Grandmother: Inspiration and Despair
By Michael Calvert
December 7, 2014
“You are so smart, Michael,” said Grandmother with a serious frown and an affirmative nod. She repeated this at least once during each of her weekly visits.
As welcome as this appraisal was to me as a small child, I intuitively harbored doubts regarding my grandmother’s assurances about being “so smart,” yet I didn’t dismiss the possibility. When my homework was returned with a gold star or my teacher confirmed my the answer on an arithmetic problem at the blackboard, I thought maybe Grandmother was right. I dismissed errors as the result of carelessness or some other correctable flaw that I could correct. My inclination to adopt her opinion of my intelligence grew, but I retained doubts and regarded my boyhood challenges as tests of her belief that I might truly be as smart as she believed.
“Grand!,” was Grandmother’s often repeated word of praise. The sunsets over the reservoir, the destination of our Sunday afternoon car rides, were “Just Grand.” She made the point that artists from Michelangelo to Ruskin only borrowed their shades and hues from nature. Obvious, perhaps, but not to her young grandson. She often told me that her beloved older brother, John, strained to stay alive through his last night to see one more sunset before he died peacefully looking out the window of his bedroom at the sunshine.
Grandmother clasped her hands and cast her soft blue eyes heavenward as we listened to Gounod’s “Ave Maria,” Verdi‘s March” from Aida and “Danny Boy” by Irish tenors Dennis Day and John McCormack. She fervently pronounced them “Grand, Michael. Grand indeed!”
“Be not the first by whom the new is tried, nor the last set the old aside,” a couplet from John Donne (An Irish poet??) was one of the many lines of poetry she recited when prompted by some everyday event. To ensure I absorbed the wisdom of these poets, she asked me to explain their meanings, but she quickly rescued me if I faltered as I often did. Then she congratulated me. “You’re so smart!” Maybe, I thought, but I listened closely the next time she began speaking in a poetic cadence.
Grandmother repeatedly confided in me about how much Dad and Mom loved me and how they sacrificed for me. “Of course, you understand this,” she said, and I was compelled to affirm that I did indeed. Next, she cited how wise my parents had become through their experiences growing up and becoming adults. I fully embraced Grandmother’s lessons —or— at least until I became a teenager with newfound insights, but even then I remembered them. Even now.
Two generations before Grandmother was born in 1887 and baptized as Mary Agnes Ryan, Grandmother’s family was burned out of Philadelphia in the 1844 nativist riots and relocated to Kirksville, Missouri. Resentment of that violence against the Irish and other Catholics was passed along to Grandmother. Apparently the Ryans did well in Missouri. Grandmother attended a finishing school where she studied literature, art, and the knowledge expected of a young woman suitable for marriage into the upper social strata in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Edward H. Calvert, a student from Indiana studying osteopathy at a medical school in Kirksville, called on Grandmother, carried her to parties and balls in his horse-drawn buggy, properly courted and married her. After they moved to Columbus, the capital of Ohio, he practiced osteopathy. He recognized the need for a conventional medical degree and earned an M.D. at the Ohio State University.
Dr. Calvert’s practice grew along with his family. A large house on East North Broadway became the scene for elegant dinners, fashionable soirees, and festive parties. Dr. and Mrs. Calvert were on everyone’s guest list. Articles on the society pages of the Columbus Dispatch noted their attendance at events and occasionally featured them in photographs. The 1920s were wonderful years for Grandmother who had three boys by the end of the decade, Edward, Bob, and Bill. The middle son, born in 1921 was my father.
Everything changed when Dr. Calvert and a married woman from a prominent family openly flaunted their romantic relationship. Friends and acquaintances were appalled. Judgment of such a flagrant violation of social order was harsh and unforgiving. Dr. Calvert and his lover fled to California leaving Grandmother and her three boys behind. As the Great Depression deepened, he had little success in establishing a medical practice and providing financial support for his family in Columbus.
