Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Introducing -- ta da! -- My Family

I realize I've been writing about my family, but you haven't had a proper introduction, so this installment will be about them.
My mom and dad were together from their twenties until the time they died, almost fifty years later, and although they occasionally complained about each other, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they loved each other from the day they were married until the day my mother passed (my father died less than two years later).
My mother, Elaine (Bessie) Gordon, graduated from high school, then went to work for an insurance company as a secretary.  She quit as soon as my mom and dad married and never worked again, but she wasn't a stupid woman.  In fact, she always reminded me that her dream of being a journalist was one she never gave up on, and I like to think she lived her dream through me.  Her high school picture shows a truly sweet woman with reddish blond soft curls, and even when she was in her late sixties/early seventies, she never did look her age.  She couldn't drive, didn't swim, and really didn't cook well, but she sang beautiful lullabies, was the best tutor I've ever had, and made certain that each of her kids pushed the envelope in whichever way possible.  And she loved her grandchildren with that passionate "they can do no wrong feeling" that only grandmas possess.
Dad never graduated from high school.  Instead, he walked out of the building shortly before graduation with four of his good friends to join the thousands of other young American men who wanted to be battle the evils of the world during World War II.  He joined the Navy and became a gunner.  I always have an image of him high above the battle, looking out through one of those clear domes atop a fighter plane.  I'm sure it wasn't that romantic, but his stories made me see it that way.  He came home, safe and sound -- though there was a report sent home about his death that sent his family into a tailspin, but it was another family's son that had been killed in action. 
A few years after his return, my dad decided to enlist again.  This time, he went into the Army and ended up in Korea.  He was an MP, but he also saw action and told me at the dinner table when I was in high school about his best friend blowing up in front of him.  We didn't know the name for it then, but my father ended up in the hospital when I was in high school (during those years when the Vietnam war ended up on the news reports on our television sets) with what we now know is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  My mother shared that he often woke her up in the middle of the night, thinking she was the enemy, and that there were a couple of times when she was afraid he'd hurt her.  He never did.
Many years later, Everett High School had a special event over Memorial Day for vets who hadn't finished their high school years.  My dad was given his high school diploma and when they introduced him, they listed all the medals and honors he had won during his years in the service, none of which he'd shared with us.  My father was a hero, but it took someone else telling us about it for us to realize what a brave man he'd been.  I can still see him accepting the accolades, chuckling as if embarrassed by the attention.  (He was always chuckling.  I didn't realize until he was gone what an affable man he was and how easy he was to get along with -- probably because we always teased him and called him "Oscar the Grouch.")
Mom had six siblings; she was the youngest.  They were a blend of three families:  my grandmother's (to another husband), my grandfather's (to another wife.  Both of them were widowed), and from their marriage together.  They had two sets of twins; one set passed away before their first birthday, and the other set (my Uncle Bud and Aunt Sis) were siblings, but I never would have known they were twins if I hadn't been part of the family.  They didn't look alike and really didn't act alike either.  Each of my mother's siblings had at least three kids, which made for quite a large extended family. It always amazes me that I remember giving presents to EVERYONE when we were little. I have no idea how we afforded it, especially since we grew up poor. 
Mom's parents came to the United States from Canada.  Her father's family originally emigrated from England to Newfoundland, then he came to Boston from there.  He owned a small grocery store in my home town of Everett and added up the cost of whatever his customers bought with a sharp pencil on the brown paper bags he used to bag their groceries, tallying the totals as quickly as today's computers.  At night, he and his friends filled the living room with political arguments and academic discussions that kept the family up until the sun rose over the horizon.  The one photo I have seen of him shows him in his Mason uniform, stiff and stern as he posed for that formal picture.
Grammie looked like the typical loving grandmother: thick-legged, bespectacled, dressed in a dark dress with low-heeled and laced black shoes.  Everyone who knew her called her a saint, swearing that she was the sweetest person they had ever known.  In all the pictures of my family, she is smiling or laughing, and one of my favorites shows her holding me as a baby, a loving expression on her wide face.
