Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Family Secret, Part II

The Carefully Guarded Secret

As a boy in the 1960s I saw my Darling grandparents only rarely, at most once a year.  They lived in Michigan and we lived in Washington, D.C., and my interaction with them was largely confined to when they would come to Washington for an annual State Visit (as MD humorously referred to it) to spend several days with my family.  During their visits my grandparents were generally occupied with grown-up activities, and I didn't see all that much of them, mostly at breakfast and occasionally at dinner.  Other than during State Visits, communication between my grandparents and my family was conducted via the U.S. Postal Service.  Long distance telephone calls (referred to as "toll calls") were considered extravagant in those days and believed to be a far less preferable form of regular communication than letters.  It was only during my grandparents' yearly visits that I was able to spend any time speaking with them.


As the youngest of their seven grandchildren I never developed the personal relationships with my grandparents that my older siblings and cousins had.  By the time I came on the scene and was old enough to carry on a sentient conversation with my grandparents, my family had long since moved away from Michigan and my grandparents were becoming old.  They did not have the stamina or patience for investing much time in building more than a mildly engaged relationship with me, their youngest grandchild.

In other words, I didn't really know my grandparents all that well.  And I didn't know all that much about them, either, beyond basic resume material.  I knew that my grandmother came from a long line of distinguished, high-ranking career military men on her father's side of the family, and that her mother's family had owned newspapers in Upstate New York.  I also knew that my grandfather's father had been a successful solicitor, as lawyers are referred to in England, and had been a partner in a firm with offices in London and Ireland.  That is, until his untimely death in the freak accident in London when his head was knocked off, after which my grandfather was sent to live with relatives in America.  My grandparents met when they were both in graduate school in New York City, where my grandmother was getting her Ph.D. in Economics from Columbia and my grandfather was attending the Union Theological Seminary, preparing for a career in the ministry.  My grandparents lived much of their adult lives in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where they raised my father and his sister and where my grandfather led a large and robust Protestant congregation of parishioners that included many of the families of the founders of the U.S. automotive industry.

My grandparents were formal, reserved people by nature and were of a generation and class that truly believed young children, such as Reggie, should be seen and not heard.  It's not that they didn't care for me and my siblings when we were little, it's that the WASP customs of the times did not promote (or even consider it as an option) the closeness and intimacy encouraged between generations today.  I and my siblings referred to our more approachable grandmother Darling as "Granny," but we never referred to or addressed our grandfather Darling as anything other than "Grandfather."  He certainly wasn't someone I would ever have considered (or been encouraged to) address by a less formal name, such as "Grampy" or —God forbid—"GranPa."  There was nothing folksy about him.  I don't recall ever seeing him dressed in anything other than a jacket and a tie during his visits, and he often wore a suit.  But that wasn't all that unusual, since I am writing about a time forty to fifty years ago, when grownups still dressed like adults.


I looked forward to and enjoyed my grandparents' annual State Visits, which created quite a hubbub in our house, and I found their company stimulating.  I admit I preferred my grandmother's company to that of my grandfather, who intimidated me with his formidable intellect, generally stern demeanour, and a tendency to imperiousness.  He was not, as they say, a person who suffered fools gladly.

I also found my grandfather to be enigmatic and mysterious.  That's because his early life and background were a puzzle to me.  Whenever I asked him questions about his childhood in England and about his parents, both of which I was curious to learn more about, he would always change the subject.  He would never explain to me why it was that he left England and moved to America at the age of fourteen, never to return to his homeland, nor why he left his mother behind him.  It seemed unfathomable to me, and sad, that he had been separated from his mother after his father's tragic death and sent to live with relatives in a strange land, never to return.

What happened? I wondered.

During one of my grandparents' visits, when I was around nine or ten years old, I asked my mother, MD, if she knew why Grandfather Darling left England as a boy and why he wouldn't answer any of my questions about it.  She closed the door of the room we were in, sat me down next to her, and quietly explained to me that my grandfather's childhood had been an unhappy and emotionally turbulent one because his father had been a severe and reprobate alcoholic, and that my great-grandfather's decapitation, while horrific, was ultimately a blessing, as it rid his family of his damaging presence.  She then said that I should never ask my grandfather about his childhood again, as the subject was painful for him and my questioning him about it brought back too many unhappy memories.


