Thursday, August 28, 2008
12:09:12 AM EDT
When an old man dies, a library burns down.
One of the most remarkable people I ever knew was my grandmother, Charlotte Cole. I was only 14 when she died, but I remember as a child, literally sitting at her knee and listening to her talk.
She talked about growing up in the Shenandoah Valley in the late 19th Century where she was taught to sing, dance. act and play the piano.
When she married she and my grandfather moved to Pawnee City, Nebraska to pioneer the land. She spoke of her life as a farmer/rancher's wife, of the other pioneers around, of the men and women of the local Indian tribe, of riding on the back of an ox to go to market because there was no seat in the ox cart. She spoke of the tornados that would rip through a person's home taking the pictures off the wall but leave the wall standing, of the sod house they lived in, where she bore two sons and a daughter. She talked of her sons, one, a successful businessman who, when he was a teenager bought a piglet for 50 cents and a year later sold it for 50 dollars, and the other an important baseball coach and trainer.
When my grandfather died, she took my mother and hit the road with a traveling theatre company. She taught my talented mother the rudiments of entertainment and they worked as a song and dance sister act. She talked of the dangers and hardships of traveling out west in the early 20th Century and of the strong theatre people who helped and protected each other. She recalled performing in places where the men in the audience would come in armed. She talked about the time the two of them barely escaped being kidnapped by men who would seize girls and force them into prostitution. They were called "white slavers" in those days. She told of performers being stranded in far-off places, because the unscrupulous producers would take the money and leave.
When she got to New York City she went to work as an actress in silent movies when they were being made in Astoria and Long Island City. She lived, with her trunk, in a NYC hotel room until she died. That trunk contained all the bits and pieces of an adventurous career. She let me poke around in it and look at the things in there, and she would talk about them.
She knew many people. She knew opera singers, comedians, politicians and prize fighters. She had an engaging, infecting sense of humor. She even found something amusing about her own passing. She was a fiery Christian.
It wasn't until I became an adult that I realized how valuable all that information was. I wish I had taken notes or had had a tape recorder. The library that was my grandmother exists now only in the shreds of my meager memory. I am the only one left of my family who knew her and I was the only one who listened to her.
DB - Vagabond Journeys