Grandpa & Grandma;
Alexander & Catherine
circa WW II
My Dad’s mother, Catherine, was not a warm, affectionate woman. Grandma came off as cool, distant and suffered from the sharp contrast with my maternal grandmother, Gagee, who was gentle, loving and quick to laugh. But Grandma came by her personality through harsh experience. Grandma passed away just before my ninth birthday. I wish I could have known then, what I know now.
Catherine was born in Rhode Island in 1887. Her mother Elizabeth was about 20 and her father James just 24, when Catherine was conceived out of wedlock. Her parents married a few months before Catherine’s birth. A son John and another daughter Elizabeth soon followed.
In 1890, when Catherine was just three years old, her father died at the age of 27. Her mother Elizabeth was a widow at age 23, with three small children to provide for. The following year, in 1891, both of Catherine’s younger siblings died within two months of each other. Ever so briefly, they had been a family of five. Now it was just Catherine and her mother Elizabeth. But in less than a year, Elizabeth died as well.
Catherine, not quite five years old, was alone in the world. She was a child not yet old enough to be of service to a family, but a child most in need of love, care and constancy. She was taken in by a family related to her on her mother’s side. It was a family with many children and while Catherine’s basic needs were met, she was lost in the hustle and bustle of the large family. Even though Catherine lived with her de facto foster family for more than a decade, in many respects, she was always treated as an outsider.
I don’t know the story of how Catherine met her future husband Alexander. But they married in 1908 when Catherine was 21 and Alexander was 25. Their first child, a son they named Raymond, was born in 1909. Less than a month after his first birthday, Raymond passed away. I wonder if Catherine thought the swift cycles of birth and death from her own childhood were destined to be repeated. But Alexander and Catherine went on to have four more healthy sons, the youngest was my father. All four sons served in World War II. All four came home, married and raised up eleven children between them.
Around 1950, Grandpa and Grandma moved in with my parents and older sisters Karen and Gail into their tiny house in Providence, Rhode Island. Grandpa died at the age of 76 in 1959. Grandma died in 1967 at the age of 79.
Long after she passed, I learned Grandma had made some mistakes, some bad choices in the course of her life, that seemed at best foolish or at worst selfish. Those things added to the sense of distance I felt from her. It wasn’t until I was much older and the details of her early life were teased out of yellowed, tattered records, that I felt my own heart soften. Through these records I came to know and understand my grandmother better than I ever had during her lifetime. Grandma was a survivor. She may not have been a storybook grandmother, but I had already been blessed with one of the best of those in my Gagee. Grandma was tough and had surmounted incredible obstacles to go on to be a wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. I like to think I got some of my resiliency and strength from Grandma. Thank you Grandma. Thank you for everything.