Do you remember those old B-movie westerns? They were TV staples when I was a kid. The good guys wore white hats; the bad guys wore black. You cheered the heroes and hissed at the villains and you never for a second questioned who was right and who was wrong. You just knew.
Too bad life isn't like that. One of the things I've discovered as I dig back into my Grandma El's life is that there are shades of grey everywhere I look and nobody left to help shine some light in the dark corners.
According to the story my Grandma El told me, her father was a ladies man. "A divil of a man," she called him and I'm not sure whether or not it was a compliment. She claimed her mother gave as good as she got and for my great-grandmother Nell's sake, I hope she did.
Sometime around 1904 when my grandmother was 4 years old, her father Charley did something so dastardly, so unforgivable, that he had to take his family and leave England for New Zealand. (Let's face it: you couldn't get much farther away from home, could you?) Although he had been born into money, he'd apparently squandered his share and couldn't afford passage for his wife and three kids so he turned to the family at Sea View for help.
I've warned you that the Dimlers weren't exactly the Waltons, right? Well, great-grandpa Charley "sold" his eldest child, Edith, to relatives at Sea View for enough money to get him to New Zealand and set himself up with his own butcher shop.
I know. It boggles the mind. Poor Dede was only seven years old at the time, a tall gangly introspective blond in a family of short and boisterous redheads. Can you imagine how she felt when her parents and siblings sailed away? (Actually I know how she felt and will tell you next month.)
I've often wondered why my great-grandfather chose New Zealand. Out of all the places in the world, why such a far away (and beautiful) country? And why didn't I ever ask my grandmother that question?
They settled down in Auckland, in a small house on Ponsonby Road that my grandmother loved.
The photos are front and back of a "real photo" postcard my Charley sent to Dede from New Zealand. Unfortunately Grandma El glued the postcard into an album so much of the message on the back was lost.
The postcards lead me to believe that Dede had been left in her grandfather's care, something that makes my blood run cold. Her life must have been something out of a Gothic novel. Not so Grandma El's life. She loved every second of their ten years in New Zealand. Decades later, she glowed when she talked about the beauty and freedom of the place. (She claimed her best friends were neighboring Maori kids but I'm not sure that wasn't wishful thinking on her part.)
In 1914 Charley ran out of money and into trouble again and packed up the family for the return trip to England.
He didn't stay long. In 1916 the entire family, Dede included, was on its way to America.
Here are Grandma El's words, transcribed from a tape I made of her during the summer of 1976: "We came back to England when I was 14. They were broke and in disgrace. We stayed at Sea View for two years. Oh, Barbara, the things people thought! The Germans were the enemy and someone said my grandfather was signalling them with secret messages and people threw rocks at us and set fire to the house. We were hated by the town. You don't know what it was like . . . the bombs . . . the fires . . . the zeppelins overhead . . . terrible . . . terrible. Then he decided we were going to America. It was 1916. The War was still on but he had to go. We made the trip on an American ship. We stopped in the middle of the Atlantic with our engines off on account of the submarines everywhere. I remember that only the American flags on the ship saved us.
"I remember it was hot, so hot, when we reached New York. We didn't waste any time getting jobs. The second day our parents said, 'Find work," and we didn't know anything. I was brought up rich. I couldn't do anything. So I found a job as a nursemaid for a rich Jewish family on Central Park West. I took care of their little girl and the mother used to say to her, 'Now you should learn to speak like Elsie -- cahn't, tomahto' and I would feel so good to be appreciated.
"We used to go--I can see it now--to the swanky shops like B. Altman on Fifth Avenue. She had a chauffeur and a limousine and I would sit in the rear and I can still see him placing the fur robes over the madam and the girl. But not me. It wasn't done. I told them that I'd had servants too but who knows if they believed me. I was just a green kid.
"One day I left them. I don't know why. I just left. I didn't know any better. [silence] You don't know what it was like to come here . . . everything so big . . . so much . . . all the food and stores and people. I loved it from the first."
And then the unthinkable happened: Charley died of a heart attack at 47 years of age.
May 2, 1922
22 Ashfield Rd
Mrs. Dimler, our united and heartfelt sympathy go out to all of you in your dreadfully sudden Bereavement. It was a bombshell to me and tears trickled down my face whilst reading the sad news to the rest of the family at the Breakfast table.
May God be with you in this your hour of trial.
Margaret is away at Chester - and we wrote her the sad tidings. She replied immediately - sending her love and sympathy.
Now as regards Charley's affairs under his late mother's will -- you may rest assured that your interested will be carefully guarded by the Enors. It is a pity Charley did not make a will - especially as he wrote me regarding in his very last letter. You may have possibly read my reply to it - stating that the balance eventually due to him after meeting his legal liabilities is somewhere around about 150 pounds - perhaps a little more, perhaps a little less.
I presume Charley was still a British subject at the time of his death - if so this money will be disbursed according to British law. If on the other hand he was a naturalized American (and I never heard anything) then I must have documentary evidence of this fact and a letter from a New York Notary Public direct - stating American law on this point. You quite understand, don't you, that if Charley was not an American then all this red tape business and expense will be unnecessary. So please write me by return so we may put things in order. Also please thank Cassy for his very feeling letter.
With kind regards to all of you we remain yours in sympathy,
The Ludeck Family
To be continued.
PS: I'm Barbara Bretton and you can find me here and here and here. My next book, LACED WITH MAGIC, will be released in August. I hope you'll watch for it.