Saturday, August 26, 2017

Who Was Edna Ruth?

What started me writing this essay was memories combined with photographs of my grandmother and trying to reconcile my knowledge of my grandmother and who she was as the person I knew. Here's my ramblings in my  personal narrative essay.

Memories

“Go Fish.”

Grandma always has the slightest smile and a spark of challenge in her brown eyes as she says those words. I frown and look at the cards I hold, but end up drawing from the deck placed between us. Grandma taught me how to play when I began coming to her house to spend the night, now we always play several games at the dining room table. I’ve had plenty of practice. Now her brows crinkle together like my Mom’s do when thinking. She makes her play. Grandma gives no quarter so wins more often than I do. She wins this hand, too, but she doesn’t crow about her win. She says, “Better luck next time, Bobbie.”  Losing is hard.

Mom told me Grandma calls me Bobbie because Robin is a boy’s name. I haven’t figured that out yet.

Often when I come to spend the night, my cousin Kenny stays at Grandma’s too. Sometimes my cousin Peggy stays. If Peggy is there, we sleep together in the big double bed in the guestroom. If my brother Jimmy stays, then he and Kenny sleep in the guest room, and I sleep in the single bed in the spare bedroom, which is really a short cut from the living room to the bathroom and bedrooms. It has a door that opens into the living room. The opposite side corner has an opening into the small alcove off the kitchen but it has no door. So the house is a bit like a merry-go-round divided by one main wall between front rooms and back ones: dining room to living room in the front of the house, to spare bedroom, to hall alcove to kitchen, and through the kitchen back to the dining room. Great place for games of chase, if you don't get caught. Two doors in the alcove lead to Grandma’s bedroom and the guest bedroom with the door to the bathroom separating them. The alcove is very small and compact.

One of the best things about staying with Grandma is walking in the late afternoon to Dolan’s store, which is just down on the corner of Armstrong Street where it comes off Silver Lake Road. Since Grandma cannot walk outside, she never comes outside, whoever stays at her house gets to walk to the store by themselves and buy their own bottle of soda, or sometimes an ice cream cone. She usually gives Kenny or Jimmy some change as they are oldest, and we will return with an ten-ounce bottle of our choice of pop: Coca-Cola, 7Up, Vernor’s Ginger Ale, or Faygo Orange, Grape, or Red Pop, and whatever Grandma wants. Once back at the house, Grandma has dinner prepared, often goulash, which she has had me help make before the walk to Dolan’s, but sometimes she makes the best ever hamburgers, only she calls them hamburgs.

After supervising us grandkids in cleaning up the kitchen, Grandma will push herself erect from the kitchen table and move as slow and cautiously as a turtle, taking one careful step at a time, holding onto furniture and putting a hand against walls to get to her chair in the dining room. Once there, she spends the evening playing endless games of Solitaire.

From her chair in the dining room, she can see the TV in the far corner of the living room. Kenny and I, or Peggy, or Jimmy, sit in the living room and watch TV. Grandma lets us stay up for as late as we want, sometimes as late as 11 pm, but Grandma insists on watching her favorite programs like I Love Lucy, Ed Sullivan, Perry Mason, and The Red Skelton Show.

Reality?

To me she was always Grandma, or Grandma Smith since I had a Grandma Jacobs, too. I’m not certain when I learned her name was Edna Ruth. Even later I learned she had been Edna Ruth Williams, the youngest of the eleven Williams children. Edna was a popular name at the time seldom heard today. It was a Hebrew name meaning rejuvenation, pleasure and delight.

Not until much later did I learn she had multiple sclerosis (MS). Mom may have told me doctors diagnosed Grandma in her forties, which is common with this disease. In MS, the immune system attacks the sheath covering the nerves in the brain or spinal cord and eventually destroys the sheath. It causes a pain described as an electric shock and results in numbness in affected limbs. Researchers believe an undiscovered environmental factor begins the disease in those susceptible to it, but that is not the only mysterious factor. MS is a strange disease. It affects more women than men with an unknown cause that can cripple people yet sometimes goes into years of remission, as happened to Grandma.

She rarely left her house. If Grandma left her house at all, Grandpa and Dad carried her. They clasped hands behind her back and under her thighs to form a chair. With one on each side of her, they carried her down the porch steps and to the car’s back door. There they helped her stand and move into the car and onto the seat. I saw it done once. Her fright and discomfort were obvious to even me at my youthful age. Grandma was very fearful at leaving her house and at having to have others help her. Mom told me this was because she refused to be seen in a wheelchair. That only happened years later.

In the summer, she sat outdoors on her screened-in porch and listened to the blackbirds squawking in the tree between the porch and the street, or watching, according to her, her nosy neighbors. In the winter she was always sitting in her chair at the dining room table, where she either embroidered pillowcases Mom bought at the 5 and Dime in town, or played solitaire.

