Gran, despite her broken nose (a relic of a fall in childhood), never had a chance to become particularly camera-shy (her great aversion was to tape recorders). That side of the family tended to haul out a camera at the drop of a hat. I have any number of shots with Gran in them. I also have a number of mental snapshots of her. Many of which she gave us (my cousins and myself) quite voluntarily.
For a half a dozen years, Gran lived with my family in a mother-in-law apartment built onto the side of the garage. This continued until I was about 12, when she moved into a small cottage that Uncle Bronty built for her on the back of his property. Consequently the anecdotes which I was given were the sort that one tells a rather younger child than some of the ones that she told my cousins.
One of my cousins’ stories that I am particularly entertained by is the one about the legs. Gran never learned to drive. She walked everywhere, and until her first osteoporosis-related breakage she was a strong walker, very active, and in very good health. She also, as I have stated elsewhere had one of those marvelously smooth, pale “gardenia petal” complexions.
Well, they say the legs are the last thing to go. Sometimes it’s true. Up to the point of that first breakage (in her middle or late 70s) Gran never had any problem with her legs. No varicose veins, no arthritic knees, no peculiar knobs or scragginess, and she was out and about a great deal, even if not engaged in the sort of useless activity currently favored nowadays — that of pointless running.
With her moderately active lifestyle Gran was fairly trim and with that pure white skin she really had very attractive legs, even though she had to wait until she was in her 40s and beyond before fashion raised hemlines to the point that anyone but her husband was aware of it.
I suspect that this particular incident took place some time in the mid-1940s when wartime shortages had encouraged knee-length skirts, and before Gran moved to Monterey Park from the house in Southeast L.A. where her younger kids had grown up. She would have been in her early 60s by then.
She was out puttering in the garden. Or, in any case she was bending over a fence and her skirt had ridden up a bit when she heard a very loud wolf-whistle somewhere behind her. She straightened up, looked around to find the culprit and heard an equally loud voice cry out in dismay “Oh my gosh! She’s old as the hills!”.
That was one of the stories my cousins got. I just got the tall tale that she had swum the English Channel. Back when she still had her unsinkable swimsuit.
I can believe that she may have swum in the English Channel. For she made at least three trips back to England during her life. But I've no idea whare the unsinkable swimsuit comes into it.
My cousins and I were given conflicting anecdotes regarding Gran and her Britishness. Gran retained nothing of what had been her original English “accent”, but then I am not convinced that she ever made or was encouraged to make any attempt to retain it. Given that she was born in Liverpool of what was basically a working-class family, with a mother who had come from Ulster, her original speech probably had a strong taint of “Scouse” which I gather that apart from a brief fling in the 1960s no one in Britain is exactly eager to cultivate.
Besides, she and her parents came over (steerage) to this side of the pond when she was no more than 6 so she had plenty of time to loose it in the Chicago public school system. But I do know that although she grew up in Chicago, she didn’t have a Chicago accent either, and her speech patterns remained faintly Irish all her life, no doubt a legacy from her Ulster mother.
The version that I was told is that while returning from her first trip back to England, as a young matron sometime in the 19-tens, the ship she was on had passed fairly close to an iceberg. A couple of the other passengers were a pair of Cockneys who went on and on about it being “maountains ’igh” to such an extent that she refused to claim nationality with such silly people, and referred to herself afterwards as Scots-Irish, in her mother’s honor.
My cousins’ version is that she was very proud to be English. And she certainly did keep various odds and ends of British culture around her. As my cousin Val puts it:
“When we visited her little house there was often an old English movie on the television. We kids puzzled over the “Giles” comic books, trying to figure out the rather incomprehensible humor of another culture. (What is a “blackleg” and why is that supposed to be funny in this picture?) She often made the claim of having swum the English Channel in her unsinkable bathing suit. We puzzled over that one also — obviously missing something. She made plum pudding at Christmas time with real suet. She always had a tea cozy on her teapot, and for any ailment, would offer the timeless advice she had always been given, ‘Have a cuppa tea!’
“Her dream was always to return to the land of her birth and visit some of her relatives there. One year she had a chance to do just that and she set off with her umbrella and high hopes. We were surprised that when she returned, we didn’t hear much about England any more. She only said, ‘Oh well, I found out that the English are just as silly as everyone else’.”
It was, of course, long afterwards that Gran told me of the following incident which allegedly took place when I was four or five, and serves as a fairly good illustration of Gran’s theories and practices as regards child-rearing.
I was playing with something or other on the back porch. The door was closed against flies, but unlocked. Gran came up the steps with her arms full of groceries.
“Joyce, “ she said, “Would you like to open the door for me?” She asked.
“No.” I replied, without looking up.
Now this probably took her aback somewhat. But, where Ma would have set the groceries down, yanked me to my feet, smacked me, and demanded that I open the door, Gran had the presence of mind to stop and consider just what it was that she had asked. “Okaaaay.” She thought to herself, and despite the awkwardness, she got the door open herself.
She did not reproach me for selfishness, she did not mention the incident at all. Guilt trips were not infra dig in our family. (Consequently, I tend to be slow to recognize this ploy, and grandly contemptuous of it once identified.)
But, the next time the situation arose, (which it was bound to do, soon enough,) Gran’s request was phrased as; “Joyce, will you please open the door for me?” Whereupon, I got up and opened the door with a reasonably good grace, and a cheerful; “Yes, Granma.”
While I was probably not much quicker to remember to use “please”, and “thank you”, than most other children, I did manage to absorb the concept behind them fairly readily. And painlessly. I also didn’t learn to lie about commonplace things until I was old enough to know that I was lying, and to resent the necessity, rather than to take for granted that lying was just “what people do”. Consequently, it isn’t something I ever bothered to make a habit of.
The one thing which I have never been able to understand was how Gran managed to fail to instill any of this into my mother.