The MALEVOLENT MATRIARCH–Cross Purposes
I’d like to think life got easier for dad and his grandmother as the years passed. In the photo above, dad was about 18 or 19. This was his first car. Seated next to dad is his “Grammy,” my Malevolent Matriarch, the author of our letters. I think she is smiling.
I keep this photo close when reading Orah’s letters, and when writing about their lives, details gleaned through her eyes. Her anger is hard to process, difficult to imagine dad in such a household; yet, in many pictures, dad appears to be a happy young man. Certainly, he grew into a happy adult. That we have 12 years of letters written by Orah prompted me to share; that she was most angry encouraged me further. There will be no sugar coating. I aim to be kind, but I won’t bend the truth.
Happy was hardly the case when dad was a bit younger. In the photo below, I am guessing dad is about 12, the year about 1941. The series of letters Orah wrote while the family lived on K Street, Tacoma, began in 1940. (See links to both the first and second posts in this series).
Heart-breaking is the caption dad wrote below the same photo.
Let me back up a step.
In the spring of 1941, Orah wasn’t well. She had just been diagnosed with diabetes. Her doctor recommended she go to the hospital, but she was fighting examinations and seeing her doctor altogether. Tension had been building between her and my grandma, Lalla, Orah’s oldest daughter (and with whom–dad included–Orah had been living).
In the photo at left, dad appears to be about 10, about 1939. Orah, seated in the middle, is sporting one helluva scowl, absolutely the image I perceive when reading her letters.
Take a look at grandma (far right). She was a single parent during those years, having divorced dad’s father when dad was three. Grandma put herself through business school to finance the family’s living expenses; having taken in her mother was no small feat. Her face speaks volumes.
Stress and tensions were building.
Orah did not appear to know what was going on with her body, how to read signals, that something might very well have been wrong.
“…I will be in the hospital but don’t worry about me as I do not feel bad it seem’s almost foolish for me to go, but the Doctor wants to watch me for a few days so he can tell me what he wants me to eat but I will be on a diet but I do not care, I have been sleeping better the last few nights and that is some thing…”
“Oh say Bertha did I tell you that I have lost quite a good deal I am only 117 lb right now what do you think about that I am glad.”
There were physical and emotional changes.
After asking grandma Lalla for some money, Orah writes, “I asked her for some money the other day and she said she did not think she could give me any this month the more she gets the more she wants, I never seem such a pig but if her dear little son wants any thing he sure get’s it.”
“I never seem (sp) such a pig,” and in the same sentence, “…if her dear little son…”
It’s difficult to describe how this made me feel when I first read Orah’s harsh words. Why the sarcasm? I understand the out-of-control diabetes, that she was a chemical mess; however, the resulting havoc is hard to imagine.
Baffling is that Orah had already lost a daughter, her firstborn. Lillian passed away at the age of 18, and while this occurred in 1912, my father was Orah’s only grandchild. Orah was fortunate to be able to live in the same household, to watch dad grow up. Neither Hazel or Bertha had children. Dad was her only. It is indescribable to read such hurtful words from a woman who had already experienced one of life’s most unimaginably painful losses, to lose a child. Didn’t Orah realize what dad meant to Lalla?
I fail to understand, but I also believe Orah was depressed, a result of the loss of her husband and daughter. In those days, depression was not treated as it is today; there was a stigma to seeking help. I believe these losses and the diabetes shaped her disposition.
While the name suits my purposes here, I don’t believe Orah was truly malevolent. I hope what we see here and what dad experienced was the result of her physical ailments. I pray dad knew this on some level, even as a child. I look to the photo at top.
Beyond the name-calling, as I mentioned in my second post Sour Grapes, I began to think of narcissism, and beyond that, jealousy.
Orah wrote “..her dear little son…” referring to dad. This was the first of many such entries where I suspected jealousy. As I continued to read, long after Orah had been diagnosed and treated, this terminology was more and more common. I believe Orah was jealous of Lalla’s attention toward dad, attention not focused on herself.
Orah felt under-appreciated, yet devious enough to tell Bertha to be careful. Orah warned Bertha that Lalla usually read her letters.
“But just wait until I am in the Hospital and she was every thing to do then she will think I bet you always be care full what you write back because she most always read your letters.”
A typical run-on sentence, here is my interpretation:
When I am gone for a few days, it will become perfectly clear to Lalla just how much I do around here; it will be some kind of eye opener. And, to Bertha, be careful what you say because Lalla reads your letters.
This is heart-breaking. Orah knew she should not complain, knew she might get caught (Really! Did she think the sisters didn’t talk?). Lalla, my grandma, often worked until 7 pm. On top of that, grandma did not drive, necessitating she walk home after the bus dropped her at the nearest stop. I cannot imagine how grandma felt coming home to Orah’s anger.
Orah did the washing, ironing, and evening cooking; often she and dad waited until grandma came home before they ate. Orah wrote about bringing in wood, gardening, and taking care of the chickens, jobs she shared with dad. Grammy kept an eye on dad, who quickly learned the game and how to avoid “the gray-haired one.”
On April 8, 1941, Orah was admitted to the hospital, and realized–finally–how much she needed to be there.
“Tuesday afternoon well Bertha here I am what do you think of that,” and “I am not as strong as I though I was they took me down stairs to the kitchen so I could see how they fix what I eat every thing has to be just so, and only so much of every thing.”
At the end of this relatively short letter, Orah continues, “The doctor said I could get up but when they got me up I was surprise to see how weak I was and I can tell you that the bed sure looked good to me. I am tired so good bye Mother.”
I think she’d been running on anger.
Were they at cross purposes? Maybe, but something or someone taught dad to be resourceful.
As promised: How did dad deal with Grammy? At the very least, it was survival; to dad, it probably felt like war. Parts of dad’s memoir had me laughing out loud. The following is no exception.
The photo atop my home page (and at right) was taken in the back yard of the house on K Street, where the letters were written.
The tree in the corner has to be the tree dad was referring to: the bing. It’s the only photo I found of the back of the house, the only view of this tree.
This strategically planted tree proved to be most advantageous to a growing boy who sought escape from his over-bearing grandma. Incidentally, this is Pudgy, one of dad’s many dogs.
“And climbing that tree to the house roof over the back porch and inching along the roof about twenty feet, with my heels braced in the eaves trough, to my second-floor bedroom window for entrance and escape was useful for avoiding the gray-haired one.”
Next: Orah spends a few days in the hospital and dad writes about running from, mouthing off to, and taunting Orah from afar.