When you’re a kid, you take people–particularly your relatives–as they appear to you. I remember my grandmother Louise with great fondness and a little amusement: a beautifully turned out woman with gray hair and a mink stole (it was the 60s) and a slightly fussy apartment in Los Angeles which included a glass high heeled shoe that, as a 5 year old visitor, I found enchanting, because of course it must have belonged to Cinderella, and how had Grannie wound up with it? Louise was a life-long Republican, a good Episcopalian, and seemed to me, as a child, as the squarest little old lady in the world. She would have greeted that assessment with approval, and her slightly sly I-know-things smile. Here are some of the things I know now about my Grannie that I didn’t know then.
She was born in Iowa, but grew up as the slightly indulged daughter of the only pharmacist in Kearney, Nebraska (when I read Main Street or Arrowsmith, Kearney is how I imagine Zenith). Her family was better than comfortable, but not the top tier of Kearney society. In fact, when some of the top tier of Kearney society went bust, they traded pieces of their high-end furniture to my great grandfather to secure their family’s medicines.
Grannie went east to finishing school for at least a couple of years, which is where she met Joe who (reading between the lines) was the great love of her life. It didn’t work out; with plucky resolve she went to a Normal School, got a teaching certificate, and wound up teaching in a territory school near the Mexican border. Apparently she liked the kids–and the teaching–well enough, but ran aground at the expectation that she would deliver corporal punishment to the unruly among her students. So back to Kearney she went.
She married my grandfather, an osteopath named Ellwyn DeLaittre George, and they had two daughters, Barbara and Juliette. And then, rather daringly for small-town Nebraska in the 1920s, she got divorced. In the early 1930s–right in the middle of the Depression–Grannie decided to move to Los Angeles; she took a class and became an apartment building manager, a job that came with an apartment and a salary that would let her–carefully–support herself and her daughters. The first apartment apparently did not have a front door–the doorway was behind the manager’s desk. And the apartment was so small that when my mother and my aunt came out to LA to live with their mother, my mom slept with her mother in a Murphy bed and Aunt Julie slept in the tub.
When my great-grandfather died, my great grandmother came out to live in LA with Louise and the girls. This household of women didn’t have much in the way of money, but the girls went to the movies every weekend and sang in the choir at church, and went to Hollywood High School during the war years. By the time I showed up (that’s me in the photo) Louise’s days as an apartment manager were in the past, and she settled comfortably into the role in which I knew her. When my aunt married, Louise moved into an apartment in the building, and she, with my aunt and uncle, drove cross country and had adventures and enjoyed themselves hugely.
Louise said once (during a discussion about politics) that she “never needed Social Security.”* When asked why, “I had Daddy.” I think this was a statement less about money than about the security her family gave her that enabled her to occasionally wander outside the lines drawn for respectable young women, young wives, even little old ladies.
*I imagine, however, that she cashed any Social Security checks that came her way.