Have you ever wondered about all the questions you wish you would have asked?
As a child, I was known for foraging out details about the past, especially from the grandmother who lived nearby. From her I developed a romanticized picture of life on a Canadian homestead.
So why didn’t I do the same with my other grandmother, Dolly? But she lived over 2,000 miles away, and contact was limited to long distance phone calls, letters, and large-scale family visits where everyone was trying to catch up. Perhaps my reticence was due to the fact that her house was the old-timey real deal with an antique secretary desk in the parlor. I refashioned myself as the heroine of the story during a summer visit when I was 10.
My final visit with Grandma Dolly occurred a decade later. She was in a nursing home and the black-Sunday-hat-wearing grandma was faded along with her memories. She seemed happy to see me but unable to answer any questions I might have asked. Such as why had her mother named her Dolly? Who taught Dolly how to make double-headed dolls (one head at either end) –where a tug of the long skirt would cover one head and reveal the other?
Grandma Dolly passed away in 1994, those details seemingly buried with her. Deep in raising my children and working as a reporter, I couldn’t make it to her funeral.
My passion for history lured me into co-publishing several history books. During the research process I learned how to access valuable bits of history from old newspapers. Those same newspapers often featured gossipy bits of news where Mrs. So-and-So entertained visitors from out-of-town. Entertaining but trivial.
So I thought.
I changed my mind recently after hitting a dead end in family research. Birth and death dates and census details provide a skeletal understanding of an ancestor’s life. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to go back in time and ask Grandma Dolly those questions now. What was her life like as a young woman, mother?
My dad and a distant cousin recommended that I hunt for a 1926 newspaper account about the double wedding of Dolly’s sisters-in-law. While scrolling through the newspapers, I noticed there were those little gossipy bits – and oh wait. There was my grandmother’s name – and other family members.
All of a sudden those short news bits – anchored with the skeletal details – flung open the entryway to seeing Dolly Van Dyke as more than just grandma. My grandfather was her second husband. I learned her first husband died of typhoid, leaving Dolly widowed with a small daughter to raise. How desperate she must have felt then!
I smiled as I found a news clipping about Dolly and my grandfather getting married in a quiet ceremony at their minister’s home. A fresh beginning for her – and happiness ahead.
A newspaper clipping, dated three days later, showed differently. The new bride had been called away to a distant city because of the serious illness of a relative. Evidently the visit wasn’t over quickly. The 1925 New York state census shows Grandma living in two places, one with her husband, and also at her parents’ home while she apparently nursed the relative.
Seriously? There wasn’t anyone else capable of nursing or overseeing the housekeeping details?
News clippings from the 1930’s and 40’s show Dolly and my grandfather raising the firstborn daughter and having four children together. Church life was important to them and Grandma accepted the position as head of the church nursery between giving birth to her two youngest sons who included my dad.
Grandma’s heart certainly shattered when their oldest son ran away at age 13. Fortunately the police would locate and brought him home. She would send her second oldest daughter off to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and struggle to keep her family fed and clothed while using the rationing cards of World War II.
Somewhere along the way she developed her skills for stitching patchwork quilts and double-headed dolls and shared her family pride with the old fashioned photographs and antiques displayed in the parlor.
These details, combined with the few letters I have of hers, show me who Dolly was, a real person who faced tough life challenges and despaired over and hoped the best for her children’s futures, and – who passed her love of the past to me.
It is a legacy that I relish.
© 2016 by Mary Louise Van Dyke. All Rights Reserved.