Saturday, October 20, 2007

SS: Page 37, Immortalized

On Saturday, August 25, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the woman I knew as my paternal grandmother, Leonora “Lee” Leahy Stanfield, collapsed in her dressing room. She was dead by the time she hit the floor, of a massive heart attack. According to the doctors at the Berkshire Medical Center, she felt no pain. She 95 years old.

Soon into her 90s, she began asking her daughters, “Why am I still here?” I suppose she was ready. We weren’t. Grandma (mother to her daughters Ann and Bette-Jane) was immortal to us. The last thing I remember saying to her, on a previous visit, was “I always remember how old you are because you were born the year the Titanic sunk!” It was a compliment that she was born the year of such a momentous, albeit tragic event. It gave me a sense of nostalgia for an era I never knew — the ankle-sweeping dresses, the boots with impossible buttons, and the broad-rimmed hats. In eight years, Bernice would bob her hair and launch the age of the flappers, speakeasies, Dorothy Parker and The Lost Generation. Grandma was young then, but she was there. She LIVED.

I had another grandmother, the first woman to have married my father’s father. Her name was Doris Pemberton. From what my father told me, she was soft-spoken and ladylike, raised a “proper” Southern debutante by a domineering mother. She met my grandfather in fourth grade, and after college, they married. I know very little of her because she died of leukemia when I was a year old. She is the movie star of my apartment — I have pictures of her everywhere. She never looks happy. Only sad and beautiful (why did so many woman of that era have to look sad to be beautiful? Why do so many still have to look that way today?). My grandfather lorded over her. He didn’t want her to work (she had a degree in social work), didn’t like her having friends, suddenly “felt sick” when they were about to leave for a social function.

She was about to leave my grandfather when she was diagnosed with leukemia. So instead of finally getting her freedom, she died. I like to think I am living her life for her. I’m using my intellect and education, enjoying a man I love, making money, creating, traveling the world and living, REALLY living. She lives within me and she is finally smiling. She no longer has to be the pretty face.

My grandfather married his second wife, Leonora Leahy, in 1979. At the time, she was a columnist at The Berkshire Eagle, a regional newspaper in Western Massachusetts that won a Pulitzer for editorial writing in the early 1970s. She often wrote restaurant reviews. As my grandfather told it at her funeral service, he read one of her reviews, where she spoke about dining alone at a restaurant, and decided he didn’t want her having to dine alone. So he invited her on a date, and not long after, they married.

Grandma Lee was the exact opposite of Grandma Doris. Lee was a career woman, never afraid to call things as they were and in no way a doormat. My grandfather learned this quickly. One night, she cooked him dinner (she was an expert cook). He told her he didn’t like the dish. My Grandma Doris would have just thrown it away and cooked something he did like, no comments. Grandma Lee said, “If you don’t like it, cook something yourself.”

As far as I know, Grandpa ate everything Grandma Lee put in front of him for the next 28 years.

Grandpa and Grandma Lee (as I called them) were my favorite grandparents. Of course I loved my maternal grandparents, Madeline and Frank Monterosso, but they were more distant, even when you were in the same room with them. I remember the kitchen of their large Victorian house as a mysterious, smoke-filled room, always full of members of the French-Canadian/Italian side of my family. My cousins and I would dash around the house’s many rooms, looking into closets that had little closets inside of them, fearing ghosts, playing games. The adults would just smoke, talk, and play penny poker, in another world.

Grandpa and Grandma Lee lived in little house on Pontoosuc Lake, in Pittsfield. I loved going to visit them, especially in the summer. I’d run down to their dock pretty much the second I put on the bathing suit Grandma Lee kept for me in a dresser in the hallway. I was afraid to swim, because I had a fear of fish, but I’d be brave enough to sit on the edge of the dock and look across at what I called “the far island,” an oblong-shaped island across the lake that seemed very mysterious to me even after I had visited it many times. My grandfather would sometimes take me to it, and I’d walk around its rocky grounds, looking at rubble leftover from a building that burned down there many years before.

I think it was from my explorations of the far island that I became obsessed with islands of all kinds later in my life: the Isle of Man, the Orkney Islands, Shell Island, Baffin Island, the Faeroe Islands, Skellig Michael.

When I was not looking at the far island, I’d sit on the porch of the house with Grandma Lee, talking. She’d tell me stories about her early life. She had an abusive stepmother, who didn’t like Lee because she looked like her mother. “Every time I’d turn around, she’d whack me,” she would say. Lee and her little sister Sally were often shipped off to different family members during this time, sometimes together and other times apart.

