a grandma story
She was born in Philadelphia--to a former stage actress and a suit type--35 days after that behemoth of history, the Titanic, sank in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. A dramatic analogy foreshadowing her 93 year existence? No, but her father did die in 1918, a victim of that great flu epidemic that those in the know have recently reminded us could happen again at any time.
"What sort of wonder woman could have possibly experienced all this history first-hand and lived to drop hints about it," you ask? My gran, I tell you! And you don't know the half of it. (Neither do I as it just so happens.)
After her father's death, her mother bundled up her six-year old self and her brother and headed west to be near family in Chicago. There, my gran and great uncle sat at an orphanage in Des Plaines (Maryville Academy??), visited by their mother everyday until she succumbed to illness in 1920.
I never quite figured out what happened to Peter, my great uncle. I know he ended up in California but don't know where he was during the remainder of his youth. Gran, on the other hand, was passed around from aunt to aunt, lived in the Gold Coast here and some working-class Irish neighborhood there, and was treated like royalty and dirt and everything in between.
She made it through childhood, met my grandfather while working at the 1933 World's Fair, married at Our Lady of Sorrows three years later, and settled with her husband in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio where she lived for the remaining 69 years of her life.
I've enjoyed my grandma's stories for as long as I can remember: slurping malts underneath the el; teasing the laundresses in Chinatown; lounging at Oak Street Beach; dancing on Navy Pier (back before it turned into an urban DisneyWorld); sneaking out to the carnival, only to be puked on while riding the ferris wheel (I particularly loved that story). Her family--whether through blood or through marriage they were all family--were ever so colorful: The sisters Aunt Nora and Aunt Marie came from Ireland and somehow or another had money (one of the two traded in her Buick every year for the new model); Aunt Helen used to beat her, I think. One of her uncles had to work for the first time in his life when the Depression hit; they all felt sorry for him. Another uncle was supposedly married to Kate Buckingham who so graciously donated a certain world-famous fountain to the city of Chicago in 1927. The faceless names go on and on.
All of these beautiful stories but I'm so uncertain of how they all connect. All of these interesting people and I don't really know who's who ("Aunt" Nora, it turns out, was her grandfather's second wife and her sister, "Aunt" Marie, was married to "Uncle" Mon who was loaded and may have been married to Ms. Buckingham). This fascinating life lived in this exciting American city and I can't even begin to tell the story. I need to know how it all fits together. It's my history, too!
So today I started my research. The Chicago Historical Society was so kind as to let me know there is no record of Kate Buckingham ever being married.
But I always tell people that's my fountain. And Oak Street Beach is my grandma's beach. And...
... A few years ago, while living in Chicago, I managed to visit Mount Olivet Cemetery on the Southside. My great grandmother is buried there... the actress... gran's mom. It turns out she resides in an unmarked grave. (But I thought the family, at least part of it, had money.) My grandmother wasn't aware of this, not having seen the grave since sometime near 1920. (But why? You've been back many times since then.) I stuck a crucifix in her plot, gently placed a long stem rose, and snapped a few pictures. This was to accompany a picture of my great grandfather's grave I had taken in Philadelphia years before. He has a headstone...
That is how I feel right now. That uncertain feeling that accompanied my discovery of the unmarked grave.
I wish I had found out more from Gran before she died. Unfortunately, in the last decade of her life, she was a befuddling, albeit witty, interview. Before that, even. I have recordings I made 15 years ago while interviewing her for a history project. She never connected the dots. I've talked to my mom and my uncles and they have the same spotted history I do. Not only that, but I seem to be the only one who feels compelled to complete this puzzle.
So, damn it! I'm going to. I'm going to find out what, if any, my family's connection to the Buckinghams was. I'm going to figure out who the hell Uncle Mon is. I'm going to determine if we really are related to Robert Fulton (just because my grandma's grandfather was a Fulton doesn't mean we are). And just who was this man my gran dated who owned a speakeasy during Prohibition?? I'm going to separate the Noras from the Maries, the bitches from the benevolents, and the blue collars from the white ones. And I'm going to figure out how the hell my grandmother's mother was related to any of these people in the first place!
Gran! I love ya but you sure as hell left me with a lot of blanks here!
(I feel much better now... let the adventure commence...)