Tuesday, November 11, 2014

G is for Grandmothers

Some of my maternal grandmother's prize-winning embroidery
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2011

Glorious weather for November 11, on this, the day World War I ended in the centenary year of the start of the conflict. I wish my grandmother were alive to be here —my maternal one, as I barely knew my paternal one, who died when I was three. (In fact, my maternal grandmother’s reminiscence of her opposite number as “a kind lady and so cruelly and unfairly poor, whom I always pitied as she carried cans of kerosene down the road” forms the only information from my adolescence that I have of her other than what my father and his siblings said.) I have been thinking about my mother’s mother for several weeks, ever since I started looking into the family’s rather tenuous Scottish connection in the run-up to the referendum in Scotland a few weeks ago. She was the only one of my recent ancestors to be born with a Scottish surname, and although the thought of locating anything with a tartan on it probably never crossed her mind —at least in her married life— she made sure her children knew about it.

The area where I now live in Ontario, while partially settled by Mennonites and others from Pennsylvania, was the recipient of waves of Scottish emigration, from the early nineteenth century well into living memory.  The town down the road from us, Fergus, was named for its Scottish founder and hosts an annual  Scottish festival and holds a yearly “wear your tartan” day. A shop in town does a thriving business in British foods and Scottish clothes and memorabilia and will order anything in any tartan directly from Edinburgh. I went in there in mid-September and ordered the dress tartan version of the scarf with the assurance that I would have it by Remembrance Day, which is what Armistice Day, the American Veterans’ Day, is called in Canada and the UK.

Why would I want the tartan of my grandmother’s branch of the family in time for Remembrance Day? I am one of those Friends who views the red poppy, ubiquitous in these parts, as the equivalent to William Penn’s sword, but I wanted to wear something that might be relevant, however remotely, to a family member alive at the time of World War I. Every year I read Wilfred Owen’s poems “Schoolmistress” and “Dulce et Decorum Est” to my unsuspecting Latin students, explaining how jingoistic interpretations of poems by the Roman writer Horace (himself a hired mouthpiece of Caesar Augustus, who chafed at the bit only sotto voce) were part of a large-scale use of the Roman Empire as part of the propaganda for the empires on both sides in World War I. I would then say something to the effect of, regardless of what people thought about the war —and Owen, loyal to his men after being invalided out to the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers and writing such scathing poetry, returned to the front and died there a week before the armistice— they needed to consider the colossal loss of life and the consequences of World War I on the twentieth century and down to the twenty-first. Because of the enduring significance of ancient Greece and Rome for politicians in the last century, those who have studied any aspect of those cultures had a special responsibility to the debate.

My grandmother would have had a smattering of high school Latin; her husband, trained in theology at a reputable university, would have studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. But those facts were only tangential to my idea of acquiring some scrap of the tartan to wear to class around Remembrance Day. When I consider in what way World War I was relevant to my family, I think of my maternal grandmother, for whom that period set the tone for the rest of her long and complex life.  It was of seminal importance to my maternal grandfather, too; for reasons of his own (no one in the family belonged to a historic peace church) he was publicly and bitterly opposed to it and all other wars and managed to get out of going before a draft board primarily because the war was over shortly after a man well into his thirties was made eligible for the draft. (As far as I can determine, it was not a major factor in the line of my father’s family from which I am directly descended; my paternal grandfather was just a tad too young to serve.) Nevertheless, my grandmother became front and center of my thoughts because she in many ways was caught in the cross-hairs (so to speak) of the family events as affected by the larger situation. The fact the she and my grandfather married in 1913, at a time that looked reasonably auspicious for both herself and the world at large, despite some storm clouds on the horizon that eventually enveloped all, only added to its significance.

