Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Grandma and Grandpa, Addendum

Raymond and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato with daughter Carol, 1959

The story of my grandmother's background took two parts, because she obviously had the more complex history to relay to the reader. But does that make her the more complex person? I do not know how to answer that question. Whereas my grandfather probably experienced more cultural obstacles being one of an Italian immigrant family assimilating to a new environment, my grandmother survived more personal traumas such as the death of her mother and the abandonment by her father. I started my grandmother's post rambling about the forces that shape our psyche, and the often abnormal behaviors we grow up with that are perceived as "normal". How do the behaviors of our parents translate into our own behaviors in the same role? There are many articles written on this subject by psychiatrists, psychologists and behaviorists. How did they affect my grandparents? I will never know that. I never asked them, and as far as I know, they never thought too deeply about it. Any analysis I make now is purely conjecture.

The social worker that reported on the DePrato home in 1947 spoke well of both my grandparents. The unnamed writer of the home study noted how easy both were to speak to, how well maintained the home was, how congenial they were with each other, and what good care they had given to Annette, the child presently in their care. The worker noted that both my grandparents had little outside forms of socialization and entertainment other than an occasional movie or a game of cards with friends, and that they devoted their time primarily to each other, their home and their family. But the worker noted sometimes subtly, and sometimes not, that Raymond was the more affable and affectionate one, and that Arreda was more stoic and reserved. It was never anything that was considered negative in the home assessment, but the worker stated on one visit that Arreda "had a nice manner with the four year old child in the home and handled her with ease. While Mrs. DePrato was not an especially demonstrative person, she seemed able to give the two children a feeling of security and being wanted." 

This social worker's opinion was mirrored by my grandparents' friends. When interviewed, Bertha Meribela stated that "it was her opinion that Mr. DePrato was much more demonstrative than his wife although they were both very good with children." Many of those interviewed commented on how much the couple had wanted children, how well they had taken care of Arreda's cousin Annette, and how glad they were that they were adopting Carol, my mother. All of the family friends interviewed in 1947 were family friends of my grandparents that I knew in the 1970s and 1980s. These were couples who formed lifelong connections and took care of each other.

But if you really read between the lines, Raymond was the fun and friendly parent, while Arreda was the dutiful and functional parent. Whereas family friends would note that Raymond liked taking their children on outings and picnics, Arreda was lauded for her skills as a seamstress, a housekeeper and for toilet-training and providing for then four-year-old Annette so that she "was as attractive and mannerly a child as one would want to see." How different is this from Raymond's upbringing as the spoiled and fussed-over only son, or Arreda's upbringing by an unhappy, duty-bound mother dedicated only to her home? Does the past revisit us as adults, and do we really carry the burdens of our parents into adulthood?

Raymond and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato, 1960s

The daughter they adopted, Carol, my mother, would certainly not argue the assessments above. She was a daddy's girl, while her mother was rigid about appearances and decorum. Perhaps this is the natural combativeness that comes with many mother-daughter relationships, or perhaps my grandmother craved the orderliness of a family life of which she was deprived. Or perhaps I think too much.

Nonetheless, the story I tell of my grandparents is based on the things told to me by other members of the family, by my observations and by my persistent questioning while they were alive. But as a teenage genealogist, I was obsessed with the facts: the names, the dates, the places. I never asked them how they felt or what fires burned within them or what they regretted or what caused them the most sadness and joy. I can only guess at those things now. But the grandparents I knew were fiercely, but silently, devoted to each other. I do not recall any public displays of affection or any sort of demonstration of love between the two, but I never saw them argue either. Sure, I saw them bicker like any aging couple does, and I always enjoyed watching my grandfather subtly tease her until she would wave him away with a forever ubiquitous, "Oh, Raymond!" Even now as I write that, I can hear it echo in my head, and it brings tears to my eyes.

The grandparents I knew were forever patient, and forever kind. We kissed and hugged them hello; and we kissed and hugged them goodbye. On the occasion where we three boys spent the night at our grandparents, or my grandmother stayed with us, I am sure we tried her patience. Three boys less than three years apart in age would probably do that to most grandparents. I remember both of them being stern simply by their vocal tone, but I do not recall either of them ever losing their temper with us.

In my memory, my grandmother was the affectionate one of my grandparents, but perhaps that goes back again to the father-daughter, mother-son bond. Perhaps it extends to grandmother-grandson. Or maybe as a grandparent, you no longer are tasked with raising them and shaping children. You can just enjoy them.

Raymond and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato, 1970s

But it was my grandmother that I remember for making the lamb-shaped cakes at Easter, complete with coconut hair, jellybean eyes, and surrounded by green-dyed coconut for grass. I long for her sugar cookies and date cookies at Christmas. Only my grandmother would fix me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on toast, which for some reason I thought was tremendously more decadent than regular bread. Tea (with milk) and of all things, Pringles, bring back memories of visits to my grandmother. These were things we did not have at home.

