God, I am bad. I write every few months. This used to be an important part of my life, writing in LJ. It's frustrating to me. It's not only LiveJournal, either -- I am not writing as frequently in my own journal(s) either (the (s) means that I have a regular paper journal, which I am back to writing in ... volume LXVII, and also an electronic one, on my computer, which I do month-by-month, but have not been writing in much at all).
Right now it is Winter Break, hallelujah. My atheist family celebrates Xmas, with gifts exchanged and Christmas trees and colored lights and Xmas carols. My maternal grandmother LOVED all of Christmas, and my dad believes I carry on her tradition, though my sister is not far behind, really. That grandmother -- the only one of my grandparents I ever knew... she died in June of 2002. This December 22nd, she would have been 100 years old, which is impressive. She's still very real in my mind. She was interesting. Not always very nice. Not very clichédly grandmother-like. She didn't pat cheeks or hug people. She was pretty fucked up emotionally, and had good reason for that -- her older brother, her husband, and one of her two sons all killed themselves.
I never knew any of them -- that is, I must have met her son, my uncle Peter, but I was only two when he shot himself, so it's not like I remember him. I wish I'd known him; he sounded very cool. When he died in his early 20s, he was a grad student in French history, studying with a marxist professor at the University of Wisconsin, Harvey Goldberg. Goldberg was a political historian, old school. I have a digitized audio collection of some of his lectures -- French politics of the 20th century, of the French SP and the Resistance and the genesis of Mai '68, which he lectured about as it was happening. I actually went and saw him lecture in Madison when I was fifteen or so, not at that point even knowing he'd been my uncle's advisor. It was thrilling to hear someone talk to a crowded hall of hundreds and hundreds of students about the failure of the European Left to ally to fight Hitler's rise, with accusations and counter-accusations of "social fascism".
My father met Peter before he met Peter's sister, my mom. They became friends through Civil Rights activism and antiwar activism, and Peter joined the Young Socialist Alliance before my mom did. Peter seems to have been one of those students who never got less than an A, and cared very much about that. My grandmother thought he was perfect, and I imagine there was a lot of pressure around that. He was a good musician. He played the guitar with my mom and they sang and played in the folk movement at cafes in Madison. He played the recorder, too, and was learning the lute. He also acted a bit -- he was the invalid in Molière's The Imaginary Invalid
, which led me to read a bunch of Molière in high school, in French. I've only seen about three photos of him as an adult.
My poor grandmother. He was suicide number three. He'd been depressed on and off, but no one was expecting that. My dad was the one who found him, still breathing, and called the ambulance. My dad was also the one who had to decide to turn off the respirator later that night: my grandmother couldn't deal, and told him to. Just recently -- this past summer, I think -- we were talking about this in Lake Geneva when my mother and I were visiting my dad and Mary, my stepmother. My dad helped my mom remember what her emotional reaction was, back then. My mom is not good at experiencing her emotions. Neither am I, though I think I am more aware of when I am failing to let myself experience them... at least sometimes. Anyway, my dad said (and my mom immediately agreed, viscerally, that this was so) that she had been angry, deeply, deeply angry at Peter.
After that, my grandmother ... I don't know. I think she was close to an emotional autarky. The only people she truly expressed close affection for were her sisters and my mother, her oldest child, and only daughter. She was not affectionate with her youngest child, my uncle Jim, who was still only a teenager, and who had already experienced his father's suicide about eight years earlier. She was closed off and couldn't talk about Peter at all. I didn't even know who he was when I was little. There was a painting of him by her brother-in-law, a painting of a little blond boy with a dark brown background. And one day when I was about three I asked her who the little boy was. She was babysitting me, which she did a lot. She didn't say a word. She just carried me to the bathroom, sat down on the closed toilet seat with me over her lap and spanked me, hard, without ever saying a word. I was so freaked out I never even told my parents about it until years and years later.
She somehow built herself a very independent life in Madison, once we moved to Evanston, Illinois. She biked and walked a lot. She swam and sunbathed. She grew tomatoes on the upstairs back porch of her apartment on Paterson Street. She went to plays. She went to movies. She liked to eat lunch out, on State Street. She took classes in all kinds of things at one of Madison's community colleges or at the Senior Center. She shopped at the Mifflin Street Co-op. Once a year she traveled with her sister Betty, who was an editor at Scholastic Books, in New York City. They went to the Soviet Union, to Germany, to Austria, to Ireland, to England, to Sweden, to Denmark, Mexico... my mom can't remember the other places. I don't remember her going to France or Italy, strangely enough. For years, she voted for the Socialist Workers Party candidate because of Peter, my dad, and mom. Finally she gave it up, I think for Mondale versus Reagan.
