Great Great

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.

True Story

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.

Cousin Eddie

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.

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.

The Mom Chronicles

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.