My grandmother was the one that would sit on the back swing with us and sing:

"I went to the animal fair,
The birds and the beasts were there,
The old baboon by the light of the moon
Was combing his auburn hair.
The monkey he got drunk
And fell on the elephant's trunk
The elephant sneezed and fell on his knees
And that was the end of the monk, monk, monk!"

And then we would swing so high as to kick the leaves on the trees! At least we though we were that close, but probably no more so than any conventional swing can get you to the treetops. My grandparents lived on a half-acre, with Lincoln Way West, a highway, in the front, and railroad tracks in the back. And my grandparents would never refuse to accompany us to the back when a train was coming to count every train car, or to sit on the front porch and endure a never-ending game of "my car, your car" as the traffic whizzed by. 

My grandmother would sit for hours, and often instigate, several rounds of "Mariddle, Mariddle, Marie, I see something that you don't see....." Or being the artistic and creative one, I would scavenge all her used Redbook, Woman's Day and Lady's Home Journal magazines and cut and paste images out of them for cards and murals for my parents and grandparents. 

And although I do not recall my grandmother sewing much or making clothes like she did for my mother, I know she made her own dresses. A combination of my grandmother's age and the availability of cheap, commercially made clothes probably made sewing less of a pastime and necessity. But when this little boy's teddy bear became so used and tattered that the music box within him wore through, it was my grandmother that took him for surgery, removed the long over wound and broken music box and patched him with fabric chosen to match his "skin" color. And to avoid any further embarrassment from showing his surgical scars, she made Teddy a pair of blue polyester overalls to wear forever-more to hide his wounds. I still have that teddy bear, and I still have those memories. 

These were the grandparents that raised my mother, and these were the grandparents I visited to interview in 1982 in search of my mother's birth parents. These are the grandparents that gave me memories to cherish, and although their DNA is not my own, and their ancestor did not "beget" me, these are the grandparents I miss the most. 

And these are the grandparents that would shed new light on my quest in a single afternoon of interviewing. 


  1. Michael, this story is fabulous! I have known you for many years and I never knew so much about you until now. You make it very interesting to read. I hate yet love that I have to wait for the next "part". Is it ready yet?

  2. I want more! This is an awesome story. You are a great storyteller.

  3. I, too, only got Pringles at my grandpa's house!!! We couldn't afford them. I feel so proud now being able to pack them in my daughter's lunch box!

  4. Carrie, isn't it funny what memories stick with us? Food can provoke powerful flashbacks. Like EVERY kid who has had Pringles, my brothers and I would do the whole duckbill thing with them in our mouths. And I LOVED the crunch of biting into several of them stacked together. All of this was something we did at my grandparents. And we loved it. :)

  5. And I too had a grandmother who made lamb cake for Easter - complete with the coconut "fur" and dyed coconut grass. Thanks for the memory. I think my sister still has the cake mold.

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  7. Michael, there can be no denying that you write well, but beyond that skill you have a talent to wrench from the mists of the collective memories of your readers images that resonate after having read your stories.

    After circumnavigating the globe, served our nations military for more than 40 years, earned undergraduate and doctoral degrees, and along with my wife raise two wonderful children — I can remember the reconstructive surgery my great-aunt lovingly performed on my Raggedy Ann.

    Through the years I will occasionally be scouring through our storage and encounter Andy. What wonderful waves of sentiment he engenders, and the rare love of our "Mommy" which only he and I can share. Perhaps I'll have him share my final resting place, rather than being resigned the ignominy of being tossed into a trash heap.

    Thanks for the memories,

  8. This morning I clicked through from Judy Russell's blog to your most recent post (May 21), then kept reading backward until I got to the beginning of your awareness of who your father really was. At that point I was totally hooked, and dove to the very beginning. Your writing is exceptionally good, remarkable the way you capture not only the personalities but the circumstances they are in. I almost feel these are people I might have known myself. I am in the middle of a remarkable saga of lives, and grateful you are sharing it. Thank you. I have been at this off and on all day, stuck at home because of what is possibly a world class case of anaphylactic hives (Epipen at the ready). Your beautiful account has not only taken my mind off the itching and swelling, but enlarged my own understanding of genealogy and why the heck we do this. Thank you. Will be back for the rest in the morning.

  9. I don't remember ever hearing that song, except sung by my mother at bedtime as she tucked me and my 2 brothers in. There were slight differences -
    The monkey fell out of his bunk
    And slid down the elephants trunk
    I wonder if she had heard it that way, or adapted it to circumstances - we skept iñ bunk beds (one up & two down.

    I am really enjoying your bĺog.

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