By mid-October, the tartan had not turned up. The story might have ended there except for one evening after work, when, caught in heavy traffic, I missed the turn-off to the expressway and ended up driving through the village of St. Jacobs, a community which, ironically, I tend to avoid because of traffic. There, on the south side of the road, was the St. Jacobs Scottish shop. I had been there several times, usually with my mother, but had never found anything relevant to us to buy. Since I was having to replace part of my wardrobe after the episode on the ladder (see my recent posts under “D” and “F”), it might be worth checking again to see what they had. I held out little hope of success, as my grandmother’s maiden name is not one of the more common Scottish surnames and the only time I had ever seen more than a swatch of the tartan occurred when I purchased a couple yards of its white dress version in Edinburgh in 1978.

About a week after my detour through St. Jacobs, I walked into the shop. In the middle of the store, immediately in the line of sight of any potential customer walking through the door,  hung the hunting version of the scarf in question. Although the surname is not in the middle of the alphabet (the scarves were alphabetized), for some reason it was in the front in the center of the display, as if someone had deliberately placed it there for me.

So I had the tartan. Two days ago, mindful of the fact that I would need to read Owen’s poems on Monday if at all (Remembrance Day is Tuesday this year, and I am teaching MWF this semester), I sat in Meeting for Worship, thinking of my grandmother and what I knew of her life during that period. Because she died when I was an undergraduate, there is much that I might have asked her in more recent years; still, I knew a great deal.

My knowledge fell into three categories: the consequences that my grandfather’s beliefs about the war and many other matters held for his career and family relationships, and the deaths of two family members: my grandparents’ first-born child (the only uncle I never met) the day after Christmas in 1917 and my grandmother’s next-oldest sister from the influenza pandemic that followed in the wake of World War I and which was even more lethal than the war itself.

Just before Christmas in 1917, my grandmother went by train with her three young children to the home of her parents. Unlike the rest of my immediate ancestors, who hailed from Vermont and New Hampshire, that grandmother was a native of a small town in another northeastern state. (She and my grandfather met when he was serving a nearby parish as a Universalist minister.) Trips home were an expensive and rare luxury, and the young family intended to make the most of it. Disaster struck on Christmas Day: her three-year-old son collapsed from spinal meningitis and died on December 26, before my grandfather was able to reach his bedside. My grandparents had lost their first child and at that time their only son; my great-grandparents had lost their first grandchild and their only grandson. Although the two daughters who were alive on that occasion both lived into their eighties, and despite having other children, including two more sons, all of whom became productive adults, my grandparents never completely got over the loss of their first-born. When my grandmother was asked in later years how many children she had, she invariably gave two numbers. Sometimes she added, “And he (the oldest) was the brightest of the lot,” looking around at whatever other family members who might be present, because these, the living descendants, were invariably dissecting the problems of the world as armchair Presidents while she spoke. Then, looking still more deeply at those around her, she would continue quietly, “I really should remember that my others all survived, when so many children in those days did not.”
Spirited, but generally respectful political discussions and a love of teacups:
a happier family legacy from my grandmother
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2015

At the end of 1917, however, my grandmother’s triumphs as a parent —in particular, her push to get her surviving children and even one of her sons-in-law into higher education, against the wishes of a husband who was not interested in his progeny benefitting from the advantages he himself had had— could not be foreseen. That was perhaps just as well, because the financial disasters that befell the family in the 1920’s and 1930’s were also just beginning at that time, and they might have appeared unendurable.

Ultimately, my grandparents and my two little aunts stayed with my great-grandparents for about a month, during which time all hell (to use the term advisedly) broke loose. “He and Grandpa (the children’s grandpa) argued for days about the Bolshevik Revolution,” my grandmother later said of her husband, referring to the Russian Revolution that had occurred a few weeks before their visit. “He was in favor of it, of course, being a socialist as well as a pacifist, while my father definitely was not. I kept expecting them to tell us to leave. I still find it hard to believe that they didn’t, particularly Grandpa.”

