Southern California 1928 — 1938
As in every story, mine begins at the beginning.
I sit her trying to decide what was important to my life and what was negligible, and I realize it was ALL important; every stumble or achievement, as well as all the people who contributed to it.
The grandparents who influenced my life the most were Jim Black and Nellie Kendall. Jim was a high school track star who came down from Montreal, Canada to compete in Nellie’s high school in New Hampshire. They married the day she graduated, and moved to California with their two little girls in the early 1900″s.
Young, and with no money but with the pipe dreams often associated with youth, Grandma made a bee line to Beverly Hills, where she rented a large home next door to Harold Lloyd, an early comic movie star with large horn-rimmed glasses and an acrobatic bent.
The next problem to come up was how to pay for all this posh lifestyle, so she did the only thing she felt she was good at; she rented out rooms and made hats for society ladies at premium prices. I don’t know how the celebrity neighbors felt about all this, but they didn’t live there long before they moved on to another rented house in Los Angeles, bringing their paying guests with them.
Grandma could be an overwhelming presence and she overwhelmed Jim and soon divorced him, leaving her to weather the storms of single motherhood, and Jim to love her forever after.
Nellie was an excellent seamstress and an excellent cook, the only skills she had learned as a daughter of privilege, and instead of merely renting our spare bedrooms, she elevated her paying guests to boarders.
The money Nellie made often didn’t stretch far enough, so my mother and aunt made sure the boarders ate while Nellie went out and got whatever job she could as waitress or hostess at hotel or restaurant. This was an additional skill she had, since she had often waited tables in the large resort her father owned in New Hampshire.
Plump and pretty, accompanied by a sense of humor, grandma was a magnet for the boys, and loved dancing and parties, though she allowed no drinking or smoking. No one ever dared do either in any house she lived in. She was married four times, and her last husband did both, so it was incredible to see her happily sitting at his feet with his pipe smoke drifting in swirls over her head. She had married him at the age of 76 saying she would marry “the devil himself if it would keep her from being a burden” to my mother. I guess there’s a reason behind every rhyme.
Though the two sisters were always close, Grandma and Georgia were opposite in every way. Auntie was taller and lean, and quite plain. Both Yankees, Georgia typified the usual definition of a strait-laced New Englander, though she possessed a wry sense of humor.
Auntie taught me that “Lips which touch a cigaroote shall never park beneath my snoot.” And that “Whistling girls and cackling hens always come to very bad ends.”
Nellie’s closet was always bursting with pretty clothes, while my recollection of Auntie’s small closet contained one “nice” dress, one or two everyday dresses, a pair of dress shoes and her everyday shoes. It would never have occurred to her to want more, though by my childhood evaluation, they were the “wealthy” part of the family. Later, after the Great Depression had begun to take its toll of every family, I remember asking my grandma if we were poor. She assured me that rather than “poor”, we were broke. We were broke for a very long time.
Nellie’s sister Georgia had chosen to go to normal school and became a teacher before she married Uncle Phil and moved to California. I mention this because Auntie was one of the great influences on my life and whose home sheltered me more times than I can remember.