Sunday, April 13, 2008

Paternal Forebears

My grandmother, Flora, and great-aunt, Bertha (real names - they're long gone, bless them both) were sisters, born in the 1890s with totally different personalities. My paternal grandfather was nineteen years older than my grandmother, and died in the 1950s. The two sisters moved in together.

My grandmother was a devout and strict Methodist. My father told me that when he was thirteen or so he arrived home from school one day with lipstick on his white collar (boys wore white shirts and ties to school). After questioning my father my grandmother was horrified, not because he had kissed a girl but because she was Catholic.

I recall that she once told my father and me a story from her youth which required the use of the word "petticoats." When she said it she blushed, and when she finished the anecdote she said, "Now isn't that a story to tell two gentlemen!"

Aunt Bertha was a character, what they used to call "a card," as well as what they used to call "an old maid." She loved to tell jokes. Occasionally they bordered on the risqué, and one wondered whether she really understood her own stories.

She was adventurous: when she was in her late seventies she got her ears pierced and she was past her eightieth birthday when she went up in the Goodyear blimp.

All my life she was hard of hearing, and by the time she was eighty she was nearly deaf as a haddock. Her hearing aid was of some use but not anything approaching adequate. I remember driving her from New Hampshire to Brockton, Massachusetts after a Christmas dinner at my father's house. I had the radio on, set to some oldies station, and a 1950's rock song, Rock-In Robin, was playing. She began tapping her foot, then tapping a hand on the dashboard. When the song finished she turned to me, smiling, and said, "I love the Christmas music, Donnie."

When Flora and Bertha moved in together, they took in a nephew, the family's black sheep, Strafford, for a while. The women loved to play Scrabble, and occasionally roped Strafford into a game. After he moved out, my father discovered that Strafford had lightly scratched the backs of the more valuable tiles so that he could pick them out of a bag, sight unseen.

Strafford became a bookie and made out alright until he got busted. His telephone was taken away (the death knell for a bookie) and he moved to Miami, Florida with a quarter of a million dollars in savings. He fell in with some bad boys who got him to invest his money in a laundromat chain which laundered nothing but money, and he never got a dime of it back. The last we knew of him he was in his seventies and a hotel doorman.

At my instigation and after he retired, my father began tracing his family as far back as he could. One interesting ancestor was a 1700's New Hampshire sea captain who spent a day in the stocks - on his return from months at sea he had been greeted by his wife on the front porch of their house, and he had kissed her in public view.

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