NOTE: My father is sinking into dementia so quickly, and so inexorably, that I feel I need to start remembering everything he has ever told me. To get it down so that is stays real. And so that my son can have some family history, and some stories of his grandfather that don't involve forgetfulness and decrepitude. It's been one of my new goals for this blog, (because if it is in blog form, I will be psychologically forced to do it, instead of talk about it) and this is my first installment.
My Dad was born in 1928. He was the youngest of five boys that were born in a ten year span. His mother was born in 1882. This of course means that my grandmother was 46 when my Dad was born, and 36 when she had her first. She was almost 32 when she married my grandfather, who was two years her senior, in the summer of 1914. I've often thought it curious that she didn't have kids the first few years of her marriage and wondered what her medical diagnosis would have been, because she definitely wasn't practicing any form of birth control. But that's what years of miscarriage and infertility have done to my mindset. Calculating maternal ages, the age spans between children, and projecting possible fertility related health issues. God, I'm pathetic. Anyways, once my grandmother did conceive, all systems clearly became a go, as she started pumping the boys out at two year intervals.
My grandmother's maiden name was Galvin. She grew up a devout Catholic in Brookline, Massachusetts, and her father was a florist who owned several stores in the Boston area. At some point before my grandmother and grandfather married and she moved away to Cleveland, the family that was soon to become the most famous Catholic family in America, Joe and Rose Kennedy, also moved to Brookline, next door to the Galvins. (This is according to my father. For all I know it could have been kitty corner, or three houses down. At any rate it was nearby.)
My grandfather was from Cleveland, OH and he was most decidedly not Catholic. In fact, he tended toward thinking that religion was a lot of BS. The horror that the Galvin's must have experienced when their daughter wanted to marry outside of the faith must have shook the family's religious roots. I can only assume that given the fact that my grandmother was already thirty-one, they pragmatically realized that a procreating Catholic was better than an old maid. Part of the deal clearly was that "the issue of the union" would be raised in the Catholic faith. And my grandmother took that task on with great enthusiasm. My Dad had so much Catholic guilt running through his veins that he has always found a way to make things his fault, one way or another.
My grandparents were married on Nantucket Island. Both families had "summered" there, and it is where the two had met. They were of the first generation that would transform the Island from a former whaling colony that had fallen into depression after the whales were hunted to near extinction and other fuels had replaced whaling oil, to a rustic and quaint summer retreat. As you may know, the Island today has some of the most expensive real estate in the country, and while it remains quaint, rustic is no longer applicable. I still find it charming to think of my grandparents marrying there on a warm August on the eve of World War I, with the scent of rose hips thick in the air. If you have ever been to Nantucket in the summertime, you know it is a very intoxicating aroma. It seems a very romantic wedding evening for two people that never exuded much romance, at least not to the outside world.
Even though my Dad grew up in the thirties and forties, in some ways he seemed to come from an earlier era. I mean, when his mother, my grandmother, was four years old in 1886, a womens' suffrage amendment reached the US Senate floor, only to be defeated two to one. Hardly surprising since no women could vote on it. The following year, Utah women LOST the right to vote. It wasn't until my grandmother was almost 38 that she could legally vote. And knowing what I know about her, I am sure she simply asked my grandfather who she was supposed to vote for. That is the era she was from; as a young girl it never would have occurred to her that she could have even a tiny voice in national politics, or that she could be non-dependent on a man to speak for her. And it was from this view of the world that she became a parent. She was uber traditional and proper. She was in her middle age during the roaring twenties. I can only imagine her horror at rising hemlines and speakeasies.
After her children were born, My grandmother relied on nannies and housekeepers to help her raise her children. Again, she was of the pre-WWI era and the Belle Epoque - where art and innovation fluorished, and Europe was at peace. The class system was very much in place and even aspired to, as the sinking of the Titanic so clearly demonstrated in 1912. My Grandmother turned thirty the same year that epic disaster occurred. I am unclear on how the depression affected the family. I think they may have been rich before, and not so rich afterwards, but my grandfather was a lawyer, and they lost neither their home nor their servants after the crash in 1929.
There was no judgment in that era on not being your childrens' main caregiver. You had has many kids as you could, and if could afford to not let them muck up your life, so much the better. Even so, my grandmother was close to her children, in a way. While I am certain my father never talked about anything remotely personal with his mom, he seems to have fond memories of her, even though she rarely paid attention to his activities. She turned a blind eye to the boys chaos and let them beat each other to a pulp, as boys will do. From what I've heard from my Dad, raising a fuss at the dinner table was a cardinal sin compared to throwing a roller skate at your brother's front teeth. You could always go to confession for that. But she was there, she was consistent, and clearly fond of her boys.
Later, during World War II when all of her sons were or became of legal age to enlist in the military, my grandmother was proud to be a Blue Star Mother. She had four stars in her window, for the four older boys, and my father often joked that she kept haranguing him to join the military so she could get that fifth star up there. And in fact my Dad did becomea WWII veteran, technically speaking, even though he didn't join the Army until after D-Day and never made it through basic training. But that's a story for another day.