Uncle Bud was low key and mild-mannered.  He always called me "Donna," though we reminded him over and over again that my name was Dawn.  He loved teasing people and always did so with a side smile that gave away his pleasure.  My Aunt Sis was my godmother.  She married a tall, lanky Swede with a prominent Adam's apple, and that marriage kind of reminded me that I had Swedish elements on both sides of my family (mother's and father's).  I loved my Aunt Sis, her black coffee that she set out for all of us (even us little kids) in china cups and saucers so delicate you could almost see through them, the pies and cakes she made, the quiet and assured way she would sit and watch the rest of us act like fools. 
My Aunt Till (Thelma) had 6 kids (each of whom had at least two of their own -- most I babysat).  She had the most amazing Christmases, because not only were all her kids around, but she also took in any of the local service people she could find at the local Y or the Salvation Army.  She was a small, stocky woman who worked as a waitress and walked everywhere.  I don't remember a time when she wasn't laughing, no matter what.  When we were little, train tracks wrapped three or four times around the Christmas tree in her house, and there were packages everywhere:  for all of her kids, for all of us, for all of the other cousins, for everyone in the neighborhood.  I swear she started buying gifts the day after New Year's.  She had the biggest heart.
My Uncle Jack had his issues (he was an alcoholic) and years later, my cousins (his kids) would share horror stories of what they went through with him, but he was a charmer.  My mother used to tell us stories of how Uncle Jack tap-danced on the street corners for pocket change during the Depression.  What I remember most about him was when he came to our house for dinner and how much shorter he was than I was.  He had a look about him that reminded me of the actors from the 1940s--not the handsome heartbreakers, but the bad guys, the ones who would talk out of the corners of their mouths, wore their fedoras perched on the side of their heads, and threatened everyone with guns.  He married my Aunt Edie, who kept the family on track, worked her whole life in the local bank, and dressed impeccably, no hair out of place.  Years later, she and I lived near each other in Florida, and I visited her often.  She was always amazed that I kept in touch with her since she'd divorced my uncle much earlier, but when you're a kid and you're brought up with sets of aunts and uncles, you always think of them as sets, no matter what happens later down the road.
I had another Aunt Edie, too.  She was my mother's sister, and she lived in Illinois with her husband, Ray.  She had the saddest story of all my aunts and uncles.  A beautiful redhead, she had married her handsome Navy man and left her family behind, heading for the corn fields of Illinois and what she hoped was a happy family life.  She had three children:  Adorable Nancy who loved posing in cowgirl outfits, stocky Billy who was chosen to be on the Olympic wrestling team, and smiling Laura Lee, the baby of the three.  Before Nancy had her fifth birthday, she found some medication and took the whole bottle, not realizing that the pills were for adult consumption and would prove fatal for her.  Devastating as that was, my aunt continued, her belief in God helping her to keep her little family together.  Many years passed, then my cousin Billy, a high schooler, made the family proud by becoming a champion wrestler.  When he got word that he had a chance in the Olympics, we all celebrated.  Then came the horrible day when my mother got a phone call from my Aunt Edie, and she stood in the dining room on that old black phone, saying, "No.  No.  That's not possible.  No."
Billy, at the tender age of 17, had driven his car into a huge oak tree across the street from the family home.  The accident resulted in his death.
My mother and my Aunt Sis donned their best Easter hats and suits and got on the plane to travel to Palatine, Illinois, to be with their sister for the funeral.  My mother told us about the distraught young athletes that carried Billy's casket into the church and about the lines of mourners that waited hours to come in to the funeral home.  He was such a big guy that it took many of his fellow athletes to raise him high.  And it took everything my mother and my Aunt Sis could do to support their grief-stricken sister.  I still don't know how my Aunt Edie managed to lose two children and to still find the strength to smile and to finish raising my cousin Laura Lee.
Just writing about these people makes me realize how much strength it takes simply to live.

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