One day, Grandma Lee found a copy of Pollyanna. She read it and incorporated the “The Glad Game” as her life philosophy. I think this is how she survived her childhood, leaving high school to become a factory worker at a paper mill, then her first marriage to an alcoholic and the death of her second husband. I also think it gave her the strength and confidence to become the first woman elected to the Pittsfield City Council, in 1945, and then later to start work as a file clerk at the Berkshire Eagle, where she would eventually become a regular columnist and reporter.

When I became an adult, I first began to truly understand what a remarkable person Grandma Lee was. She was so confident, so bold, so take-no-shit. In college, I sent her the Dorothy Parker story “Big Blonde.” She knew who Dorothy Parker was, but had never read anything by her. In the letter accompanying the story, I said Parker was known as a witty writer.

Grandma Lee read the story and wrote me back: “I don’t know why you say Dorothy Parker is funny. This was one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever read!” This was a very Grandma Lee thing to say.

When Grandma Lee died, I felt a sense of disbelief. She was immortal! It just seemed she would go on forever. She was healthy up until the moment she died. She was an active reader until the end. When I visited her and my grandfather's apartment after she died, I saw she was in the middle of reading “Swimming to Antarctica” by Lynne Cox. A Hallmark card marked her as having left off on page 37. Lynne Cox is a long-distance open-water swimmer whose many feats include swimming the Bering Strait and swimming for more than a mile in the waters off Antarctica.

I know why Grandma would have picked up this book. Like Cox, she was an avid swimmer. She swam the entire perimeter of Pontoosuc Lake every morning for the many years she lived there (I could not find any statistics on this measurement by the time I needed to publish this entry, but I think she swam at least a mile a day).

Also like Cox, she didn’t listen when people criticized her or told her she couldn’t accomplish something. According to “Swimming to Antarctica,” when Cox was riding with her mother in a taxi to Dover, England, to attempt her first English Channel swim, the taxi driver asked her if she was a Channel swimmer. When her mother affirmed this, the driver said, “Well, you don’t look like a Channel swimmer to me. You’re too fat to be one.” Cox said she felt hurt and angry by this comment, but then remembered it was her extra fat that would keep her warm and give her insulation during the swim. She made the swim, and broke the men's and women's world records with a time of nine hours and 57 minutes.

Grandma Lee never told me that people tried to hold her back, but I know it must have happened, many times. I can only imagine how people reacted when she decided to run for City Council in 1945. I can imagine the town gossip when she divorced her first husband in 1960. And what about her stepmother?

When she died, I was having a tough time personally. I was feeling a lack of confidence in my profession as a writer. I was afraid I had no talent (such an uncommon feeling for a writer, hah!). I was trying to build myself up to try and get into larger consumer magazines, not the trade magazines for which I mostly write. I was fighting somewhat with my husband. I felt sad when she died, but also angry at myself that I couldn’t be more like her, more fearless, more confident. I wanted to emulate her, but didn’t know how. “How did she do it?” I would think. How was she so confident? How was she able to get up day after day, year after year, and write? Come up with amazing ideas? Find ideas at all?

I still don’t quite know the answer. But it’s something having to do with psychological inertia. Grandma Lee got up every morning. She moved ahead -- when she was happy, when she was sad, when her body hurt as she grew older. She wrote probably when she felt she had nothing to write about because she knew she had to do so in order to get to the point where she would have another great idea. She just kept going, because she knew that in order to get to those moments of happiness and pleasure you had to walk over the glass shards sometimes.

Grandma Lee’s daughter Ann let me take “Swimming to Antarctica” home with me after the funeral. It was hard at first for me remove the Hallmark card bookmark from page 37. I waited until I got to that page, and then wrote down the page number on the back of a photo of Grandma. Then I finished the book for her.

Grandma, I put the Hallmark card back on page 37, so you can pick up where you left off.

In Memoriam
Leonora Goerlach Leahy Stanfield (née Whittaker)
May 31, 1912 – August 25, 2007

© Sarah Stanfield, October 20, 2007

(Next week, I will tell the story of my paternal grandfather, Thomas O’Bannon Stanfield, who died Wednesday, October 10, 2007—S.S.)


The Film Panel Notetaker said...

This is a very eloquently written memoir. Grandma Lee was a very fascinating person. You draw along your personal experiences and relate them well to Grandma Lee's life. It's very well rounded. I can see this as a novel. I'm looking forward to your next story about your grandfather.

Ebony Communications said...

Wow! This was very moving...I've lost my paternal great grandmother, my maternal grandfather and grandmother and have never thought to immortalize them as you have done so powerfully. I'm very proud of you SS. Peace.