There are three ways in which I imagine my Grandma W’s life played out. They are all just imaginary, because a large portion of her life remains unknown to me. I suspect somebody knows about her missing years, but I don’t, and I don’t want to push for details should the answer be one of the worse scenarios. When she died last December I suspect that she took most of the information with her; I want to believe that she held secrets that were amazing and remarkable.
What we do know is this: she was adopted in New York City in the 1920s. She was raised by two caring parents in Brooklyn, on 6th avenue, and later moved to Queens. Even these facts came to me later in life, as I prepared to move to NYC for college. When I announced my plans to the family, my grandma rolled her eyes and groaned, and said, “New York? Why would you want to move there?” In my 17 year old arrogance I laughed at my grandma, thinking of her as a country mouse, and told her all the great things about New York, although of course, I had never actually been there myself and had barely left my small Michigan town by that point. I thought that she was being such a Midwesterner, dismissing a city simply because it was a city. After I explained what made New York great (which I had learned solely from watching enormous amounts of TV and movies) she laughed me off and said, “I know, I grew up there.” That was my first insight that my grandma’s life had been different from the one I had always assumed.
To be honest, there was never a lot to go off of. She only drank beer, watched bowling on TV every Saturday, and listened to the police scanner every night. She loved the Home Shopping Network, and despite being unaffectionate and not very emotive, was the first person to send me a birthday card each year – always with $15. She hosted Christmas Eve from her La-Z-Boy (made in our town!), took bus trips to casinos, and insisted on calling me “Tina” my whole life. Here’s what she didn’t do: drive, bake, fawn over children, go to church, or cook. I knew that my dad had been born in California; he was a Marine, as was his father – my grandfather – so I knew that my grandparents had lived out west for some time on a Marine base. But my grandfather was from our same small town; a legend, still, at my high school for setting long-held state records in track and field. After high school he enlisted, fought in WWII, married my grandma and raised a son and two daughters. My grandfather looked like a movie star, but was better than a movie star because he actually flew jets and fought Nazis. As I write this, I realize that I don’t know if my grandparents got married before or after the war; that’s part of the missing timeline.
What I see is this: a photo of my grandpa and grandma in California, sometime in the 1940s, well before my dad was born. And next to them is one of my aunts who appears to be about 10 years old. The first time I saw this picture I didn’t really do the math. I didn’t think about timeline, or wars, or birthdates. But after learning that my grandma had grown up in New York City, I started to try to piece things together. I had always assumed that she was from our same small town, that they had met in high school, that they had moved to California, had three kids, and then moved back home. But if she was from New York, how did they meet? When did they meet?
It was around that point that I learned that my aunt wasn’t my grandfather’s biological child. That was when I started to imagine the scenarios of my grandmother’s life. She was adopted in New York City, she grew up in Brooklyn and then Queens, and then she appears in the photo with my grandpa and my aunt in California about 10 years later. Those ten years are what I go back to when my mind wanders. In one scenario my grandma had been previously married to another military man, and they moved to California, had my aunt, and then he was killed in the war. My grandfather, who was always an exceptionally decent man, married the war-widow and adopted her daughter. My grandmother, who was always an exceptionally sensitive person, decided to never talk about her deceased first husband again. That’s one scenario that I think is plausible, and would explain a lot.
A second scenario is the worst. In the second scenario my grandma was assaulted in New York City, hence her disdain for it, and her parents sent her to California, pregnant, to start over. There, she met my grandfather, always an exceptionally decent man, who married the survivor and adopted her daughter. My grandmother, who was always an exceptionally stoic person, decided to never talk about her assault. That’s one scenario that I think is realistic, and would explain a lot.
A third scenario is the best, and the one I want to believe the most. In the third scenario my grandmother was a wild woman who lived in New York City, fell in love over and over again, and followed her passion. Her passion took her to California, maybe she always wanted to travel across the county, maybe she hitchhiked. Maybe she wanted to join the war effort, maybe she wanted to see the Pacific. In California she got pregnant and resiliently lived as single-mother until she met my grandfather. My grandfather, who was always an exceptionally decent man, married the single-mother and adopted her daughter. My grandmother, who was always an exceptionally secretive person, decided to never talk about her past. That’s one scenario that I think is wonderful, and would explain a lot. That’s the one I imagine for the woman who dyed her hair jet-black until she passed away; who drank beer all day and never seemed scared of anything.
All of these scenarios, and all the others that I can’t imagine, make something clear to me: that family is sometimes sloppy, fluid, ill-defined, and put together in unexpected ways. For example, my grandma isn’t actually my grandma. She is the mother of my dad, but my dad isn’t my dad. He is the person who was married to my mother during my childhood, but who continued to raise me after they divorced and my mom moved out. My grandfather isn’t my aunt’s biological father, but he’s her father, and my grandma’s parents weren’t her biological parents, but they were her parents. On Saturdays, I went with my dad to my grandparents’ house, where they drank beer and watched bowling, while I, along with my cousins and sisters (who legally haven’t been my cousins and sisters for much longer than they ever were my cousins and sisters) watched a Saturday horror movie double-feature in the back bedroom. None of the scenarios involve my grandma’s birthparents; no traveling across the country to find them. Even with so many different versions of the story, I just don’t believe that my family would engage with that type of quest. We always know who our family is.
I’ve come to understand that regardless of the actual facts of how and when and why my grandma met my grandpa, that he did marry her and adopt my aunt, just as the family absorbed me without much fanfare. I wasn’t doted on, but none of the grandchildren were. We each received $15 in our birthday cards. The family never spoke about my aunt’s adoption, and my aunt and grandpa were incredibly close until he died unexpectedly fast, from cancer that spread through his whole body before it could even be diagnosed. I suspect that it has something to do with being a Marine in WWII, the government having dropped nuclear bombs a mile away from his unit in the desert to see what the effects of fallout would be on the human body. Sometimes I wonder if I inherited that fallout, until I remember that I don’t have his mutated genes. Sometimes I still wonder if I have the fallout anyhow, from contact. After his death, during my Freshman year of college, my grandma sent me $20 for cab fare and asked me to go look at her house in Brooklyn. I tried. I took the subway to Park Slope and wandered the streets; but Brooklyn doesn’t have a street grid like Manhattan, and I got lost and left without a picture. When I saw her again I told her that I tried, but had gotten lost, and for the first time I saw an emotion cross her face. She looked sad. Years later, after I graduated college, started graduate school, and moved to Brooklyn, I found the note she had written me with the address from the house she had grown up in. It was shocking to realize that I lived only two blocks away – I hadn’t recognized the neighborhood from my first attempt to find the house years earlier. I walked past her house almost every day. I took a picture, I framed it, I gave it to her for Christmas, and for the second time in my life I saw an emotion cross her face: relief. And that would explain a lot.
Bettina Spencer is originally from Monroe, MI, and received her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the New School for Social Research in New York City. She is an Associate Professor of Psychology, and Chair of the Department of Gender & Women’s Studies at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN. She teaches courses in social psychology, cultural psychology, stereotyping and prejudice, and the psychology of violence. Her research investigates issues at the intersection of classism, sexism, and racism. She co-hosts the podcast “The Brain Has Eyes” and can be found at https://twitter.com/brain_has_eyes. You can also find her work at https://bettinaspencer.weebly.com/ .