Frink and I spent the weekend road tripping through Oklahoma and Arkansas, putting 1200 miles on the car and doing our part to stimulate the economy. It was a combination tour -- some architecture gawking, some reconnecting with family I haven't seen in years. We spent several hours with my 95-year-old Great Aunt (my grandmother's younger sister.) Her stories confirmed some details of family lore and helped set the record straight on others.
For one thing, the peace pipe I thought was my grandfather's actually belonged to my great-grandfather and is much older than I realized. It was my great-grandfather who loved the American West and traveled all over the frontier in a stagecoach, visiting the area that would become Yellowstone National Park; the Rocky Mountains; and Denver ("Queen City of the Plains"), where he met his future wife. Unfortunately, any letters he may have written from these days are long gone, although my aunt has almost every other object her parents ever owned.
Her living room is furnished with a pair of elaborately carved ebony chairs that great-grandfather bought at least 100 years ago in San Francisco, straight off the boat that carried them from China, and with the same Victorian furniture that graced her parents' parlor (although the silk upholstery has been recovered more than once in green velvet.) The peace pipe sat on a fireplace mantel in the house my great-grandfather built in 1909. That house, where my great aunt was born and my father spent his childhood, is no longer in family hands and is sadly deteriorated. The leaded glass windows are hidden behind an ugly metal storm door, and the floorboards on the once-elegant, wrap-around porch (a necessity in the hot, sultry South in the days before air conditioning) are sagging and rotted, covered with green outdoor carpet.
The family home was lost, in part, because of my ne'er-do-well grandfather (husband of The Party Grandma.) In addition to the heroin and alcohol addictions, which I knew about, it turns out that he racked up huge gambling debts. The mafia wasn't much inclined to let such debts slide, even for men with wives and young children. He also ran some kind of scam, selling policies for an insurance company, but instead of turning the money in, he gambled it away. Aunt Jackie, who would have been around 13 or 14 at the time, remembers a lot of closed doors and tears. The debts nearly bankrupted both sides of the family. Grandfather's parents paid part of it, leaving town not long after to reestablish themselves in Texas. My great-grandfather, who had pledged surety on the insurance money, scraped together the rest. This was just before the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. He had to close his once-thriving restaurant across from the town's finest hotel, and the family never recovered financially.
My childhood recollections of the Party Grandma proved accurate, at least as reflected through the eyes of her younger sister, who had to clean up after her for most of her life. Lily liked to have a good time, as two bulging albums of filled dance cards attest. This was during the Roaring Twenties, the days of bobbed hair, short spangled dresses, and the Charleston. Lily fell for a rakish young man who shared her enthusiasms for drinking, dancing, and good times. After he lost everything, Grandma left her husband and came home in disgrace, her two toddlers in tow. It was shocking to be a divorced woman in 1929 Bible Belt America, no matter the reason, and most of grandma's friends dropped her cold.
Lily's poor choice of a husband nearly destroyed my aunt's chances of marrying at all. Even in 1935, when Jackie became engaged, the taint of divorce hovered over the family. Aunt Jackie's beau was forbidden to marry a woman whose sister had disgraced the family by divorcing. He defied his parents and married her anyway, moving into her family home to help her care for Jackie's widowed mother, divorced sister, and her sister's children.
Like the heroine in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, grandma was not "a mother woman." It was Aunt Jackie who raised my father and his sister, who ironed and mended their clothes, who walked with them to Sunday School at the church around the corner. It was Aunt Jackie who consoled my teen-aged father when his mother remarried, Aunt Jackie who consoled him again when he washed out of Naval flight-training at 17 due to poor eyesight, Aunt Jackie who consoled his sister, a young wife whose husband was shot down over Germany, where he was a POW for two years, not even knowing he had an infant son.
I hope every family has an Aunt Jackie, the unsung caretakers and consolers, the keepers of heirlooms and lore.