Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Grandma and the Prince - Part 6 - Barbara Bretton

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

For all that Grandma El retained her love of England until the day she died, she never felt the need to go home again. When she left England for the United States during World War I, she didn’t look back. Through the years El talked endlessly about the importance of family and how it was she who kept us all together but, when push came to shove, she’d found it easy to leave her English relatives behind.

It wasn’t that easy for her sister Edith. Dede (her family nickname) was the child who had been bartered to childless relatives in return for passage to New Zealand for her parents and siblings. She was the one who’d been left behind in England while El and Cass ran free in Auckland. England was her home and always would be.

In 1963 Dede retired from her job at the Hotel Taft and moved to a three room apartment on Layton Street in Elmhurst, five short blocks from where we lived. My mom was elated. She’d adored Dede from their first meeting and the thought of having her living nearby put a permanent smile on my mother’s face. Dede was an odd combination of reserve and warmth, of wicked humor and cool sophistication. She and my mom went to the movies together every week. Risque foreign films with subtitles and content objectionable to the Diocese of Brooklyn that they laughed about afterward over coffee and pie at Dede's apartment.

My Aunt Mona, El’s daughter, adored Dede too. She took her shopping after work, out to dinner, vied with my mother for Dede’s attentions and love. Grandma was still living in New Jersey at that time, which was a good thing for all concerned. The major battles between the sisters were still a few years in the future.

R to L: my aunt Mona, my mother, Aunt Dede

Taken at my wedding 9/8/68

Dede was the one who stayed in contact with our relatives in Liverpool so when she decided to return to England for a visit, nobody was very surprised. “Come with me, El,” she said to her sister. “Let’s go home together.” But my grandmother wouldn’t consider it. “What do I want with England?” she said to Dede. “You can go alone.” And Dede did. She went to Rome and Venice and Naples. She went to Zurich and Brussels. She went to Paris. She went to London where she met a man who would become very important to her. And then she went home to Liverpool. To Sea View where she’d spent her childhood.

To the same dog she’d played with as a girl? Wait a second!

The well-groomed collie was sprawled on the lawn when her cab pulled up the long curving drive. What a well-behaved dog, Dede thought. He didn’t even glance her way when she called to him. “That looks just like Teddy,” my aunt said to the cousins who greeted her. “That is Teddy,” they said. “He died the year after you left for America. Grandmamma had him stuffed.”

I am descended from a long line of animal lovers but obviously some of them loved animals a tad too much. Poor Teddy had spent the last forty-five years as a lawn ornament, brought inside only when it rained. “We just couldn’t part with him,” they said. “We comb his hair ever day.”

That was one of the nicer family stories Dede told us. The other ones? Well, let's just say I'm not proud of the genetic mix bubbling through my veins. My great great grandfather was master of all he surveyed. When Dede moved back to Sea View, he was still the patriarchal figure whose moods set the tone for life inside the great house. The Edwardian Era flourished in London, but the Victorian Era, in all of its repressed and urgent sexuality, still reigned in my family’s home. My great great grandfather knew he existed above the law within the walls of his house. Children lived in the shadows, in a netherworld of adult expectations and their own fragile dreams.

They knew what they were doing, my family, when they asked for Dede rather than El. Dede was tall and awkward, a quiet girl who grew into an introspective woman. She lived an interior life. Not so my Grandma El. El would not have gone quietly to her new home. Society’s conventions were enough to still Dede’s protests. Society would have had to work much harder on El. I like to believe society would have lost the battle.

No one spoke up against my great great grandfather. His daughter Claire retreated into her own private world. She crept through the house on silent feet, seeing everything, revealing nothing at all. Dede would awaken with a start in the middle of the night to find Claire standing over her, gazing down at her with vacant eyes. No motherly touch from Claire, no words of comfort from anyone at all.

(Would it surprise you to learn that Dede grew up to be a reserved, self-contained, independent woman who turned into the quintessential geisha each and every time she fell in love?)

