When I was born, my great grandparents must have been in their early 70s. Oscar and Ada lived in the rolling hills of El Cajon, east of San Diego. Ada's sister, Lou Goodale Bigelow, lived in a cottage that was attached to her sister's house by a breezeway. The house was on a few acres of orange trees on a hill behind the house. I remember the dry clumpy dirt plowed between the rows, and how hard it was to traverse this landscape with my small child feet. I mostly stayed out of the orchard, and spent my time on the tree swing beneath the enormous walnut tree just outside the front of the house. The old tree dwarfed the house and was a prolific producer. My sisters and I would gather up walnuts by the bag full. No doubt these nuts were not ready to eat, but Great Grandmother (which we always called her, as she was very proper) always had walnuts on hand for us to crack, pick, and munch. Such a simple and memorable treat for a child.
Oscar was an exceptionally tall and very broad man, even in his later years. He had a large squarish head with wide cheekbones and a prominent nose. I remember his hands, so large they were, that I doubt I've ever met a living soul with any hands that could rival his. These hands served him well on the farm, and in the auto shop he would later run with his brother Clyde. I never met Clyde, he was gone before my time, but he if shared these physical traits with Great Grandfather, they must have been a formidable pair. Clyde must have been a Herculean man, for as a young man with a new family, he homesteaded a farm for many years. Put it together from scratch, starting with a dirt dugout.
Ada, on the other had, was a petite woman with delicate features and beautiful tapered fingers. As a child I knew her as a white haired, stooped old lady, whose skin was always soft and cool, even on a blistering summer day. Always impeccably dressed, she kept a tidy house that was adorned with Hummel figurines and lace curtains. Fine china on the sideboard never left their nesting place, as far as I could tell. Her house was not one for running in, though I don't ever remember her scolding any of the children. We just knew, whether by parental instruction or pure instinct, that we had to be on our best behavior in her house. The one place we could let our hair down a bit was the back porch. It was a large screened in affair, with a concrete floor painted red, white wicker furniture, and the cat bed. This is where kitty lived, not in the main house. She was a long-haired variety, and elusive even on the porch, which ran the length of the house. It, too, was tidy, but less formal and it allowed us to sprawl on the furniture without risking disapproval. On hot summer days, the concrete floor was cool and inviting, and always spotless. It was a refreshing spot to lie down, and hope the cat would amble over for a pat.
Aunty Lou, as we called her, lived what seemed to be a fairly solitary life across the breezeway. Retired from photography and painting, having sold her studio to her long time friend Jeanette, she lived 30 feet from her family in a cottage that was locked away in time. We didn't visit often, and I never quite knew what to say to her. She was ancient, and eccentric, and her dwelling was filled with heavy Victorian furniture, including a very uncomfortable horse hair couch. Dark curtains kept the light out, and it seemed an altogether otherworldly place to my young self. She died in her sleep when I was young, perhaps 8 years old. Died in that substantial Victorian four poster bed with its dark wood and fancy scroll work. I think this was my first experience of death, and I didn't quite understand how she could be 'gone.'
As an adult I have become knowledgeable about all of their lives when they were young. I have quite a collection of photographs of these ancestors throughout their existence. As newlyweds, young parents, middle aged with grown children and grandchildren. Their lives before I knew them, full of vitality and struggle, travels and tedium, all that living encompasses. I am thinking a lot of them now, now that my parents are experiencing their own great grandchildren. Those kids only know my folks as old folks. And who knows for how long they will know them?
My parents were never overly enamored of spending time with their grandchildren, but they seem to take a keener interest in the latest generation. I wonder what my grand children will remember of them? It's impossible to motivate young children to take an interest in older folks whom they don't visit that often. There is little connection, and little interest in what these somewhat strange grown ups are all about. Better to go lie on the cool concrete floor and play with the cat while the adults get on with their endless conversation.