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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