My grandmother was born in 1900, and grew up on a farm outside the very tiny town of Anita, Iowa.
Her mother had died when she was a girl. Her father needed a wife to take care of the domestic duties and to mind the six children, so he advertised and married a woman “in name only.”
This new wife, in time, became much beloved by the children, and eventually Grandmommy’s daddy, too. Soon, their marriage became a real love story.
Grandmommy watched her brothers travel to Berkeley, California to study at the University. Since she was anxious to escape the farm environment that held her a prisoner (Oh, she wanted excitement and glamour), she followed them to UC Berkeley to get her college degree…and a husband. My grandmother was a beautiful woman and many guys wanted to marry her. But she sensibly chose my grandfather, Jay Reed, a man with good moral character, a strong work ethic (he, too, had grown up on a farm), and business ambition.
(That’s my grandmother, in the center of the photo, with her siblings. Still good-looking even at the age of fifty!)
Granddaddy eventually became the CEO of a successful import/export firm in San Francisco, and a few years before World War II broke out he bought a lovely home in an exclusive district in the city.
But the farm ethic was strong in both of them.
In one corner of the garage, they had an old wash and rinse tub with a wringer overhanging the tub. On Mondays, the two of them would dunk their laundry in the steaming tub and wait while the old machine slowly churned. Granddaddy always made us stay well away of the tub and the wringer. He was super cautious about everything that could possibly endanger us. They put the laundry items through the wringer, then the rinse, then the ringer again. Even years after Granddaddy died, my grandmother kept that old washing machine.
After the wringer,everything got hung on a wire that Granddaddy had strung down the length of the garage. Grandmommy had a contraption call a mangle. Some of you older people know what that is. Her sheets and table cloths and napkins had been heavily starched, and then they would go through the mangle for pressing.
A coal man used to deliver coal and set it in a bin in their garage. On cold days, Granddaddy would tote a big lump upstairs for their fireplace.
Granddaddy worked in the financial district of San Francisco right at the bottom of all those impossible hills that cable cars climb. He rode the street cars there and back, and when he arrived home, Grandmommy would have his favorite bourbon and soda and some little appetizers ready for him. They’d sit in the lanai (a kind of sun room) and talk for about an hour while Granddaddy’s favorite chicken was baking in the oven.
Their life was predictable and organized, quiet, and unemotional. They had rules, which we followed without question. One did not question people of that generation.
No running in the house. No yelling. No “unglamorous frowns.”
Put your wraps in the closet immediately. In fact, everything in its place.
No feet on furniture.
Do not touch Grandmommy’s international dolls in the linen closet.
And especially…do not sit in Mr. Howell’s chair. Ever. Grandmommy had explained who Mr. Howell was, but that memory had become buried or lost by early childhood mental pruning We didn’t dare ask for a re-telling of the story of Mr. Howell and the reason for my grandparent’s devotion to his memory. Still, we never touched Mr. Howell’s chair, even though the man had long since passed away.
My grandparents had lived a long time, and even though they didn’t tell too many stories from the old days, we knew their brain’s mental archives had shelved a wealth of them.
Granddaddy played the piano sometimes, usually at the end of a dinner party. He especially liked to play 1920 era pop duets with my uncle Harold. I loved the funny old lyrics. Granddaddy put his heart into his playing, which was about the only time he let emotion show.
I loved my grandparents and respected them. I loved their rules, even the ones that didn’t make sense, because I knew their wisdom far exceeded mine.
I miss the days of respect for older people. For the old memories and stories, the lovely rules of etiquette, the way men tipped their hats and held doors and carried packages for women, the culture that makes no sense to the younger generation, the civility, the expectation of good behavior, and the censure of wrong speech and actions.
Do you feel sad, too, for the loss of that generation?