My grandmother was born into wealth. Her father was a photographer and artist who emigrated from Norway in the late 19th century. He started a successful business in Brooklyn, New York, financed by his wife’s family fortune, and became renowned for his sepia portraits. For a time he even worked for Teddy Roosevelt.
Things changed when my grandmother’s mother took her children to Norway to visit family while she was still very young and her brother was but an infant. In those days you didn’t fly, you took a long journey on a ship, and her mother decided to stay in Norway for more than two years. When they returned, my grandmother’s father had disappeared. He was rumored to have run off with another woman but no one knew for sure. Her mother’s family exhausted their fortune hiring private investigators and others to try to track him down. In those days it was much easier to disappear yourself.
A few years after the return to America, my grandmother’s mother fell ill and died at the age of 37. Several twists of fate later, my grandmother, at that point in her early teens, was out in the street with her little brother. The Great Depression had begun.
She made money and got food and shelter where she could, struggling to stay alive and to protect her young brother. As she reached her late teens, she was approached by a man she described as the most handsome and charming man she’d ever met. He wanted to court her and then marry her, which he did, and provided a home for her and her brother. It would turn out this man was a schizophrenic and a womanizer who sought to have a virgin as his wife. Things unraveled and she divorced him after discovering his affairs with other women.
World War II was beginning and my grandmother was determined to carve out a life. She worked in a factory that produced ammunition for the duration of the war and was able to afford her own apartment, while her brother Conrad joined the Army.
They wrote to each other across the miles as he fought in the Pacific theatre. The war seemed to be coming to an end when she received word he had been killed in action in the Battle of Saipan. The news crushed her and she felt she could not go on.
My grandfather was Conrad’s employer, and he sank into a deep depression when he was told he could not join the fight because of medical conditions and his age. He took to drinking, beat himself up thinking that if he had gone to war he could have saved Conrad, and my grandmother went to see him to give him the news of Conrad’s passing. They found comfort in each other and eventually married, having a daughter who became my mother.
My grandfather died in 1967, less than two years after I was born, from complications from his alcoholism. He was an abusive alcoholic who disowned my mother when she became pregnant out of wedlock with me. My father’s mother refused to acknowledge my existence because she convinced herself my mother was a “whore” who had seduced my father and ruined his life. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, shielded me from all the self-righteous hatred and anger, and loved me very deeply, often telling me I was her favorite grandchild.
My grandmother died in 2011. She was 96 years old and died from a “failure to thrive.” She wasn’t sick, she simply decided it was time to go, as she had lost the ability to enjoy the things she had always enjoyed. She enjoyed reading, but had become unable to retain and remember what she read from one day to the next. She loved long walks, and was no longer able to do that. Her friends had all passed on, those she had maintained correspondence with for decades, and her love for reading and writing letters was gone with their departures.
She loved to read the things I wrote and often shared the pieces I selected just for her consumption. When she lived in housing for the elderly, and later in assisted living, she would carry them around and thrust them at people, telling them her favorite grandchild was “a great writer.” She taught me to be independent and to find my own way in life. Her advice did not come from a hollow place. She had divorced her first husband when such things were unheard of and considered shameful, so she often presented herself as a widow. She had a child with her first husband, my uncle, who was disowned and sent away my uncle because he wanted no reminders that his wife had been previously married and was not a virgin. In those days you didn’t marry a woman who was not a virgin. Such women were considered to be disgraceful at best and “whores” at worst.
My grandmother knew how to survive and how to thrive. She knew the time had come, and she planned her departure like a scene from one of the epic life story novels she loved to read. On Mothers’ Day she asked her two children, my mother and uncle, to come and see her. I had moved to be close to her several months earlier as I knew what was happening and wanted to be there at the end the way she had been there for me at the beginning.
The day before I had gone to visit her and she was in a delirious state. She had stopped eating and taking her medications and she looked at me with great wonder in her eyes.
“Connie? I knew you would be here to welcome me to heaven,” she said in a quiet, childlike voice. “You still look so handsome.”
She spent the day with the three of us, never speaking a word, as her ability to speak seemed to have left her. She looked happy and at peace. That night she passed on in her sleep.
I often tell this story in some form of another on Memorial Day, not on my grandmother’s birthday, because the story of her family and of her brother Conrad, who she called “Connie” is such an important part of her story. I never met Conrad, but she often told me I looked like him. I considered that to be an honor.
I learned about being independent and making my own way in life from my grandmother. She had gone against the grain because she needed to at first, and then because she came to find her role in life. After my grandfather died she rejected all suitors, telling them, and everyone else, “I am done with men. I am who I am. I am Grandma.” It was a role she excelled at.
She was who she was. I am who I am. You are who you are. On this day as we remember those who have fallen, it is important to remember those who have struggled and how in many ways the struggle defines us.