Day Six — Alternative Histories

This house and 192 acres of farmland are for sale in Carroll County, at the intersection of the Little Vine road and Route 52.  Despite the fact that I could have a goat dairy, it would be closer to my Beloved’s work, and I’ve always wanted a little farm, we’re not likely to buy it, but we did go look at it.

That’s because it belonged to my great-grandfather.  My grandmother was born there.  Finding it popped the lid off some mysteries that will probably never be solved, and maybe were never meant to be solved, but I am intrigued.

My grandmother was Lillian Gladys Early.  I don’t think she minded the “Lillian,” but the “Gladys” was a bit much.  Her father, William Early, owned1,800 acresof Carroll County, and his family had a lot more. We never heard him mentioned, and the reason is that he died in December of 1895, and my grandmother was born in May of 1896. 

This contradicts some things we’d always been told.  My grandmother maintained that she was nine months old when her father died, but she couldn’t have been.  She was born on May 17, and could possibly have been seven months old, but the old court records show her birth in 1896, not 1895.  It’s unlikely she was born in 1894, since her parents were married around then.  I think she desperately wanted to have overlapped her father in the land of the living, and made it so, at least in her personal history.

It got me to wondering about my grandmother, a person I knew so well, and yet didn’t really know.  I remember her as an elegant woman – tall and attractive – who also managed to be a fabulous cook, an artistic housekeeper, an indulgent grandmother, and a serious devotee of my grandfather.  She died in 1986, eleven years after he did.  I was 27 at the time, pregnant with twins, and unable to attend her funeral.  You’d think, in 27 years, I’d have time to find out some things about her, but she kept her real self hidden way down below layers of other selves. 

Among the things I didn’t know:  Her mother, Ida, was 15 years younger than her husband, and seventeen when she married.  She was a widow at twenty, and soon went home to her family in Allisonia, leaving her husband’s four children by a first wife with other relatives.  Two of those four children survived to adulthood, but my great-grandmother never mentioned them.  My grandmother did not know, for many years, that she even had half-siblings.  She had no memory of the white house, the huge farm, the sprawling and powerful Early family.  Perhaps she knew that she had a large inheritance from the Earlys, but she dropped, innocently and through no choice of her own, into another history, and so, inadvertently, did the rest of us.  

I felt a huge upwelling of compassion for my grandmother, looking at her house and thinking about the girl who never knew her father, who was six feet tall in a family of petite people, whose mother remarried and had other children.  She was close to her sisters all her life, (the ones she knew about; her mother’s daughters) and they clearly loved her, but I wonder if she always felt, back behind everything else, that something was different – missing – in herself, some identity they had that she couldn’t have.

My grandmother studied music, worked in a dress shop, and lost her soldier fiancé to the flu epidemic at the end of World War I.   I didn’t know any of this until now.  I feel like I’ve just looked at something familiar and realized I’d never seen it before. 

I know this: if I HAD had the intelligence, curiosity, or even compassion to ask about her family years ago, she would have changed the subject.   She took the history she was given and got on with her life.  Knowing this stuff makes sense of some other things about her – things that annoyed me as a young adult.  It’s a reminder almost everyone carries a history that shapes them and maybe sometimes makes them less than easy to deal with.  If we knew what it was they carried, we’d be compassionate.  Maybe we should just start assuming the history and let the compassion flow.

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