She was always miles healthier than anyone else in my family, in terms of habits and diet. She ate yogurt and fruit and one piece of toast every morning for breakfast, and made her own yogurt. She walked miles and had a trail bike. She never smoked, though she drank a lot of cocktails in the 1950s, and liked a beer or two in the evenings. But she had a totally surprising heart attack in her early 70s, while she was visiting us, and made her pretty complete recovery there, living with us in a little front porch off the living room, in our second floor flat. She went home to Madison, more of a health fanatic than ever, and then developed diabetes -- which Betty had, too. And then came the ills of age -- she broke a bone in a fall when she was running to catch a bus, and the recovery was very, very slow. Then she fell in her apartment, and spent a long agonizing hour crawling across the floor to the phone to dial 911. In the hospital they told us she had congestive heart failure, and that was the end of her independence. I stayed with her a while, because I was in grad school and could get the time off. But by Christmas of 1992, she had to move in with my mom in Rogers' Park. She so hated being dependent. Diabetes made her eyesight bad, and she couldn't see well enough to do the embroidery she had used to do, or well enough to follow the endless awful 1980s TV detective shows she would watch on the degenerated A&E channel. It woudl be up really loud, too -- oh, I hated hearing it when I was staying at my mom's. She would shuffle around the apartment muttering to herself about how she should have died, how she wished she'd never had to leave Madison, etc. Every once in a while I would have a loud fight with her, and it would be better for a while. I mean, a dumb fight, about her taking her five million pills, or using her glucometer, or anything, really. It would clear the air, honestly. One thing about the clear periods was that I would ask her about her youth, and she would try to remember things to tell me about.
She was born in Kansas City, Kansas, to a lawyer father and a "Clubwoman" mother -- my grandmother repeated that with pride, and made it clear that her mother was very proud about that, about meeting with other middle class women in KCK. The only detail my grandmother could remember about those duties was that my great-grandmother apparently was on the KCK Film Censors Board, and took my grandmother along with her to vet some Charlie Chaplin films before they were shown publicly. My grandmother had some stories she repeated a lot about her mother -- that her mother did not like children (except for babies too small to talk back), and that she had married my great-grandfather partly because he'd told her (in good faith) that he'd had mumps or something as a child and the doctor had told him he was sterile, as a result. My great-grandmother viewed this as a definite bonus. And then she had six children anyway. Horton, Kay, Betty, Jane (my grandmother), Susan -- who died in a hit-and-run at age 2 -- and Bill.
My grandmother and all her surviving siblings (that is, Kay, Betty, and Bill) all revered their father so much that every single one of them named a son after him, James. So there were four cousins named Jim. I can't get a very clear idea of why he was so amazing, this great-grandfather, but for sure they all loved him a lot. None of them named anyone after their mother, Mary. Pictures of Mary Dobbins show her as a coquettish 1890s woman with a pompadour and tiny waist, to a tired-looking mother with her hair falling out of that pompadour, to an older, sterner looking grey-haired woman in one of those flowered sack-like 1930s dresses.
She was the daughter of Irish immigrants, Catholics who came in the 1850s to Kansas City. Ellen Quirk Dobbins and Michael Dobbins, who worked on the Railroad, and then was a constable in Kansas City, pretty renowned as a local drunk.
My grandmother said her mother was ashamed of the drunkenness and the Catholicism and abandoned her background as completely as she could. In the photo above, she is the little girl with the pissed off expression, standing, in the top row. She stayed close to a couple of her younger sisters, and to her widowed mother, but there is a broad sea of Catholic Dobbins women who married and reproduced and I only know them through Ancestry.com. Man, I wish my grandmother was alive to look at Ancestry.com with me, and explain connections and tell more stories. I think she would be interested. That's where I started about her. She was interesting, and interested. Her sister Kay wrote my mom some letters about family history in the 1980s, and in the critical way that siblings have, remembered a family story about Jane, that when she was little Jane (my grandmother) complained of "having nothing to do" or being bored. And Kay said she could never imagine being bored, because if nothing else, there was always a book to read. That sounds like such bullshit to me -- my grandmother read all the time. Mostly genre fiction, and especially English cozies like Robert Barnard's books. I cannot ever remember my grandmother being bored or boring. I'm sure Kay wasn't either -- my great-aunt married an artist and a drunk (there are lots of those on every branch of my family tree), divorced him, and moved to Marin to be a public librarian. She retired to Berkeley and began a relationship with a somewhat crazy old sensualist guy named Gil, with Einstein white hair, who exhorted me, at age 13, to read Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwards
and discuss it with him in correspondence. None of them were boring. All of them were progressive, and atheist. All of them seem quite clear -- to the extent that I knew them -- in my mind, even now.