More difficulties were to come. My grandfather, who left his job as a minister after World War I broke out in Europe but before the United States became involved, was increasingly dissatisfied with his second and equally suitable career choice, teaching. Like the revolutionaries in Europe, he turned against the whole “capitalist system,” but with a much less secure financial basis. Later, he was to set up a small publishing and itinerant bookselling business and even sent himself and his family south as migrant farm laborers on several occasions. None of these enterprises did more than keep the ever-increasing brood of children from starving to death. My great-grandfather, foreseeing at least some of the impending debacle, lambasted him during the 1917-18 visit because of his financial irresponsibility. (We have independent confirmation of this in a letter from the older man to his son-in-law that down to my mother’s immediately older sister, which she self-published a decade or so ago in a book about my grandfather.)

After a month of incessant disputes, my grandparents and aunts returned to Vermont. Among the sorrows that my grandmother could not have foreseen was the fact that she was never to see the next oldest of her four younger sisters again.

There is one extant photograph of my grandmother and her four sisters, all younger than she. (There was only one boy, who died in infancy.) My mother’s younger sister has provided framed copies of it for the entire family, and it is on my shelves in front of scholarly commentaries on Euripides’ domestic dramas, a fitting location, I suppose, but one chosen —at least consciously— for convenience. It is a studio portrait; all of the young ladies are dressed in white. Taken around the time my grandmother got married and left home, she appears confident and mature. She is on the left in the rear. The next sister, strikingly tall, is to her right. In front of them are the three younger ones: on the left, the one who ended up with an adoring and adored husband and no children, and on the right, the one who later fell —hard— for two difficult men in succession. In the center is the cosseted youngest, a little girl with her hair swept up in an Edwardian bow. Imagine the four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, with my youngest great-aunt taking the place of the Tsarevich Alexei, and anyone can have a pretty good idea of this portrait. (Because my family has requested that I not provide photographs on the Internet, the picture of the children of Tsar Nicholas II —minus the parents and making the appropriate substitution of the fifth daughter for the young son— will have to do.)

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his wife and children in 1914
photo via Wikimedia Commons

The second daughter, the one in the upper right, is the one who was to lose her life in the influenza pandemic. Like most the victims of this disaster, she was in the prime of life: in her case, in her mid-twenties, with a husband and toddler daughter. Although her husband remarried and had a number of other children, they all kept in touch with my grandmother. I met the daughter in question, at the time a middle-aged woman, when she came up to Vermont to visit her aunt, my grandmother. She also stopped to see her cousins, especially the one of my aunts who was within days of her in age.

When I think of the connections between my family and World War I, it is the great-aunt who died of the “Spanish” flu who comes most closely to mind. Although World War I did not “cause” this outbreak, if it had not been for the war and its disruption, the consequences would have been much less serious. It is entirely possible that my great-aunt might otherwise have lived to the same age as the rest of her sisters, i.e., from their late seventies to their nineties. Rightly or not, I consider her a casualty of the war. Because the pandemic raged for three years (in the US, late 1917 to 1920), I was interested in exactly when in the outbreak she contracted the virus.

For this reason, after Meeting for Worship two days ago I decided to go on line to try to retrieve the year of my great-aunt’s death. I figured, correctly, that it would not be difficult, especially as my quick search for my grandmother’s Scottish link took me directly to the digitized inventory of the cemetery where my great-grandparents are buried. I googled her first name, maiden name, and married name. The first hit was, indeed, the cemetery, where there were several people with my grandmother’s surname but not her. Although some of these tombstones looked interesting and one in particular was worth a greater look, I first scrolled down to find the data on my great-aunt. She was listed under her married name along with the death date of 1919. 

The digital tombstone contained a bit of a surprise: the first name under which we all knew my great-aunt was in fact her middle name. A quick electronic detour confirmed that the first initial was from the same first name as her mother, which in turn explained why she was called by her middle name. This was news to me. Even more to the point, I wondered if it would be news to my own immediately older first cousin on that side, who was named for our great-grandmother. Her older brother, who is now deceased, had uploaded the descendants of the line leading through my grandmother’s mother (our great-grandmother) onto a genealogical forum about twenty years ago, but the file is not user-friendly. Even if that initial is available, it is hard to get to. In any event, thanks to my computer-geek cousin’s diligence and the abundance of freely available digitized data from that period, before the evening was over I was to find that my immediately older cousin was the fourth woman with that name.

