Grammie’s Blog: 1909-1919

Most of us take blogs for granted as much as phone communications or TV. Although blogs educate, persuade and inform an audience, perhaps their most important function is to let readers connect on a very human level with the author. As wonderful as modern technology is, that connection has been around for a long time.grammie_19091

The blogs I’m writing about tonight weren’t written on a computer, they were written with a metal point pen dipped in an inkwell. The author started writing by kerosene lanterns, and ended the blogs by electric light shortly after WWI. The author was my maternal grandmother, years before she met my grandfather. She was a remarkable young woman that I’ve come to know through her writing via recently discovered journals.

“Grammie” was my best friend until her death 35 years ago. She lived next door to me during most of my childhood and teen-aged years and had far more influence on me than both of my parents put together. She hated cooking and all things domestic. She was vain, outrageous, and prone to wearing too much jewelry. She was more like “Auntie Mame” than anyone’s idea of a grandmother. In other words, she was fabulous.

A few years ago, while settling my father’s estate, I came across a trunk that had belonged to Grammie. There, in that false-bottom trunk, I found nearly a dozen of my grandmother’s journals, dating back to 1909. I held in my hands a ten-year record of the private thoughts of the most remarkable woman I had ever met. These journals were her “blogs”, and I want to share some of what I learned from them.

A little background: I only remember my grandmother in her very energetic 60s, 70s and early 80s. Grammie and I were the black sheep of the family; we were secret conspirators against the rest of our family, who pretty much lived in a “no fun” zone. We were both considered a little too eccentric, a little too on the fringe, a “little too much”, as I heard one aunt whisper as we were leaving the room.

By the time I was 5 years old, Grammie took me with her on “secret” shopping excursions. She/we would buy things that my mother and uncle didn’t approve of.  That charcoal and pink poodle skirt? Who cares if it was made for teen aged girls; it made Grammie happy and I encouraged her to buy it. I even convinced her to have her hair done in a pony tail like Lucille Ball. The antique black lacquer tea cups, the Art Deco travel clock that she couldn’t afford during the 1930s, all of these treasures came home, to be hidden. When I dropped by her house on the way home from school, Grammie would pull out these treasures that her adult children could never appreciate, and we would enjoy them together.

To give you a glimpse of this remarkable woman, she “surprised” my mother and the congregation by walking down the aisle as a bride, wearing a fuchsia velvet evening gown and gold slippers to her own second wedding in 1950! Things like just weren’t done in Merced, California. Twenty years later, my grandmother’s second husband dropped dead from a heart attack. Like many women of her generation, she had been trained to think that she couldn’t live alone, “without a man in the house.” To end her neurosis, my parents consented to let me “temporarily” move in with Grammie. It was just a few miles away. I stayed for over 2 years.

Away from prying parental eyes, we talked about “everything”. Grammie told me things I know that she never revealed to either of her adult children. We had independently reached some of the same unorthodox theories about life: reincarnation, parallel universes, and that time travel really is possible. She told me many secrets, which I will carry to my grave. Although I was only a junior in high school, over time our relationship evolved into an adult friendship. The two generations of time between us dissolved. My eyes were already fixed on horizons far beyond Merced, and she probably remembered her own youth, when she had dreamed about California looking at lithographs in magazine.

Ironically, she rarely talked about the life she lived as a young woman, before she married my grandfather in 1919. She had been a minister’s daughter, the youngest child, the one who stayed behind to care for her aging parents. Grammie had married late in life (26!) for her day. The nagging fears of spinsterhood haunted her, and thus she preferred to forget those years.

But she speaks of those years to me now as I read her journals. On yellowed pages I see words scratched by a steel pen nib (not yet coated in Iridium) which reveal a remarkably gifted young woman. She might have become an actress, a professional musician or a writer or romance novels had she lived in a different time and place. She was a relentless writer. If she were alive today (at age 117) she would be making podcasts and using Twitter!

Due to the severe restrictions of her religious upbringing (which thankfully, faded over time) she could only dream of the many things that she had the talent to do. As a young woman, Grammie could only go to movies about Jesus (which came along about every 7 years). The theater was strictly forbidden; only “loose” women were seen in places like that!  Like most “decent” women circa 1912,  she couldn’t wear a trace of make-up.

Neither could she wear flashy clothing or bright colors. A pale, greenish brown frock was OK, but coral or lavender were verboten. That plain picture frame hat was acceptable for church, but she couldn’t even try on the one with the birds and the cherries that she really wanted, as her agonized pen now reveals.

The highest profession she could aspire to was being a school teacher, probably in a small, one-room school house.grammie_school

And that is exactly what she became, a teacher. Just beneath the surface, unexpressed talents continued to boil, so Grammie stretched the envelope. She was the first teacher in Merced County to show motion pictures in the classroom. Believe it or not, this was controversial in 1920s, when many “righteous” parents still thought of movies as “the devil’s playthings.” The aspiring young actress found revenge through hundreds of plays and pageants that she produced with her midget actors. Generations of farmers’ children had their 5 minutes of fame on orange crate stages, and got a taste of an audience’s love and the sound of applause. The costumes may have been made of crepe paper, the sets made of cardboard, but Grammie had finally made it to that “theatre” she couldn’t enter as a young woman.

That may sound like a small thing, but it is not. I remember the countless times I was with Grammie on one of our secret shopping sprees when some middle aged woman would ask, “weren’t you Mrs. Huffman, who taught in Washington Elementary School?” The former students weren’t always certain that this elegant older woman in the “Vertigo” suit and furs could be the same teacher they remembered from 30 years ago. Once Grammie admitted who she was, the former student would unleash a torrent of gratitude and memories of what she had learned from Mrs. Huffman.

