Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day: My debt to my maternal grandmother, Rena Caroline Waldis Brown

Rena Waldis Brown at the Forest Lake Country Club circa 1918
Thinking of my maternal grandmother on this Mother's Day, whom I affectionately called Grammy Whammy because she was a pip.

She died in 1993 at the age of 93, born when the 19th century became the 20th century.

I have several of her belongings, but the one that is the most emotional for me is her Atlantic #511 washboard, from the National Washboard Co., Chicago, Saginaw, Memphis.

That washboard is a testament to the difficult realities of her life.  Rena Caroline Waldis was born in 1900 on a farm in rural Pennsylvania to immigrant Swiss German parents. The family history is sketchy—my mother’s generation didn’t ask questions of their parents. My brother has been doing some amazing ancestry work, and has found the immigrant records of Grammy's own mother coming over from Trier, Germany, on a ship through Liverpool, as a 10 year old with her mother and 4 siblings. That's a story for another day.

I know my great-grandparents were painfully poor. They had 11 children, only the first and last of whom survived childhood (my grandmother being the youngest). My great-grandfather died when my grandmother was young, leaving great-grandma with two girls to fend for themselves.

Grammy rarely spoke about her childhood, except in an offhand comment once that when she was still in the highchair her mother put an  iron in her hand so that she could iron handkerchiefs for one of the summer resorts in the area to earn pennies. And one other specific, that when she was a young girl her dog ate poison that a neighbor had put out to kill a fox, and died.  At 80 she could start crying whenever she told that story, so deep was her love for her dog, a lifelong love for all of her dogs.

What I know of her history picks up when she was 16 or so. She got a job at the Forest Lake County Club in Hawley, PA--a private club that opened in 1882 and continues today--as a waitress, and a laundress (picture above). Doing the resort’s sheets by hand was not easy. Hard manual labor followed her from the farm to the resort—it was all she knew.

Grammy had a very winning personality, and it turned out that a Lutheran reverend from Brooklyn summered there with his family. The family story goes that he said to her 'you should come to the big city' and so she did. She somehow navigated herself to Brooklyn and showed up on his doorstep to work as a live-in maid!  She had the spirit that told her there was more to life than a rural farm with no electricity, and she was going to go find it.  Her only surviving sibling did not have that spirit, and spent her entire life in the country.

In some ways Grammy hit the jackpot. I mean the reverend could have been from Boston (no offence) but no, it was New York, and Grammy had the soul of the quintessential New Yorker. I think she arrived in Brooklyn around 1919.

Again the history is a little sketchy.  After working for Reverend Harper for a while she got a job with a dowager as a paid companion--which always made me think of the Second Mrs. De Winter traveling with Mrs. Van Hopper to Monaco in the film Rebecca.

The dowager lived on Riverside Drive at 116 Street in Manhattan. Seven decades later I would move into an apartment literally up the block from there, on Claremont Avenue. Truly, what are the odds?

The years passed; Rena had a series of boyfriends. Somewhere along the line she met Arthur Cornelius Brown, a first generation American with Norwegian parents, and they began dating. It was the Depression, and he had a job as a mail carrier, which was good. Around when Grammy was 30 the dowager asked her to go to Europe with her.  Grammy said to her beau Arthur, “we get married, now, or I’m going to Europe.”

They got married.

I never met my grandfather, but it seems that married life did not turn out as Grammy was expecting. She had worked for wealthy people, and had received beautiful furniture and china as wedding gifts. She thought that she would be entertaining a lot herself, but as a mailman Grandpa worked very hard, and he wasn’t interested in much of a social life. It's also that he had been a bachelor for almost 40 years, and maybe that was too long.

My mother once told me that when she was a teenager she came upon her mother in the middle of a crying jag. I think about that sometimes. The life Grammy imagined was not her reality, even after all her will power had gotten her off the farm and into the most fabulous city in the world, where she was a success in many, many ways. She had her own money and her own bank account, no small feat for a woman in her day. She had the freedom of the great NY subway system, that she learned backwards and forward.  She had a mailman who came home, every day (something she liked to repeat), and two little girls, but perhaps something was missing, or just wasn't right.

I loved and admire her for all her struggles—for her strength, in surviving the pandemic influenza of 1918 (when the coffins in NY lined the streets), for her encyclopedic knowledge of the NY subway system, her life-long love of her dogs, for raising such a special daughter, for always sending money back to her sister who never left rural Pennsylvania, for playing tea party with me when I was 5 with much patience, and keeping her spirits up, even as old, old age descended on her, until at 93 she finally joined back up with Arthur.

Because she got off the farm, I am able to live in a condo in Manhattan that has a washer/dryer IN THE KITCHEN--which for Manhattan is still pretty rare.  How do I ever repay such a debt?