teenager and I regret not asking her more about her life.

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    • She told me that they didn’t have much money, but they always had enough food to share with those who needed it. I think it was common during the Depression for homeless people to go to houses and ask for help. I remember my dad told me that he had heard there was a way a marking a house where help could be found, and he believed it. Their house was in the middle of the block, and he often saw someone clearly down on his luck walk past all the other houses on their street and only knock at their door. So somehow, people knew that they could get a sandwich there. It’s one of the few stories I know about my grandmother, but it is one that gives me a good insight into her character.
      I’m sorry that your grandmother died when you were still a teenager, too. So many unanswered questions!

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      • It’s lucky that there were kind-hearted souls like your grandmother during the Great Depression. Horrific as I’ve heard things were back then, they would undoubtedly have been even worse without the efforts of people like her.

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        • I know there were a lot of people who tried to help each other during that time. I think that’s how many got through it! So many people lost everything they had, I can’t imagine how hard it must have been.

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  6. Beautiful post, Ann. Grandmother’s are so special. I’m blessed to have inherited my grandmother’s hope chest and the dozens of family albums in it. Some photos go back to the 40s. I have a great grandfather’s passport from Italy with his height and weight on it. I cherish these items.

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  7. “I know that she was born in 1893 to German immigrants, and grew up speaking German at home and English at school.”

    My grandmother was also the child of German immigrants and grew up in a German speaking town (Chippewa Falls WI). When the US declared war on Germany in 1917, everyone stopped speaking German. Those who could not speak English could not speak. She was 14 at the time.

    In the 1980’s, my uncle took her to Germany. On the bus in the Frankfurt airport. her first language came back to her.

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    • That’s so interesting! I knew there was a lot of prejudice towards Germans during the war, but I never thought about it from the point of view of language. I do know that my grandmother often had to translate for her parents, and that they eventually learned English, because by the time I came along, my great-grandmother could speak English. Was your grandmother bi-lingual before 1917, or did she have to learn it then in order to communicate at all? And how wonderful that her first language came back to her…although it’s sad that she had to suppress it for so long. Prejudice, and the fear that breeds it, is a horrible thing. Thanks for sharing this story!

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  8. What a lovely post, Ann. Your grandmother sounds like a wonderful woman. Neglecting to ask the right questions when we’re young is pretty universal, I think. About twenty years ago my sister gave my parents two books titled “Mom, Tell Me About Your Life,” and “Dad, Tell Me About Your Life.” There was a question on each page with lots of blank space for them to fill in their thoughts and answers. Those books have given us a wealth of information about their lives and I cherish their words.

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    • Thanks, Carol! I’ve been surprised to read how many other people also lost their grandparents before they were old enough to really ask them about their lives. I’m fortunate that my mother is still with me, and she talks a lot about her childhood and early life. Still, I know I won’t remember it all after she is gone, so I am glad that my sister bought her a book like the one you mentioned just last Christmas. Now she is happily writing down all her stories…..

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  9. My maternal grandmother had one of those fox wraps, too. As a kid I thought it was “cool”. I wouldn’t today, but it was a different time, and I was a kid. 🙂 My maternal grandparents were married in 1917 right before my Grandfather had to go off to war. I have most or all of the letters my Grandmother wrote to him while he was away. It’s so incredible to read them from her 22 year old point of view, and compare them to the Grandmother I knew! A young woman in love and missing her husband is throughout the letters, but every now and then, when reading them, I will smile and say to myself, “There’s Grandmother!” As something she has said or gotten angered by sounds just like the lady I knew. My Grandfather passed away when I was but four years old, but Grandmother lived until I was 30 or 32. When visiting she would play board games or card games with us, but NEVER cards on Sunday! Board games, yes, but never cards. I can still hear her saying, at age 80, “I have never played cards on a Sunday, and I’m not going to start now!” 🙂 Even though I was lucky to know her for so long there are still things I wish I had asked her.

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    • That’s wonderful that you have those letters! And also that she lived until you were in your early thirties so that you could spend that time with her. She sounds like a very interesting woman, and I love the “never cards on Sunday!” Isn’t it odd how certain things stick with us? Thanks for sharing!

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  10. I agree that so many of us just did not think about asking all those questions. I am currently putting together my family history (also all Germans) and have many questions, as the facts I find are not enough. I want to know the “whys”. I do have to say that one of my German branches has their own museum! I am also going to write a little memoir of my life to answer some of those questions.

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    • I think it is so smart for you to write a memoir. That way, your family will know your story even after you are gone. I wish my grandparents had done that, but I am grateful for the photos and memories I do have. I also saved some letters that my grandfather wrote to me when I was in college, after my grandmother died. I’m so glad to have them!

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  11. Great photo of a very dignified looking woman, Ann. It’s great that you have the memories you do even if there are still so many swerved questions. For some reason, I think the generations the came before us were much more reserved about opening up regarding their lives and past. It’s interesting how so many women never learned to drive, including my mother.
    So much has changed and yet, if we ever got the chance to ask those questions, I wonder how much remains the same.

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    • Thank, George! I agree, people from that generation didn’t really talk about themselves that much, unless someone asked them a direct question. Maybe there was a stronger sense of humility and privacy, but I don’t really know. I also suspect you are right that while social customs (lots of women left the driving to the men) have certainly changed, basic human nature probably hasn’t. Otherwise, how could we relate so well to plays and books that were written hundreds of years ago? The settings and attitudes are different, but the basic emotions are exactly the same. There’s something a bit comforting in that!

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  12. This post is a lovely tribute to your grandmother. She sounds like a wonderful person. Your mention of how she didn’t drink water with her meals reminded me of something that I saw in an old book. I think that it said that people thought that water could dilute the digestive juices and slow the digestion process – so it was better not to drink water with meals.

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    • Thanks for telling me that! Because even though I didn’t know why she felt she shouldn’t drink water with meals, it was obvious that she thought she was doing something good for her health by not doing so. I think you just cleared up that mystery! Thanks again….

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  13. I’m fortunate enough to be our family historian. I’m pretty much the keeper of all of the stories. I try to tell them as often as possible, but I need to write them down. I’m trying to get someone from the next generation interested in the stories, but so far it hasn’t happened. Keep telling your stories!

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  14. Your family is fortunate to have you being the historian! Good for you for keeping the family stories and histories going. I know the young people may not be interested now, but give them a few more years, and I bet they will!

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  15. What a beautiful post Ann. Your grandmother sounds like a remarkable woman. I never knew either of my sets of grandparents, they were both in Italy and died before I was born. My parents both spoke of them and I’m seen many photos of them though. Your grandmother sounds like a woman of the times, caring for her family and her home and doing what was expected, but I’m sure there was so much more to her story. If only we could turn back time. I think that about my dad often. He died over 17 years ago at a time when I wasn’t living at home and busy with my own life. We never really got along when I was younger but I started to get a glimpse of the man when my daughter was born and he started showing a softer side. And then he died nine months later. Oh, to have times back and the questions we’d ask.

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  16. Pingback: I Remember Mom-mom | The View from the Porch

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