If you don't know [your family's] history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree.
~ Michael Chrichton
A Walk in the Woods
A LIFETIME OF MEMORIES (part 2)
August 12, 2004
Among the books I found when sorting through my mother-in-laws things was a book that actually I had put together a few years ago. Its a book about Walts family. The first half was copied out of a book his grandmother had made when his father was a child, up to the age of 10. It offers insights on what his life was like growing up, and also some of his relatives that the offspring of this generation knew nothing about.
I never met Walts father, who died when Walt was 15, and I kind of got to know him a little bit through typing up this section of the book.
The second part of the book is a long interview I conducted with his mother. I did the interview shortly after I finished the Lamplighter history and was still in "interviewer" mode. I decided that it was necessary to get down "the stories" of the grandparents while they were still here to tell them.
I dont have those stories of my own grandparents, who certainly must have had marvelous stories to tell. My grandmother was a young girl in the big San Francisco earthquake in 1906 and lived in a tent city in Golden Gate park for several months. She and my grandfather were both in vaudeville. My grandfathers siblings were all famous in whatever field they entered--one uncle was a champion boxer, another a champion bicycle racer, etc.
But I dont have those stories. I only have the headlines and Im sorry that the stories are lost forever.
I was determined that the stories of my own childrens grandparents would not be lost. (I also have a similar interview with my own mother; I never did get an interview with my father before he died..)
The fun thing about interviewing Walts mother was that we did the interview at her vacation condo at Lake Tahoe, when all the family was there. I invited everyone to join in and her 3 kids asked questions that I wouldnt have thought of. They also learned a lot about her childhood that they never knew before.
I think we tend to minimize our childhoods because it's all we know--it was our norm and who would be interested in the normal day to day life? I listen to the children of famous people on television and none of them thinks that their experiences were in any way unusual or of interest to the general public, when, in fact, there are parts of everyones history that are fascinating to others. (I remember Liza Minnelli once saying "Everyone couldn't believe that Judy Garland was my mother I couldn't believe that mother was Judy Garland.")
Walts grandmother worked as a ladys maid to Evalyn Walsh McLean, whose husband owned The Washington Post and The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Walt's mother says she "worked for the McLeans too," as a playmate for their children. In that capacity she had a number of unique experiences.
The famous family story, of course, is about the Hope Diamond, which Mrs. McLean owned. Walt's brother, at age 5, carried the diamond in his bag to Florida because the family decided that nobody would think to look in the maid's son's suitcase if they were thinking to steal it.
She was more impressed with the animals that the McLean family owned.
Growing up in the Washington, DC area, she had an avid interest in politics, which continues to this day.
It's funny how we downplay the parts of our lives which are the most interesting to others. I don't know if my own kids realize that their aunt worked for Robert Kennedy and was in the hotel the night he was shot.
The thing is that unless someone makes the effort to ask the questions and record the answers (or unless someone is so vain as to keep an on-line journal :) ), these sorts of memories are forever lost to future generations. I'm glad that we were able to record Walt's mother's stories while she was still around to tell them.