The night, however, was still young. About an hour into my search, I decided to go back to that other tombstone that intrigued me, and maybe some others with the same surname if I had time. Although I had learned a great deal from my grandmother about her life, I was never able to get her to divulge a lot of information about her family in her home town other than her sisters, parents, and to some extent her grandparents (my own great-greats via her own mother). There was one occasion when I was about twelve when I asked her about her extended family in that very small town, but I conspicuously got nowhere. The discussion slammed shut at World War I —not surprisingly, given what I already knew about the toxicity of the dates in question.  I also got nowhere with one of her younger sisters, although she had already developed some dementia by that time.

What I found on that unfamiliar tombstone record with the all-too-familiar surname was the first and middle name of a young man, the complete listing of a US infantry affiliation, and a death date in the summer of 1918. The record of the tombstone immediately above it in the online cemetery listing contained the first and last names  and dates of another man and a woman with the same surname, along with the words “father” and “mother.” Surely the young man was related to my grandmother. There are only a few hundred people living in that village, even now.

An hour later I had more information than I had bargained for. By tracing on-line military records from World War I, I was able to ascertain, despite “incomplete” data on that file, that the fellow in question was originally part of his state’s national guard and that he was “grievously wounded” with the US forces in Europe after initially having been listed as missing in action.

He was also two years younger than my grandmother and her first cousin. That became incontrovertibly clear almost immediately from the census records of a generation prior, which showed my great-grandfather and the man listed as “father” on the other tombstone described as little boys a year apart in age. (As it happens, this information was not on the on-line records of my computer-literate cousin. While my computer-literate cousin might have had access to that information —in due course I will probably find out, his own on-line submission contained information through our great-grandmother’s line all the way down to him, his sister, and me, but not —crucially— to this cousin of my grandmother, who was related to us through our great-grandfather.)

The death of my grandmother’s cousin as a result of injuries sustained in World War I might have explained why I hit a brick wall when I asked her about her extended family more than forty years ago, but I will never know. I would like to be able to say that whatever details existed of that conversation came flooding back to me once I learned the facts. When confronted with the data on the screen, I seem to recall the conversation turning back at a point around the time of the war at which someone had died — and that the person involved was probably not one of the two relatives I already knew about. But that was more than four decades ago, and my grandmother immediately slammed the door shut on the discussion, never to resume it, despite promises to the contrary to someday tell me more about her home town.

Numerous relatives on various sides of my family have returned, sometimes miraculously so, from battlefields around the world since the time of the American Revolution. We have also had several who opposed all wars, including an uncle who was a conscientious objector in World War II. I had heard of no one, however, who had died as a result of combat, even in the US Civil War. In this respect, until two days ago I had assumed that our family was unusual; given the cumulative number of combatants, one would have expected casualties.

Why did my grandmother remain silent? Surely I was the one kept in the dark —perhaps because of my own anti-war convictions— and my mother’s generation knew. Surely my computer-literate cousin must have shared the relevant information with his younger sister. Surely my aunt who wrote a biography of my maternal grandmother must have come across it.

I made a quick Facebook text message to that younger sister, that namesake cousin who is the same number of years older than I as my grandmother was to her own cousin. No, she had no idea about any of it —least of all about the fact that she was the fourth woman on that side of the family with the same name.

Yesterday morning I phoned my aunt, making a point of reaching her before I strode into class to read the Wilfred Owen poems. Inexplicably, she knew nothing about her mother having a cousin who perished from his wounds in World War I. She had spent years going through a veritable roomful of family documents (admittedly before the widespread digitization that made the facts almost literally drop into my lap), but still she had no information. Since she had unearthed the correspondence confirming what we knew about the arguments between my great-grandfather and grandfather, perhaps she could at least speculate about whether the opposite opinions that my grandfather and his father-in-law had had about the war was the reason for my grandmother’s rather conspicuous reticence.