"But why didn't he live with his mother, like I do, Mummy?  Why did he move to America when he was a boy and his mother was still alive?" I asked.

"I honestly don't know why, Reggie," MD responded. "It's a mystery to me, too."

"Does Daddy know?"

"No.  He doesn't know, either," she said.

It wasn't until fifteen years later, Dear Reader, shortly after my grandfather died, that I finally learned the answers to my questions . . .

Next: The Secret Revealed

photographs by Boy Fenwick

48 comments:

  1. Troubling yet fascinating. While I had a "Big Daddy" (very similar to the Tennessee Williams character) my husband called his GrandMother "Mrs. Webb".....not exactly warm and fuzzy

    Looking forward to next installment

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  2. This is almost as good as Downton Abbey. I wait with baited breath for Part III.

    Bonnie

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  3. Hello Reggie:
    We too can well identify with the somewhat distant and formal relationships with grandparents. Perhaps, as you say, that was very much the nature of things in those days. Indeed, it is with a tinge of sadness that one witnesses the joyous and carefree relationships that exist these days between grandparents and their grandchildren.

    And, how you test our patience, dearest Reggie.......until the next time!!!!

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  4. Reggie -- you tease! We have to wait again! An interesting saga!

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  5. Oooh, how confounding! I was hoping for the finale today.
    I do find it interesting that the staid, distant quality is often associated with being British. My great-grandmother, with whom I was very close, was English, from a nice enough family and also very warm and friendly. Cozy but adamant about behaving like a proper lady. Formal in a more general way but not in personal relationships.

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  6. What a story. Great photos too. The decapitation - what a detail! Well told, Reggie, and I await the next episode quite happily.

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  7. This is like the feeling you have on a Sunday night around 10 pm when Masterpiece Theater concludes and you realize you must wait a whole week for the next piece! I am worried to hear the reason why your grandfather was separated from his mother and how that may have influenced his choice to become a minister.

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  8. Reggie,
    I feel that I am reading a mystery novel except it is truly your family history! I was not very close to my grandparents and all but my paternal grandfather passed when I was very young.

    xoxo
    Karena
    Art by Karena

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  9. I also wait for the next chapter at the edge of my seat. So well written Reggie, thank you.

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  10. While my parents and great-grandparents were friendly, they as a rule did not like reminiscing about the past or about any hard times they had gone through. I now regret not having asked them more questions about their lives.

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  11. If this saga ends up being an advertisement for Ovaltine, I'll be pissed.

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  12. Looking forward to the next episode of Darlington Abbey ...

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  13. It's delicious being spoon fed. Can't wait for more.

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  14. You, my friend, are a great story teller and I hold your skill in high esteem. As another reply above suggested....this is every bit as good as Downton Abbey!

    Looking forward to the next installment.

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  15. OK...Cliffhanger....I cannot wait to tune in next time.

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  16. Can't wait for the the final installment! M.

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  17. Ooohh, this is so exciting! I have a million guesses, can't wait to see......

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  18. Reggie, you are a naughty, naughty boy for stringing us along. :)

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  19. At last! it's all very exciting, the door is opening!

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  20. Actually a lawyer and a barrister are not the same thing at all.

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    Replies
    1. just what I was thinking

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    2. Thank you. I have corrected the piece to reflect this nuance that -- I admit -- I was not aware of, being an Investment Banker and not a member of any sort of bar (other than sidling up to one). RD

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    3. that's very funny! I did LOL.

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  21. Ackkkkkk....you are killing me Reggie!

