Thursday, January 09, 2020

Notes on My Life-a rough beginning

In Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick writes that she was the repository for the stories of her mother's life. I am not sure how common this is. Do most mothers (or fathers) relate the events of their childhood to their children so fully that the kids become their diarists? But it was not to happen in mine. Many years later, I have some ideas on why this was the case, but before April 2018, it was a great mystery. 

Why didn't my mother talk about herself? Why no stories of growing up in Albany, Syracuse, Manhattan, and Philly. Why no tales of vacations, grandparents, hobbies, the depression, friends, school, books she read as a child, what she did in the hot Philadelphia summer or the cold Syracuse winter. Did she go to camp? Did she sing in the choir? Was she a girl scout? Did she have boyfriends before my father? Did she ever break a bone? Was she sickly? And on and on. Perhaps I was abnormally incurious and never pushed her to tell, but I think that's not the case because I can tell you a lot about my grandmother's childhood.

What little I know about my mother, I know from photographs or my grandmother. But my mother often only figures as background material in my grandmother's stories. She was similar to the unnamed young woman who serves as a companion to Mrs. Van Hopper in the novel, Rebecca. In the photographs, her hair is often cut like a boy's. Her clothes are always practical and eyeglasses dominate her face. She rarely looks directly into the lens. Her parents were more glamorous. I still think of them as Scott and Zelda, and my mother seems a bit like their probably neglected daughter, Scottie. 

But let's put their personalities aside and stick with Mom. Because this is precisely how it went when I tried to find out anything about my mother. The subject would soon turn toward her parents. It was easier to talk about them. Although even that was rare.

This is what I know. Janet Dorothy Grieb was born in 1923, ten months after her parents married. She took dancing lessons, ballet and tap, and was a graceful ballroom dancer. She had acne in the days when there was little to be done for it. She thought of herself as a fat teenager although the photographs don't confirm her impression. In high school, where she finally got to finish four years in one school, she took the business course because her father thought girls would marry and waste a college education. She had four close friends who to some degree remained her friends for the rest of her life. Two of them died within months of her death in 2009. Olney High School in Philly taught Latin and French to all of the students so she studied that along with the business courses. I have no idea if she was a good student, if she even wanted to go to college. She was quiet, passive, polite. When she stayed out too late on her graduation night, her father treated her harshly. She met and married my father at 18. And that is about all I know about my mother before her marriage. (to be cont.) 

top pic Mom with her parents and baby cousin, Letty.


Jeff Meyerson said...

Very interesting. My mother was the opposite. She loved talking about herself. And she rarely spared any of the intimate details.

Margot Kinberg said...

This is really interesting, Patti. I wonder how often children do get curious about their parents' histories, and want to know them as people.

George said...

The Past can hold a lot of secrets. Learning what went on back then requires a lot of digging of facts. Good luck!

Rick Robinson said...

Wonderful! Keep going!

TracyK said...

This is very interesting, Patti, and I want to know more. And also, very well written.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, all. Hoping I can keep at it.

Todd Mason said...

We are the repositories of our parents' lives, if we share those lives, and to what extent. And if they were willing to inform us of them, beyond our ken in youth. Particularly if they themselves never wrote much down, nor recorded their lives otherwise.

We know how we felt about things. Including what experience we shared.