Sunday, March 24, 2013

Story Scraps from a Red Headed Stepchild

“It’s now officially Sunday. Every Sunday for the past thirty three weeks I have posted a new story on my website. Admittedly some are better than others, but the stories have always been written, edited and re-written BEFORE Sunday. Alas, this is not the case today. I have no earthly idea what to write. The story looming large in my brain is not one I can post. I think I’ll need divine intervention to dislodge that story from my brain and make room for something else. I’ve got mere hours to make my deadline! Oh me oh my I can’t let this day go by . . .”
And that was my 12:33 am Facebook post as I sat staring off into space from the comfort of my couch with cup of tea in hand. Sleep was evasive after far too much coffee earlier in the day. My brains were scrambled, as is often the case with me.
Suggestions for writers block began to pour in: My sister, of course, suggested I write about her but you can listen to her story, “Blonde, Beautiful and Bubbly” on my CD. Fellow tellers suggested bourbon and coke or chocolate or laughter.  One friend suggested I write the story lodged in my head; however, some stories cannot be rushed or posted on the web. Finally, one wise woman advised: “Take immediate and effective action”.  And so I began.
I sat snuggled on my sofa listening to the rain pounding on my roof and offered up a prayer for inspiration. As I looked up my eyes landed on the portrait of my grandmother hanging above the fireplace mantel. Some prayers are answered quickly. Thinking of the scenes from the movie “Mulan” where they go to the ancestors seeking guidance, I marveled at God’s sense of humor.  Chuckling to myself, I could almost see my grandmother winking at me.
Twenty years ago I recorded my father interviewing my grandmother with my two year old son’s playschool recorder. Immediately I got up from the couch and walked into my bedroom and pulled out the old tape recorder and cassette tape. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I fell asleep listening to those voices. My grandmother has been gone for twenty years and my father’s voice has been stolen by Parkinson’s disease. I miss those voices.
I wish I could tell you that my grandmother was a great storyteller, but she wasn’t. She was a woman of few words, but those words always exuded power. I listened intently as my father worked to pull the story of the portrait out of her. Her initial response was, “you’ve heard that before.”  But I chimed in, “I haven’t heard the story Gramma and it’s such a beautiful painting.  You were gorgeous!” My grandmother snorted back, “oh no dear, I was just the red headed step child.”

Here's how her story unfolded:
My grandmother was born in 1905 after her mother, Geta, was quickly charmed by a man traveling through town. They wed and Dorothy Graves, my grandmother, was born nine months later. The man, held captive by alcoholism and gambling traveled right out of their lives before my grandmother turned a year old.  He died shortly after his departure. My grandmother ended up being raised by her grandparents and her Aunt Bertha.  Geta went to school to earn a teaching degree and ultimately took a teaching job far away.
When Dorothy was nine years old her mother married a man named Edgar Norton, who had paid his niece $10.00 to introduce him to her teacher. Edgar was a widower with three teenage children- Dolly, Holly and Harry. Once married, Geta stopped teaching to take care of Edgar and the four children. My grandmother was nine when she went to live with her mother and stepfather. She had not seen much of her mother in those previous nine years. When we asked Gramma how she felt about not having seen her mother for so long and then having to be uprooted to live with her new family she answered, “Aunt Bertha was my mother. . . What could I do? . . . I was shifted around. I was the red-headed step child.”
And that is how my grandmother spent her childhood, feeling less worthy than her step siblings and missing her Aunt Bertha. She never viewed herself as attractive or worthy until a famous painter spotted her.
This is how my grandmother described that day. “I was running to work. I was always running. Always late to work, you know. A big car pulled up to the curb and asked me if I would sit for a portrait with the painter Elizabeth Curtis. She paid me $2.00 an hour to sit. I sat for a couple of years.”
And that was all my grandmother had to say about that. But I wondered. Did that experience change her vision of herself? She was no longer the “red headed step child”. She was the beautiful red head in the Elizabeth Curtis painting.
As I listened to the voice of my grandmother and my father, I drifted off into a deep, sound sleep. My faith and my family have always grounded me. Upon waking I found my mind was quieter and this little “story scrap” of my grandmother was lodged in my head. It’s just the beginning of the story of her life that I will put together one little scrap at a time. Like Mushu and Mulan, I hope that I will bring honor to my ancestors.
Oh me oh my . . . don't let the voices of your ancestors go by . . . record them! They may speak back to you when you find yourself most in need of inspiration.