|Back in our day . . .||
Well, besides myself, of course... I'm going to institute an audience participation aspect to the blog by putting a topic out here, "showing you mine" if you like, then inviting you to show us yours. I thought an interesting place to begin would be a discussion of the person I knew who reached the farthest back into history.
For me, that's an easy call. That person was my maternal great-grandmother, Louise Willis Holt. Louise, or "Gan," as three generations of children knew her, was born on October 21st, 1888, just weeks before the election of Republican President Benjamin Harrison. The big issues of the day were high protective tariffs, and the payment of pensions to Civil War veterans, both of which he was opposed to. Interestingly, though his opponent, incumbent Grover Cleveland, received most of the popular vote, Harrison won the most Electoral College votes, seemingly thereby thwarting the will of the people. This was the third of four times this has happened in U. S. history, the last being the 2000 election that saw "W" begin his eight year presidency.
But this isn't about politics. This is about my great-grandmother, who also happened to be my primary caregiver. I have already had some less-than-flattering things to say about her child-rearing techniques, but I'm going to refrain from that here. This is about a life, and I would suggest that by the time I came along, she might have been tired.
Louise was born to southern business moguls outside the little town of Ashville, North Carolina. During the Civil War, Ashville was a small village of 2,500 people. The state was occupied by Sherman's troops moving north following the March to the Sea, and they were for the most part on their good behavior. Ashville, however, was the home of an Enfield plant that produced weapons for the Confederacy, and as such was defended by Confederate forces making a determined stand across the Buncombe Turnpike approaches from Tennessee. The town was accordingly treated roughly by General Stoneman's troops, culminating in the burning of some private homes.
Incredibly, I found this photo of the Buck Hotel and a few nearby businesses in downtown Ashville taken in 1888. The town struggled to recover from the burden of being on the losing side of the Civil War, gradually recovering until a boom in the 1910s and 20s, at which time Ashville was the third-largest city in the state. The Great Depression burst the bubble that had developed around the boomtown, and investors and residents who had bought into the skyrocketing prosperity were wiped out overnight; no less than eight of the town's nine banks failed. The novel Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe is generally regarded as a historical fictionalization of Ashville in this period.
Anyway, in 1929, at the age of 41, her husband, William Harvey Holt (father of the aforementioned General), moved the family to California. I don't know much about the journey, but in 1929 they settled in San Diego, where they made a permanent home. If they had lived anywhere besides the Ashville area since the family had come to America, I've never been aware of it, and to commemorate this new chapter in the family saga, he had this opal commissioned for her from a local jeweler. As the next October baby to be born, I inherited it. It's hard to get a good picture of that shimmering blue stone, but with the square cut and the onyx border, it's quite the ring; I'd have to guess that they got out of Ashville before they were ruined.
At some point before this, during the nineteen-ohs, she was a fashion model. This wasn't like today. The girls didn't strut the catwalk, and no one knew their names. They would put on the clothing and pose on small stages around the ballroom or hotel meeting room where the show was being held, and the participants would move around the room to examine the wares. She was in her late teens by all accounts, and her prematurely snow-white hair (like mine) put her in high demand. I've seen a picture; she was quite impressive with all that snow piled and coifed into one of those elaborate Victorian hairstyles.
Her three children, Bill, Helen, and Marie, would have been in the 25-30 age bracket by the time she moved west, and her daughter, Helen, must have found employment (or her husband did) over in the desert at this point, because in 1931, my mother was born in El Centro, thus completing the chain from her to me.