Grandmother suffered from the humiliation, disgrace, and guilt of divorce, relatively rare in the 1930s. Some friends offered their sympathy, but many never called her again. In one of the few times she recounted that difficult time in her life, she quoted President Franklin Roosevelt’s words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” She took strength from Roosevelt’s energy and optimism.
Grandmother concluded that her husband “Cal just snapped,” and resolved to put the divorce behind her. She had more urgent things to do than dwell on her failed marriage. She found an apartment near the university, sold most of her furniture and moved her best furnishings from her large comfortable home in North Columbus to the apartment. Her 17 year-old niece, Julia Lee, came to live with her to help care for the boys and do housework. The principal of Aquinas High School agreed to waive tuition for Edward’s senior year; he was an All-City halfback and an honor roll student. Dad was enrolled at the more affordable Holy Rosary High School.
Even with reduced expenses, an income more reliable than her former husband’s occasional checks was essential. Grandmother resolved to go to work. Finishing school had not prepared her for any occupation other than mistress of a middle-class household. In 1933, one in five men were unemployed, and jobs for women were scarce.
She overcame embarrassment and called men who had been her guests at formal dinners in her home to ask for a clerical job. The owner of several movie theaters, a business that continued to do well in those hard times, apologized and said that his only opening was for cashier at the State Theater. She surprised him by requesting the job. Soon she was in the ornate ticket booth beneath the lights of the marquee.
One afternoon, when a boy stepped up to the window, Grandmother excused herself, came out, and confronted him, saying quietly but firmly, “That’s my son’s jacket. He left it at the basketball court at the high school. Now hand it over.” Dad got his jacket back that evening.
After a series of sales jobs she considered demeaning, Grandmother became a clerk at Baker Hall, an Ohio State dormitory. Despite her constrained financial circumstances, she kept up appearances. Her dresses and skirts were not the latest styles, but classic designs often graced with a red paper corsage.
At home, she set an elegant table with fine china, Wexford stemware, and linen napkins. With supervision, I was allowed to light the beeswax candles in her silver candelabra. Renoir and Monet prints in ornate frames hung above the sofa, wing back chairs, and a cherry desk from her former home.
Dad and his brothers were dragged to choral performances and piano recitals at the OSU Music Department. The boys were more willing to look at dinosaur skeletons at the Geology Department and stuffed animals at the Natural History Museum on campus. The incentive to endure what Grandmother called cultural experiences were tickets for OSU football games. Players who lived in Baker Hall gave her tickets in the bleachers behind the end zone at the open end of the horseshoe stadium. They also gave her autographs, treasures the boys showed off at school.
Under Grandmother’s attentive tutelage, Edward graduated near the top of his class at Aquinas and became an English major at OSU. In his senior year, he left to join the Flying Tigers, a squadron of P-42s, fighting the Japanese on behalf of China before the United States entered World War II. During the war, the Ohio Legislature awarded degrees to all students who left to join the armed services. Edward learned that he was a college graduate between missions in Chunking, China. Before shipping out, he married Laura Eshelman, a standout on the OSU rifle team. Her family owned a large dairy farm outside Columbus.
Dad was not to play football or make the honor roll at Holy Rosary High School. Upon graduation, he joined the National Guard for six months of basic training. For three years, he had dated my mother. Grandmother reluctantly tolerated Mom. Her father was a warehouse man, and her family included no professionals or college graduates. Just barely five feet tall, Mom seemed no more than a naive, little girl to Grandmother. Certainly not a suitable marriage prospect.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Dad’s National Guard unit was called to active duty. After artillery training in Texas, Dad and Mom were married before he left to board a troop ship from Norfolk to Tangier. I was born while he was fighting across the desert of North Africa. He was in the mountains of Italy when he was sent to a military hospital in Mississippi with “battle fatigue.”
Upon his return to Columbus several months later, Dad found a job at Slemmon’s Landscaping that included an inexpensive apartment above a garage with a porch that overlooked the gardens. Dad enjoyed the work and Mom was delighted with the first home of her own.