Mom visited nearly every day, often bringing her four children to visit with her. I’m sure Uncle Tom and Aunt Helen who lived next door to Grandma also visited frequently. Now I believe someone had to help clean the house and do laundry, and I’m guessing Aunt Helen did so. After Grandpa died, Grandma called the small grocery store in downtown Fenton owned by Harry Lemen for her groceries. He would go on to be Fenton’s mayor. Henry delivered her grocery order to her house. To me he looked as old as Grandma did. Mom and Aunt Helen accomplished all the rest of her shopping. The only other company she ever had visited Thursday on pinochle night. 

On pinochle night, the window shades came down in the dining room (as if the neighbors didn’t notice the same cars in her driveway once a week), a green felt cover was placed on the dining room table, and three or four old friends sat down at the table to play cards. Once Grandma told me they played pinochle, but from the shouts of glee at winning and those of displeasure at losing, I think they played poker, too. They always were very loud.

Usually grandchildren did not visit on Thursday nights, so I’m assuming Aunt Helen and Mom knew what happened on pinochle night, like I now suspect they planned grandchildren’s’ regular visits. I stayed on pinochle night several times once I reached age ten. I was at least old enough to make my own sandwich for dinner. I used Grandma’s over-sharpened knife. Over sharpened in that it had been sharpened so many times it literally redefined the shape of the blade into a thin, bendable scythe. Once I used the knife to cut a slice of ham. The pre-packaged small rounded ham wobbled, and the knife continued in a downward arc to cut my left hand’s first finger. The voices coming from the dining room prevented me from saying anything, even shouting in pain. Grandchildren did not interrupt the game. I washed the cut in the sink and found a Band-Aid to cover the wound. I went through many bandages before the bleeding stopped. That, I think, was my last night at Grandma’s on pinochle night, and I still carry the scar on my finger. I never told my Mom about it.

One time an ambulance took Grandma to McClaren Hospital in Flint. A few days later Mom took me to the hospital. At the reception desk the attendant asked my age. My Mom lied. She said I was twelve just so I could see my Grandma. Our visit was short. When Mom and I came into Grandma’s hospital room, Grandma, lay in the hospital bed nearest the windows looking very pale surrounded in white sheets. She looked at my Mom and said, “I’d rather see your ass than your face.” I don’t remember Mom’s response but shortly we were back in the car going home. I never even had a chance to say, ‘Hi.’ Grandma was like that with Mom. I never understood why.

After leaving the hospital she came to my house and slept in Juli’s twin bed in our shared girl’s pink bedroom. Juli, younger by five years, went to sleep in the boy’s room with Jim and Doug. It’s strange that I don’t remember Grandma ever leaving that room, not for dinner or socializing in our tiny living room. Did she? She must have!

After Grandma went back to her house, I don’t remember going to spend the night as often as before, but her five younger grandchildren were probably taking up their older siblings’ visitation duties. I was fourteen and in junior high school and other things crowded my mind.

One of those times I did stay, as I was lying in the guest room bed, I heard Grandma call my name from her bedroom. She needed help. I opened her bedroom door. It opened into a space only large enough to allow the door to open against the wall with the double bed directly ahead. Grandma was naked, sitting on the edge of her bed, trying to hold on, but she was sliding off. She wore a panicked look. The room was small, the double bed taking up most of the room. Grandma, hanging with her hips off the bed, and her vanity table positioned just to the right of the door, filled that tight space. Since I couldn’t walk past the vanity table, I took a step up onto the bed. My movement left Grandma gasping in fear and grasping the mattress’s edge even tighter. I grabbed her under her arms and pulled her onto the bed.

She collapsed back against the bed in relief saying, “Thank you.” I know she was relieved and embarrassed. So was I at seeing my Grandma naked. I slipped off the bed on the other side of the bed and walked the small space around the bed, pushed the chair under the vanity table and left the room; another event I never mentioned to my Mom.


Gone

She died two months after I graduated high school. I don’t remember her funeral, but have a vague memory of her with her slight ‘go fish’ smile lying very peacefully in her coffin. That could be just a dream vision, too. 

The doctors asked the family for permission to autopsy Grandma to see if they could discover why she went into remission for so many years. The family refused, Uncle Tom saying, “She’s been through enough.”

Grandma in curlers with 1st husband??
A short time later Aunt Helen and Mom cleaned out Grandma’s house. Only then did Mom and Aunt Helen discover Grandma had been married before she met Grandpa. She still had a photo of her previous husband in her dresser. He was handsome. She was pretty, smiling either coyly or shyly, I’m not sure which, with strands of her hair wrapped around an ancient type of rollers I had never seen before. They found her wedding ring but I don’t know if they found annulment papers. Maybe he died, but I never learned his name. If he lived, it had to have been an annulment because Grandma was Catholic. Inside her small dressing table drawer they also found a rock-- just a plain rock, smooth, grey, oval, and of no special mineral content. No one knew why she kept it. She could not have gone outside to pick it up anytime within the past thirty years or so, and she kept it among her valuables. What did it mean to her? These things hinted at a person unknown to me. I never heard her talk of her past, not even with Grandpa.

The family put the rock in the backyard, restoring it to nature.