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  22. Brother Dear: You've even left me with bated breath - and I know how the story ends! Anon 03:51 is on to something. Great-Grandfather Darling was a solicitor rather than a barrister. Whereas barristers are not attorneys, technically speaking, solicitors most certainly are. I commend to you Wiki's Barrister entry for the particulars of the distinction. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrister Respectfully, Frecky (aka your solicitor-like brother on the Niagara Frontier)

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Frecky. I have corrected the piece to reflect this distinction.

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  23. My sentiments exactly!!!

    Being a "Granny" (I picked the name!) And a WASP; I am glad things have changed! I have seven grandchildren; and I would rather spend time with them than practically anyone else in the world!) "Joyous and happy" is how I feel with them; I hope them with me!
    (an idea for a blog post!)
    I am on the edge of my seat..............make it snappy!!!

    I can't take it, Reggie!!!

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  24. Wow!

    BTW, the keys and the key holes are getting better with each installment

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  25. Do hurry with the conclusion to this marvelously
    told story.. I am on my death bed waiting!

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  26. Is that for real? You have a brother named "Frecky"? That is totally astonishing! Diana Vreeland had two sons! One was nick-named "Frecky"!!!

    The other one was named "Tim" I know him; and LOVE him!

    Whose name is "Frecky?" I cannot believe there are two.....but WASPS do that!

    ps can you imagine this? I am married to an Italian..(Bianchi)!

    There is another "Penelope Bianchi" in the US!! (she looks to be around 13 and I think lives in New Jersey)

    I have to write her and warn her she may get "mixed up" with the "Granny Penelope Bianchi" who wears "festivity crowns"!!

    Poor dear!

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    Replies
    1. Hello Penelope, Thank you for your comment(s). My brother's given name is Frederick, which is shortened in his nickname to Frecky.

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  27. Your writing gives me such pleasure, thank you.

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  28. You tease, you! Waiting with baited breath for the next installment.

    Elizabeth

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  29. And I meant to wait with bated breath... my brain spell check is abysmal

    Bonnie

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  30. I simply love it that you are appropriately succinct in your pieces about proper form, and then take your time when telling the family secrets!

    On grandparents: In the early 70s I said goodbye to my elderly grandmother with a, "See you later, alligator." Oh, that was the wrong thing to say to someone old enough to remember Queen Victoria's death. "What did you say?" she demanded from the top of her porch steps. "Bye," I said meekly, slinking into the car parked in the drive.

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  31. Very interesting Reggie and I look forward to the next installment! Your story resembles my own and I am finally piecing together long missing pieces of the family puzzle through ancestry.com as I anxiously await the recently released 1940 census to post with indexed entries. ~Gregory

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  32. My imagination is running away with me!

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  33. great stories- looking forward to next installment-
    max

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  34. Wow, this makes my Southern Gothic family sound like "Leave it to Beaver"

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  35. Ah, yes. There are some empties rattling around in my family closet along with some skeletons, too. You tell the best story! I keep imagining this as a mini-series.

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  36. I want to illustrate this wonderful story. I just want more....I can see it all unfold. Such a lost generation with so many secrets. Now that everything is on the news or some sort of reality TV show....it leaves nothing to one's imagination such as your writing does.
    I just want more.....
    pve

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  37. I, too, have English antecedents. I've warm memories of my dealings with them, in particular being wheeled out (walked out?!) to be presented to elderly women, all of whom (to my now mature imagination) looked like Queen Victoria.

    Your great-grandfather, did he lie down on a train's tracks...?

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  38. I now know. For SURE!!

    You were Charles Dickens in another life!

    No doubt about it!!

    Penelope

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  39. You are a great story teller!

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  40. Oh for heaven's sake, how did I miss this? I tuned in this morning to installment number 3 and had to backtrack. On the other hand, I get the immediate gratification of getting to the bottom of this mystery right away! Ok, off to read 3. You're fabulous. (But you know that already :) N.G.

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  41. I just find your blog yesterday and I am in love with it, spend all afternoon reading your posts and agree with a lot of things, specially the one you write about making an effort to dress up and behave accordingly to the occasion!
    I'm a 35 yers old mexican, teacher, mother and wife.
    Hope my english is good enough to make sense!
    Mariana

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