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May 27, 2014
“Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me.” Words spoken by a ghost, in this case Hamlet’s father, with which injunction he inadvertently sends another six people to their deaths. But floating out of context, they are in our minds and on our lips; they speak to us of a desire deeply felt; they command obedience. This is why I choose to set down words about the grandmother I never knew.
She wears her hair waved back from her face to display her high forehead. She must be very nearsighted like my father, for she never takes her glasses off, large round ones with clear frames. Is there sweetness in her eyes, or is she simpering for the camera? I cannot tell.This is a tinted photograph without background, a posed picture. Pretty earrings, clip-ons. But what big ears you have, Grandma. And big brown eyes, large features overall, except for her mouth, which is thinnish and set. A smile more benign, more relaxed, appears in a picture taken with me and my sister in New York. But she looks worn out, and her hand on my shoulder is tentative, barely touching. More engaged later that evening, or perhaps in a different year, reading to us perched on the arms of her chair, her mouth open. She is forming a word, clearly caught up in the story. I wish I could see the title of that story, but the book is dark. Older or younger, alone on an anonymous city street, smart black coat, lapel pin, white blouse knotted at the neck, white open-toed shoes, black beret. She lifts her foot. Perhaps she will smile, or maybe not.
Her name was Nellie Regan, or would have been, if the priest at her baptism hadn’t objected to the fact that no saint had ever been named Nellie, and thus her parents were persuaded to christen her Helen, a name that lingers among us now in token remembrance as my sister’s middle name. Nellie herself remained Nellie. An Irish Catholic, she was, arriving in Fessenden, North Dakota, from over the Canadian border. As a child, I felt vaguely that all three associations were somehow suspect, that my mother, who enunciated them, disapproved of my father’s mother, Grandma Shaw. I absorbed the connotations of shanty Irish, but was she or wasn’t she? I could never be sure. Whatever came with her over the border had been diluted, distilled, long before I was old enough to take note of “foreign” elements. Being Irish, Catholic, and Canadian seemed to disappear when she married my grandfather, George K. Shaw, an American of Scottish descent making his way (from his birthplace, Bay City, Michigan) across the continent in stages, an Episcopalian, and no doubt a step-up in the world for Nellie, since he was also, like several of his New England forebears, a lawyer and a judge.
Nellie was supplied with many siblings: Austin, Maud, Harry, Agnes, Ethel, Emmett, and Charlie. Harry’s real name must have been Henry. But, goodness, think how many aunts, uncles, and cousins there must have been who never came alive for me except for Austin, who made money in land speculation, became a state senator, and eventually struck it rich as a grain speculator in Minneapolis. He helped to support Nellie at different times, and his wife Grace encouraged my father’s intellectual bent; I think they made it possible for him to attend the University of Minnesota. But what of the father and mother who bore and raised so many children? Hardly a trace remains, though my father lived with Nellie’s nameless mother during his senior year at Fessenden high school. This was the year he got an A in algebra, which loomed larger in his memory apparently than Grandma.
I was 6 when I met Nellie for the first and only time during a visit she made to us in New York. In truth, I cannot tell from my two photographs whether we saw her once or twice. I could be six in one, eight in another, but my sister looks about the same in both, and Nellie looks younger in the one in which I look older! Maybe she just got a better do on her hair that day. Wonderful white hair she had, as my father did later. A good inheritance, something to be grateful for. I hope he was, but perhaps he didn’t know that the mother’s line is thought to carry the gene for male pattern baldness. I remember some costume jewelry my grandmother left behind, gaudy stuff. Surely not ever worn by her? But fine for tottering around in high heels much too wide for us, for dress ups. A small box, gold-rimmed, glass-topped, with a cushion inside on which I keep a lock of my own yellow hair, a couple of initialed perfectly flat sterling silver spoons, some words she taught my father to say, baby words for bodily functions: shu shu and cooksy. These too became mine, but I did not pass them on. What else? Because we are wearing our spring coats and hats, it may have been Easter time in 1946 when she sat in the wingback chair in our New York apartment.One evening she fought with my father, and my mother took his side. I don’t know what they quarreled about. I may have heard raised voices, I may have slept through it. She chased him around the apartment, she stabbed him with a pair of scissors. So I understood, overheard, or was told. But I failed to witness the climax of a drama long drawn out, after which nothing followed, for we never saw her again, alive or dead.
