Where is Grandma’s smile?


My maternal grandmother, Geneva Lucy Shorey Crandall Sherman Burton

I can’t remember ever seeing my grandmother smile.  This studio portrait, taken God knows when, is the closest she comes to it.

As a child, I didn’t understand her lack of smiles and (I confess) took it personally. (I was an emotional, empathetic, introvert; of course I took it personally.) I now believe Life knocked the smiles out of her.

She was born November 1894 in Oakfield, Maine, way up in The County (Aroostook to the unenlightened). Grover Cleveland was President. Coca Cola was sold in bottles for the first time. Twelve thousand NYC tailors struck against sweatshop conditions. Norman Rockwell, Jack Benny, Bessie Smith, and Dashiell Hammett were also born that year.

Geneva was the youngest of five children (all “useless” daughters, God forbid) born to William and Minnie Shorey. Described by my mother as “the meanest woman that ever lived,” Minnie often locked her in a dark closet. William had a prodigious temper (the source, I believe, if what’s come to be known as the “Crandall Temper”). One one occasion, a neighbor returned a borrowed wagon broken. When William discovered it, he hacked at the wagon with an ax until he brought on a heart attack and fell over stone-dead.


Minnie and William flank Napoleon Bonaparte Crandall (I’m not joking).

Look at these faces. Even given the era, and the need to hold very still for this portrait, they’re exceedingly grim. Can you imagine growing up in that household? Can you imagine what their childhoods must have been like?

(My mother’s family had a propensity for historically-derived names. “Uncle Bony,” as he was called, had a brother named George Washington Crandall. I’ve also discovered William Wallace Crandall, James Madison Crandall, and others. My husband believes if we search long enough, we’ll discover a Jesus Christ Crandall. Oh, and let’s not forget the unfortunately named “Weighty Marie.”)

It’s impossible for me to imagine Geneva as a child … as a young school teacher … or as a bride. She married Abel Crandall in either 1912, 1913, or 1915. (There’s documentation listing each of those dates.) Their children arrived in 1916, 1917, 1919, 1922, and my mother in 1923. (Roundabout five months after the birth of their first child, Abel was named in a paternity suit filed by a neighbor’s wife. The child, a daughter, was raised by the family into which she was born, and he never bore any responsibility for her, but this must have been a real treat for Geneva. Incidentally, this tidbit of news only came to light in 2019.)

In October 1923, Abel’s appendix ruptured. He died three weeks before my mother was born. So here’s Geneva: four children ranging in age from seven years to 15 months, 8 1/2 months pregnant, her husband dead, the Great Depression looming. And her mother refuses to help her.

For nine years, my grandmother did what she could to survive, taking in laundry, mending clothes, and selling eggs. Her fresh-churned butter was said to be the best in the area. She baked bread and became proficient at “Poverty Stew,” a watery mix of salt pork, onions or carrots when she could get them, a single potato diced fine.

In April 1932, Geneva married Abel’s best friend, Paul Sherman, for whom she worked as a housekeeper. (In the 1930 census, she’s listed as “servant.”) Their son Paul, Jr. arrived five months later. Make of that what you will. Two years later, Paul Sherman died of tuberculosis. In the 1940 census, she’s listed as “head of household” with four of her six children living with her. My mother, as the only girl at home, shouldered much of the domestic burden and her mother’s rancor, and married badly at 18 to escape. (Geneva was lenient with her boy, not so much with her girls, an unfortunate trend that continued throughout her life. Mom died at the age of 92 without ever hearing her mother say “I love you.”)

So it went. In 1957, Geneva married a third time, to Walter Burton (the man I knew as my grandfather), for whom she’d also kept house. And buried him in 1977.  So is it any wonder there were precious few smiles to go around?

And yet, Geneva had her pleasures, chief among them her involvement in her church, visits with old and dear friends, and most particularly, her youngest son’s three boys who lived next door and on whom she doted. Her preferential treatment put a crick in the nose of the rest of us grandkids, but we got over it.



Geneva and her kids (l to r): Paul, Darrell, William, Virginia (my mom), Goldie, and Jean.


And some of the grandkids: Paul, Patric, and Eric in back; Darrell, me, and Sterling in front.

What To Do When You’re Angry

Can’t speak for any of you, but when I’m angry, I write. Might meet it head on, might  come at it from behind, might ambush it from the side. Doesn’t matter. I write to bring it out, expose it, maybe even try to make sense of it (assuming there’s sense to be made, which too often isn’t the case).

So this post isn’t about about elephants or writing or ice cream or summer or any of the other things I typically write about.

Because I’m angry.

I’m beyond angry. I’m enraged. I’m also frustrated and horrified  and hands-up-drop-em-down-mind-boggled-what-the-fuck-do-we-do-NOW?

