Thursday, June 14, 2007
Both of my paternal grandparents had parents who divorced. In both cases it happened while they were fairly young.
Their mothers took over the child-rearing after the dissolution, and as a result there are very few stories of either of my great-grandfathers that circulate through the family storytelling channels. My grandmother’s family moved to Seattle from Chicago when she was three, and she didn’t have any contact with her father after that. Except once.
Grama worked the movie house circuit in Seattle  before she was married – nothing nearly so glamorous as stage work (although I suspect, in her heart of hearts, she would have preferred to be on the screen). She worked the Fifth Avenue, the Musicbox, and another one on Pike or Pine whose name I can’t remember. She was an usherette and a box office girl in varying turns, and actually met my grandfather one disruptive night when she was working the Musicbox with her flashlight in the aisles, and some fellow brought a gun into the theatre and threatened another guy who was there with his girl. The police were called. My grandfather was heroic (of course). Another story for another time.
But the story that was stirred up this morning by an unexpected email was about the time the movie theatre was running a contest – a paid two week vacation for the most popular employee. Moviegoers had to vote, and my grandmother, who was working the ticket booth, had no idea that her former kindergarten teacher was working the corner, handing out ballots to folks on their way to see the show, telling them to vote for her friend, my grandmother.
She won the contest.
Armed with her two weeks she placed a phone call to her father in Chicago. His new wife picked up, and she introduced herself as Lars’ daughter, Margaret.
Lars’ wife didn’t know that Lars had a daughter named Margaret. Or a son named Stan. Lars’ wife didn’t know that Lars had had a wife before her.
So there was some sorting out to do.
The upshot was that my grandmother boarded a Greyhound bus and took the three-day trip from Seattle to Chicago to visit with her father for the first time in a long time. She was 21.
To hear her tell it, Chicago was heady stuff – a motorboat ride on Lake Michigan with her half-brother that was way too fast; smoking and drinking and listening to live music at a club downtown. I didn’t get a lot of details, just the sense that she was ready to come home after her time was up. Her father remains a shadowy figure in her stories – the one she tells the most frequently says much about his opinion of himself – her parents met when Lars stayed at the boarding house run by my great-grandmother Mathilde’s mother. When he left the house he left her a handsome picture of himself with a note that read: “I leave you with this picture, because I thought you might like to have it.”
I think my grandmother loves to tell this story because it offers proof of his vanity – but I don’t know if she picks up the irony that that self-assured vanity runs strong through our clan to this day. She carried the inheritance well.
So this morning I received an email from my mother, who’s digging Ancestry.com, which has offered free access to military records for a trial period. She found a military registration card, dated two months shy of the end of World War I, that bears my great-grandfather’s name, his wife’s name, their address, his occupation, and his employer.
Not so remarkable, I suppose, if I knew these things before. But I didn’t. Except for his wife's name. So it amazed me.
He was a carpenter, working for a construction company. Not surprising, since he worked in Chicago during a tremendous building boom in which the city grew rapidly to be the largest city in the world. They lived in Humboldt Park – I knew that much already – but I didn’t know the address: 220 Wabansia. At least I think it’s Wabansia – the handwriting is a bit obscure, but through a fluke I picked up a brilliant 1890s map of Chicago over the weekend at the Printer’s Row Book Fair (chiefly because it shows the Boulevard System all mapped out) and I was able to cross-reference the street name, which before then I was trying to read as something like “Mahanria”. (Right. Probably not.)
And he’s described, but I can hardly make it out:
Height = Tall. Not surprising (says his 5 foot 12 great-granddaughter, child of his 6 foot 4 grandson)
Build = does that say stocky? Slight?
Color of Eyes = Grey? Green? Like mine.
Hair = Brown. Same.
 The photo above is a publicity still from – I think – the Musicbox in Seattle when it just opened. That’s my Grama working the ticket booth. Pygmalion with Leslie Howard was on the marquee. Sorry such a poor shot – it’s a print from a print, shot through glass.