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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Grandma and the Prince - Part 18

<==Grandpa at 100, holding a copy of one of my time travels

Yes, the title is Grandma and the Prince but this month my post isn't about Grandma El. I thought I'd switch things up and introduce you to my Grandpa Larry. He was my mother's father and the man Grandma El almost married when I was a very little girl. Their love affair scandalized the family and it burned brightly (in memory at least) until they died.

This is the story he told me about how he came to marry Lillian, the Swedish girl who was his first (of five!) wives.

I hope you enjoy it. (And yes, I'll be back with more Grandma El next month.)

* * *

In August 1995 my grandfather Loren (AKA Larry) was diagnosed
with cancer. He was ninety-nine years old at the time and the
prognosis was poor.

It seemed crazy to me, subjecting an old man to major surgery
but my grandfather was in his right mind and the choice was his.
"What do I have to lose?" he asked in his plain-spoken way. If
he was going to go out, he'd go out fighting. Go gentle into that good
night? You've got to be kidding.

Grandpa sailed through surgery and things were looking up when a
post-surgical infection sent him spinning toward oblivion.
Finally the call we'd been dreading came through.

"He only has a few hours," the doctor said. "You'd better get
in here fast."

An hour later we were standing by his bed, saying goodbye. "No
tears," Grandpa said. "I've had a grand life and it's time I went. I'm
not afraid."

We made some kind of silly joke about the other side, about the
wives waiting for him there and how he would have to finally choose
which one he loved most of all. He laughed as I'd known he would but
there was something else on his mind. Something he had to get off his
chest.

"It's about Lillian," he said to me. "Your grandmother."

His first wife.

"Please don't, Dad," my mother said. Lillian was her mother and
theirs had been a tragic relationship. "If it's something awful, I
don't want to know."

His blue eyes welled with tears. "I have to--"

"Tell me," I said as my mother nodded. "I want to know." So
much of their lives have been shrouded in secrets. So much has been
lost. Their secrets couldn't hurt me but they could help me piece
together my heritage.

My parents and husband left me alone with Grandpa and the
roomful of equipment meant to keep him alive a little longer. He began
to talk, slowly at first with the sense of drama and timing that is
second nature to the natural-born storyteller, relating a story I was
very familiar with. He grew up in Kansas, one of five children. His
mother was Chippewa Indian. His father Scots-Irish. My
great-grandmother died of breast cancer when Grandpa was ten years old
and my great-grandfather's grief was so great that he killed himself
rather than deal with life without his Eliza. Or so I was told. Who
can say? Some people are strong enough to bear whatever pain life
throws their way. Others turn to dust.

The little ones were easy enough to place. There was always room
for a cute toddler. And the older boy was strong and hard-working.
What farmer wouldn't benefit from another pair of hands?

That left Loren, the middle boy. Too old to be cute. Too young
to be useful. He bounced between a series of foster homes and, by his
twelfth birthday, was on his own. I guess in some ways he lived the
American dream. When his parents were alive, they'd sailed across the
Kansas plains in a prairie schooner. Now he sailed across the country,
riding the rails north to the Grand Tetons, then over to Oregon and
Washington State where he found a job at a logging camp. When World War
I started, he joined the Navy and the rest of the world, the world he
knew only from books, opened up before him.

1922 found Loren in New York City. The War was over. He was
still in the Navy, stationed in Brooklyn while his ship was in dry dock.
One night his pal Tom asked Loren if he wanted to go out to supper and
a show with two shop clerks Tom had met earlier in the day. "You've
gotta do this for me, Larry," Tom said to my grandfather. "It's the only
way Marie'll go out with me."

Larry was happy to oblige. He loved New York, loved everything
it promised, couldn't imagine wanting to live anywhere else. When he
was discharged from the Navy, he would make his home right there, at the
crossroads of the world.

Lillian was a pretty young woman, but there were no sparks. She
reminded him of the girls he'd left behind in Kansas, good girls who
wanted homes and families of their own. She'd come over from Sweden a
few months earlier to live with her father and brother. She worked
eight hours a day selling notions but her main job was to cook and clean
for the men.

He and Lillian enjoyed supper and the show then said goodnight
and went their separate ways.

"She was a nice girl," he said to me, "but that was all."
Lillian was as innocent and wide-eyed as she could be. Certainly no
match for a young man who'd seen the world.

He didn't think of her again until one night, a few weeks later,
when a telegram arrived for him.

"I didn't want to open it," he told me. "Telegrams always meant
bad news." His pals gathered around him for support as he tore into the
yellow envelope and read the message.

"Noon Tuesday under Station clock," the telegram said. "Please
be there."

It was signed "Lillian."

He didn't want to go. He told himself she meant nothing to him,
that she was just a girl he'd shared supper with and a double feature.
Everything in him screamed for him to rip up that telegram and forget
he'd ever seen it. Hell, he barely knew her at all. She was the friend
of a friend of a friend, some funny-talking foreigner who was trying to
make her way in a strange country. It wasn't like he owed her anything.
He had better things to do with a New York afternoon than see her
again.

Rip it up, he told himself. Toss it in the trash. That was
where it belonged. There were a million girls out there, girls who
smelled like perfume instead of soap. Girls who would laugh at his
jokes instead of nodding politely because they only understood every
other word.

Who can say why he didn't rip it up? Even now, almost
seventy-five years later, Loren doesn't know why himself.

But that decision changed his life and made mine possible.