You all know that feeling of evil surprise — that “where the hell did that come from” sensation, like you’ve stepped on the business end of a rake and snapped the handle up ka-POW! right between the eyes. In some ways, I haven’t been this angry since a young woman I barely knew, a lovely girl named Rebecca, died in June 2011

My rage is two-fold.

Yesterday, my brother Gene’s son, Josh, died. The particulars aren’t pleasant, but they aren’t mine to share, and it’s really nobody’s business and it isn’t important anyway except to those who knew him. Suffice to say that Josh’s demons won, dammit to hell. He leaves behind a grieving father and step-mother, four children, friends, and relatives. He drove them crazy. He worried them incessantly and, sometimes, unnecessarily. He refused to believe in his own self-worth. And now he’s gone and there ain’t no coming back from that.

Today, I discovered that a woman I met on Facebook, someone who’s become a dear long-distance friend, has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

She writes: “Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow.
The cause of multiple myeloma is not known. Risk factors for multiple myeloma have not been established although researchers have suggested genetic abnormalities, such as c-Myc genes or environmental exposures, may play a role. The prognosis for myeloma is only fair. Median survival is about three years, but some patients have a life expectancy of 10 years.

Well, darn it.”

Darn it, indeed. Darn it to Hell.

Healing Takes Time

Five days ago was the two-year anniversary of my mother’s death.

I didn’t think of it. Not once that day, or in the days that followed. Not until I was out in the yard this afternoon, watering plants, did it occur to me that the anniversary had passed without recognition.

I think that’s a good thing.

I believe it shows that I have no regrets; that Mom and I did the work together we were meant to do–the healing we were meant to do.

I sometimes wish certain things  had gone differently, but not to the degree that they keep me up at night or induce tears as they once did. Mom forgave me my foibles, and I forgave her in turn. It all worked out in the end.

Thanks, Mom.


Oh, for anyone who’s interested: Virginia Dare Crandall Hersey Limbacher fought a valiant battle with Alzheimer’s during the last few years of her life. I invite anyone involved in a similar journey to check out my other blog: The Wild Ride – Caretaking Mom Through Alzheimer’s. Sometimes it helps to know you’re not alone.

When Does Grief Go? The Truth? It Doesn’t.

Round about 2010–I don’t recall the exact date and don’t have time to look it up–the blog I was writing on WordPress began to slowly turn in the direction of Alzheimer’s as this debilitating disease took over my mother’s life and the lives of all who loved her. Over the course of five years, I wrote about it more and more, until I wound up changing the title of the blog to “The Wild Ride” and focused almost exclusively on this journey Mom and I were taking together. A lot of kind readers walked beside us during that time, sharing their experiences and–bless them–offering me emotional support.

Mom died on June 7, 2015 and was laid to rest with my dad in the veteran’s cemetery in Schuylerville, NY. Since then, I don’t think a day has gone by that I haven’t missed her.

I expected to, but I wasn’t prepared for how big a hole would be left when she was gone. For the last two years of her life–give or take a few months–I was her caretaker, both at home and also when she, unfortunately, had to enter a nursing home. I was with her daily, for hours at a time. Still, I wasn’t prepared.

I figured that, sure, I’ll miss her for about a year and then it’ll go. It didn’t. And it still hasn’t. It’s particularly tough now, as Christmas approaches, because this was always her favorite holiday and she put a lot into it–cooking, baking, buying gifts, wrapping, decorating, playing music on the stereo, and watching her beloved “Miracle on 34th Street.” (The original, not any of the make-over abominations.)

In observing my own grief, and the grief of others–friends and family who have lost those dear to them–I’ve come to understand that it never goes away entirely. Sometimes it’s a guilty grief–“Did I do enough? Could I have done more? I wish I hadn’t done xyz.” Sometimes it’s “just” sorrow. I’ve noticed how it changes over time … or has for me, at least. It isn’t as sharp-edged as it once was, although it still has the ability to make me weep. The longing to see my mom one more time can be overwhelming.

But not as she was. I wouldn’t want that. I wouldn’t want her to have to endure one more day of the Hell she found herself locked in. But if I could turn back the clock and give her a moment in the snow again, and see her smile, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

I’m not sure there’s a point to what I’m writing here, except to say we all grieve. We have that in common, among other things. So let’s be kind to ourselves, and kind to one another. Let’s not play “My grief is bigger than yours.” This isn’t a contest anyone should want to win.

And to those who remain untouched by grief, count yourselves lucky. Don’t look down on those who feel it. Don’t denigrate. Don’t say things like, “You should be over it by now” or “But it was only a (fill in the blank – dog, cat, horse, parrot, goldfish.” Love is love, grief is love, and no one should judge the length of yours.