June 18, 2008

The Battle of Waterloo and other important anniversaries

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 11:35 pm

Today still feels like my grandmother’s birthday, though she died a little over two years ago, aged 100 and some. Her life spanned most of the 20th century and on into the 21st.

I’d like to spend a long time bragging about her. I’d never get bored, though I know you might, so I’ll just say that she was born British in 1905 and her parents emigrated to New Zealand when she was a toddler. She grew up and won a scholarship to study at the London School of Economics. It took six weeks by sea to get back to England (which they still called “home”). She didn’t see her family again for almost twenty years.

At the L.S.E. she met and married my grandfather (an American) in a civil ceremony in London in 1929. The bride’s father, a clergyman in New Zealand, was too far away to protect her virtue, but the groom’s father, a clergyman closer to hand, insisted that they travel that same day to Paris to be joined together in his church (where he ministered to American expatriots). He was particularly concerned that the religious ceremony should be immediate – before they went to bed – which amused them both. They each told me separately, more than half a century later, that they had long since consummated their relationship, my grandmother having read Marie Stopes’s Married Love and later, posing as an honest woman, visiting the first family planning clinic in London.

When her first child (my mother!) was nine, my grandmother was awarded her PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. That was 1941. By the sheer force of her character and intellect she forged a life remarkably unrestrained by the conventions of her time. She married two husbands, raised two daughters and was stepmother to two sons.

Her progeny were a motley crew if ever there was one, and we gathered in La Jolla, California to bury her ashes and celebrate her life. The ashes burying followed a church service with glorious music, laughter and tears, and then a solemn Rite of the Dead ceremony where each of us, in order of degree, touched the earth that finally covered her.

The whole rest of the time we got to know people we had barely, or never, met, but were part of her, and we played together. The families of the two stepsons (one dead) had fallen out and weren’t speaking, and because they weren’t speaking they had accidentally booked rooms in the same hotel. Both stepsons had stayed in touch with their stepsister, my mother (the grand Vizier of all family gatherings), and when she and I went to greet the family of one stepbrother we had to jump into the bushes because the other stepbrother was just arriving to check in.

My elder brother and sister in law were also staying at that hotel because he suspected cooties at the one our mother had chosen, the cheapest in town, where I was sharing a room with her. Anyway, Elder Brother and Sister in Law are generally the floor show wherever they go. He’s about five foot eight, white, stocky, carries a physics or math book at all times, can’t sit still, needs the bathroom every five minutes and shouts very loudly whenever he doesn’t get exactly what he wants. She’s six feet tall, athletic and slim, black, from Barbados, with perfect manners, and perfectly in control of her very difficult husband.

Baby Brother, eighteen years my junior, and his wife and toddler were in a room next door to my mother’s and mine. He can only aspire (but does) to the kind of tantrums Elder Brother pulls off. My big son, a young but grown man, peaceful, British and tantrum free, had a room on the second floor (and paid for it too).

My younger sister, the Killer one, was being a guy in those days and was at our hotel with her partner who was a guy being a girl. I hope you have that straight, because it is going to shift.

The Lawyer Sis somehow got muddled and booked a hotel a whole freeway drive away.

The first day we all agreed to meet at the zoo, which, on the whole, seemed appropriate, only in those days the Lawyer Sis didn’t carry a cell phone so she – and we – had to call her assistant from a phone booth to relay messages, as in “She says she is at the Monkey House” or “Your family will meet you in the Aviary”.

We did finally all find each other at the gift shop on the way out, but meanwhile everyone needed the loo and I was really curious how we were going to divide. I had been in big trouble at Baby Brother’s wedding (you’ll just have to wait for that post) and I was lying low. It was clear to me which restroom I was headed for and that’s all I cared about. The Killer sister (the woman man) followed me into the Ladies, as did her partner (the man woman).

For three days the grandchildren and great grandchildren hung together. We didn’t care what kind of feuds our elders were nursing, and we were just a La Jolla gang, arriving on mass at whatever bar had space for us, and ordering drinks for eighteen.

It’s a small city and let’s just say that what with being so many, not to mention the transvestites and the mixed marriage and the Brits, all there to bury that really old lady from New Zealand with the PhD, we didn’t go unnoticed.


  1. that MUST have made the local papers!

    Comment by ByJane — June 19, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

  2. These are the stories of yours I like best!

    Comment by Sam — June 21, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

  3. Wow. Don’t you hope our descendants can tell great stories like this about US someday? :-)

    Comment by Shannon — June 24, 2008 @ 8:41 am

  4. I have an awful feeling that they will…

    Comment by Duchess — June 24, 2008 @ 8:49 am

  5. […] understand now.  I don’t feel old at all, even though my own grandmother really was a hundred when she died three years […]

    Pingback by DuchessOmnium - Island to island » This post is not about shoes — March 24, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

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