Can you feel this photo? What’s the first word that comes to mind?
This is my mother and her mother. The photo was taken probably around 1965 at my gay uncle’s first false wedding. Well not false, exactly, but a ruse, a show, a public event to prove his heterosexuality to those that could affect his opera career.
He loved this wife, I believe he loved all of them. But this was more of a business arrangement, they had an agreement. He could sleep with any man he chose, or as many men as he chose, but if he were to stray to another woman, he would be castrated, and probably slowly, without anesthesia. And so, the rings were placed, the papers were signed, and they moved into an elegant three-story town home in Connecticut.
But back to the photo. Elegance. Disdain. Contempt. Animosity. Acrimony. Secrets. Adultery. All the best ingredients for a steamy reality show.
Since I was not invited to this fete – probably because I was still in the prime of my drooling and relentless attention seeking season – I do not have first-hand knowledge. I do, however, know this relationship.
Let me catch you up.
My exquisitely dressed grandmother in her silk shift with the precisely placed brooch and oh-so-understated pillbox hat seems to be saying, “I can’t believe you’re still with that man, when is he going to marry you? What do you see in him anyway? I know you’re doing this to spite me. You’ve never listened to me. Well, now I guess you’re getting what you deserve.”
To which my stunning mother in her Audrey Hepburn hat and understated jewels, quips, “I love him, Mother. We have a child to consider now. He’s going to leave her. You don’t get a say in this one.”
This will not be the end of the conversation. It will continue openly throughout the years, silently simmering with an undercurrent of imminent eruption and outwardly with gin-laced venom and righteousness. I could feel their caution around each other as a child but never really witnessed – or don’t recall – any verbal assault in my presence. Instead, my grandmother would buy too many gifts for me on special occasions – things my lousy-no-good-cheating father could never afford. She would fly me to Florida to visit her. Alone. She would take me places and teach me the ways of the world she probably hoped would poison me against him. Turns out she didn’t really have to work all that hard at it.
This nonverbal tug of war left their relationship threadbare and my mother would work this out her entire life, how she felt about her own mother. She was clear that certain women that set her teeth on edge just by the way they said something or acted a certain way were reflections of her mother. She held them blameless but would not befriend them.
For my grandmother, she was sure she was right, so there was no internal conflict on her part, my mother just had to come to her senses.
But to be fair to my mother, there is another photo of my grandmother in this pile of proofs I’ve uncovered, in which she is reaching to shake the hand of the beautiful and happy bride, with a similar look on her face. In that one she seems to be saying simultaneously, “You’re not good enough for my baby brother and I feel sorry for you and the difficult future you have chosen.”
That look it turns out is genetic. An accident of birth. I have shot a similar look at my own mother – mostly in that adolescent black hole of junior high – and for sure my mother cast a disdaining look upon some aberrant behavior that was surely a genetic flaw on my father’s side that I exhibited. But outside of age 13 or 14 I don’t think we would have had the balls to go toe to toe like this.
Maybe they didn’t either. Maybe this was just a flash of a moment caught on film while they waited for the ladies’ room that I’ve crafted a story around. Albeit a yarn built on truth.
This is William Lincoln Palmer, my 2nd great grandfather. My great grandfather’s father – the one who married Mary, the almost famous opera singer but she chose him and a family instead, Mary. The father of that guy. My mother’s great grandfather. I, of course, never met him and don’t recall any juicy stories about him and his lovely, but quite stern looking, wife, Susan. But I really like his face. And I have unearthed evidence that he was a hard worker and good provider who continued to be off service until he died of pneumonia at 76.
Besides, he’s who floated to the top of the ancestry soup today.
He was born 102 years and some months before I was in York County, Pennsylvania. Almost all my kin hail from somewhere around Harrisburg and have been in this country for generations. The Palmers – this line – trace back to the early 1800s before I lose them. William’s wife, Susan’s roots go back to the late 1600’s and before that Germany, Switzerland, Estonia.
I’ve found similar results on other arms of this lineage. We were among the first Pennsylvania Dutch. Which has nothing to do with The Netherlands, by the way. Deutsch. German. Still fair skin, hair and eyes no matter how you slice it.
William was in the exact middle of nine children. Nine. That’s a lot of mouths to feed on his father’s blacksmithing salary. Of course, every boy was put to work laboring on the family farm once he turned 10 and every daughter helped her mother in the house as soon as she could walk.
