Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My Grandmother's Childhood

My grandmother died on July 8th of this year. She was a fascinating person, who lived a long, tumultuous and highly dramatic life. She was born in 1926 in Minnesota. Her mother Veramae, a lovely redhead (she worked as a model before she was married) was from a upper class family (her grandfather was consul to Bermuda) that had slipped into the middle class after some bad investments; her father Roy was brilliant but uneducated. His family was so abusive and dysfunctional that he ran away at the age of 10 and never was able to return to school; however, thanks to his photographic memory he eventually worked his way up into a high ranking position at a railroad (he knew the schedule of every train on the line by heart). They met when they were both 20, and fell in love and got married almost immediately, over the objections of my great grandmother's family.

For a while they were happy but their youth and naivete meant it ended in tragedy. Less than a year after getting married, Veramae gave birth to their first child (a boy); a little over a year later, she gave birth to their second (my grandmother). When she got pregnant with their third a few months later, they were dismayed. Roy was having trouble finding steady work due to his youth and lack of education, and with two very young children, they didn't want another. Unfortunately, neither of them had ever heard of birth control, and because it was 1927, there was little public information on the subject. Veramae went to her mother for help (her mother was the black sheep of the family; Veramae had been raised by her maiden aunts in a most sheltered environment), and her mother took to an abortionist. She died as a result, at age 23.

Roy was absolutely heartbroken and never got over it. To the end of his life, he kept a picture of her in his bedroom, next to a single rose in a vase. (He also renamed my grandmother Veramae--her birth name was Elise--and even dyed her hair red for a while.) Her death also had a permanent negative effect on her two children. Roy, struggling to find work and support the family, wasn't able to care for an infant and a toddler on his own. As a result, my grandmother and her brother were shuffled around among relatives, with no stable home.

As a way to deal with his grief and guilt, Roy began visiting mediums (people who claimed to communicate with the dead; it was very popular at this time in American history), to try to speak with Veramae. One of these mediums, a woman in her early twenties with straight black hair long enough to sit on and a dramatic personality, took a fancy to Roy. She told him (while supposedly in a trance) that Veramae advised him to marry the medium. So he did.

Now that he was married, he sent for my grandmother and her brother. Unfortunately, the medium turned out to be the classic wicked stepmother: she continually fought with Roy, cheated on him whenever he was at work, and beat and abused the children. Roy did his best but was not really equipped to be a good father, having never experienced normal family life: he did teach both children to read and play chess (he greatly valued education, having experienced the downside of not having any). In between constant fighting, Roy and the medium had two children, the second of which Roy believed was probably not his. One day, when Roy returned from work, the medium had disappeared, along with these two children and everything of value in the house. (He didn't hear of her or the children again for many years, until she was placed in a mental institution after an attempted suicide, and the children were sent to him to support.)

Now that there was no wife at home, my grandmother and her brother returned to their life of being shuffled from relative to relative (Roy did always financially support them). As young teenagers, they finally ended up in a very small town in Minnesota with Roy's favorite sister and her husband. They didn't fit in at all, being both unconventional (my great uncle was already calling himself a pacifist; my grandmother was a total tomboy) and extremely bright, but they did complete high school there. My grandmother left the day after she graduated at 16 (smart), to go work in a munitions factory (the US had just entered WW2).

I take a couple lessons from the story of my grandmother's childhood:
1. abortion and birth control need to be legal, and easily available. It is such a tragedy that beautiful Veramae died at 23 for no good reason, and a tragedy that her family was never really able to recover. (If Roy hadn't been so full of guilt over her death, it's unlikely he would have married the crazy lady.) My grandmother never even knew her mother.
2. Losing a mother is probably the worst thing that can happen to a child (especially if your father is not emotionally equipped to be a sensitive caretaker). My grandmother struggled with depression, anxiety and a severe drinking problem her whole life. Due to her brains and talents, she was able to accomplish a lot: but she was also significantly hamstrung, I think, by the constant emotional pain she suffered (which in turn was due almost entirely to her childhood). Now that I have my own child, I realize even more how crucial it is that I am there for her; my life is truly not my own anymore.

No comments:

Post a Comment