So, what did this woman acquire during her long life that passed itself along to me? Our white hair, of course. Her hereditary migraine; oh, that's been an adventure! Her constant examples of how to live with decency and elegance. This may be telling: She was the child of parents who had been the children of slaveowners. There is quite naturally a racism inherent in this; it doesn't seem possible to own another human being unless you don't truly consider them to be fully human. Like all parents everywhere, she must have learned their attitudes at their knees, so to speak, and while she was very much a racist, she wasn't nasty about it, as modern racists are; it was just an aspect of life that she dealt with. It wasn't discussed, it was understood, but on those rare occasions when she did try to impart attitudes to me, it took the form of admonitions not to hold African-Americans (and believe me, that wasn't the term she used) in contempt, not based on any notion of equality, but because it wasn't their fault; in other words, they, and by implication, everyone, couldn't help being what they were born! There is in that, no matter how you look at it, a lesson to judge a person by the color of his character, rather than the color of his skin. I know that sounds very much like the great Dr. King's words, and given her background, she might be the last one you'd expect to hear that from, but that was just one of the many surprising aspects of her personality.
Great-grandma's life, for the most part, consisted of raising children, and she had to have gotten tired of it. As the third generation under her tutelage, I caught the brunt of that fatigue. Having raised her own children through the 20s, and suffered a financial upheaval at the end of that process, she then assisted in the raising of her grandchildren, and finally had me, and nine years later, my half-sister dumped on her doorstep with nary a by-your-leave. It speaks a lot to her character that she didn't just pass us on to an orphanage. She turned 60 two weeks after I was born, and filled the role of my mother for 17 years thereafter. I remember being a well-mannered little tyke, but no teenager is an easy proposition, and I'm sure I was no exception.
Other than the modeling stint I mentioned above, I'm not aware of her ever taking employment outside the home. Her life-long husband died the year before I was born, and she never remarried. For virtually all of the time I was with her, she lived with her daughter, Helen, who filled the role of breadwinner, having been "Rosie the Riveter" during the Second World War, and being one of the few women skilled enough to keep her job when the men came home. She could certainly manage a home, to the extent that when I was a child, I was never aware of it being managed; everything just fell into place so naturally it was as if it couldn't have gone any other way.
In October of 1969, I left the navy, and came home to begin my civilian career, whatever that was going to be. About three months later, she fell during a midnight potty run and fractured her hip. She never walked again, and I put my life on hold for the next four years to become one of her caregivers. I had to leave that role in 1975, when a career opportunity that I couldn't afford to pass up opened, and in the spring of that year, she died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 87.
In the course of her lifetime, she had ridden a horse to her one-room school, raised three successful children plus two more generations, flown across the country several times, and seen men walk on the moon. She had gone from reading schoolbooks by candlelight to touring the world via color television, and her music had progressed from classical string quartets to classic rock quartets. Whatever she thought about it herself, and she hid it well if she was disappointed, she lived a fuller life than anyone else I have ever known in terms of things she had experienced. If she was cross sometimes, and harsh in her treatment, I know now that it was all part of her attempt to raise a decent and successful child, and she was following a formula that had proven successful for two previous generations. I look around at the world I inherited from her generation and a couple in between, and I flatter myself that she did all right.
So thanks, Gan, for the great head start. I could have done better, I suppose, but the shortcomings are all on me. For all of my complaining, I never think of her once without missing her. She was my life for the first six years, and those years matter more than any of us realize. I had just met my soon-to-be wife when she died. We weren't courting yet. My greatest regret in all of it is that they never got to meet. She would have loved Bonnie, who is so traditional and dare I say Victorian in so many ways. I would have liked to have shown off my prize catch! Alas...
I'll let it stand there. There are so many negative things I've said about her in these posts, and so many more I've left out, but those are for another time. This one is about a life well-lived, and a person who stepped up and lived it every day. She set a great example, one that I've tried to follow. My wife and children can be the judges of whether I've succeeded.
And on that note, I shall bring this to a close. Who have you known that has reached back farther than anyone else? How have they affected you? Step in and join the conversation; this will be so much more entertaining if you're a part of it...
Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
All the best,
This is for the grandkids, the family, close friends, and anyone else who can keep a civil tongue in their heads! It amounts to an interactive book of memoirs, but only if you interact... so get to it!
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California has been my home since 1965. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I'm home to stay!
What is there to say about a ten-year old turning 65, besides, what the hell happened?!??