That middle-aged woman in 1962 may have never made it further in life than working the counter at Woolworth’s. But once-upon-a-time, she had been an “actress” in one of Florence Huffman’s plays. She got to be somebody.

When I first found Grammie’s journals, I leafed forward to April of 1912, hoping to read about the TITANIC. I was disappointed to find no mention of it. Wealthy people and ships the size of office buildings weren’t a part of her world. But I learned that April of 1912 had record rains in rural Illinois, and her devoutly religious father couldn’t make it to his own church for 4 Sundays. The wagon wheels were mired in mud up to the hubs.

But there were other things in these “blogs” that taught me a great deal about Life in general, as well as about the lovely young woman who dreamed of horizons she wasn’t permitted to reach. There are veiled illusions to beaus or suitors that “got away.” The pages reveal the ever present tension and mounting panic over whether she would ever find a husband. She was clearly being reminded by everyone she knew that at 21, 22 and 23 years old, she “wasn’t getting any younger.”

Did she really only aspire to become a homemaker? Or was that the only acceptable future laid out for her? If she dreamed of a life of her own, as a single, successful professional woman, she didn’t dare commit such thoughts in writing.

The poems, prose and observations in these time-worn journals reveal that Florence Freeze (her maiden name) was a writer of great promise. She occasionally had a religious or anti-war poem published in some small-town newspaper, but was otherwise unpublished. Left to her own devices (and if she could have worn that hat with the birds and  cherries!) she might have moved to a big city and become a romance novelist or playwright.grammie_deer

But then, she never would have met my grandfather and I never would have been born. Reading between the lines of these journals, seeing what my grandmother might have become, I’m not sure which fate I would prefer for her. If I could travel back in time, would I give her a train ticket to New York so she could have been Fannie Hurst or another Elinor Glyn? The world might have been a richer place if more people had met Florence through her words in print.

So, I will use my blog to periodically publish some of the words and thoughts of Florence Freeze. And if you come back and read what she wrote, and get to know her as I did, I suspect you’ll be a better person. I know that I am.

I love you Grammie. I miss you and think of you every day. Finally, your words will be read by others.  And maybe somebody else in some small place will realize that they too, can be somebody. They too can change hundreds of lives doing what seems like a small thing.

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5 Books that changed my Life

A member of one of my Linked In groups posed the question, “Name the 5 books that have changed your life.” What is your list of the slightly less than half dozen books that have made you who you are today? I was surprised at how easy it was to compose my list. Here it is.

(1) Honey from the Rock: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism by Lawrence Kushner … you don’t have to be Jewish (or even religious) to benefit from this book. Astonishingly simple, Zen-like, yet complex Kaballah-like interpretation of Life’s mysteries. It affirms that there as many answers to a question as there are listeners or witnesses

(2) Birds Without Wings by Louis De Bernieres — historic fiction (novel with some real historic characters making brief appearances.) A heart breaking and unforgettable look at one of the tragic arenas of WWI (what is now Turkey) through the lens of a single village.

Find out how outside foreign powers decided it was better to separate Christians from Muslims and the tragic consequences (including the Armenian holocaust) that resulted.

Moments of astounding beauty that you will never forget, along with the unvarnished brutality of war.

(3) The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot — though written in 1992, a still up-to-date look at the harmony between physics, mysticism, spirituality and the real possibility of time travel. Technical, yet accessible. A real page turner, hard to put down. I have read this book 6 or 7 times.

(4) The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan — a collection of poems written by high caste Japanese women 1000 to 1100 years ago. Shockingly frank, modern and highly applicable to modern life. You will feel as if someone read your own mind or heart before she wrote these simple lines.Like seeing a sketch artist who can capture all the nuances of a Van Gogh oil painting in a few, perfect brush strokes.

The seaweed gatherer’s weary feet
keep coming back to my shore.
Doesn’t he know
there’s no harvest for him
in this uncaring bay?

(5) Marlene Dietrich by Maria Riva — even if you are not a movie (or Dietrich) fan you will not be disappointed. This is an irresistibly epic and highly researched biography of one of filmdom’s greatest “creations” by Dietrich’s daughter. Maria was with Dietrich, just out of frame, during all of the major films of her glory years. Unlike Marilyn Monroe, Dietrich was very comfortable with the stark chasm between her on-screen and off-screen persona. She was a highly complex, contradictory, maddening and thoroughly lovable person.

This biography gives an unblinking look at a woman who was decades ahead of her time, who travelled thousands of more miles and entertained more many more troops (uncredited, at her own expense) during WWII than Bob Hope. She was behind enemy lines at one point and was in Holland on the ground to greet the first allies who landed by parachute!

In addition, Dietrich met anyone who mattered in virtually all circles: artistic, literary, political and of course, Hollywood. A huge, fat, heavy book that is maddeningly difficult to put down. Warning, once you read this bio, you may find yourself impelled to buy several hundred dollars’ worth of boxed DVD sets on La Dietrich. If you want to buy only one film about her, get “Marlene” (1984), a brilliant documentary by actor/director Maximillian Schell. You won’t be disappointed with either the book or the films. Crazy as it sounds, I have looked at nearly everything differently after seeing the world through the eyes of Marlene.

You can trust your book to the cat that has “that look” …

Speaking of books, if you live in the greater Los Angeles area, go to one of the world’s last true independent bookstores. Large space, great selection, and a one-eyed cat. Who could ask for more? Go to the Iliad bookstore in North Hollywood on the north east corner of Cahuenga and Chandler. And tell them “Max sent me.” I bought most of the books on this list there, and miss that place like crazy. At least I have Powell’s in Portland, OR and Beaverton, OR.