Our Grandmother: For Gillian

29 Nov

Grandma Clark

When I was visiting my cousin Gillian and her husband Matt recently, she and I dished about our family, entering a number of long discussions about my mother, Gillian’s parents and a couple of short ones, including a short one about our Grandmother Clark.  Gillian sat in her special chair, the chair she rented to support herself now that she is thirty weeks pregnant with triplets, and moved her hands as she talked the way I do.  She said that she had acquired the idea from her father that Grandma was “prim and proper.”  I suppose that is true in some respects, although I think I would describe her as “ladylike,” rather than “prim.”  I didn’t give Gillian a good response, but I would like to do so now.

Gillian was born in 1979, while our grandmother was born in 1895 and died in 1967, so they missed each other by  a decade.  Gillian inherited my grandmother’s knee problem–something to do with the kneecaps and the position of the ligaments around it.  Because her parents were middle class people with good insurance, Gillian was able to get an operation on her knees, but our grandmother was poor and therefore unable to get good healthcare. That situation and the fact that our grandmother gained weight over the years, contributed to her problem walking long distances for much of her life.  I would sometimes accompany my grandfather on one of his “constitutionals,” but that was not possible with my grandmother, who could go short distances in  stores when shopping, but was never able to go for walks.

This inability to get around easily, helped to fuel her reading, especially of political biographies, including those on her favorite politician, Senator Robert Taft. She was thrilled when my Uncle Chris, Gillian’s father, was able to meet Goldwater when Chris headed up the Honor Guard in Washington, DC.   She also spent quite a bit of time perusing the Cleveland Plain Dealer for stories she thought my mother would be interested in and cutting out the pictures of her favorite fashions.  In those days the dresses were often sketched for the paper as opposed to using pictures.  I remember her remarking one day that maybe that would be a good job for me to pursue.  She had started out as a teacher, the primary job available to the women of her generation.  She became acquainted with my grandfather, who was the principal, married him, and quit her job.  As far as I know, this was not a regret.  My mother said that her mother always loved being referred to as Mrs. Clark.  However, I do think she may have wondered what her life as an older adult might have been like if she could have been a sketch artist.

The happiest time of her life was perhaps the early period of her marriage when she and my grandfather, who was a graduate student at Columbia, spent their time walking the New York streets and going to Broadway plays.  Helen Hayes was considered to be the best theatre actor at the time, and my grandparents were both fans.  My grandfather left behind many Playbills when he died.  For years after her death I wore her first wedding ring because I thought of it as a talisman of happy times.  Unfortunately, I lost it one year when I was planting lilies.

She grew up in Monrovia, Indiana, the middle child, of John and Sopha Bodenheimer.  I don’t know what her father did, because he was never discussed except as a factor in my great-grandmother’s death.  Sopha died of appendicitis and the peritonitis that resulted, as her doctor said, from her husband’s not getting her to the hospital.  Recently I was checking out one of our family albums, and noticed how tall John Bodenheimer was.  I mentioned it to my mother and she said, “Yes, I think he was about 6′ 5″.”  This was startling to hear.  My brother is 6’7″ and we always assumed that his height came from Big Tom Scheuren on my father’s side, who was 7′ tall.  In my family  people deemed to be disreputable are not discussed.  They are pushed under the carpet and stay there.

The other tragedy in her life involved her brother, Elvin, the youngest child.  As an older adult, he was an invalid confined to a wheelchair.  Somehow the blanket around him caught on fire causing him to be engulfed in flames and burned to death.  My grandmother felt that his wife and family were responsible, and, as a result, fell out of  contact with them.  This accident contributed to the blanks I have for Gillian when discussing our grandmother’s life.

Despite these horrific circumstances in her life, Grandma had a light and playful side.  One of her favorite games was “I Spy.”  She would get under the covers with me in the morning where we would exchange turns picking an object around the room and giving out clues about it,  announcing warm and cold in terms of the other player’s guesses.  Now when I look back at it, I wonder if she didn’t learn the game from her mother.

What Gillian doesn’t know is that she is like our grandmother in a very important way.  Grandma loved to dish about this and that over tea with lemon slices cut in circles, rather than wedges.  She would hold court at the half-table in the kitchen or in the living room.  The love of gossip and family talk has moved through the generations, from our grandmother to Gillian.

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