There was a mysterious servant listed on one of his father’s censuses named Ida Gregg, but I’ve yet to ferret out any intel on her. If I were to embellish, I would say she was hired on when the young Palmer’s were midway through birthing their own baseball team, to assist the bedraggled mother and ensure the Mr. and the children were fed a proper meal. Could happen.
Throughout his adult life, William would rent several homes in and around Harrisburg. In this ward or that. Once he married he traded blacksmithing for railroad work, first as a Brakeman, then as a Lineman, then a Switchman on the Steam railroad. He worked on the railroad (please resist the urge to sing or hum the song) until he was 69.
Hearty stock, hard worker.
But by the end of his life he was a store owner – I have yet to uncover what type of goods – and he would own the title to his modest home valued at $1,400 in 1930.
He and Susan had six children, three of them lived less than a year. One of the survivors, my great-grandfather, John Calder Palmer – whom I did know until he passed when I was 21 – would follow in his father’s footsteps and take up blacksmithing as a young man, but went on to enlist in the Army for The War and work for the postal service after he discharged.
I have always felt very connected to my maternal grandmother and her lineage. Perhaps it’s because her birthday was one day before mine (plus 42 years) so we understood the gifts of stubbornness and the need for decisiveness. And a little bit of that confidence in whatever we were doing even if we didn’t know what it was. I don’t think I resemble her but I had a second cousin thank me for looking like her Aunt Mimi once.
All of his children – my grandmother and her five brothers – worked hard and made great lives for themselves and their families. I mean, they were somewhat scandalous, there were multiple marriages in one lifetime, children out of wedlock, a couple of gay uncles – that I know of – and aunt who realized she was gay, actually two, and a ex-wife who was accused of killing her husband before she joined our motley crew, but no one was broke.
Loving family? Fun party? Seething resentment? Monumental discomfort? Let’s take a look.
The Cast (left to right):
Mildred Lorraine Palmer Gough Tebbs (there will be three more last names added to that string before she takes her final bow). Also known as my maternal grandmother. She’s probably 42 in this photo. She’s feisty, out-spoken, opinionated, prefers men to women in all cases and loves a good cocktail.
Paul Tebbs, my grandfather and stepfather to my mother, although she will always consider him her true father. He is a man of few words and will speak up only when it will benefit someone else. He’s an engineer by day and raises cattle for fun on the weekends. He loves good cigars, which will eventually kill him. He’s 48 here.
My mother. Helen Louise Gough Tebbs Grimes. She believed she was controlled by her domineering mother until she met my father, who ripped the puppet strings right out of Mildred’s hands. Although, while everyone was still alive the mastery would pass back and forth between hands. She’s creative, talented and beautiful, but it’s not enough. She taught herself to like scotch but would prefer a glass of wine. She’s about 22 here. And I’m probably 11 minutes old.
Donald Earl Grimes, about 36 in this photo. Too intelligent for anyone’s good, charming, sarcastic with a side of mean, always right and incredibly artistically talented. And married. Not to my mother. With three daughters. Of which I am the youngest and the only one belonging to my mother. Oh, and he also loves a good cocktail.
I have no idea what occasion would put them all in such close proximity, but I would almost guarantee a minimum of one high ball each has been had. If gin is involved things will begin to deteriorate rapidly. My grandfather will begin to play interference and eventually guide my grandmother out the door or to bed. My mother will tug at my father’s pant leg or laugh, tilt her head and then say, we really should be going, or it’s getting late, but her words will evaporate before they reach the sensible part of his brain. The situation may escalate, words spat with enough venom to start a revolution. But there will be no apologies the next day or the next time they’re all in the same room. It never happened. And it will happen again.
Even so, I love this photo. For what it says as much as for what it hides.
Instagram didn’t invent The Brightside, it just offers a few more filters.
This photo was taken 10 years before she would become my mother. And about 22 before I would doubt she had any redeemable skills as a human being. Parents don’t know anything, they don’t get it, whatever “it” we happen to be going through. How could they possibly understand how complicated life is for us?
Clearly the woman child can bait her own fishing hook. By age 12 she could also ride a horse, tend to cows and chickens, play the piano and the harp and ignore her little brother like it was her job.
