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To celebrate blog's first trip around the sun, I'd like to celebrate my mother lines by posting an ethnographic interview with my own grandma.
My grandmother on my father’s side is named Edith. She was not given a middle name, although her sister was given two middle names. She and my grandfather are very important to me, and have been a stable foundation in a somewhat unstable family life and childhood. Always kind and gentle, I remember Edith, whom I call, Nana, always being a warm and nurturing light. She has never spoken one harsh word to me, nor to anyone else that I’ve heard, except for my grandfather on occasion. The worst word I have ever heard her say was, “stupid head,” to another car on the freeway, for which she apologized for immediately upon utterance. When I called her to ask for an interview, she was surprised and wondered why I would ever want to interview her. She claimed that I should interview my grandfather, because he did much more than she. I replied that we all know what grandfather has done, because he tells us at every family gathering. I told her that it was her life that I was interested in, and that her contribution to the world was great and valuable. She was still a bit resistant when my cousin Michelle and I arrived at our grandparent’s house in Oceanside, CA. This is for reasons that I will explain later. Michelle brought a video camera and was maybe even more excited that I. After playing a board game with my daughter, Michelle, and me, we adjourned to the living room and began our interview. We left my grandfather and daughter in the TV. room so that they couldn’t hear, I wanted my nana to be very honest, which I knew she couldn’t do with either of them present.
The first thing my grandmother did was lay down some ground rules. She didn’t want any dates in the interview, not even the year of her birth. She said she wanted to protect her privacy. I knew exactly why she would say this. However, I pretended, along with the rest of our family, that we didn’t know. Edith Palman was born in Frankfurt Germany, around 1922, as I believe she is between the ages of 85 and 87 in 2009. When she was less than two years old, her mother and sister sailed on a ship for two weeks to meet her father in America. He had traveled to America some months before and established himself in Southern California. Edith’s mother, Mary, was already a seamstress in Germany, and began reproducing styles that she saw in department store windows on her own sewing machine. My grandmother says that one of her earliest memories is sitting on the floor, looking up and watching her mother spin yarn on a huge spindle. The old fashioned kind, the kind that the mythological Three Fates use to spin each and every one of our destinies. Edith’s father began to take English and accounting classes and eventually became a CPA. However, and this is very interesting for this day and age, he quit his job with his accounting firm in order to support his wife’s embroidery business that was beginning to do well. When I remarked on how rare that seemed for any time, especially then, she replied that her father was a rare man. She said it with a certain tender affection that was touching. Her father had passed away before I was born. Edith remembers her childhood as lonely. She shook her head and said it wasn’t very good. Her parents were always gone and working, like many immigrant families at that time, both the mother and father worked outside the home.
Growing up in Silverlake, California, the only break from staying home with only her sister, or helping her mother cut string at the embroidery shop, were the German picnics and dances at the local park on weekends where her mother and sister and she would dance to the “ooompa ooooompa” music that was part of her cultural heritage. She also remembers the greatest times of her childhood being spent with her aunt and cousins in Wrightwood, CA. The Palman children were able to briefly get out from under the strict household of their parents, and were able to socialize with other children. At home, neither my grandmother nor her sister was allowed to have sleepovers, or parties, or sleep over at another friend’s house.
My nana believed herself to be a “nerd” in high school, not fully blossoming until she began to attend Los Angeles City College when she was around the age of 17. She remembers being delighted on her first day of school, when all of the male students noticed her legs in her new dress. Nana began to date regularly, and found this to be a time of freedom and possibility. She went dancing at the Palladium in Hollywood. She didn’t know what she was going to do with her life yet. When I asked her if she had always planned to be a mother and house wife, she replied that she had not. She didn’t have a plan for the future, she just wanted to explore and have fun. Sounds much like my perspective when I got out of high school.
One day, at one of the German picnics, my grandmother and grandfather met. My grandfather has stated many times that the first time he saw my grandmother he knew instantly that she was the one. My grandmother, on the other hand, makes no such claim. She thought he was cute, and nice, and that’s about it. She remembers wearing a new, beige dress that she had just made herself using very special ceramic buttons that her mother had hand painted. The dress was straight, with these buttons running straight down the middle. She was asked to dance by many men that night, but grandpa had stuck out. Nana denies that she was actually going with someone else already when she met grandpa but the rumor is that she was already in a relationship when they met.
