Sunday, July 7, 2013

in-laws, outlaws and other dangers


On the other hand, my mother's parents were none too eager to see their daughter wed my father.  And they let it be known.

My mother was young and, she says, foolish often in their eyes: a tomboy and helter-skelter young hellion who was always in trouble.  Always doing stupid things, naughty things, awkward things. Who had only recently succumbed to the  efforts of my grandmother to polish her up into young ladyhood.

My grandparents, who had grown up dirt poor, had left the dust of their childhoods behind them.  They prided themselves on their immigration into a higher class, sailing to those golden shores by way of hard work and education.  Which they were not going to let their children forget.


Though of course Americans don't believe there should be classes in society.


But just in case they did, my grandparents were going to make it clear exactly where they now belonged.

In the first scrimping years, while my grandfather was getting his doctorate, working at night as a glass-blower, while my grandmother worked as a hairdresser by day, even then they made a point to present themselves as people of refinement.

And they were.  In my eyes, at least, they were always the picture of gentility.

Coiffed and groomed, slim and stylish in my memory and in all the pictures I have of them.  The many pictures I have of them.  For my grandfather documented the progress of his family with countless photographs focused on a life of intelligent, well-behaved pursuits. Dance lessons, marimba recitals, sightseeing trips.  The home life of the upwardly mobile professional class.

From the pictures I've seen, it seems my mother slept with curlers nearly every night.  I look at these pictures imagining that almost every morning my grandmother combed out ringlets and buttoned her daughters up in freshly ironed dresses.  I know she often stayed up late stitching new clothes for her daughters and herself so they'd be every bit as elegant as any wealthier girl.

My grandparents prized intelligence and good manners.  And appearances were not to be sneezed at, either.   "Stand up straight," my grandmother told my mother.  "Hold your stomach in," she said patting a ribbon into place.  "Walk in like a queen," she whispered in her ear.  "You can be anything you want to be," she kept telling her daughters.

And now her daughters had become nearly everything their parents had hoped they would. Their oldest daughter, my Aunt Jan, was already in medical school.  Their second girl, my mother, smart and lovely, was off to college.

"You can be anything you want to be," her father told her, "as long as it starts with Dr."

And then, all at once, their beautiful daughter wanted to marry my dad, a farm-boy with a stutter which my grandfather, a chemist but no expert in psychology, believed was a marker for mental instability. My grandparents' resistance to my parents' marriage was the drama of my young childhood, a story I never tired of hearing.  The fairytale of my coming into existence depended on the princess and the prince-in-disguise overcoming the glass hill of my grandparents' displeasure.

I loved my grandparents, loved their voices and their hands, loved the good-smelling clothes they wore and all the curious corners of their house.  And they rejoiced in me so obviously that I never understood why they wouldn't have wanted my young mother to marry my dad who was so obviously the only dad I could have ever had.

My grandfather forbade the marriage.  My grandmother offered a trip to Europe if my mom would only reconsider.  My grandfather said, in any event, he for one wouldn't show up at the wedding.

He was wrong about that one, too.

I think it was only with my birth, their first grandchild, that there began to be a thaw.  I do remember in the first years of my childhood the smoldering civility between my dad and my grandfather.

And I remember dancing out of the room with glee when one day they finally laughed, my dad and my grandfather, talking together with real liking. In the years to come that relationship mellowed into mutual respect and a certain measure of affection.  But it never became what it could have been.

Always there was a little hitch somewhere, a favoring of some tender healed place always in their stride together.

"The outlaws," my dad would call them, when they weren't around, grinning at my mother over us kids' heads.  "Your grandmother," he always called them to us, "your grandfather." And he said it with a kind of leprechaun grimace.  Unlike the fond way both my parents said "Gramma and Grampa" in reference to the grandparents on the other side.

My mother has told me she remembers she felt a little sad for her parents that they felt so badly. But for once she felt right and not wrong, certain where she had been so awkward so often before.  Just like her mother always promised, she stood up straight and walked into the rest of her life like a queen. 

Became just what she wanted.
Which my grandparents ought to have known is always the danger of good parenting.


1 comment:

Fresca said...

These stories of your parents' parents are fascinating---thanks for sharing them.

I especially love that your grandmother said she trusted that her son would choose love well.
What a great thing.
(Seems sad to me that it's rather rare... or, it's not anything I've heard people commonly say.)

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