My grandmother Ruth was born in 1892 and married her first husband Norman, my grandfather, around 1916. My father Albert was born in 1918. They lived with Ruth’s mother Mary Ann in New Jersey, a little place called Mount Olive, on a chicken farm.
My grandmother told me that my grandfather was so untrained in practical skills that she had to show him how to use a hammer. He ultimately turned out to be a very good carpenter and then a draftsman/architect. But she liked to take credit for teaching him how to hold a hammer. Who knows? Truth or fiction?
After running the chicken farm for a few years, they decided to set up housekeeping in California. In 1920, my great grandmother Mary Ann still a part of the picture, they packed up and came across the country to a little town called Sherman (now you know it as West Hollywood). Mary Ann bought property that had two or three cottages on it, and started a boarding house. It was a good thing she did, because the work my grandfather was able to find doing carpentry for the studios or singing on the radio dried up pretty quickly.
The Great Depression hit. My grandmother, who also was working to house and feed the boarders, quickly grew tired of my grandfather’s lack of income, and sent him “back east” to find employment. And that was the last my father saw of his father for a long, long time. There were letters back and forth. He wanted to come home, my grandmother wouldn’t hear of it until he had a sure and certain way to earn money. By then she was working as a telephone operator for one of the first radio stations taking requests for music over the phone, in addition to her work in the boarding house.
My grandfather, tired of trying to patch up his marriage and return home, found another woman with a son my dad’s age, and decided to marry her. And my grandmother seemed happy to give him a divorce. My grandfather became the piano player for his new wife’s brother’s traveling puppet show.
Eventually that brother-in-law created Howdy Doody – but not many of you will know that name. In the meantime, my grandmother was very popular out here in California. She was happy working, leaving the boarding house to her mother to run, and leaving my dad, Albert, in her care. She dated – according to stories – a LOT.
My dad married my mother, Lillian, in 1940. I was born in 1942. My great grandmother died in 1945 and our little family moved to West L.A. My grandmother stayed in West Hollywood and during that time, she began dating a man called “Dr. Bennett.” He kind of looked like a smaller version of Colonel Sanders, but without the facial hair. Or Hopalong Cassidy, although he didn’t wear a cowboy hat. He was “very clean” as my grandmother would have said. She prided herself on her immaculate clothes, shoes, hats and purses. And apparently so did he. Although he didn’t carry a purse. He carried a doctor’s bag.
Dr. Bennett was a chiropractor, and prescribed all manner of incredibly smelly and bad-tasting remedies for whatever ailed you. Raw sulfur, castor oil, mustard plasters, charcoal tablets – you name it, if it smelled, tasted bad, or burned – he’d prescribe it. He would also give “adjustments” which meant lying on a massage table while he cracked your neck and your spine and any other bone in your body that seemed willing to realign itself according to his plan. His family lived in Wasco, not far from Bakersfield. They visited there often.
And so there they were – my grandmother kind of aligned with a traveling medicine show, and my grandfather with a traveling puppet show. As far as I know, they did not see each other again until 1962 even though my grandfather and his wife had moved to California in the 1950’s. And that was a very frosty, though polite, meeting.
Now that you know the people, this is the story about the family chairs. Here is a picture of one of them. It’s an old chair, and has been re-glued, re-finished, and re-caned – like many of us. It is one of four, and although they all “match”, they are not identical. They are old. Older even than I am. My grandmother gave them to me in 1962, and told me they had been made by my grandfather. Family heirlooms. Why had she kept them all these years when she had so eagerly sent him away? Who knows.
So by my calculations, these chairs, built by my grandfather, had to have been made when he was in California between 1920 and 1929.
HOWEVER...my father Albert and I were sharing a few drinks one night towards the end of his life, and we were reminiscing about this and that. I had recently had the chairs professionally re-caned. They had fallen into disrepair and had been stored in our garage for years. When I told him how much it cost, he was horrified. He had re-caned them himself, as had I, and could not believe it could cost what it did to have it done by a professional.
I told him I loved those chairs, they had been part of the family for so long, they were heirlooms to me, having been made by my grandfather. He looked at me in disbelief and started to laugh. “Your grandfather didn’t make those chairs! Those chairs came from somebody in Wasco, some relative of Dr. Bennett! What made you think your grandfather made them?!” Well, I said, you told me that – and so did my grandmother! “Never! They are obviously hand-made, but Virginia, NOT by your grandfather!”
People, write your family stories down when you hear them! Get them notarized, double-checked, and certified, if you ever hope to get at family truth.
Or maybe family secrets are all any of us have?
I still love the chairs. And no matter their origin, they are family heirlooms.
Maybe family secrets, family stories, are all any of us have, in the end.