I’ve written before that when I came out (as gay) to my family, I was asked (told) not to tell Grandma (my paternal grandmother). As I said it that post, she was “more Victorian than Queen Vic herself” – I still recall her sitting at the dinner table bemoaning how the word gay was no longer usable; it ‘had been stolen’. In that same post I said “Note to self: a future story about Grandma and her amazing past to be added“.
This is that post
When I was young, Grandma lived in an old house on Lake Nipissing; just outside of North Bay in northern Ontario. The lake is unusually shallow for its size; which meant we could safely swim and splash around with minimal supervision. The yard around Grandma’s house, around all half-dozen houses along the road, was something like 20 feet above the lake. We could be seen by adults in the yard, but didn’t feel they were unbearably close. The hill had a flat area, a landing of sorts about ten feet deep, about half way up which adults rarely sat in.
One early memory is of a large rock directly out from her house, far enough to require effort but still safely close. And with the shallowness of the lake I believe an adult could actually walk to the rock if they wanted. Grandma would go out each Spring and paint a whale’s eye on one side. There was a steel pole – flag pole? in the rock which in my youth seemed like a strange place to have once strung a clothesline.
Her late husband had been a moderately-big wig in the United Church of Canada (a mainstream Canadian denomination unaffiliated with similarly-named US denominations). He passed when I was quite young; I have no clear memories of him. I’m told he died at age 74 in 1964- the year I turned 6.
Of course I’ve seen pictures and heard stories. Although Grandpa was born in Ireland while she had been born in Canada, she was the quintisential proper British Parson’s Wife; prim and proper. A teetotaler, she was a life-long member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In fact, for years she would stay in their residence in downtown Toronto – we male callers had to wait for her in the lobby.
As so often happens, once I left home and started ‘being an adult’ I had much less time or patience for people with whom I could not be open and honest. As I was getting old, so was she. She stopped going out, and was aging rapidly. Fortunately a wise Doctor encouraged her to move to Vancouver where her other son [Uncle Orville] and his family lived. As I understand it, the move got her active with a new group of people and no doubt increased the quality of her final days.
What I didn’t know
I don’t recall knowing many facts about Grandma when I was young- beyond what I’ve mentioned above. As often happens, we see adult relatives as something other than fully-realized people. Hopes, dreams, goals- those are things we think are reserved for us.
Our Uncle Orville compiled information and documentation shortly after Grandma passed; in the intervening years (and cross-border move) I no longer have my copies. In my memory (subject to all the failings, quirks and mistakes so common in human memory) Grandma was taken from her home in Ontario to be raised by a distant relative (Great Aunt?) in upstate New York. Her Dad travelled for work. There seems to be no documentation of her ‘official’ arrival in the US. Of course the times were different; less officious but still plenty of white privilege. After high school she attended university. My memory suggests Brown although again I caution against placing bets; that was her maiden name. Grandma studied, perhaps graduated with, a Bachelor of Science degree. Not “domestic science” but chemistry, biology or some such. This was a hundred years ago- very few women were admitted into BSc programmes.
According to my brother’s research, “The Rev. Lyttle [our grandfather] met Marguerite Christina Cameron Brown, who was working in a chemical laboratory at Carnegie Mellon in Pennsylvania, and married her in 1926“.
She gave up a job, possibly a career, to marry a Man of the Cloth who “was ministering to men in the logging and mining camps” [see previous research link] of Northern Ontario.
Was this a great love story?
Did she ‘succumb’ to the pressures of the day to get married and settle down?
Was science always just a way to fill time?
We will never know. Grandma passed before I was smart enough to realize she had her own story; one that I missed out hearing.
And so I can’t really tell her story- only share the bits and pieces that I come across. I have asked my siblings to share whatever memories they have of her- I know that my brother (6 years older) did spend more time with her than I ever did.
Grandma’s story- or rather my stories about Grandma- are a reminder that no matter how ‘ordinary’ we think our life is there are stories, lessons, warnings and humour that can be shared. Deserve to be shared. I continue to share mine- here and in person. I run Rainbow Memoirs; offering personal historian services to assist LGBTQ folk preserve and publish their own stories.
My brother has provided much more detail on Grandma’s life. While I have misremembered many details, I believe I got much of the spirit of her story correct. Clearly his last paragraph indicates that perhaps I should have ‘come out’ to her, despite the advice I received.