I never knew my Grandpas...

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Long before it was fashionable, my parents were in their 40s (41 and 47, to be precise) when I was born. My father's parents were long dead by then; I didn't even meet many of his siblings. My mother's father lived in Switzerland, and I only met him once, when I was eight years old. My only memory of him is really his sitting in a chair, looking at me, and saying, "Your dolly has a dirty face." In fact, the doll's face was just made of dark carved wood. My mother's mother was therefore the only grandparent I had much contact with. She lived nearby in a retirement home for Swiss people, then later, when her dementia got to be too much for them to handle, in a nursing home slightly more distant. She died when I was 13. My only real memory of her is her having dinner with us sometimes and playing checkers, where she played by European instead of American rules and I thought she was cheating. Or maybe she had simply forgotten rules and made up new ones; I don't remember the detail.

Anyway. It's only in the last few years that I've thought to ask my brother, who knows everything, a little more about these folks.

My maternal grandfather, I've always known, was a vaudeville artist. He trained dogs to perform scenes from plays, and somewhere in the family there are books of photographs of the dogs wearing costumes and even shoes (getting them to wear shoes was apparently his claim to fame and skill). It sounds dreadful now, but I imagine at the time it was pretty amazing entertainment. My mother toured with him for a while before she got married, and always said how much she hated the experience despite meeting other Vaudevillians of the time such as Milton Berle; she told me she'd held "Baby" Rose Marie in her lap. I think I was more impressed with that than Mother was, since Rose Marie was a favorite of mine on the Dick Van Dyke Show (not for her constant efforts to meet men but for her wit, her egalitarian relationship with the other writers, and the fact that (unlike the ghastly Laura Petrie) she had an interesting job and was clearly highly skilled at it.

On my wall, I have a map of all the places I played in the US and elsewhere as a folksinger; this week my brother sent me a PDF of a typewritten list my grandfather kept of all his world travels between 1887 and 1950 (with times outfor the wars). I can imagine the pride with which he kept it: he toured all over Europe, including the Folies Bergere, the US, and even Australia. His tours in 1915 and 1916 include San Francisco, LA, Indianapolis, Winnipeg, Vancouver - all places I played myself - plus a side trip to Auckland. It was hard enough doing all that by car and plane; imagine doing it by boat and much slower land transit. My mother was, I think, rather ashamed of him and his profession; she always took my involvement in "show business" (ie, *folksinging*!) as a personal attack.

My other grandfather turns out to have been a butcher in New York City. Learning this made me absurdly happy: it's a good, honest profession.

So: this is what makes a middle-class folksinger. Now we know.


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This page contains a single entry by Wendy M. Grossman published on April 22, 2011 3:13 PM.

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