Another Birthday


My Grandmother (right) in her youth, with her older sister Alma

My Grandmother (right) in her Youth, with Her Older Sister Alma

Amid all the (well deserved) hoopla over Shakespeare’s forthcoming 450th birthday I’d like to celebrate another birth anniversary. Today my maternal grandmother, Clara Engel Hallett, would have turned 125.

According to her gravestone in Clyde, New York, she isn’t actually dead. She purchased it at the time of my grandfather’s death in 1966 and had the stone carver inscribe the dates “1889-19__” on it. Somehow or other our family never got around to having those last two numbers filled in after her death in 1988. So she seems to live on, although she is forever trapped in the 20th century.

I have written a lot about my grandmother over the years, mostly focusing on her Horatio-Alger like childhood. She was adopted by a miserly farmer and suffered in his home for years, only to be rescued by a kind, childless couple who gave her love and an education.

She met my grandfather, Hal, in a scene out of a silent film. Spotting her on the steps of the chapel at Middlebury College, he exclaimed to a friend, “That is the woman I am going to marry.”

She was frugal, dignified, beautiful, and loyal to friends and relatives. She was generally subservient to my grandfather. On one notable occasion, however, she stood up to him. One evening Hal was trying to teach his eldest child, my mother, the multiplication tables. My grandfather had many wonderful qualities, but he was often a bully. He yelled when little Janice got one of her answers wrong, and the child panicked and started guessing randomly. Her father shot up out of his chair and advanced on her, apparently thinking that a good spanking would teach her arithmetic once and for all.

Meek Clara swooped across the room, picked up her daughter, and glared at her husband. “Don’t you touch a hair on that child’s head!” she announced fiercely. Neither my grandfather nor my mother ever forgot that moment.

With Baby Janice in 1919

With Baby Janice in 1919

Despite his bouts of temper Clara was devoted to Hal. One of my favorite stories about her demonstrates her loyalty to him—and the romantic streak she sometimes tried to hide. She related it to me one evening when I was in my early 20s and was staying at her home for a few days. She was probably under the influence of the single old-fashioned cocktail she allowed herself at dinnertime.

Early in her marriage, she told me, my grandfather brought a business associate home to dinner. When she shook hands with this mysterious stranger, she felt a palpable electric shock of attraction. She spent most of dinner trying to avoid his gaze. At the end of the evening, as the associate took the train home, she informed my grandfather that she hadn’t liked the man and never wanted him invited to her home again. She valued her marriage far too much to chance another meeting, she told me.

For years she wondered what might have been. And then, at a party about 20 years later, she met her mystery man once more … only to find him old and boring.

She admitted to me that it was possible that he had been boring all along. Maybe the carpet was responsible for the electric shock. In any case, she had enjoyed her little romantic dream but was pragmatic enough to appreciate its demise as well.

Another romantic dream ALMOST came back to her late in life when, after my grandfather’s death, she received a letter from her childhood beau in Rutland, Vermont. In their teenage years she had called him King Arthur. He had called her his Guinevere. Late at night she had daringly lowered homemade fudge down to him from her bedroom window using her corset strings.

Arthur wrote in 1968 or so to tell my grandmother that his wife had died and that he would like to rekindle their relationship, then dormant for about 60 years. She appreciated the note but wasn’t ready to shackle herself to a man again.

After my grandfather’s death she had discovered a new sense of freedom and self-reliance, redecorating the house and trading in my grandfather’s big white Cadillac (he had purchased a new Cadillac religiously every two years) for a big white Oldsmobile. Personally, I found the two cars almost identical, but to her that Oldsmobile symbolized her new position in the driver’s seat of her life.

So she wrote to King Arthur and said that although she would always treasure his memory, she preferred that he remain just that, a memory. And she got on with her life.

Thinking of her combined romanticism and pragmatism always makes me smile, particularly on her birthday.

My Grandparents in the 1960s

My Grandparents in the 1960s

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12 comments on “Another Birthday

  1. Gabrielle Pellé-Hyvon says:

    You make everything so fully alive and strong….Merci for all these beautiful memories….

  2. vcello7 says:

    I love reading your items and hearing about your family!!! Did your grandparents both go to Middlebury? What year(s) did they graduate? We just visited the steps — and interior — of Mead Chapel last summer; I hadn’t been back for decades. That was the scene of many choir performances and other concerts, so I had to reminisce a bit.
    Keep ‘em comin’, Tinky :)

    • tinkyweisblat says:

      Ah, VCello–They DID both go to Middlebury, although they didn’t start there. My grandmother spent one year at Mount Holyoke and then decided she wanted to be closer to home and to boys. My grandfather was kicked out of Harvard during his senior year for some sort of behavior (my guess would be drinking or pranks or who knows what). He moved on to graduate from Middlebury, although he was such a loyal (and generous!) alum to Harvard that they eventually gave him a diploma as well. How fun that you were on those very steps!

  3. Jean Gordon says:

    What! That’s all? Tinky how could you stop so soon? I was relishing every word, rereading some passages to make sure I was seeing the scene correctly, and suddenly it stopped. Sigh…… Well, what a delightful girl to woman your grandmother was. And how beautifully you describe her life.

  4. Jody Cothey says:

    Fudge lowered down on a corset string is a gem!

    Date: Thu, 24 Apr 2014 14:07:20 +0000 To: ninedogsnow@msn.com

    • tinkyweisblat says:

      She always recalled saying “Corset’s a string” (as in “Of course it’s a string”) of this practice. I didn’t find the pun particularly hilarious, but she thought it was a hoot.

  5. Ann Zagari says:

    What a cute baby picture! Jan sure didn’t change much throughout her life and that smile stayed the same!

  6. tinkyweisblat says:

    You’re so right, Ann. And doesn’t Clara look a little astonished to have that imp on her lap?

  7. Stone, Sara says:

    Tinky:
    I’ve been in Albuquerque with my mom who is very ill after going through radiation for a vaginal tumor. I’m back in Waco this week for final exams and some meetings, but I will be going back. Today is Mom’s 95th birthday, and up until about 6 weeks ago she was very active and very with it. The radiation took a terrible toll – she has multiple complications, a blood clot in her lung that broke up and “showered” into her brain, a large radiation burn on her bottom, a urinary track infection, etc.
    I went to spend four days with her at Easter but ended up taking her to the emergency room and then staying for an extra 10 days after that until she got well enough to go to a critical care nursing home.
    Anyway, I just wanted to tell you it was a joy to read about your grandmother – it made me smile.
    I miss you – we’ll catch up more one of these days soon.
    Hugs,
    Sara

    • tinkyweisblat says:

      Dearest Sara–How lovely to hear from you. I’m so glad I was able to cheer you up a bit. Much love to youand your mom,
      Tinky

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