31 January 2012

Things my grandmother told me: a Blog Off post

Every two weeks the blogosphere comes alive when bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic. This week, it's "Things my grandmother told me." Here's my take.

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This was my grandmother Stewart, Guellma Gevene Flowers-Smith-Stewart, whom we called Gevene with great affection. Gram was a force of nature, her character was forged by adversities I cannot imagine but to interact with her while she was alive was a lesson in joy. You'd never know she'd been dealt so many blows.

Gevene in an unguarded moment, probably telling one of my brothers to go toss off (in terms less gentle than that).

She lost her mother to the Spanish flu and was the subject of a custodial tug of war between her father and her grandparents in the early 1900s. Her grandparents, my great-great grandparents won the battle, and my great-grandfather George took Gram's sister Dorothy back to Canada in about 1918 and Gram never saw either of them again. I know I have a fair number of Canadian readers and please, if you're from Edmonton and related to George or his daughter Dorothy Myrtle Flowers please reach out to me. Even if you're not related and you know somebody whose last name is Flowers please let me know.

Anyhow, Gevene was adopted by her grandparents who treated her as a domestic servant. My great-great-grandfather Harper Smith was an amazing man by all accounts. He was a physician who was the son of a physician and a pillar of his community. Still, he treated his grand daughter pretty shabbily but he made her who she was.

I idolized my grandmother Stewart and she showered the love she never got as a kid on my siblings and me. Though she could be thorny, we always knew that she was in our corner, no matter where we ended up.

In the late 80s my folks were in Orlando and we decided that it would be a good thing for me to take Gevene down to meet them for a couple of weeks. The complicating factor was her dog Joy, from whom she was inseparable.

Gevene, Joy and my niece Sarah. Sarah you were loved very, very deeply by your great-grandmother.

So we decided that I'd drive from Pennsylvania to Florida with my Gram (who was then 85) and her dog. Gram was up for it and looking forward to an 18-hour road trip. I'd never driven that far in my life and I was anxious to see how we'd do. I made hotel reservations at the halfway point and expected to take two days to make the trip.

We left Pennsylvania at around 6am and headed south on I-95. Within an hour Gevene started telling me the story of her life. I didn't even have to pry, she had some stories to get out of her system and I was an all-too-willing audience for them. Here's some of what she told me.

When Gevene was in her 20s she was working at a newspaper and she fell in love. The man she loved was as handsome as she was beautiful and as driven as she was. However he was a Catholic and my great-great grandparents decided that as a Catholic he was an unfit match and they made her break it off with a man she loved. My great-great grandparents had another plan.

Despite her heartache, her sense of duty and obligation compelled her to go along with their wishes. And really, what option did a woman in the 1920s have? Though it must have been a terrible time for her, I wouldn't be here if things hadn't panned out the way they did.

Gram with a very young Sarah

The man who became my grandfather Stewart was the younger brother of my great-Aunt Scharma's husband. Walker Stewart was out in San Francisco and seeking his fortune (Gevene's description was a lot less kind than that) when he got hauled back to Pennsylvania to marry the woman who became my grandmother. Though it was no love match at the start, there developed between them an affection that was as improbable as it was volatile. Together they had three kids.

She loved her two sons and her daughter, and a woman I'd never seen cry over anything teared up as soon as she started talking about her children. I couldn't get over her passion when it came to her kids. Bill, Ray and Nancy (my mom) were her life and in hearing her talk about what it was like to be a mother humanized that whole crew like nothing ever had before. She fretted over the mistakes she thought she'd made and shined in the the stuff her kids achieved.

Gram talked about her son Bill and how proud she was when he enlisted in The Navy. She told me about what it was like when she sent her daughter off to Germany to marry my Dad. She told me about her youngest son Ray, because he was the apple of her eye.

I can still hear Gevene's voice as she mimicked my mom's as a little girl when she talked about my uncle Ray, "He's good but he's bad but we love him."

Gram told me stories and things about that period of her life that I've never told a soul and probably never will. She did however, ask me to repeat the stories of who she was and where she came from. I do my best when it comes to that. I tell my nieces and nephews how much she loved them and all of them know her curiously-named family tree because I tell them. Every one of those kids knows that he or she had a great-great uncle named Le Purcell Mon Monier and a great-great aunt named Zorilla Y Marille. Brothers Reid and Walker Stewart had relatively normal names when compared to the Smith clan!

Gram, Sarah and Doggie Bruno

Gevene and I stopped at the halfway point between Pennsylvania and Florida and got as far as a lunch at Shoney's. I was all ready to stop for the night but she wanted to keep going, so we did.

We made it to Florida that day and my parents were thrilled. After all was said and done however, I came away from that drive with a sense of the people who begat me I never could have had otherwise, and in addition to that, my Gram told me all her secrets. Well, some of them anyhow.

Sixteen years after her death her fingerprints are all over my life. I look like her for starters, my red hair and blue eyes are pure Gevene. Every time I turn my mattress or scour my bathroom I'm reminded of her. When I see a cardinal, I remember her love of red shoes and hats. When I see my nieces and nephews, I think about how proud she'd be to have seen them growing up and turning into adults. When I see my great-nephew Xavier's red hair and blue eyes I can't help but to think some small part of her lives on in that little boy.

Sometimes when I'm walking though a department store I'll catch a whiff of Shalimar or Estee Lauder and it's as if she's there. Gram always smelled good and those two scents were her favorites. Every time I walk through a Macy's or a Dillards I get a reminder and a visit.

I've known more more people than I can count who are dead now, but I miss none of them more than I miss my Gram. Her hand may as well be pressed in to my heart. I am her grandson, through and through.

She lives on though me, I'm convinced of that. It's not so much Gevene the person so much as it it is Gevene the personality. My quirks and particularities, my obsessions and compulsions mimic hers and my impulse to laugh comes from her directly.

I never knew any of that until that drive down I-95 and I'll cherish that drive for the rest of my life. That drive introduced me to the person of my grandmother and it granted me something I never could have had otherwise.


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Throughout the day today, bloggers will give their takes on this subject. click on 'em!


6 comments:

  1. Oh I love stories about awesome grandmothers! Thanks for this one, Paul. I wrote one on this topic, too, and I can tell you loved your grandmother as much as I loved mine.

    Audrey
    @audreydw
    @ReviHabitats

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  2. Paul, you are a very rich man. I honestly have tears in my eyes as I’m typing this. I was never blessed with that kind of relationship with my grandparents. My maternal grandmother was killed in a car accident before I was born, and my maternal grandfather was born in Russian in 1885 of German descent. He spoke very heavily accented English and was much more comfortable in German, which I didn’t speak. And whenever we visited him, it was with the whole family, so there was certainly no opportunity for stories like the ones you’ve just shared with us.

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  3. Thank you Joe. Writing that was difficult as I had tears in my eyes the whole time. My Grandmother was an amazing woman and I'm fortunate to have known her.

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  4. Grandmothers are a treasure and obviously the time we get to spent with them leaves a permanent image and lasting memories. They have enriched our lives without every even trying, part of what makes them special.

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  5. That was awesome Paul. Grandparents are the best, I remember mine fondly too and I make sure at every opportunity my sons spend time with theirs.

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  6. Thanks for sharing this personal story. I feel connected because I also am so indebted to my grandma who spent endless amounts of time and attention on me always with a laugh and a twinkle. Hope to see you at AD in NY.

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