I knew one of my great-grandmothers well, though she likely knew me better than I knew her. Her name was Martha Rose Salisbury Grimes, and I knew her as Biggie, though I also knew that her real name was Maud. It is just recently that I discovered that Maud was not her real name either. It’s too bad I never thought to ask my grandmother Doris about her mother’s two names when I had the chance. There’s a world of things she knew that I would like to know now. Doris loved to tell me stories and many of them featured her mother, with whom she had what we call now an ambivalent relationship: according to Doris, Maud was a chronically undependable, untrustworthy person, particularly when it came to money. What Maud — already 70 the year I was born — felt or thought about her first great-grandson I don’t know. I was going to say, ’her only grandson,’ erasing my little brother. We don’t talk anymore. It has something to do with the circumstances of my parents’ passing and his wife’s feelings about my wife. No doubt it’s also connected to my lifelong habit of undervaluing his existence. Today’s omission is not the first.
I met one of my other great-grandmothers — my mother’s mother’s mother — a few times in the early 1960s at her home in Inglewood, a ranch-style house with a greenhouse in the backyard. Everything in my memory of her is under shadow, as if seen through the kinds of very dark glasses she wore because she had problems with her eyes. We called her Grandma West because she had married Elbert West after my great-grandfather Claude Sloan died in 1925 leaving Gladys with three children, still a young woman of thirty-seven, at home in Hays Center, Nebraska. Claude and Gladys were born in Missouri to folks who had just come west from Indiana, and they left Missouri for Nebraska right in 1919. During the Depression, most of the family moved west. Her son Kermit and daughter Vivian — my grandmother — went to Oregon, and her son Garland, whom everyone called Sam, led the way to Los Angeles. They were all from pioneer stock and moving west was some kind of destiny.
I imagine that my mother’s father’s mother Frances probably laid eyes and hands on me at least once before I came into my remembering time. Did my mother persuade my father to stop off in Hays Center when they drove from Ohio to Oregon, on the way to Hawaii, around 1956? Knowing my father later, I’d be inclined to say no, but he might have been a different man then, with a young wife and new baby, more accommodating. When I was younger and everyone older than me had not gone to the grave, I should have asked more questions. But I was not curious about who or where I had come from, beyond the family rumor that I had some Cherokee blood. More on that bye and bye. At France’s funeral service in 1961 in Hays Center, they played Beyond the Sunset, which Pat Boone had recorded a couple of years before. They played the same song for her husband Loren three years previous. I was included in both obituaries as one of two great-grandsons left to revere her memory. So that’s what I’m doing here.
My great-grandmother on my father’s father’s side died in New York City in 1916 of liver disease. Maybe she was a drinker, maybe she got hepatitis from a dirty glass. Her name was Ada, née Gallagher, and she came from Sullivan County, up the Hudson from the city. Her parents were immigrants from Germany which maybe explains partly how she came to meet Gustav Adolf who came to the US in 1893 from Saarbrücken. But I don’t know much about Gustav and Ada. They lived on the Upper East Side and my great-grandfather had a job in a chemist’s office in Queens. Their single son, Billy, my grandfather whom I never met, was twelve when his mother died. The same year Ada died at thirty-six, my great-grandfather, Daniel Grimes died in California at the age of thirty-nine. Earlier that year, he and Maud had divorced on grounds of non-support, leaving Doris — my eventual grandmother — in Maud’s custody, but she went to live in San Francisco, and Doris who was ten went to live with her uncle and aunt and cousins. It seems to me that these two deaths and the separation about which I never knew anything had a lasting effect on our family. That is to say, it was a weight on my father’s psyche. Made much heavier by his father dying suddenly of coronary thrombosis just short of my father’s sixteenth birthday.