You can see what I’m up against. I don’t know the year in which she was born, or anything about her childhood. Or when her family came to America, or how old she was when she got married. Great swatches of her life are blanks, and then a birth occurs, a death, a date appears on a photograph, becomes a peg for me to hang things on. Nellie herself died in Seattle, I believe, but there is no record of her death, no funeral detail, no burial ground to visit. She reminds me of a set of stories by Willa Cather: Obscure Destinies. But my grandmother’s destiny seems to me more than obscure. Obliterated, more like it, or is it just that my imagination falls short? I see her in the early 1900s, married to George K. She’s a housewife, he’s a lawyer. They are young; they have two children, Melville, my father, born in 1903, and Marian, two years younger, two blond angels they appear in a couple of early photographs. Nothing beside remains. No wedding picture, no idealized family portrait. Next thing I know, Nellie is divorced, remarried to Burt Edminster, mother to their new baby, Bobby.They are on a train, along with Melville, 13, and Marian, 11, on their way to Forsyth, Montana, where Edminster has been promised a job in a bank by Beisicker, the richest man in Fessenden. The year is 1916; it is just before Thanksgiving. My father has a new pair of glasses, Marian a red coat. George K, a drinker and philanderer? in a town of 800 people, has taken off to the West Coast. Along with her dreams, her ambitions, her most private thoughts, Nellie evaporates, to reappear 30 years later for those few days in New York which I have described as best I can.
I am reduced to making things up. Music comes to mind. I think Nellie brought music with her across that border, Irish songs my father taught me and sang to me after he died in a dream, one of those more than dream-like visions of which I’ve had only three. Not immediately, years perhaps after he died, my father burst through my bedroom window shattering louvres and the fake Tiffany shade of the lamp on my night table. Glass everywhere, and I marvelled that repairs had been made before morning, so convinced was I that this had been a visitation, no dream. He knelt at the foot of my bed, held onto my feet as though to keep himself from flying off again, and sang as he had in life: The Rose of Tralee, pronouncing Mary in a very particular, Irish way, and Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms, which I loved as a child and still love. Smallpox, he told me, the beloved woman in the song would be disfigured. The thought was sickening. But the song in my dream told me my father, wherever he was, was OK. Still singing. He went out of his way to let me know.
Surely these songs belonged first to his mother and her family transplanted from Ireland to Canada, though I have no idea when or why. I believe she brought a love of opera too, and a repertoire of classical music, which meant a great deal to my father. Very specific pieces, among them the sextet from Lucia, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Beethoven’s violin concerto. I know in some absurd yet absolute way that he heard this music on the gramophone, in the parlor, in the the house where he was born, in the wild obscurity of Fessenden, North Dakota.
Nellie Regan was emotional. Quite naturally she quarreled with my father; they were alike. There was something restless, volatile, in her and in my father too, an operatic tendency to dramatize their lives, to feel better after they’d gotten the rest of the family all worked up. So my mother put it. My father was wounded by his mother’s divorce, remarriage and newborn son, embarrassed at a time when divorce was rare, possibly scandalous. He felt himself displaced as head of the family. In high school, he smoked Fatimas and Melachrinos, played hookey and pool, went on joy rides in “borrowed” cars, refused to be confirmed, lorded it over his sister, became a liar, painted himself a bad boy, a wicked boy, became an inventor and actor in fanciful schemes in which he played the hero, ran away to find his father who didn’t send him to school. For finishing touches, he dropped out of college, fled to New York. My father blocks my way to Nellie whom I see largely through his eyes, in a haze of half-remembered family stories shadowed by my mother’s disapproval, and in the incomplete autobiography he wrote in the 60s in Los Angeles.
I see my father’s side but, like most adolescents, he couldn’t see his mother objectively, as a woman. I stand up here for Nellie, who lived for many years in a harsh environment. In Giants in the Earth, A. E. Rolvaag’s novel set in North Dakota, the sensitive mother, Beret, buried alive in a sod house, goes crazy; her optimistic husband, Per Hansa, on a mission to help a friend and please her, is felled by a blizzard, his body not found until the spring thaw.These Norwegian immigrant characters belong to an earlier generation, but life in Fessenden in the early 1900s doesn’t sound easy, without electricity, paved streets or sewage system, as it was. A treeless, windswept place. And Forsyth was a cow town made up of log buildings, hitching posts, pool halls, and saloons, yearly flooded by the Yellowstone.
Now pile on Nellie’s probable lack of education, two alcoholic husbands, two divorces, shame, guilt, desertion, bad behavior on all sides, Marian’s sudden death in an auto accident at 29, distance or estrangement from her sons, possible breast cancer, dependence on relatives, poverty stalking her throughout. At the end of her life, homeless, unmoored, she took rooms at the Y when work wasn’t steady, when she was broke. In happier times she had taken in boarders; now she lived-in, cleaned houses.
Complete and beautiful is how Willa Cather describes the life of neighbor Rosicky in Obscure Destinies. Such a phrase lies at the heart of what fiction can do for us, giving shape and significance to a destiny we might otherwise scorn or ignore. My grandmother’s life is likely to remain forever incomplete and far from beautiful, but something of her inner nature survives in an undated photograph, probably taken in Seattle. It’s all behind her now, she’s definitely an old woman with a decent handbag and a hat and sensible shoes. She wears glasses, but her breasts don’t sag. She’s been caught in mid-stride, swinging a full tote-bag, next to a grand building, a bank, a cathedral, a department store. Her expression? Well, I would say it’s a mix of resignation, exasperation, and insouciance, almost flirtatious, as though she is both pleased and annoyed that someone is taking her picture. On the back she has written: “snap, one morning I was shopping with house dress on, I think this is the best length for a dress, don’t you?”