It’s so easy to forget the interior lives of our parents, that they were once young and impressionable and even capable. I’m quite sure at 12 I was reading Seventeen magazine and fueling my developing obsession with boys and the size of my burgeoning thighs. In all fairness though, I did have a Girl Scout sash full of badges for skills I had legitimately learned. And some I even remember, like tying a square knot and sewing on a button. Oh, yeah, and storytelling. That was an actual badge.
Many of the skills I earned badges for were taught to me by this young fisherwoman.
I have her journals, her recent ones – like from the last two decades of her life – and within the cloth-covered, unlined books there are snippets of a life lived before I was even a thought. One such gem gives a nod of gratitude to the difficult woman whom she would always call Mother, for her ingenuity and abiiity to make something from nothing. Stunning dresses from dry goods sacks, a meal from scraps and beauty from bits of nature and just the right placement of objects.
All that resourcefulness was necessary for a while, but after my grandmother married the man I knew to be my grandfather (who was actually my mother’s step-father), circumstances greatly improved for everyone. “Mother” was able to design dresses made from fine fabrics for an actual couture house and collect genuine antiques to put her decorating skills to work in the 18th Century farmhouse they purchased so my grandfather could try his hand at being a “gentleman farmer” on weekends.
Fifteen years after this photo was taken, I would spend long weekends on this farm – where my mother and her brother spent their school age years – with its rolling Pennsylvania hills, a hundred head of cattle and a single bull named Pat. The “farm” became a showplace for my grandmother’s talents, a touchstone for my mother and an idyllic summer refuge for this still only child and grandchild.
This farm was a main character in the story of my youth. I would be flogged by a goose, wear a chain of daisies in my hair and help my grandmother and mother sew in the sweltering hot attic in just our underwear.
But I was never taught to bait my own hook. I’d rather feed the fish than eat them. But mom? Turns out she could take pretty good care of herself.
When I was little, you couldn’t keep me out of the water. I was like a fish, and if I wasn’t in the water I was begging to go to the water. The pool in particular, but lakes and oceans did nicely too.
I grew up in Suitland, Maryland in an apartment complex full of brick buildings with three stories, four apartments on each level. I never knew the people directly across from us, I don’t remember ever seeing anyone. Next to us lived a family with a daughter a few years older than I and we found common ground in our adoration for Donny Osmond. But I had to let her go when she did not share my affinity for the Jackson 5.
Diagonally from us, lived a woman named Ursula, who was a stewardess, and when she wasn’t working, she would wear these long flowey caftans in the bold colors and patterns of the 70’s. She would tease just the top her long blonde hair so that it made her head look taller than it was. My mom also did something like this, but she used a little upside down plastic basket to sit under a “fall” of hair that matched the color of hers, which was just a fancy name for what looked to be a fake ponytail. Wigs were perfectly acceptable accessories back then. Ursula’s husband, if they were even married, had dark hair and a mustache. I don’t know what he did, pilot maybe? While their living room was the same size and shape as ours, it looked and felt completely different. They had plants hanging in macramé holders, vibrant pillows and shag throw rugs, music on all the time and two little dogs running around. One whole wall was devoted to liquor and music. It made my own memories of my apartment seem very austere. And I don’t believe it really was. They were just very exotic and exciting.
Downstairs I had a friend named Kim. Her mom and my mom would have coffee in the afternoons sometimes at one of our apartments. Kim’s mom and her sister would join us one time at my grandparent’s 17 century farmhouse in Pennsylvania, where they heard footsteps on the long, carpeted stairway that led to the bedrooms, but saw no one. They never went back.
All the way on the bottom floor was a boy named Donald. He was from England and walked on his toes. I would be with him when he walked across a door with paned glass that was resting on the brick wall that formed the sides of the stairs leading to the common area from the laundry room. His foot went through. There was blood. It was no one’s fault.
We had a pool in the center of our complex ringed by a fence and I would swim there as often as I was allowed. Often spending my days with a long-haired hippie kid named Lucky and eating candy necklaces we bought from the ice cream truck.
By the summer of my ninth year, and six months after the birth of my brother, we moved to Springfield, Virginia. The public reason was the exemplary Fairfax Country school system, the private reason was that there were too many black families moving into our apartment complex. My father was a racist bigot, and somehow that was kept from me – thankfully – for quite some time. At least until I wanted to go to the 6th grade banquet with a black boy in my class. My mother deftly suggested I meet him at the school, and she would drive me.
