Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Grandma and the Prince - Part 4 (Barbara Bretton)

I'm going to jump forward in time this month and give you a preview of things to come. Next month we'll head back into the early 20th century and visit New Zealand and New York City.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3


Once upon a time my Grandma El and her daughter, my Aunt Mona, dated the same man.

Unfortunately that man was my grandfather.

I thought that would get your attention. I didn't cut my teeth writing confession stories for nothing. If you want to sell your story to an overworked, underpaid editor, you've got to hit her right between the eyes with a left hook she's not likely to forget.

For a brief moment in time and space, my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather were simultaneously spouseless. (Which was pretty much of a miracle, if you consider the fact that my Grandpa Larry had five of them and Grandma El had three.)

My grandfather Bert died on June 1, 1950. My grandmother El and Grandpa Larry both remarried in 1954. I did the math. Somewhere between 1950 and 1954 they got up close and personal and damn near turned the Fuller/McNutt family on its ear.

For such a tiny family, mine seemed to generate enough sturm und drang to rival any fictional clan Tennessee Williams ever dreamed up. My husband likes to say we're small but volatile. And that's about as good a way to put it as any other I've heard. This, however, was more than any of them could handle.

Grandma El in NYC around 1952

I don't remember anything about that time. I was too young and families were much better at keeping secrets in the 50s than they are now. However, the knowledge that El and Larry had been briefly engaged seemed to become part of my particular universe when I was around six or seven years old. I loved my new grandparents (Les and Bess. Who could make that up?) but it always seemed a shame to me that El and Larry hadn't been able to make a go of it. Being around them was like going on vacation. They loved to dance and laugh and travel. They were both social creatures who enjoyed nothing more than being around other people, a trait I most definitely did not inherit. Put me in a crowd of strangers and I clam up and scuttle toward the nearest exit. Put either one of them in a crowd of strangers and--well, let's just say they didn't stay strangers long.

When El and Larry walked into a room, they brought their own built-in spotlights. Star quality? Absolutely. They both had it in spades. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with looks. It was something else, something that went so deep that my grandfather still had it--whatever it might be--when he died at 100 years of age. Oh yes, they were a match made in romantic heaven and, for a time, it looked like they'd have the happy ending I've spent many years writing about.

So where does El's daughter Mona enter into it? She's the one who told me she'd dated Larry while he was dating her mother. Sex or movies? I don't have the answer to that one. I'm not even sure I want the answer.

Still, although it was more than fifty years after the fact, the look of triumph in her eyes was unsettling. Picture the teenage girl with the dying father and high-stepping mother. Picture the rebellious young woman with the Ava Gardner looks who finds a way she can hurt her mother and shake up the family at the same time.

Mona at 16

It's Christmas 1952. The middle-aged mother is widowed and unsure of herself as a woman. The daughter is twenty-six and in her prime.

The man? Well, he just might be in over his head.

Grandma El and Grandpa Larry

My parents took sides. My mother's sympathies were with El. My father's were with Larry. As my mother once told me, "I had no childhood baggage with El, the way your father did. It was easier for me to love her."Same as my dad loved Larry. There was a connection between the two men that was easily as close as the connection between a father and his natural child. My grandfather's five marriages didn't turn my dad's childhood into chaos.

But, in the end none of that mattered, because the whole affair was already barreling toward the finish line, thanks to a pair of birthday earrings from Larry that El decided to have appraised. For insurance purposes, she said, but I have my doubts. My grandmother was appalled to discover that her beautiful earrings were courtesy of Macy's and Monet. My grandfather was appalled to discover that it mattered so much to her.

They broke up and before the year was out both had married other people.

Grandma El's wedding to Grandpa Les - she looks so sad, doesn't she?

The rivalry between El and Mona, however, intensified.

El & Larry at my 1968 wedding; Bess refused to attend

Grandma in her 70s; her life force comes right through, doesn't it?

In 1982 my grandfather took a mutually agreed-upon hiatus from his fifth marriage. He was 86 years old and living a comfortable life in Rossmoor, a retirement village south of Princeton. Unfortunately he and Bess were rubbing each other the wrong way and they decided that a separation was the way to go. In typical fashion, my grandfather took nothing but the clothes on his back, his NY Mets baseball cap, his books and photographs. He moved back to Elmhurst, about four blocks awayfrom his daughter and son-in-law.

And about ten blocks away from El and Mona.

You know that old saying, too close for comfort? This situation defined it and it brought out the worst in everyone. What should have been z happy time of reunion and re-discovery turned into an utter disaster.

Grandma Bess called me two and three times a week. "What's your grandfather doing?" she would ask me, sounding angry and fearful and all shades of emotion in between. "Has he seen THAT WOMAN?" THAT WOMAN, of course, was my eighty-two year old Grandma El. God only knows what she would have done if she'd known about Mona.

Mona seemed indifferent, but Grandma El glowed like a schoolgirl every time she saw my grandfather. I'll admit that I once again entertained fantasies of seeing the two of them walk off into the sunset together. But life was just too complicated for such a simple, satisfying ending. There was too much history between them. Too much history between the lot of them.

Now picture a dinner table in Elmhurst, Queens. Picture a celebration. I'd sold my first book. I was thirty-one years old and flying high. My small-but-volatile family had gathered to toast my success and the champagne was flowing. There's a photo of El and Larry sitting next to each other at the table. They're in the same pose they'd been in thirteen years earlier at my wedding, huge smiles and twinkling eyes and a sense of rightness about them that maybe only I could see. (I've been tearing the house apart looking for it. I promise to post it when it shows up.)

Mona was at this dinner too. Maybe it was the champagne. Maybe it was a lot of other things.. Whatever it was, she began to talk. She pitched her voice low so only I could hear. "He wanted to make sure she was taken care of," she said, referring to her father Bert. "He told Larry to take care of Mother. She was still young and he wanted her to be happy."

"I don't get it," I remember saying to her. "He wanted Grandpa Larry to find someone for Grandma?"

"Find someone for her?" I can still hear Mona's bitter laugh. "He wanted him to sleep with her."

According to my aunt, in 1948, the year my parents were married-- four years before I thought anything had happened between them-- my Grandpa Bert called his wife and his son's father-in-law into his sick room to give them his blessing. "Take care of her," he told Larry. "I don't want her to be alone." Did he suspect something had already developed between them and he was trying to tell them it was okay? Or was it wishful thinking on his part, a last-ditch effort to keep the two sides of the family together after he was gone?

Either way, Grandpa Bert's time was almost past, while Grandma's was just beginning.

PS: I'm Barbara Bretton, author of CASTING SPELLS, and you can also find me here and here and here.


Estella said...

This is such an exciting history!

Unknown said...

Love your family history, Barbara! :) And that opening certainly got my attention!

Pat Cochran said...

Boy Howdy,

There are more twists and turns in
this life story than in watching
Chubby Checker dance!! Please don't
say that this is the end! Have you
considered writing this history yourself?

Pat Cochran

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