Grandma is the one in the middle

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My Grandmother


There came a time when my high school English teacher (she of the many essay assignments and the enthusiasm for Shakespeare, both very good things as it turned out) asked us to write an essay about someone we admired. I pondered... and almost immediately, to my surprise, settled on my grandmother. It wasn't that she'd become Somebody--rich or famous or influential outside the radius of her own family. It was what she'd done with the raw materials she'd been given that impressed me.

And raw they were. Her father was a violent, abusive man. He drove his wife into alchoholism, after which she was declared an unfit mother. Her three daughters (Florrie, Amy and the youngest, my grandmother Bessie) were placed in a San Francisco orphanage and their father disappeared from the area for several years. When he returned, he retrieved the girls from the orphanage (my grandmother was 7 at the time) and whisked them away to the northeast of England to stay with relatives while he went off to South Africa to seek his fortune in the diamond mines. The year was 1899.

The girls, left with the family of one of their father's brothers, were, unbeknownst to their father, used as household servants, polishing stairs and balustrades and the family silver each morning before school and scrubbing the stone floors of the local parish church, for which their guardian served as caretaker. Florrie, the oldest, suffered from swollen knees for the rest of her life. My grandmother remembered receiving an orange or a handkerchief as Christmas gifts (not both in the same year, however.)

The girls spent eight years in the little seafaring town of Whitby, North Yorkshire (birthplace of the Endeavour, ship of the famous explorer Captain Cook), at which point their father returned and reclaimed his daughters, taking them home to San Francisco. Relatives remember that the girls were reluctant to leave, though they had no idea why.

The three had, at least, missed the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. But their father had not changed. Within months Amy had run away from home, apprenticing herself to a milliner. Eventually she became a famous San Francisco hat maker in her own right. Florrie and Bessie followed her example soon after, fleeing across the bay to Mill Valley, where they worked as governesses for wealthy families. The kind of abuse the girls had suffered was never discussed, but recently my sister told me that Florrie had confided to her that her father had once thrown her against the wall so forcefully that she lost her hearing for several months.

I remember my grandmother as a smiling woman with a twinkle in her eye. She was not very mobile when I knew her; walking was painful for her. But we went into the backyard together (there were blackberry vines at the top of the tiered hillside garden my dad had constructed.) We baked wonderful coffee cakes together from scratch, gathered up the dry bread crusts she always saved for when we came and took them off to Golden Gate Park to feed the ducks, a highlight of our visits. She made plum pudding for Christmas, magically coaxed traffic lights into turning green (it took us a little while to figure out how she did this), and always seemed to possess a certain childlike wonder that the adults around her had 'outgrown'. She was the one grownup I knew who had retained her sense of wonder, and I loved it.

It was from Florrie and Amy that we learned how the three had been treated as girls. But Grandma never dwelt on the rigors of their life in Whitby. She would tell us about Whitby's beach, or about how kind her cousin Willie the baker had been to her.

She could have done otherwise. She could have felt burdened or put upon, or justifiably bitter about her growing-up years. But she wasn't that kind of person. She played cards with us, laughed with us, and sewed me amazing, intricate outfits for my dolls. She was warm and welcoming, the kind of person a growing child could confide in and count on being taken seriously. Perhaps most importantly, she was a wonderful example of a life lived with appreciation and a conviction that she need not continue to be bruised by the harsh bindings of her past.

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