NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post HERE. For those of you who are reading because they love stories about Neenah, I'm certain you'll find this chapter engaging and an important part of a moving human drama that has everything to do with Neenah, its history and the six degrees of separation that link link us all together.
CHAPTER II, Part 8
On our first trip back to Neenah, however, it was Mom who proved to be the problem. During the five hour drive her contribution to recollecting our 1962 visit was a litany of wrongs that Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty had rained down on her since she and Dad had gotten married some 30 years before. She insisted that Dad's beloved aunts had disapproved of her, had looked down their noses at her for not finishing her college degree, and had so much as told her that starting a family so young would hold Dad back in his career. Never mind that the sisters had bought Mom her wedding china and crystal (and had in an incredible display of generosity paid for Mom's sister Angela's wedding rehearsal dinner in 1946), and had ladened all of us each year with an unending cornucopia of Christmas presents. All that seemed to matter in Mom's world view was a brief conversation the aunts had with her shortly after she and Dad were married, in which Aunt Nell stressed the importance to Mom of finishing her college degree and to hold off having children until they were both done with school. When the intent of these remarks was challenged, Mom defended her position by citing the nurse hired to take care of Bob during their visit in 1941 - that being an indictment of her fitness as a mother - along with her conversation about the details of Bob's birth, which the two unmarried sisters quickly brought to an end with a demure, "We don't talk about such things."
Looking back on all this now I can see that Mom was jealous of the hold these two old women had over Dad, seeing them as long standing rivals for his affections and loyalty (a feeling shared incidentally by Marilyn who in her turn resented the phone calls Bob made to Mom each and every week without fail). In any case, on the drive over to Neenah I found much of Mom's tirade a little hard to swallow, and having become something of a sassy teenager suggested that there were certainly things Mom had said 30 years ago that she wouldn't want to be used against her today, adding that she should follow Grandma's advice (which Mom regularly dished up to us) that recollections like these should all go into what Grandma called a "bag of unaccountables." And not understanding yet the wisdom of quiting when ahead, I added that if Christians were supposed to be forgiving and not judge others, why was she still holding something that had happened so long ago over Aunt Betty's head, to which both Steve and Bonnie voiced their agreement. Dad said nothing and just kept driving. Mom made no immediate response to this, but after a sufficiently dramatic pause she said we were all free to make up our own minds, "only don't be tricked by all her money."
In the end, neither Aunt Betty nor the house were anything like any of us - except Dad - remembered, so visiting was all a wholly new experience. I had completely forgotten how the rooms were arranged, the richness of the décor, and the marvelous way everything smelled - not of mothballs or any artificially overwhelming floral perfume, but rather the warm oaty scent of dried hay laying in the sun. Even Mom kept insisting that she remembered a step up into the back bathroom where she had given Bob a bath in 1941, an indirect way I suppose of admitting she might not remember events exactly the way they happened (the step was actually out in the hall). There was also no presence of maids or servants except at meals, which were served with a much simplified formality in the dining room, or out on the back porch overlooking the gardens. And Aunt Betty, instead of being imperious and grand, was just a little old lady who was thrilled for the company and quite distressed that she was unable to arrange all the entertainment she had in the past. It was impossible to reconcile Mom's account of things with what we were seeing, not with the clear sense that the world was not as comfortable or as easy as it might have once been for Aunt Betty, and that the end of the line was fast approaching. In departing Mom encouraged Aunt Betty to come stay with us in Edina as part of an upcoming trip West with Aunt Dot, and a reciprocal engagement was planned for our return to Neenah at Christmas. As might be imagined, the drive back home to Minnesota was a complete reversal of the trip over, and when this was duly noted, Mom simply replied, "People sometimes change."
Aunt Betty's visit to Edina that fall was only for a day or two, it serving as a shuttle point (with Dad's driving assistance) from where she would be escorted by plane from Minneapolis in the company of Aunt Dot to spend time out west with Uncle Ned's widow, Sue, as well as visiting other relatives in a circuit that proved to be the last one Aunt Betty would ever take. In the process of the trade off, Aunt Dot flew in and stayed with us a few nights, which in Dad's absence as shuttle led to a discussion of Neenah and family history - and to Mom's astonishing revelation that we had a collection of mounted photos that had belonged to Dad's mother. The survival of these photos was particularly amazing to Aunt Dot, who over the years had repeatedly quizzed Dad on the fate of his copy of the genealogy their father had produced and that Dad had most probably tossed out with his mother's papers and personal effects in the process of closing her house in Berkeley. It was an unresolved bone of contention between them for many reasons. Their father had made copies only for his sons (none for Aunt Dot or Aunt Mary), and of the four only two were known to have survived - Uncle Ned's copy being lost in his escape from Japanese-occupied Korea during World War II. It was also galling to Aunt Dot that she and her brothers loved their stepmother more than Dad and Aunt Mary, her own children, and the genealogy was more of a beard for her real line of questioning, which was why Dad in particular, but Aunt Mary as well to an extent, were so estranged from the rest of the family.