Their first date was to the observatory. They began to see each other regularly. After three months grandpa finally kissed her, or so she says. (This is where it gets tricky. When I send a copy of this to my grandmother I will have to edit much of this out. I fear that if she sees that I have written this about her, she will never speak to me again. However, I believe this part of her story to be very pertinent to this class.) Within a year they were married. My grandmother says that because they were very poor, that she had to have a private ceremony and wear a black dress. This is a story that my cousins and I have heard before. I never understood why on Earth anyone would choose a black dress to get married in, even if they were poor. Being that my grandmother and her family were talented at designing and making dresses, this situation gets even more improbable. Then one day we did the math. Our grandparent’s first anniversary took place before my father’s first birthday. Suddenly it made sense about the black dress. Nana was pregnant with my father when they got married! In all of these years of protecting this secret, they had forgotten to move their anniversary year up one year to account for the discrepancy. This was the reason that my nana, today, 70 years later, was so adamant about not giving any dates. I think she realized that we were beginning to catch on. The shock of finding out that my extremely pure and gentile grandmother was having sex before marriage is huge for me. I always saw her as innocent, angelic and obedient.
Immediately after being married my grandfather went back to work. Struggling to make ends meet in a depression era, he worked very long hours. Edith’s life of dating, school and socializing came to an abrupt end and was replaced by a life of solitude in a small house. She never knew when her husband would be home, and I believe she wasn’t leaving the house to go anywhere or do anything as there was no money. She remembers this time of her life as very lonely. I could imagine that this solitude, partnered with post pardom depression was very hard on my grandmother. She began developing habits like having to touch doorknobs on both sides before closing a door, or having to stick her fist in a glass after washing it. I don’t know if my grandmother had always had tendencies towards OCD, but they began to manifest themselves much more apparently during this time. To this day nana still has these, as she calls them, “quirks.” Although she has never received any treatment for it, she seems to manage it well, as it does not seem to affect the quality of her life.
Somehow my grandfather avoided going to WWII so they got through the war fairly well, with my grandmother never having to take a job. She says she began to smoke during the war, that tobacco was rare and then all of the sudden the tobacco companies started to give away free cigarettes at the market. In a time where chocolate, meat, pantyhose and many other small luxuries were unavailable, smoking became very popular. However, my grandfather never knew about it. I mean never. My grandmother didn’t quit smoking until after I was born, and my grandfather never had a clue.
Edith had two more children after my father. My grandfather’s landscaping business began to do well and nana joined a women’s knitting group to alleviate the loneliness of her role in society as a housewife and mother. The family moved to Northridge, CA, where they lived across the street from Natalie Wood. Nana tells us that she never liked Natalie Wood’s mother. She would always call my nana and ask her for favors like taking her daughters to school, or borrowing my grandmother’s mink stole. She also wanted to take my aunt Linda with the Wood family so that Natalie’s little sister would have someone to play with. After Natalie had gained some fame in movies, her mother invited my grandmother to their new house in a more upscale neighborhood. My grandmother describes the scene like this:
“It was about 11 and Mary (Natalie Wood’s mom) and I were sitting in the front room talking when all of the sudden I hear this bell ringing. Mary jumps up immediately and says that it’s Natalie and she wants her hotdog. While I’m still sitting there she runs off to get it for her and bring it to Natalie who was still in bed.”
As Mary and grandmother were friends, after Natalie married Robert Wagner Mary told my grandmother this after Wagner had bought Natalie an expensive, toy tiger:
“I don’t know what he sees in her because she is so flat chested.”
My grandmother thought that the family was a bit strange so eventually lost touch with the Woods. Living in Northridge with her husband and three children, Edith took care of not only caring for the kids and the household chores, but paying all of the bills and household expenses as well. She had a method of rounding up in her check book every time she paid a bill and by doing that saved over three thousand dollars by the time my grandfather retired. When he retired he took it upon himself to take over the household accounting. Upon finding out about the extra money saved, he became angry and asked how my grandmother could have kept this money a secret. I forgot to mention earlier that my grandfather was very intent on being the sole provider of his family. This was a measure of his own manhood, and he took it very seriously. He would not even let Edith accept gifts from her family if they were not given on a birthday or Christmas. She told me he had made her return a pair of pajamas that her mother had bought for her one time.
My grandmother tells me that the single most important thing in her life is her grandchildren. Honestly, even though she is aging and visibly becoming frailer, I couldn’t imagine life without her. She is the glue that keeps my family even talking with each other. I fear that after her and my 90 year old grandfather pass, my father and his siblings will never speak to each other again. My cousins and I are pretty tight, but without my grandparents organizing family reunions and holiday get- togethers, we also may begin to spread apart. I am so grateful that my daughter has been given the gift of knowing my grandmother, and now that I’ve documented her life, she will have this too to remember the women who came before her, and the love and strength that has been passed down from her mother bloodlines.