Searching

Ten years later I started researching the family genealogy. Mom showed me many photos of her family. One held a black and white image of Grandma as a very young woman. She stood with two other young woman at Belle Ilse, which is just off Detroit in the Detroit River. She looked vibrant and beautiful, her eyes sparkling with happiness. She laughed at the camera and wore a 1920s wide-brimmed hat and a tight-waisted dress that looked white in a black and white photo. I felt she looked like she might start dancing at any moment and looked nothing like my Grandma. She looked so different from my mental image of her. It shocked me. Who was this woman?


Grandma on far right with sister Lizzy in Detroit. Other remain
anonymous. Brothers and sisters maybe or friends?
Who were the men and women with her in other photographs? My mother had penned names to some of the images, but most faces in the photos were unlabeled, like so many family history photos.

I have another family photo book six inches deep of very expensive photos taken in New York by a famous photograph in the late 19th century. “My dad,” or “My cousin,” or some other vague name epithet lies written under a few, but no name of whose photo book it was. Not one real name in the book. Most photos like this remain the forever-more-unknown.

I knew nothing about Edna Ruth’s life before she became a recluse. Neither do my other family members. Not even her daughter seemed to know much, or at least Mom never talked about her own childhood experiences.

In almost all of the photos where I guessed Edna Ruth in her late teens or twenties, she was laughing or wearing a beautiful smile. Yet my Mom told me that after her mother’s mother died, her father didn’t feel he could raise his last child, so he provided a monthly stipend to whichever of her older siblings would take care of her. Mom told me they passed her around depending on who needed the financial aid the most. She was born in Tannersville, Pennsylvania, where her family lived. I have a photo of Great Grandpa and his wife. He is wearing a sheriff’s badge. How did she come to meet and marry my Grandpa in Detroit?

I know she also faced heartache. Her youngest son Kenny died in battle during the Korean War in 1952. Grandpa fell ill in 1956 on a pinochle night, vomiting blood on the green felt table cover. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital, but he died of cirrhosis of the liver caused by diabetes.


Grandpa and Grandma -- when?
I can grasp that Edna Ruth was a proud woman who didn’t want anyone to see her as a cripple in a wheelchair, although her younger grandchildren remember her sitting in one. I can remember her walking slowly and carefully by herself, later using a walker, and then the wheelchair with a red leather seat. How this disease had disrupted her life! And yet, I have her long, jet beaded, 1920s flapper’s-style necklace. Its long length of black iridescent woven beads intrigue me. Had she loved partying and dancing?

I’m guessing MS changed Grandma dramatically. Her previous life remains a mystery. My mother was a good mother, so I suspect her mom must have been a good mother, too. Yet I remember the hospital room and the way Grandma treated Mom. If Mom had talked to me like that, I would have cried. My Mom didn’t, at least not in front of me. What happened? Was this an illness related reaction? Did Grandma suffer from some form of depression, another effect of MS? Was this disease or personality related?

I think Grandma liked a challenge, I know she loved card games, and I know she endured hardships, probably with little complaint. I only know a small portion of who Edna Ruth really was--my version of Grandma. Do each of her nine grandchild have their own version of Grandma? Probably.

Had she suffered melancholy as she waited for her occasional visitors, played her card games, had grandchildren spend the night, and watched TV programs? I don’t ever remember seeing her reading a book, or even remember seeing a book anywhere in her house. Why did she choose to live such a lonely life? A life filled with a constant struggle just to clean herself, dress, and walk. I have many unanswerable questions. Yet I know she laughed.


Who Was She?

Edna Ruth, with love, from your granddaughter.
This made me question what I know about anyone, even myself. What do we hide from each other? What do we chose to expose and why? Must everyone who knows one particular person come together to deduce who that person truly was? The only time I know this might happen is at a funeral and even then, missing people possess important pieces of the deceased family member or friend’s information.

I recently read I was a different person to everyone who knew me, met me, or even just exchanged a short verbal or nonverbal communication with me. Supposedly everyone’s genes and experiences make them unique, even if they share similarity to another person. So if everyone who encounters anyone makes a judgment based on their own perceptions of that other person, then a unique persona is created for everyone I meet, rather like the bubble universes theorizes. This perception can change with time and the number of encounters with a certain person, but may never match an individual’s personal conception of him or herself. I’m beginning to accept the truth of that statement. I suppose this puts my wondering about who my Grandma really was in a different perspective, but I would like to have known more about her and known many more people who knew her through various times in her life. 

Looking back I only know a small personal portion of my Grandma, which I hold as a treasure. Edna Ruth has preserved her privacy as she chose. However, right now I have get into the kitchen. I have the strongest urge to make some goulash. Grandma’s recipe, of course.


###

After reading this my brother Jim said, "I have many memories of her. She wrote me weekly while in the service. The memory that has fused to my mind is when home on leave and told her I was going to Viet Nam. She threw her arms around my neck and cried, "no, no please, God." I understood because of her loss of Son, Kenny in Korea." 

I didn't know that, which just goes to show what I said in the next to last paragraph seems to be true.

2 comments:

  1. What a lovely remembrance. Made me me sit back and ponder some of the memories I have of my own grandmothers. Thank you.

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    Replies
    1. thanks, Skye! It was part of the class I'm taking on personal essays. It's funny how topics come with a few prompts.

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