My Grandmother’s Face

A Note to My Readers: Periodically I think about just why I became a genealogy-history researcher.  Every once in awhile the answer comes across the centuries with such a resounding clarity, it shakes me to my core.  It is not an “Aha!” moment…the one we all know very well.  Not the triumph of solving a mystery.  No, it is one of those profound personal moments that answers THE question.  Once and for all.

Yesterday the answer arrived in an email.  My grandmother’s face.

Shape Shifter

I never knew my maternal grandmother.  I never sat on her lap.  I never held her hand.  I never looked into her face or heard her voice. I never ate her specialty, lemon meringue pie, made by her hand.   She died eleven days before I was born.

Despite the fact that my mother had boxes and boxes of photographs of family and friends that span over the decades, there were no pictures of my maternal grandmother, Florence Leora Curtis Purdy…or her mother, Kate Curry Curtis.  Mom is long gone and I never asked her why she had no picture of her mother or her maternal grandmother.  My maternal grandfathers both had formal portrait photographs.

I knew my grandmother solely through the reminiscences of my mother.

“Mama was so beautiful.  She had long, long black hair down to her waist and large, brown eyes. I can still see the gold flecks in her eyes.”  “Mama was just fifteen when she married Papa.  On her wedding day, she had an eighteen inch waist.”  “People would always turn to look at Mama, she was so beautiful.  Her girls would never see the day that they would be as lovely.” “Mama loved beautiful lingerie. She would always show me her latest slip with such pleasure in the lovely silks and laces.”

There were no “moments” or character traits mentioned in the wistful trips down memory lane.  I cobbled together her image many times…choosing eyes from my Aunt Mary, a nose from Aunt Elizabeth, my mother’s hands, my Aunt Esther’s trim figure.  The image was always shifting, but always keeping the long black hair and the brown eyes with gold flecks.  After all, it was all imagination and wishful thinking and the sisters really had a wide range of features.  And it didn’t really animate her…what I really wanted.

 A Son’s Treasure

My mother has been gone for more than a decade and I never asked her why there were no photographs of “Mama”.   The only tangible trace I have of my grandmother is the envelope flap my mother kept tucked in the family bible because “Mama had such lovely penmanship.”   A few years ago my cousin, Christopher, told me that he had a creased and worn photograph of our grandmother that his father had carried in his G.I. wallet during WWII and continued to do so the rest of his life.  Uncle Bill was the only boy and the baby of the family and the two had a very deep and special bond.  Thank you, Uncle Bill.

Chris sent me the photo which I tenderly removed from the old wallet and unfolded it on my lap.  I sat there for the longest time memorizing her face.  She must have been around my age in that small faded, creased and monotone photo.  I see Aunt Mary in her face, but nothing of my mother.  She takes after her Papa…fair with hazel eyes.   Florence looks weary, small and alone.  The rheumatism that crippled her is apparent in her clenched hands.  Her fabled physical beauty is gone.

Little Women with a Dash of Alice in Wonderland

I spent the next three years digging into every detail of her childhood, her child bride marriage and giving birth to seven children.  Her first child, Elizabeth was born when my grandmother was just sixteen and early motherhood and an already tumultuous marriage left the teenager “fragile” and under the care of a doctor.  In 1902 she was pregnant again with daughter, Kathryn Louise.   Shortly after her arrival home with Kathryn, Elizabeth had found her mother’s pills and swallowed enough of them to make all fear for the toddler’s life.  Florence’s disapproving mother-in-law took the recovering Elizabeth home with her…never to return her to her mother.  “I would see my mother wipe a tear from her eyes,” my mother wrote, “somehow I couldn’t forgive her (my great grandmother Elizabeth Purdy Smith).”

The death of her 21 year old daughter, Kathryn Louise in 1924 was preceded by the terrible suffering and struggle of a virulent cancer.  Three years later, little Ruth Norma was killed with her friend Lillian Hull as they sat in front of the corner store.  Ruth and Lillian were crushed by an out of control vehicle driven by a retired Cornell professor.  The one clear story my mother shared with me was this tragedy.  My grandmother ran the two blocks only to find Ruth pinned under the car, crushed and gone.  “My mother’s hair turned white overnight.”

Papa, according to my mother, was “a spoiled young man-spoiled by his mother.”  My grandfather, too, was described by his appearance.  “…in a three piece suit and a gold chain and watch at his waist.”