In our new neighborhood in North Springfield, we lived in a house and there was a community pool. I wanted so badly to belong to it. I wanted to swim as much as I could with all my new friends all summer long. But instead, we joined a pool in another neighborhood that we had to drive to, probably for financial reasons. We continued to renew our membership at this pool for at least three summers, after which time we started going to Myrtle Beach for three weeks when school got out.
Anyway, at this pool, there was a lifeguard. A girl. I was probably about 11 or 12 and I had the biggest crush on her. I had always been boy crazy, always chased boys, flirted with boys, fantasized about the dreamy boys in Tiger Beat Magazine. But for some reason this young female lifeguard had my full attention. I would place her in all the same imagined romance and rescue scenarios I did with the boys. She looked a little bit like a boy. But she wasn’t. I can’t remember her name.
She was tan, of course, she was a lifeguard, and it was the 70’s. She had short dark brown hair parted in the middle that feathered back on the sides. She wore a puka shell necklace. Because everybody did. I wish I could remember her name.
During the summers, we would go to the pool every day. There was a parental rule that it must be at least 80 degrees. I often fought my mother on the baselessness of this arbitrary number. And sometimes I won, promising her it was bound to warm up and if not we could come right home.
The pool was on a hill, with a skin-peeling asphalt parking lot in front. If my feet were wet, I could bolt to the car before getting blisters. If not, like when we arrived, I had to jump from parking space line to parking space line to survive the angry tarmac. Wearing shoes was not an option. There was a small brick building that we passed through to sign in and prove our worthiness to be there with a laminated card. This structure held the locker rooms, slick with pool water and the office that had a half door with the sign-in sheet resting on a clipboard on a shelf on the bottom half of the door, the top half of the door swung open to reveal a wall of whistles hanging with the names of the lifeguards above them. Lifeguards were gods.
On the other side of the wall was the big glorious, shimmering, light blue pool. At its far end it hooked to the right to form the deep end. A guard stand was stationed at exactly the middle overlooking the danger zone. Two other stands flanked either side of the main shallower body of the pool. To the immediate right was the piss-filled kiddy pool behind a chain link fence. To the left was a big grassy, shaded area with picnic tables for what purpose I couldn’t fathom. Who would come to the pool to sit in the shade? This was the mid-70’s and the only reason to go to a pool other than to swim of course, was to get a tan. And meet boys. Or in this case a girl. Angie? Was that her name?
It was in the shade of these trees at the picnic tables that I met a boy named Mike with unruly blond hair. He was spending his summer in Virginia at his dad’s house. His real life was back in Colorado with his mom. It seemed really far away, but the heart wants what the heart wants. I felt like we probably loved each other, but I wasn’t even in seventh grade yet. I remember the painful popular song at the time was Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now and after he went back home, I would play that 45 ad nauseam so I could cry and prove how much I loved him. This boy I only spent a couple hours a day with at a pool.
There was a woman always at the pool, always in the same spot, named Rachel, who seemed like she was 100, but probably was just in her mid-30s. She had the most ridiculous tan. She brought her own lounge chair, the kind that’s in three parts and folds in on itself for easy carrying. There were plenty of lounge chairs already at the pool, so I didn’t get it. She was a professional tanner. Oiled up from head to toe, a cloud of coconut surrounding her. She would turn over at exact intervals and shift her chair like a sundial as the sun moved in the sky. Her bathing suits were all fluorescent. Her hair was an unrealistic blonde. I don’t know how I knew her name.
The lifeguard though, Debbie, was it? I’m not sure I ever had a conversation with her. You didn’t have to talk to people to fall in love with them when you were 11. Probably 11 is different now, though. I do remember feeling foolish when she called for break and I wasn’t old enough to stay in the pool. Instead, I would keep my eye on the clock and exit before she blew the whistle so that it seemed I just needed a break and it happened to coincide with the adult swim time. I’m sure I fooled her. I’m sure she wasn’t even aware of my existence. Tracy?
It was near the end of the summer, the light had shifted, become softer, more orange around the edges, and Mike was heading back to Colorado and I would never see him again. And I wouldn’t see the lifeguard again either. Lori? We didn’t even live in the same neighborhood. But that’s not why.
