Ch-ch-changes . . . I am going to be a grandmother. A destiny for which I have longed, happening not in the way I had hoped or anticipated, not in the least. Le plus ca change . . . . So some of what I plan to write about is, unsurprisingly, grandmothering. I’ll start with profiles of my own grandmothers, women who played roles of immense significance in my life.
Dodo, so called by my entire family for decades after her two-year-old first grandchild (that would have been me) mangled Dorothy when trying to imitate the adults who surrounded me, was my maternal grandmother. Barebones of her life story: Grew up as Dorothy Stockman in ethnic German Cincinnati. After high school, she went to work in the five-and-dime, maybe a Woolworth’s, and quickly married the manager, twelve years her senior. Her two children, Carol and Charlie, followed in short order.
Grandpa Felix was not a consistently stable provider. When my mother was a teenager, the family lived on a farm outside my small hometown north of Cincinnati; I believe that he was attempting to raise goats. (Something I myself consider when I am feeling particularly pressed.) By the time I was small, the farm was gone; I can recall my mother taking me to visit Grandpa’s barbershop in Cincinnati. A few years later they were back in our town ~ though, with her children grown, Dodo commuted to Cincinnati to work as a secretary. She was probably the stable financial force in that household. During my teens, they returned to a Cincinnati suburb, where he managed apartments. He died very suddenly at about 70; out walking their poodle one night, he sat down on a small stone wall and was gone.
Left in her late fifties with nothing but her two-family house in which Uncle Charlie and Aunt Edie lived upstairs, Dodo went to work as a saleswoman and was remarried quickly, to a widowed co-worker in the appliance store. She and her second husband, Kirk, eventually moved to a mobile home park in Clearwater, where she died of cancer in her mid-60s.
That basic outline of a woman’s life does not reflect the anguish of her life: The death of my mother and baby brother when my mother was 28. My uncle and aunt did not have children, so for Dodo, nana-hood was my younger brother and I ~ with lives complicated by a series of stepmothers; the fact that, since she worked, Dodo was not available to us as our paternal grandmother was; and the distances created by boarding school and summer camp life. She also said little about her deep loss. These days, having suddenly lost a young adult child myself, I understand much better how she lived the remaining eighteen or so years of her life in a state of mostly concealed interior shock and devastation.
We did spend time together — holiday occasions, week-ends here and there, a short trip to Chicago. I lived with her and Kirk the summer between high school and college so that I could work at a nearby hotel, spent time with them at his cottage in Kentucky, and visited them in Florida on a couple of short trips. But we had little in common, and no daughter-mother to mediate our relationship or some of the wide differences in our viewpoints and experiences.
In retrospect, especially given what I have learned the past ten years, I regret having made so little effort to uncover who Dodo really was. I was in Florida shortly before she died, but her husband refused to tell her the truth about her illness and, being a young early-twenty-something, I had no idea how to navigate the strange adult world of bizarre secrets and words unspoken. While Dodo was a woman of great importance in my life, she was so mostly as an example of how circumscribed a life can be. She must have missed her daughter terribly, every day, and I’m afraid that I was a poor substitute.