At least as a first impression, my aunt believed that the dispute was not a big factor, if at all, in the absence of information. By the time even the oldest surviving children were old enough to understand family discussions, the event was more than a decade in the past. Visits were rare. Conversations would have centered on the people who were alive at the time, particularly the children in the generation after World War I. (My grandparents, with their large family, had children spread out over two full decades.) Would my great-grandfather have thundered to my grandfather when he next saw or corresponded with him with a speech like, “I have a nephew who fought on the battlefields of Europe and now has died as a result, and you, you pusillanimous jackass, you won’t even get an ordinarily civilian job?” Probably not even that, my aunt averred. Even at the time, the untimely demise of the other two people we knew about —not to mention my grandparents’ impending financial ruin— were more pressing concerns. In other words, my grandmother’s silence might not have been some sort of unwarranted damnatio memoriae but rather an oversight. If so, the conversational brick wall I encountered with my grandmother would have been the result of my age when we spoke.

My aunt and I agreed, though, that the loss of my grandmother’s cousin must have been extremely painful when she heard about it.

I have not given up on the possibility, however remote, that I can shake the family tree for more information. That particular aunt was by far my best hope, but not the only one. In the interim, though, that might not be the most important consideration. What remains is the reality that two men —my great-grandfather and his brother a year younger— each lost a child in the third decade of life and buried them in the same cemetery a year apart, decades before they were to end up there themselves. The younger brother lost a son whom many might have considered a hero, and whom a few might have viewed as a tragic victim of the vile cud (to borrow two of Wilfred Owen’s words) of circumstances that never should have arisen. The older brother lost a daughter as a result of illness spread globally by that conflict. And finally, there was my grandmother, related to all of them and married to a man of lofty ideals but with an inability to carry them out to the benefit of herself and their children. She was left to live her life in another small town in Vermont, far away from the cemetery with the fateful tales to tell.

And I was left to secure the tartan around my neck, to read to my Latin students Wilfred Owen’s account of the gas attack and “the Old Lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“It is fine and fitting to die for one’s country”).  After that, all that remained was to e-mail my other cousin one more time. Not only is she named for our great-grandmother, she herself is a grandmother. Her grandchildren are my first cousins twice removed on the younger side, the mirror image of relationship to me as the young soldier, who was my first cousin twice removed on the older side. As if to bring the family story full circle, her first-born grandson is named for the preschooler who died in December of 1917. No one we know, regardless of religious belief or political affiliation, wants him or his siblings —or anyone else, for that matter— to suffer the fate of his antecedent nearly a century ago.  “Lest we forget” must mean “never again, not to anyone.”

Author’s note: because of my older (and late) cousin’s uploading of some family information on a genealogical forum, and because my aunt self-published her own research, a reader with plenty of time on his or her hands could corroborate the information in this account, complete with names and dates. However, I felt it best for me not to. Instead, I would like to thank those relatives —my aunt, my immediately older cousin, and her late brother— who made parts of this report possible, and those others whom I have no doubt driven batty in the last day talking about it.
Aluminum luncheon pail inscribed on the top with the initials and surname name of my great-grandfather
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2014


  1. I enjoyed reading this . Thank you Mary Dower Member of Aberdeen Q Meeting Aberdeen Scotland.

  2. I've loved talking with you about it (no, not driven batty at all, tho some would tell you I already am!). And reading this was delightful! Thanks for sharing, do you mind if I send the link to my older sister and the late older brother's widow and daughter? ;)

  3. Dear Friend Mary, In yet another series of coincidences related to this post, I now have another. John S., a member of your Meeting in Aberdeen, now lives near us in Canada. He is about to hop on the big metal bird to cross the Pond to London and Aberdeen. You may see him before we do.

  4. Dear KnitNana, By all means, share it with those mentioned. It is there for your use and theirs as much as mine. 96 years is 96 years too long.

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  6. Further reply to Friend Mary Dower: I just phoned John and managed to reach him before he left. He looks forward to seeing you and your husband in his upcoming trip to Aberdeen.