I stopped writing for a few months when I found the article about my grandfather’s violence toward my grandmother in the first year of their marriage.  I was more rattled about their reality than I realized.  My mother’s vague stories were pretty in many ways and suspiciously romantic in so many others.  It was a bit of “Little Women” with a dash of “Alice in Wonderland”.  No wonder my grandmother remained a storybook tragic heroine to me.

Surviving the Truth

When I communicate with researchers and historians about constructing the family tree, my favorite advice is that one should be prepared to find a scoundrel and wench or two amidst the perpetual parade of human beings.  As a longtime family historian, I have been amused to find a great uncle that was a forger (who just happens to be my grandfather’s brother) and a ninth great grandfather, John Billington, who landed with the Mayflower and was hung for murder by the good Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts.  A good chuckle at humanity all around.

Earlier research showed my grandfather declared bankruptcy in November of 1918.  My mother spoke of their unexplained poverty during her childhood, but when I found the records most of the bills were medical.  Who was sick?  Not Kathryn at that point.  Did my grandmother continue to be “frail”?

All a complex mix for me because it explained my mother to me…piece by piece…and it explains me in part…so it is history…genealogy…but it is also a keen reminder that it is my family and me.

I am writing again after receiving another picture of my grandmother at the tender age of three.  The beautiful child with the cherub face took my breath away and at the same time washed away the nagging sting of her story and the picture of a tired, faded beauty.   While I hadn’t written previous to receiving the photograph, I had been researching, networking, collecting, learning new resources and entering and organizing the data.  Busy. Busy. Busy.  And so very productive.  But as anyone knows, if you keep your shoulder to the wheel, you can’t fly and it was time to fly.  It was time to celebrate ALL of my family history the painful and the glorious…and the ordinary.  I had tripped and lost the perspective and humor and compassion that I so carefully armed myself with when I began to learn about who my family was.  Is.

My Grandmother’s Face

Florence Leora Curtis Age Three

During the busy work, I had contacted an individual who seemed to be researching my immediate Curtis family line.  A courtesy check.  “Hello, I am…  My line is…  Are you related?”  Standard stuff.  I have been rewarded with second and third cousins and some delightful insights into ancestral lives and family and friends and once FIRST once removed cousins who have become dear to me.    Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place?  My casual “Hello” turned out to be another first cousin who is the steward of our Downing-Curtis family memorabilia.  And my grandmother’s face.

Marj recently began the process of sorting old photos and emailed me a selection of photos she thought I might like to see.  “Are these photos of anyone you know?”  Click.  The JPG opened and my grandmother’s face looked out at me with large dark eyes and though it is sepia…no question brown and her hair was even at three- thick and dark.  She was impish and sweet with a face that I had always categorized as Purdy…but it is a Curtis face and it was my Aunt Mary’s face and my cousin Chris’ face and his father, Bill’s face.    My grandmother became dimensional and animated at that moment to me through her children and grandson who bear a remarkable and almost unalloyed resemblance.  My Aunt Elizabeth had drawers stuffed with lovely “delicates”…to the point they could barely close.  Though I spent such a short amount of time with my Aunt Esther, she was reserved compared to her boisterous and talkative sisters and I wonder if Grandma was, too.  I knew my Aunt Mary’s impish personality and cherub face and her voice still rings in my memory.  “Tweetsdie Dins!” she would cry…arms open wide and in a moment you were enveloped in organdy, perfume and endless kisses.  My cousin, Chris, is a spirited, big hearted man that I have loved forever.  He has made laugh uncontrollably when I thought I couldn’t and always made me feel loved.  His father, my Uncle Bill…his mother’s darling son… was larger than life…quick to laugh and quick to cry…and quick to pick you up when you fell down.

And my mother’s hands…always there to comfort me and clap with joy at my silly girl jokes and antics and to make me her miraculous, homemade lemon meringue pie.

I did know my grandmother after all.

Postscript:  Thank you, Marj for your incredibly kind gesture of sharing this photo with me and all of Florence’s grandchildren and great grandchildren.  We are very grateful.

In case you wonder where the photo of my aged grandmother is, WordPress had a problem…or my grandmother admonished “Don’t meddle, Dolly”…a pet phrase of hers to my curious brothers.  I was fiddling with minor edits and  I could not insert both her young photo and her old photo in the post.  The older Florence overlaid the baby Florence no matter what I did…so I will check with tech support and maybe a psychic and try to fix the problem.  For now the child wins.  And I won’t meddle.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2011.  All Rights Reserved

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