The Girl in the Picture (A Carnival of Genealogy Entry)

by Memoir Mentor on August 30, 2008

My paternal grandmother was my age when she died. I was startled to discover this recently when I studied with fresh eyes the span of dates that comprised her life. Funny, she had seemed so old to me the last time I saw her when I was seventeen.

What wouldn’t I give to sit down with her now, two women the same age, and catch up on the events of each other’s lives? We’d sit at her green Formica table in her sunny yellow kitchen with the marble-patterned linoleum on the floor. As we chatted, we would look out over her tiny manicured yard edged in pansies she had planted on her hands and knees in her house dress, since women of her generation didn’t wear pants, even for gardening. We would share something good to eat, maybe a piece of her famous coconut cream pie, because she was a woman who went out of her way for company.

I would be a better listener now than I was when she tried to tell me the story about her parents, Ada Johnson and Paul Nelson, who emigrated from Sweden when they were teenagers and met each other in Kentucky working in the same hotel. They married young, eventually parenting eleven children, of which Grandma was the eighth. The family was living in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1903 when my grandmother was born. Ada and Paul named her Ethel.

About ten years ago, I found the 1910 census record that showed where the Nelson family lived in Pueblo. Later, on a vacation to Colorado, I drove to that address on Elm Street and parked my car at the curb. A small, white, wood-framed house stands on that property and could very well be the Nelson home, given its weathered, dilapidated state. I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, taking pictures, my mind whirling with unanswered questions. A few blocks away, I found Pueblo Smelters where Paul Nelson worked, within walking distance of home. Large, grey, and rusty, the steel plant still stands, a silent, decaying remnant of the noisy thriving enterprise it must have been in its day when it employed most of the men in Pueblo.

Between bites of coconut pie, I’d ask my grandmother how a family so large managed to make a life in a house so small, how her father could earn a living for thirteen on the salary he earned as a steelworker. I’d listen with more concentration this time around.

There’s a great deal I would ask her because I have so few memories from my childhood that include her. She and my grandfather, Glen Parrett, the Pueblo grocery store salesman she married when she was eighteen, seem to stand on the periphery of my youth. Grandma and my mother (her daughter-in-law) were both redheads—the Clairol kind—with spunky temperaments commonly ascribed to redheads. They locked horns right from the start, each seeing the other as a rival for a pre-eminent place in my father’s heart, a man who would do anything to maintain peace between the two women he loved.

Over the years my mother has softened her criticism of her mother-in-law, admits to immaturity, says she was sassy and maybe lacked empathy for Grandma’s situation and point of view. I never heard my grandmother’s thoughts about my mother, and that’s one of the things I’d ask her if we chatted face to face in her kitchen. I hope she’d trust me enough to confide in me.

Out of fairness to my mother, more than rivalry sparked the contention that festered between them over the years. My grandmother came from a family with a weakness for alcohol. At any gathering of the Nelsons, liquor flowed like lava. Several of Grandma’s siblings died young of alcohol-related illnesses. My grandparents partook freely, more freely as the years passed. My mother couldn’t abide it, particularly when liquor made my grandmother alternately weepy and belligerent and my grandfather loud and embarrassing.

I vaguely remember that behavior and the “scenes” they provoked, primarily between my mother and grandmother, the blaming and name calling, while my father quietly hurried us children out to the car for home. If we developed enough trust between us as we sat in her kitchen, I might ask Grandma about all of this, but then again, maybe I wouldn’t.

In most cases, there are reasons why people behave the way they do. Heredity, in this instance? Family pressures to fit in? Stresses of dealing with the hard cards dealt you in life? My father had one sibling, a lively, likeable sister, Virginia, two years younger than he, a natural athlete like my father. When she was eighteen, she began showing symptoms of multiple sclerosis, the disease that would render her wheelchair-bound by the time I knew her. My grandparents faced the challenge of caring for an invalid at a time when there were few government resources to provide guidance and relief. One who has not known such adversity cannot walk in the shoes of someone who has—or judge their capacity to cope with such a blow. It couldn’t have been easy. Virginia was heavy in midlife, dead weight when she was moved from bed to wheel chair, from wheel chair to the bathroom. And my grandmother did this by herself when my grandfather was at work, and full time after he died.

And so, sadly, my grandparents were in the margins of my childhood. I expect my grandmother would cry if we talked about this now, for she was sentimental, fiercely protective of Virginia, and vulnerable to tears. My two brothers and I were her only grandchildren. Now that I have grandchildren of my own, I can guess how much she wished to be more in our lives.

