I have a sub-heading for the title: Stories Never Told
We’re all story-tellers here, right? We make up stories in our heads and write them down, and then share them with other people, to entertain and inform them.
But over time I’ve come to realize that my mother edited her stories, selecting what she was going to tell and how she was going to tell it. We all do, to some extent, but there are some curious omissions in her history, that I discovered only after she had passed away. Genealogy research is a double-edged sword: sometimes you find things you might not want to know.
Brief background: my mother’s father was the only child of a fairly wealthy couple, and he was born to them fifteen years after they were married. His father, from what I know, was fairly distant, and died when his son was 15.
My grandfather was still under-age when he married my grandmother. It was an unlikely pairing, since my grandmother was a penniless orphan, but (after checking her background), my great-grandmother approved of her, and in fact they became something like friends.
My great-grandmother died in 1935, when her son was 34 and my mother was ten. And then things got a little odd. My grandfather—prep-school raised, and not particularly good at anything, decided he wanted to be a dairy farmer. He took at six-week course on animal husbandry at Rutgers, bought a played-out potato farm in Maine, and bought a herd of Guernseys (or maybe it was package deal and the cows came with the farm), and was living there by 1939. My mother would have been 14 then.
He was a bad farmer. He built a state of the art barn, and it burned down just as it was finished—and he’d neglected to insure it. He made it through the early war years by raising green beans for the Army. After a few years of that, my grandmother decided she’d had enough of farm life, and left for New York, where she joined the war effort, leaving my mother with her father and a failing farm. Needless to say, my mother was not happy.
What is interesting is which parts of this story my mother chose to bury. The stories she told my father and me and later my sister about the farm years were deliberately edited.
–She claimed she had attended Colby College and left before getting a degree (her excuse: all the local men had gone off to war). After her death I checked with Colby: wrong. She’d taken a couple of classes as a day student, a townie.
–She was always a bit evasive about why she chose that particular time to head to New York and join her mother at a women’s hotel there (although they didn’t room together). My take: if you look at my grandfather’s death certificate (he died at the age of 44, of a heart attack), the person who reported his death, and who was identified as his “wife” on the death certificate, was not my grandmother. I have a feeling my mother was not happy at having to share her father with another woman.
–My mother never talked about the happy days on the farm. Any time in later life we’d go driving and marvel at bucolic countryside views, she’d say “I hate the country.” Period.
But another aspect was driven home to me just recently, after I’d spent two weeks on a dairy farm in Ireland. I watched the whole milking process, start to finish, twice a day. I had to wade through liquid cow by-products to get out of the driveway. I saw a newborn calf learn to stand. Okay, I’m a lifelong suburbanite, so this was all new to me—and in fact I kind of loved it, muck and all. (BTW, dairy farming is a big business in Ireland, so this was not a quaint operation aimed at tourists.)
But my mother never mentioned any of this, either the good parts or the bad. I assume she had to help out on the farm, at least some of the time, but she didn’t say a word about the mess and the smells, or what happened to the milk, or birthing calves. The only thing I ever remembering her saying about the cattle was that her father had a stud bull named Governor that he adored and had no trouble managing. Maybe he had an innate talent with animals—but not a head for business.
That entire period of her life, from high school until she fled to New York, my mother concealed or lied about. All her life. I don’t think my father ever knew she hadn’t attended college.
But that’s the story she chose to tell. Like us writers, she edited to create the character she wanted to be. She rewrote the past. What about you? Which parts of your life do you edit out?