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Conversation Drift

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

You’re talking about one subject and suddenly you find you’re on an entirely different subject altogether. Maybe it’s more serious, maybe more banal. Maybe seems connected, maybe not. Maybe you took the left turn in the conversation, maybe the other person did. Maybe you weren’t paying that close attention, but then the person says something completely riveting. You never know how another person’s neurons are firing.

That recently happened to me in a conversation with my 84 year old mother, sharp as a tack, who called to talk to me about passing on some of her possessions to her children. This led to a discussion of the things already spoken for years ago when my parents downsized to retire on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Among the items mentioned was a large pool table that had been in my mother’s childhood home, then in my childhood home and finally in my brother, Dan’s home.

I recall how heavy the pool table was, originally from an old pool hall, with 3 slate slabs, weighing 400 pounds each. Mom recalls when she was a child and there were air raid practices during WWII, her mother would send her and her 3 brothers to hide under the pool table in the basement of their childhood home in DC. And then Mom mentioned offhand that her mother had been an air raid warden during WWII. During air raid practices, after sending her children to the basement to hide under the pool table, my grandmother would don her helmet, grab her flashlight, go outside and check the neighborhood to make sure everyone had turned out their lights and drawn their shades. I never knew.

I was close to my maternal grandmother, who lived nearby when I was growing up and visited us for a weekend every month, until her death when I was a senior in high school. She slept in my room, I don’t remember where I slept. She was a night owl, like me, a reader, a romantic. When she was 9, she lost her mother and only sibling. Her mother and brother died when women and children still died in childbirth, regardless of resources.

With the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 raging in Jan 2021, I call my mother back to check a couple of details. I learn my great-grandmother also had the flu when she died giving birth in 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic. My grandmother was sent to live with her Uncle Frank, a lawyer, Aunt Hannah and younger cousin, Priscilla, and then to boarding school in NYC for high school. While she remained in touch with her Protestant family after she married, they refused to attend her wedding when she married my grandfather, a Catholic.

Like my mother, my grandmother was named Jane, but we called her Gommy, a mix of Grandma and Mommy. Like my mother, who graduated from Trinity College in DC, my grandmother graduated from an all women’s college, Smith. As my mother was the only girl with 3 brothers and I, the oldest granddaughter, my grandmother’s college ring eventually made its way into my possession. My mother accurately describes me as a minimalist, and says that I’m not very sentimental. I did, in fact, consign my formal wedding china when it remained in the cabinet year after year unused. Although I could never use my grandmother’s college ring - it’s tiny, doesn’t even fit on my pinky - I have it to this day.

My grandmother was just over 5’ with a full figure. She was a French major who spent her junior year of college in Paris in the 1920s. She told me that she knew she was fluent when she started dreaming in French. Paris is where she met my grandfather, Tom. I listened intently to her story of meeting him, when it wasn’t proper for a woman to approach a man. She explained that all the Americans living in Paris then received their mail at the American Express office, so she went day after day, less for mail and more to list her name and address each time, hoping that my grandfather would notice and call on her.

He did, they corresponded during her senior year at Smith, my mother has their letters in her attic. During their courtship, as my mother calls it, my grandfather sent my grandmother flowers regularly, of varying numbers, 4 roses here, 3 carnations there. My grandmother thought it was purposeful, such as in memory of their date on the 4th of Jan, or their 3rd date, etc. She thanked my grandfather for his thoughtfulness, with her romantic notions attached, only to find he had merely asked the florist to send as many flowers as his money would buy that day. Jane and Tom had 4 children, 17 grandchildren and were married 27 years.

At 46, my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, a death sentence in the 1950s, and given 6 months to live. Not wanting to jeopardize his livelihood, no one knew except my mother, a senior in high school at the time. Since my grandmother didn't drive, not unusual then, and my grandfather's cancer treatments were at Hopkins, it fell to my mother to drive him to his treatments.

Despite the odds, my grandfather lived another 9 years. My grandmother became a widow at 49. Before his death, my grandfather had met and approved of my gregarious father, Dan. Out respect for my grandfather, my parents waited until a year after his death to get married.

My grandmother said that she knew early on that she would marry my grandfather, Tom, and told me, as she did my mother, that whenever I met who I was meant to marry, I would know and they wouldn’t stand a chance. My grandfather was the love of her life and on her deathbed 20 years after his, my grandmother said that she could be with Tom again. A romantic to her dying day.

My grandfather gave my grandmother a beautiful Belgian lace veil, with a long train, as a wedding present. Later worn by my mother, a couple of her cousins, me, my two sisters and stored in my mother’s closet for yet another generation. We’re all a little sentimental.

Tom was a successful architect, winner of the Paris Prize for his design of a world Supreme Court, and professor of architecture at Catholic University. My grandparents lived in DC at 101 Kennedy Street, in an elegant house, the kind with a front and back staircase. They had a daily housekeeper, Lenora, who continued to help my grandmother after my grandfather's death, and occasionally helped my mother when I was a child. We had family Christmas gatherings in the basement with all my cousins, a chair for each child, with a gift or two on each chair.

In the basement of 101 Kennedy was a large pool table, payment to my grandfather from the owner of a pool hall for a project done for him during the Depression. From conversation drift, now I know the pool table was shelter for my mother’s family during air raid drills in WWII in DC, and my petite, cultured grandmother was an air raid warden, helmet and all.

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