I would be at the pool when I heard the news. There had been an accident. The lifeguard was in the backseat of a Volkswagen Bug. She died on impact. Instantly. Her neck broken. They were coming home from a day at the beach. I was too young to know what to do with my feelings.
This is young me and my cousin Eddie. He was the son of my great uncle Ed of many wives. Big Ed was the same age as my father when when Eddie and I were born, an ancient 36 in those days, which made them fast and dangerous friends.
I don’t remember much about Eddie, but the elders of my family used to say things like, “remember that time you and Eddie did….” To which I’d usually smile beatifically and nod. Weren’t we such scamps?!
I doubt the photo was staged, I’m sure we were randomly pounding out nonsense. My family though, was pretty creative and musical. I grew up with a piano and harp in my house. I took seven years of piano. First from Mrs. Russo, a relic of about 40 that made me practice and play the classics only. Then from Mrs. Turner, a hippie by comparison, who let me choose what I wanted to play. As a result I can play the beginning of Fur Elise, a few bars of The Entertainer and most of Annie’s Song by John Denver. I can still read music, but it’s a struggle, although I do now have a piano in my home again. And occasionally I’ll sit down in front of it.
I wish I could remember more about Eddie, about our silly antics that seemed to have delighted our relatives. I’ll just have to trust that we were adorable and got into the cutest trouble. And appreciate the photographic evidence that these times did exist.
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.
I have a project, a book idea, that I really want to start. At least I say I do. I think I do. My body, though, is offering some sort of different direction.
I have bazillions of family photos, maybe a literal ton. Somehow, I have become the family historian. I completely embrace it, but now that I want to do something with all this history I’m stuck. Memoir? Novel based on imagined histories? Something else yet to be revealed?
There is this clear chronological plan in my head: take all the photos from the 1800’s through today and organize them by year, or decade if the specific year is unclear. So I started. And as I am sorting I feel so much tension in my core. Angst even. It doesn’t matter what decade it is, my body does not like this. A tiny little voice, and sometimes “random” outside influences, whispers, “let go of the past.” But I’m not holding onto it. Am I?
I’ve said all along that I’m not sure what I’m supposed to glean from this project. There is not a ton of hidden history. I mean, I’m on a first name basis with all the skeletons. And deep dives into my ancestry show pretty solid hard workers, no slave ownership, northern stock, farmers, railroad men, way too many children for each household. For sure there are secrets I’ll never uncover in the way back. For sure there are hidden truths within my own lifetime. But that doesn’t resonate as a plan or feel like the source of this unease.
I’m shifting my focus, changing up my process. I will gather all the photos of one person regardless of decade and create a timeline. But what about the other people in that person’s life? Where do they go? Why am I doing this anyway? There is something I need from all of this. Maybe the clenching in my gut is a sign to keep going. To find the right path. I hope there’s juicy dirt or ridiculousness hiding for me.
Whatever the case, I am going to choose one photo a day to write about. Could be of anyone from any era. Whether my writing is rooted in the truth or a complete fabrication will remain to be seen. The process is to write. To connect words with the image.
So here goes.
This is a photo of my mother and an unknown friend. It’s the mid 1940’s and she is living in Texas with her mother, new stepfather and new little brother. Her new dad is in the military and will use his training and GI Bill education to become an engineer like his father. He loved my mother, adopted her the moment he could after he married my grandmother. Her young childhood was good, sandwiched between a traumatic entry into the world and the realization, around 7, that her step grandparents preferred to believe she didn’t exist. She wasn’t blood. They would shower her younger brother with gifts at holidays and leave her with nothing. They doted on him while turning away from her, adhering to some antiquated code that made no sense to a young child. Or even her grown parents.
But here, in this photo, at this time in her life, she was free and happy.
There are parallels between my mother’s life and my own. Her birth story is quite dramatic, mine less so, but still not ideal or average. Her younger brother would garner the lion’s share of positive attention. Mine did the same, especially from my father who already had two daughters by another before I came along unexpectedly. If he had to have another unplanned child, at least a golden boy child was bestowed upon him.
But back to mom. She’s not around anymore to query about the mysteries of her past, but she did share a fair amount while still living. I love a good story so every opportunity I had I would throw out a few questions while pouring her another glass of wine. Maybe as I pluck photos from the past some of these stories will resurface and I can share them.
If not, I’ll make something up that sounds feasible and hopefully entertaining.