“Bob, you were not raised to be a gardener,” said Grandmother. “You need to have a position where you use your mind, not your back. Besides, you’ll be laid off in the winter.” She took it upon herself to have a tailor make a blue serge suit for Dad, and reconnected with people she had known socially to arrange job interviews for him. Monday, his one day off, was almost fully scheduled. She followed up with multiple phone calls. Competition was stiff as returning servicemen flooded businesses with “Help Wanted” ads in the newspaper.
Dad got a night job sorting mail at the Post Office, but Grandmother said, “Going to work at midnight and sleeping during the day was living like an animal.”
One of Dad’s army buddies told him that American Airlines was hiring in Indianapolis. Dad applied and was offered a job as a baggage handler with much better pay. The airlines were growing and the work would not be seasonal. Mom encouraged him to take it and he called to accept.
“Carrying bags is no better than planting trees. You need a job wearing a coat and tie,” was Grandmother’s response. “Please don’t leave Columbus. With my contacts, I’m sure you’ll get a good position here.”
Dad said he had already accepted the job; Mom was excited about it. While we were in Indianapolis, Grandmother continued to make phone calls to find a suitable position for her son. Her letters and long distance calls to my father always ended with a plea to move back to Columbus. Later Mom said this pressure upset Dad and irritated her, but they returned when Dad was offered a sales position with Universal Equipment. Grandmother celebrated by ordering a brown tweed suit from the tailor and bought a Cross fountain pen for him. She was delighted when he gave her one of his embossed business cards.
Dad had visited the VA hospital monthly in Columbus and Indianapolis since leaving the army hospital in Mississippi. This was a condition for receiving VA check for partial disability. When I was in grade school, I sometimes came home to learn that he was sick, resting in the darkened bedroom. When he came out to use the bathroom, he was not sneezing or coughing. These days became more frequent, but he recovered in a few days and pursued his work with great gusto. Mom and Grandmother heard about all the office politics and his prospects for a big promotion. He found time to come to my football games and my sister’s choir performances. He bought lumber for finishing the second floor and paint for exterior.
When I was in the eighth grade, Dad said told me that he was “nervous from the service,” and he needed to spend some time at the VA hospital in Chillicothe, Ohio for treatment. Grandmother, Mom, and I visited him on Sundays. I was relieved that he seemed normal.
When Dad came home from the VA hospital, he went to work every day and I thought the treatment had worked. In a few weeks, however, he retreated to the bedroom for several days, and the old pattern resumed.
Grandmother’s primary source of information was Time Magazine. She poured over the political, economic, and scientific articles. A feature article reported that electric shock therapy was helping veterans with mental problems. Grandmother found other articles at the OSU library and spoke to several doctors she knew. The new treatment was not fully understood, but it appeared to be effective. Mom was appalled by Grandmother’s proposal, but Dad was ready to try anything that might help. We all visited him in his hospital room the night before he received electric shock treatments. I was scared. Afterwards, Dad was back to his former self for a while, but only for a while.
I frequently stayed with Grandmother on Saturday night during my grade school years. A banana split at the drug store was her treat for me after a visit to yet another room at the Natural History Museum. We saw children’s movies at the State Theater. Every year we went to the Nutcracker at OSU’s Mershon Auditorium, and she held forth on Tchaikovsky. “Grand, Michael, just grand!”
I showed Grandmother my report cards and received praise for the As and questions about Bs. A new book was part of every visit. She always said, “Michael, you are so smart,” and I was pleased that as I got older, she added, “You’re good looking, too. You’ll be a handsome man.” I was even more doubtful about her new assurances than the old standby, but I entertained the possibility that she might be right. Appearance had become important to me.
Grandmother inspired me with confidence in myself and an openness to grand possibilities in the world. I am grateful for all she did for me, but I am saddened that she added to Dad’s burdens from the war with her fierce determination that he achieve a successful position and a place in society. Her weekly compliments gave me hope, but her relentless pressure led Dad to despair.