But my memories of Grandma aren’t all tied to unpleasantness and regret. Grandma was fun to be around. She loved Rosemary Clooney and the Big Bands of the Forties. I remember her popping a 78 rpm record on their phonograph and kicking up her legs in the dining room, her pale blue eyes glistening with the sheer joy of moving to the music. Grandma had attractive legs. She said they were her best asset. Sometimes I noticed her slyly crossing them in a purposeful way when she sat and arranging her skirt so it would show her legs to best advantage.

Grandma was embarrassed about wearing dentures. I don’t know the story behind them, but in the days before root canals, crowns, and other dental innovations, dentists solved most teeth problems by yanking them out. Once when I was staying with her, I was startled when I discovered her false teeth floating ominously in a glass of cloudy water by her bedside early one morning. On another occasion when my brothers and I were staying at my grandparents’ house, Grandma tried to teach us how to blow bubbles with bubble gum. She stood in the middle of her living room to demonstrate, gamely blowing a bubble that grew larger and larger. As her mouth widened, her false teeth fell into the bubble. I screamed and cried and required lots of consoling. As young as I was, I was aware of Grandma’s embarrassment and anxiousness when she explained the situation to my parents when they came to pick us up.

She was a magnificent cook. In my mind’s eye, I see her wearing a pressed, floral-print apron tied around her ample waist. She stood about five foot three, I’d say, and was broad through the hips and full breasted. She’d work herself into a sweat standing over her four-burner stove preparing multi-course meals when we came to dinner—roast beef and mashed potatoes, turkey and all the trimmings, coleslaw with crushed pineapple the way I liked it, and, always, large black olives we kids plopped on each finger like puppets. Grandpa worked as head butcher at Safeway Market, so they always had access to the best cuts of meat. Mom especially liked white asparagus, and in a demonstration of kindness to my mother, Grandma occasionally placed a dish of cold asparagus alongside her plate. I never noticed it, but Mom has mentioned it in recent years, a tone of regret and wistfulness in her voice.

Looking back from today’s perspective, I realize that Grandma was essentially trapped in her home, as most women were in those days. She didn’t drive. My grandfather drove their brown and white Chevrolet to work every day. Grandma’s life was filled with keeping house and caring for an invalid daughter. On Mondays she washed clothes in her wringer washing machine. On Tuesdays she ironed. Each day was dedicated to a particular chore, a cycle repeated week after week.

After Grandpa died, opportunity and necessity emboldened Grandma to get a driver’s license. I remember her telling us about her achievement, excitement animating her face and voice. Dad said she drove like a “bat out of hell,” barely pausing at stop signs, whipping around corners, giving him palpitations—an odd generation reversal. I can only imagine the sense of independence she felt, a woman who had married at eighteen and lived for the next four decades the circumscribed life marked out for a married woman in those days. The door to her cage had suddenly opened, inviting her into a world she could explore on her own.

Unfortunately, Grandma lived only a few more years. My parents received a call one summer afternoon in 1964 notifying them of her death. By then she had already been dead for three days. The story is a sad one. She apparently had a heart attack during the night. The next morning Virginia called to her mother. Getting no response, Virginia tried to get out of bed, fell, and being crippled, couldn’t move. She lay on the floor for three days. Fortunately, a neighbor became concerned when newspapers began piling up on their driveway. She knocked on the front door, then went around to the back of the house and called to them. Virginia yelled back, “I’m all right, but I think Mom’s dead.”

Imagination can fill in the details of the horrible, unforgettable situation my parents found when they finally arrived at Grandma’s house. What a tragedy.

There’s one more thing worth sharing, poignant, yet so like Grandma. When my mother went into Grandma’s bathroom after her death, she found a half-empty bottle of Clairol hair dye on the sink, along with some splattered rubber gloves and a plastic bowl with some leftover solution. Grandma had been feeling well enough in the evening to dye her hair. Maybe she felt tired or ill afterward and lay down, planning to clean up the mess in the morning. She was making herself look nice that night, prettying herself for the days ahead, not planning to die.

I never saw a decent photo of my grandmother in her youth. I have a few pictures taken in Pueblo when she was a teenager—small, candid photos typical of that time, never clear or close enough to help me visualize her as a girl. Then, to my delight a few years ago, Grandma’s sister Hilda gave me the photo that appears here. What an illumination—Grandma so young, on the cusp of adulthood, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, before time and toil had worked on her, diminishing her vitality, her smooth complexion, her girlish figure.

I bet she loved that photograph. After eating our pie and talking awhile, I would surprise her, place the picture in front of her on the table, and then watch her face as she told me all about the winsome girl smiling back at her.