My great great grandfather’s reach extended beyond Sea View. Your daughter for my patronage, he’d said to the dairy farmer. The dairy farmer thought it sounded like a fine deal and the two men struck a bargain. The girl, a scared little chit in a faded cotton dress that had obviously known its share of owners, was delivered that night to Sea View. Dede watched from her window on the second floor as the child walked around back to the servants' entrance. Briefly she considered tapping on the window, to let the girl know there was someone who understood what she was feeling, but Dede knew an action like that would bring the wrath of God down on her own head and so she kept silent.

I learned from Dede that my great great grandfather died in bed one night with a young girl spread-eagled and crying beneath him. There was a sense of acceptance about Dede as she told this story that puzzled me, but that was only because I was too young to really understand what she wasn’t saying. I was a happy, spoiled American child of the 1950s. Stories about rich relatives and spooky mansions and Jane Eyre-ish little girls passed around like baseball cards were the stuff of the books I devoured on a daily basis. The fact that this was real, that it had happened to my Aunt Dede, took years to sink in.

A hint of things to come: Dede runs off to Detroit with a handsome cop. My grandmother ends up destitute with two kids under the age of five. (Although I didn't find out about that until I was fifty years old!)

As with most things in my life, it is only through writing about them that I've come to understand my family's history.

Okay, maybe "understand" isn't the right word. Let's just say I'm starting to make a little sense out of it.

Thanks to all of you who have read and enjoyed the story so far. I appreciate your comments more than I can say. This month three commenters chosen at random will receive signed copies of CASTING SPELLS and JUST DESSERTS as a small token of gratitude.

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 2009.


housemouse88 said...

This is my first day at reading your this part of your life. I will have to go back and start at Part 1. This is fascinating. Have a great day.

traveler said...

Thanks so much for this wonderful and ongoing saga. This story captivated me immediately and I could not wait to read futher. I enjoy family sagas which I read mainly and this is even better since it is a true story that is enthralling and fascinating.

Ash said...

Thanks for this saga! It's really interesting and captivating. And what makes it more so is because it's true.

robynl said...

love reading family history accounts; very interesting.

Constance said...

the whole parrot thing begins to make sense...

MJ said...

I love the part about Teddy! That is so my sister. I hope she doesn't read this. LOL She may get ideas.


Estella said...

You have a very interesting family!
I enjoy reading about them.

Amy said...

This is fascinating. It must be odd and weird and wonderful to discover such things about your own family. Please hurry with the next installment!

Pat Cochran said...

Are there more installments set for
the future? Such an unforgettable

Pat Cochran

anne said...

Thanks for this amazing story and the photos. whenever I read a true story about a family it is so emotional and memorable. I enjoyed your installments very much.

Vicky said...

It is so wonderful to hear stories that happened to your relatives long ago. Before my Grandfather passed away, he would tell stories that started with, When we came here in our horse and buggy. I would just sit there and listen all afternoon. I really miss those stories now that he is gone. I know you enjoy those also so thank you for sharing your stories with us. I really enjoy it.

Thanks, Vicky

Michele L. said...

Hi Barbara,

OOooo...absolutely fascinating history of your grandmother! I have enjoyed every installment on Tote Bags N Blogs. You are an amazing writer and you bring your ancestry vividly to life!

I can't wait to read your next installment! What happens next? I guess I will have to wait and see!

Alison said...

I've only just come in at part 6 and it's so fascinating I'm going to go right back and read from the beginning. It's amazing how so many 'ordinary' people have extraordinary stories

CrystalGB said...

Hi Barbara. I am enjoying reading about your family.

Stacy S said...

It's so interesting to read about families. The pictures have been great!

Virginia said...

Thanks so much for sharing this story with us. I have found all of these very interesting. I love hearing about peoples families. You have to charish these stories!

kimmyl said...

Thanks for a great post. Love reading about history saga.

Barbara Bretton said...

Thanks for all the terrific comments. After writing fiction for years, it's very strange to see my family stories up there on the screen. I can't tell you how much I love sharing them with you and how terrific it is to read your feedback. The next one will post on May 20th.

Barbara Bretton said...

And the winners are:

1. kimmyl
2. housemouse88
3. Pat Cochran

Please send me your mailing address at and I'll do the rest.