In the limited time we had together, Aunt Dot went through each page of mounted photographs with me, identifying what they were of and who was in them as best she could. Seeing my interest in the history these pictures represented, she also encouraged me to go to the reunion of relatives that had annually taken place for nearly 100 years in southern Indiana, where my Adams grandfather had been born and where his mother had lived as a pioneer settler and recorded her memoires. In joining us in Edina the following day, Aunt Betty was equally delighted to see the pictures her sister had kept and cared for, filling in all the gaps with a delightful collection of reminiscences and details. We also talked about all the pictures she had in Neenah, offering to show them to me during Christmas. Between the two of them Aunt Betty and Aunt Dot had opened up a world that I had never known existed, one that Dad never spoke of in any meaningful way, and which in Aunt Betty's presence he not only enjoyed but clearly revelled in. It was also fascinating to me that both Dad and Aunt Dot thought his mother's name was Carolyn. Neither of them knew - as Aunt Betty clearly stated - that it was Caroline. A minor point, perhaps, but still a telling detail.
My taste for the human side of history whetted, I decided to write a biography of Grandma as a class assignment my sophomore year of high school. Like Aunt Betty, Grandma was now living alone in the retirement complex she and Aunt Jessie had moved to in 1964, her expenses provided by a trust Aunt Jessie had set up when she died two years later. At 96 Grandma was still alert, and while the details of her life had grown foggy, she had written down her recollections and life experiences some years before in a spiral notebook that I was able to use as the primary resource for my paper. Mom had encouraged me (pushed me would be more accurate) to write about Grandma, I think from a feeling of loss because of Grandma's advanced age and the distance we were from her, and also in part perhaps from the implicit disloyalty of her new found affection for Aunt Betty. Admittedly I resisted Mom's pressure at first, for as large a part as Grandma had played in my childhood, I had once too often been on the stinging end of her waspish tongue. Even on what had been our very last visit together, when I had taken Grandma on my arm to help her down from her apartment to dinner, she made a point of noting how fat I had gotten. And in that one instant, for as much as I had looked forward to seeing her again, I thought how simple it would have been to help her go down the stairs head first, and that no one would have blamed me for doing so.
But in recording her life I began to develop a more sympathetic understanding of - and a more profound curiosity about - how people come to be the way they are. In Grandma's case it was from a lifetime of hardship, disappointment and heartache that began in hardscrabble Vermont, which was as far as her father, Henry Farnham, had bothered to go in escaping the Civil War draft, the first in a lifetime of failed or abandoned plans. Married to a local girl in 1866, he shifted from job to job and fathered a steady stream of children they could barely afford to keep fed, many of whom fell ill and died of a variety of diseases, the survivors enduring a truly staggering level of deprivation and poverty (Grandma's one childhood toy was a crook neck squash dressed like a baby). Pursuing a better life by homesteading on the prairies of Nebraska, they established themselves in a one room sod house that doubled as a stable for their horses. Unable to raise more than subsistence crops their first year, they lived that winter on cornbread, sorghum and baked squash. Their life was further plagued by sudden storms, hail the size of doorknobs, and winds so powerful that a door inadvertently left open could result in the roof being taken clean off a house. More "Grapes of Wrath" than "Little House On The Prairie."
And much like the Joads in the Steinbeck novel, Grandma's family eventually pulled up stakes in Nebraska, moving in 1889 to California, where in San Jose they lived on a friend's ranch and Grandma's father found temporary work as one of the carpenters at the mansion Sarah Winchester was building there. It was also in San Jose that Grandma, at age 15, attended public school for the first time and later graduated from teacher's college, providing her with sufficient income to live modestly and support her periodically indigent parents. It was also later as a teacher in neighboring Watsonville, that Grandma met my grandfather, Arthur Luther, a lawyer who was in town securing patents for his brother's insecticides, what would later become known as Ortho Sprays. In the most incredible of coincidences, my grandparents were introduced by the minister of the Presbyterian church where by chance my grandfather heard Grandma singing in the choir - the very same church where Dad served as pastor during World War II. A month later in April of 1911 my grandparents were secretly married (this constituting a breach of her teaching contract). At the end of the school year their marriage was revealed and Grandma's new husband announced to his startled in-laws that from there on in the financial cost of providing for their dependant parents would be shared equally. While certainly the fairest way of handling the situation, and a great relief to Grandma, both she and my grandfather (being college educated and more worldly than any of their siblings) were thereafter viewed as "uppity."
In marrying my grandfather Grandma was able to enjoy more of the artistic and cultural life she had been exposed to in college, but as a couple they were no less transient than Grandma's family had been, moving eventually with their two children - Angela and Mom - to four different houses in 11 years. They finally divided their time between a small bungalow in San Leandro, a rustic cabin in Mount Hermon, and, whenever the investment properties my grandfather purchased needed repairs, one of their basement apartments in Oakland (my grandfather having abandoned his legal career in favor of being a landlord and living the fantasy life of a suburban country gentleman, gardening and writing short stories that never got published). And then in 1928, reputedly the result of climbing under one of his apartment buildings to repair the plumbing, he contracted pneumonia and died. Followed so closely by the depression, Grandma at age 46, ultimately lost their house and all the rental properties to foreclosure. Unable to find work as a teacher, she and her children had to get by on a meager $55 monthly stipend from my grandfather's brother, who in spite of the success of Ortho Sprays had been forced in a failing economy to turn the company over to his creditors. Through scholarships and part time employment, Aunt Gel and Mom were just able to continue their college education, but in marrying Dad (who had inherited a small amount of money from Great Uncle Harry and would receive more from his mother's estate) Grandma was certain to be cared for. So for nearly the rest of her life Grandma was financially dependant on Mom and Dad - just as her parents had been dependant on her - and that from a man she heartily disliked and had actively discouraged Mom from marrying.
And that must have been a truly bitter pill to swallow.
CHAPTER II to be continued next week.