Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Lost Notes, Just Found

Elena

Your grandmother Elena was extraordinarily beautiful. She had long brown hair and spent much of each morning putting it up in pin curls while seated before a three-way mirror. You’ll always remember those finger rolls.

By the time you knew her, she was a vain woman who wore too much make-up and fake nails. As a little girl, you once caught sight of her undone and unmade, and were quite terrified.  

In 1913, the first of several family scandals occurred when your grandfather, Victor, left Elena for his second wife without having secured a divorce.

The new wife’s name was Ellen. By the way, it wasn’t that Victor went after someone much younger. It’s just that Ellen recognized that women had to change as the nation came racing around the bend of its first decade.

Grandfather Victor
1920s

Your own parents – Louis and Vivian – would divorce in 1942. Soon after, your mother returned home, bringing you with her to a grand estate in Greenwich, Connecticut which belonged to your other grandmother, Edith, and her second husband.

The two grandmothers were opposites. Elena raised chocolate poodles and entered them in shows. Edith threw liquor-soaked costume parties in the basement of the mansion.

Once each month your mother would put you on the train to New York City to spend the weekend with Elena, who lived on the Upper East Side. 

The daughter of a banker, Elena was stuck between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She and Victor met and courted in the old way. Nine months after they married, a little girl was born; then your father came along. But the daughter died young and the marriage never recovered.

Your father didn’t think much of his mother, and insultingly called her “the eggplant.”

Free of Elena and properly married, Victor went on to have three sons with Ellen. The family business came into their hands (and the hands of your father).

There was Otto, who was gay. He wanted to be an interior decorator.

Then came Karl and Alfred.

Your father believed he was the smartest of the four. He also wanted to be an interior decorator but did not trust his brothers to run the business.  

They all made fortunes. You and your mother never worried about money.

Your grandmother, Edith; 1920s
(passport photo)

But your mother was an alcoholic. Her sister was, too.  

Their father had died when they were ten and twelve -- a strange accident at Saranac Lake -- leaving them with Edith in a large apartment on Riverside Drive. Edith spent a decade trying to find another wealthy husband.

Their father died when they were
ten and twelve.

She took a lot out on her daughters – especially your mother, who simply could not get out from under. To the day she died, Vivian would call Edith and ask, “What should I wear?”

Vivian lost five pregnancies. When she conceived you in 1937, the family placed her at the LeRoy Sanatorium in New York City. That’s where you entered the world.

Many of the women who sought “private treatment” at LeRoy arrived pregnant. Occupying nine floors and the penthouse in an Art Deco building at 40 East 61st Street, the sanatorium was founded by Alice Fuller LeRoy, a widow who needed to earn a living.

Now back to the Greenwich mansion, which everyone called “The Big House.”

A few snapshots: three-story entrance hall with a Cinderella staircase. Library cast in chintz where Edith held court. Vast stone terrace; green lawn that ran to the water. 

Everyone had to be dressed properly at all times.

The younger grandchildren were invited into the library to have toasted peanut butter and bacon canap├ęs. Then they were sent to have dinner with the help. That changed when each turned twelve and was allowed in for dinner on the condition that she first stood up and gave a short speech.

Edith continually admonished everyone: That isn’t how it’s done, dear.

Dining Room, Greenwich
(Library of Congress)

Your step-grandfather, a kindly man, tolerated Edith for reasons you can’t fathom. He drove you around in his woody station wagon looking for an imaginary goat.  

Drunk or not, your mother volunteered for the Red Cross, played canasta, and fell in love with a German fellow. Edith forbade her to marry him.

In 1960, your father moved out to California. When you visited, he unveiled a portrait of his second wife, known as “Sunny.” You blurted out: “It doesn’t look like her.”

“Go away till you have some brains,” your father replied. 

But he redeemed himself. He and Sunny loved objets, and they had good taste, too. They took you to Ojai to learn about pottery. Later, they came east and the three of you toured New Hampshire searching for antiques.

Your father wrote poetry, too. He died of cirrhosis in 1970.  

Now it is decades later and you’re an expert in dressage. You and your second husband live happily on a farm in New England. You have legally changed your name several times.

Very few people recall anything about your parents and grandparents although once upon a time their names were in all the papers.

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