Noon found him crossing that giant rotunda, long Navy-trained
steps heading toward the clock, with his blood pounding hard in his ears
and a warning whistle loud inside his head. You could feel the trains
rumbling beneath your feet. Smell the diesel fuel. Men in suits and
ties pushed past him. Boys hawked newspapers every few feet. Fancy
women in flowered dresses drifted by. He couldn't even imagine what
they were about or where they were going. He was thinking about their
secret lives, these rich city folk, when he saw her standing under the
clock.

Lillian wore a plain pink cotton dress, white hose, and heavy
black shoes. Her pale blond hair was knotted on top of her head. At
her feet was a cardboard valise. He saw that valise and his heart near
to stopped beating inside his chest. A needy little girl looking for someone
to save her.

Run, his gut screamed. He'd been making his life
alone through life for more than ten years and he liked it that way.

He didn't need this. He didn't want it. Hell, he didn't deserve it. A
buzzing sounded inside his skull, drowning out the commotion around him.
Lillian raised her hand to him in greeting and he put one foot in front
of the other, moving toward her even though it was the last thing he
wanted to do.

"I knew you would come," she said, squeezing his hand. "I knew
it!"

How could she know something he didn't know himself? Something
he still wasn't sure of even though he was standing there, close enough
to smell soap and cinnamon.

Her story was a simple one, probably played out half a dozen
times a day or more in New York City. Her father had found himself a
new wife and there was no longer any room for Lillian in the little
lower East Side flat. She'd asked everyone she knew for help. The
girls she worked with, her boss at the dime store. She'd answered every
newspaper ad she could find. She'd spent the last two nights in a
womens' shelter but she'd finally run out of options. She thought the
Navy gave the men apartments to live in and she'd happily cook and clean
in return for a roof over her head. Nothing more than that.

They ate together then walked the length and breadth of the city
while he tried to figure out a way to help her. Something about the
girl touched him, maybe reached the part of his heart he'd believed died
with his parents back on the flat Kansas plains. He knew how it felt to
be alone. He knew how it felt to want nothing more than the safety of a
roof. Shelter from the storm.

"I'd give you money if I had it," he said, meaning it. They
were walking up Broadway. He would never forget the way her hair looked
in the fierce orange light of the setting sun. "Enough so's you could
have a place to live." But he only had his small Navy salary. Enough
for him to live on, but he didn't have to worry about room and board.
The Navy took care of that for him. Only the married sailors got more.

Just enough so they could set up housekeeping with a wife.

The words kind of hung there between them, all ripe-to-bursting.
They looked around those words and under them but, no matter how hard
they tried, those damn words wouldn't go away.

It wouldn't be a real marriage. They both agreed on that. How
could it be a real marriage when they didn't even know each other?
Besides, Loren had no interest in a wife and family. His father's
sorrow had destroyed his family and my grandfather vowed he'd never let
himself get in that position. He wanted a hell of a lot more out of
life than sorrow and responsbility.

They worked out the details over coffee and donuts. A marriage
of convenience, same as in those old movies they both loved. Lillian
would have a place to live and a little extra money. Loren would go his
own way, married in name only to a woman he barely knew.

Except for one small thing.

Eleven months later, on September 7, 1920 while Loren was sailing the South China Sea, his first son was born.

* * *

PS: I'm Barbara Bretton and you can find me here and here. It's been awhile since my last giveaway. I'll pick one name from the comments. The winner will receive signed copies of CASTING SPELLS, LACED WITH MAGIC, and JUST DESSERTS and some saltwater taffy straight from the Boardwalk at Atlantic City!


On sale in November ==>

16 comments:

Laney4 said...

I enjoyed your little piece of history. Very touching. I wish I had your gift of writing.

My story is that I was 39 when I found out my dad wasn't my bio dad (nor my brother's bio dad). We both had the same bio dad, a good friend of the family (or so we thought). Apparently the whole town and older family knew but us for many years. We could have bloodwork done to compare our samples with those of our two older sisters, since all three parents have been gone for decades, but there's no sense. What's done is done. Life goes on.

And so it will go on without your Grandpa Larry. He sounds like quite the character. God bless and thanks for the memories.

host said...

Thank you for sharing your family history with us.

Carol L. said...

What an amazing story about an amazing man. What kindness and compassion. I loved this story. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.
Carol L.
Lucky4750@aol.com

Laurie said...

Isn't it amazing how a spur of the moment decision can have such life altering results!

I'm so happy that he chose to help her out. It sounds like he was quite a charmer!

traveler said...

I was captivated with this wonderful story. It is emotional and beautiful and memorable as well. Thanks for this great and true post.

Melanie said...

I love to hear stories like this it reminds me of the ones I know of my own family.

CrystalGB said...

Your grandfather sounds amazing. Thank you for sharing your family stories with us.

chey said...

What a wonderful story!

Pat Cochran said...

Barbara,

I've been waiting for the next
chapter in the story! Such amazing
characters in this real-life tale.
Thanks for sharing with us!

Pat Cochran

Estella said...

I am really enjoying the story of your family!

mariska said...

What a wonderful family story !
And Happy knowing your Barbara, you are a new for me author :)

VintageDM Book Reviews said...

What a great story. It's wonderful that you had time to hear stories from your grandparents. That is something I will always envy of others as all mine but one are gone as is our family history.

dkidd2020 said...

I love the story. Can't wait to read your other posts. My husband will be away for the weekend and I should have some time to do it.

Terri said...

Oh, I really enjoyed your story, Barbara! I still say you should fictionalize this into a novel! Thanks for sharing it. I guess those marriages were pretty common back then.

marybelle said...

I love history & family history is fascinating. It's like a doorway that leads to secret lives.

marypres@gmail.com

petite said...

This family story is enthralling and fabulous. What a wonderful post.