She Could Have Been Somebody

Mary Ellen Rudy Palmer had a choice. She could accept the invitation of Andrew Carnegie and sing for a proper audience in his renowned and beautiful hall in New York City, just a couple short hours away, or, she could keep her promise to marry my great grandfather. Maybe it wasn’t a choice so much as an ultimatum. And it wasn’t coming from Mr. Carnegie.

This is the story handed down from the generations before me and I have no reason to doubt it. Except the dramatic part about the ultimatum. In truth she may have been flattered, but no, I have a husband to tend to and a family yet to raise, maybe later.

In this photo she hasn’t met John Calder Palmer. Or if she has, she is not yet betrothed to him. She is the one seated on the arm of the chair in which her elder sister Mildred, for whom my grandmother was named, sits.

Once she does meet John, she will have four children in rather quick succession, as was common in the early decades of the last century. My grandmother would be first with three brothers to follow. When I was still in single digits, she would regale me with the stories of the antics her rambunctious younger brothers. But hidden within the storytelling there was also a weightiness, perhaps speaking to the responsibility of being a second mother to them as her own mother would have to find work to help feed the family during the depression.

The Palmer children remained very close throughout their lives. As adults they were there for each other during too many combined marriages and divorces to count, and as restless teenagers the boys would teach my grandmother how to throw a punch, which saved her chastity at least once and quite possibly her life.

Eight years after the birth of the first four children, Mary would be gifted a set of fraternal twins to whom she would play the doting stage mother. Both boys grew to be talented singers. All her children were for that matter, but there were much more pressing issues to attend to in the early thirties and any aspirations other than good hard work would have to be back burnered.

By the mid-forties though, Mary would have a firm handle on the very rich prospects for her twins’ future stardom. She lived, breathed and worked at her dream through them non-stop.

And it worked. For one of them. They were both gifted, but their personalities differed greatly and one was drawn to the spotlight while the other preferred quieter pursuits. A star was born. Thomas Moyer Palmer would go on to debut at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York City in 1970 and I would be there in my new green winter coat with the fur collar and cuffs tightly cinched over over my red velvet dress, white tights and shiny black patent leather Mary Janes. I would be given a box of M&M’s for my silence that would be taken away from me, in a cruel twist of irony, for making too much noise during the performance.

I love opera today. When Orlando had an active Opera Guild, I held season tickets. It is not a love I would have acquired on my own without this early exposure, I don’t think. I suppose I have my great grandmother’s tenacity to thank for that.

Mary Ellen Rudy grew up on a farm with one sister and two brothers near Harrisburg, in Pennsylvania. Her beginnings were sturdy and humble, and she was never able to hang her name on her own Broadway star, but she put all her effort into ensuring her beloved son had his chance.

He would go on to be a successful baritone the world over. He should still be alive today, it’s totally possible, he would be 85. And he certainly should have lived past 60, but his secretive (to some) life as a gay man, married to a woman (3 of them throughout his life) led him to seek the love he so longed for away from prying eyes. His wives knew, they had agreements, but no amount of discretion or permission could protect him from AIDS. He would finally give up his fight, with another woman companion by his side, in the early nineties.

His beloved mother passed away at the peak of his health and the gently waning side of his career, confident that her guidance and love would carry him through continued success.

But there were five other children whose lives she shaped. And their children and their children and many future generations. And oh the stories.

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