Thursday, April 30, 2009
While digging through my grandmother's house, we uncovered a number of old treasures, some of the most exciting of which were photographs dating to the 19th Century.
The girl on the far right in the above picture is my great-grandmother, Ella, whose personal story is the kind of stuff that adventure novels are made of. A half-Danish, half-Swedish aristocrat born in what is now Landskrona, Sweden in the late 1800's, her family immigrated to the United States around the turn of the 20th Century.
Her father, my great-great-grandfather, was a sailor, while her mother came from a long line of sailors who had been lost at sea. Determined that husband would not suffer the same fate, she ordered him to purchase land in North Dakota, which was as far away from the ocean as she could imagine being.
My great-great-grandfather obliged, buying three hundred acres and commissioning the construction of a large home before crossing the Atlantic. Unfortunately, he came down with sickness and died immediately after their arrival anyway, when Ella was five years old.
In his last days, Ella's father suffered from terrible thirst and begged her for a glass of water. She granted his request, then watched him die after taking a long draught. Ella's mother ever after claimed the girl had killed him.
For the blue blood living on America's frontier in the late 19th Century, life took a very unexpected turn. My great-grandmother bartered with local Indians, once escaped a hungry winter bear by throwing a sandwich over its head, and developed a lifelong affinity for pistols, remaining an excellent marksman well into her eighties.
One of the pictures we found, which I will upload if ever I get digital copies, is of an elderly Ella defiantly aiming a firearm at some far-off target.
According to family lore, she once met and out-shot Annie Oakley.
In 1907, more wild twists were in store for my great-grandmother. While in Nevada, she happened to meet a vacationing Eastern aristocrat by the name of Leroy. This man, twice her age, was infatuated with her, and within a year she had married the heir to one of the largest fortunes in the United States.
The couple on the far right are my great-grandparents, playing tennis at an estate in Independence City in the early 1900's. My great-grandmother, only fifteen at the time of her marriage, would continue to bear children for roughly two decades. Among these was my grandmother Weird Family, born in 1927.
Grand Ma Weird Family is the shortest child in the above photograph. Her resemblance to Yoda, which Powell and I have agreed on for years, was even more pronounced at this age.
In 1929, when my grandmother was two years old, her father hemorrhaged $300 million in the stock market crash.
Ella had urged her husband at the beginning of the crisis to place their main estate, Knowlton, in her name so that if the banks went after him they could not take the home. Leroy thought this was a ridiculous idea, and what followed was inevitable.
"My mother was every inch the Scandinavian," my grandmother once told me. "Cool, emotionless."
In 1924, an assassination attempt had left Leroy gravely injured, his life only narrowly saved.
"How did she react to that?" I asked.
"Well, I wasn't there," my grandmother said. "But from what I've heard, the same way she reacted to everything: not very much at all."
The loss of Knowlton was one of the only things that breached her Teutonic reserve. As things began to fall apart in 1930, my grandmother's family moved from Knowlton to a more modest Hick State estate. That Christmas, they were forced to dismiss their cooks and housekeepers, some of whom had been with the family for decades.
"We were sitting in the library," my grandmother said. "And she looked more furious than I can ever remember her being. She said, 'Leroy, this is all your fault.' And then she picked up a silver tea set, threw it right at him, and walked out of the room. It's the only time I ever saw her lose control."
My great-grandparents continued to sell properties and bleed gold until 1935, when there was nothing left to take. The Great Depression wiped out a millennia of wealth in the space of six years.
My grandmother, aged only eight when the money finally ran dry, grew up in poverty, as did her own children.
That poverty did not extinguish a richness of spirit, though, a fact that we found ample evidence of.
The painting above was done by Artist Uncle in his youth. Born with spina bifida, Artist Uncle nonetheless became a prodigious painter, graduating from an eminent art school in Independence City. He died of leukemia in 1996.
The girl in the newspaper clipping above is Anne, an innocent seven-year-old girl enchanted at Christmastime in 1971. I had never before seen any photographs of my birth-mother from her childhood, and it was strange and intriguing to view them now. I find it difficult to imagine her as she was then, before bitterness of spirit and frailness of body, both borne of poverty, took over her life.
At one point, she and my Aunt Smugly Superior uncovered some old report cards, and Anne nearly became emotional reading them.
"They all say things like, 'When these kids are actually in school, they do so well,'" she said to her sister, with all the regret of a woman who had only a sixth-grade education.
"I know," my aunt sighed back, still rueful of a travesty long passed.
Anne was beautiful once, beautiful in a way that even her detractors could only marvel at. She was ruined by her circumstances, and by a family who never cared, never showed her the appreciation she deserved for her talents and labors. In this, I do take issue with my grandmother, but with a woman so close to death what would be the point in voicing those grievances? They're not really mine anyway.
All the same, I pity Anne more than I do anyone else, Anne with her shattered beauty and shattered body and shattered spirit.
When my grandmother opened a trunk that had been sealed for twenty years, Anne found a costume she'd worn as a young child, another relic of a bygone era.
There was so much there, so many stories that we'll never even hear.
I don't call them Weird Family for nothing.