I have a box in my garage that is filled with family “stuff”. Things that have sentimental value but of which I'm sure my kids will be tossing after I'm goneI picked up an envelope marked Grandma’s artifacts which I had received years ago but somehow they got shuffled to the bottom of the pile so I never explored them. I was curious what her personal time capsule would hold? What clues would she leave behind; what were the objects so important that she kept all of her life? perhaps she left these tucked in a corner of a drawer or under her jewelry box passed down purposefully or by accident to the next generation.
It turned out to be a very thin envelope with only four items; a photograph of my grandmother and her daughter, a postcard from Real Foot Lake near her birth place in Tennessee, a menu from Viex Carre Restaurant in New Orleans which lists Half Broiled Lobster Gresham at $2.00 and Filet Mignon at $3.25, and a 1955 handwritten hospital bill that came to a grand total of $263 for a 5 day stay.
The last item intrigued me; a carefully cut out, yellowed newspaper clipping of the text of the speech King Edward VII. This was the speech he gave in London on Dec. 11, 1936 when he abdicated the throne of England in order to marry commoner and American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. In his words, “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.” Although, this truly was the scandal of this generation King Edward did become the poster boy for giving it all up for the woman he loved, the truest of romantics and Wallis Simpson, the inspiration of Edward’s devotion.
Initially, I was simply puzzled why my grandmother would attach such importance to this event a half a world away and why this was so important to her that she would cut out the text the day after the radio broadcast and then save it for well over 50 years. Then I started doing the math and putting the dates together. In 1936 the country was suffering from the Great Depression. In my grandmother’s case this was dark time was exacerbated by her very bad marriage. All I was ever told of my biological grandfather was that he was an alcoholic, violent when he drank and that he disappeared for days at a time. He vanished for good on one of these benders and eventually turned up dead in New Orleans. In the midst of this chaos my grandmother went about raising two children, my father and my aunt, working full time at a restaurant, cooking and waiting tables; doing what needed to be done in those difficult days.
So, the abdication of King Edward, a love story marked by two who buck the current, don’t give a damn about convention and declare their love for all the world catches her attention. Perhaps, it was simply an amazement that that kind of love simply existed in the world. Perhaps, a silent hope that someday that kind of love might be meant for her. The neatly folded clipping tucked away, a quiet reminder that we all deserve a happy ending.
My grandmother did get her happy ending. Her King Edward was my step grandfather, George Wiley Wilson, a railroad engineer for the New York Central who adored her and gave her the happy life she hadn’t known before. He was the only grandfather that I knew. In fact, I never knew he wasn’t my biological grandfather until after his death. He happened to adore his granddaughters too.
I also found a photograph of my grandmother that I loved. She looked much younger than her years and showed a strength in her gaze that moved beyond the camera. I decided to do a painting with the two of us. The painting of my grandmother was easy. Like Wallisshe was head strong and didn’t care what others thought. Her directness and sense of humor surfacing to lighten the moment or to put you in your place. I put her in a very fashion forward graphic botanical print patterned after those that Wallace Simpson was often photographed in.
My grandmother lived with us for ten years after my grandfather passed away. My parents both worked full time and my sister was old enough to be off and out of the house so most of the time it was just Grandma and me. We had an uneasy truce going. She was a chain smoker, lots of bangle bracelets, bright red lipstick with a passion for baseball, roller derby, politics and big time wrestling. I was a incredibly shy girl, tall for my age, quiet artist type who mostly nodded my head yes rather than engage in conversation with my grandmother. Grandma overwhelmed me and she had no idea what to do with me, often asking my older sister, “What is wrong with your sister?” “She doesn’t say much and spends so much time in her room. “(I was back there drawing a thousand drawings of horses.)
It was only after completing the figure of myself next to my grandmother that I noticed that we were standing uncharacteristically close. As a nod to Wallace I put the words “hold tight” between us by our feet. It was the message Wallace had engraved upon the gift of a pocket watch given to Edward; one of the surviving treasures between the two that was auctioned after their deaths. As I looked at the words on the canvas, Itjust hit me as if my grandmother could somehowsend a little note from the other side. This is what I imagined her saying, “You silly girl, of course we were so different and had no clue of each other but I always loved you and held tight then and all these years.” If you look closely I am holding the iconic jewel encrusted cross bracelet which was the most well known gift from Edward to Wallis. In my hand, it is a reminder of the treasure left to me by my grandmother. I finally recognize her influence in me that has followed me all of these years. Finally, recognizing that her love was strong, just like her.
amy pleasant 2015
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