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.


Some time ago, inspired by the nonfiction book “The Grief Club” by Melodie Beattie, I began to research my female ancestors. Beattie recommends going back a couple of generations, enough to give you a sense of where you come from. I knew back to my great-grandparents on both sides, so figured I’d delve two or three generations beyond them.

I became fascinated by the beauty of their names, these sadly faceless women whose blood runs in my veins. Hextilda, Rohese, and Albreda. Gwaladus, Eschyna, and Angharad. And the usual run of Margarets, Marys, Elizabeths, and Katherines.

Common family history holds that my mother’s line comes from Britain, my dad’s from Germany, but in my walk backward through time I discovered France, Italy, Norway, Finland, Turkey, and Armenia, among others. Truth is, if you go back far enough, you find that we’re all damn-near to being related. There were only just so many families to marry into way back when. (And much fascinating reading about “Mitochondrial Eve” and the idea of seven mothers from whom we all originate, should you care to dive into that particular pool.)

I found Maud De Greystoke (does this mean I’m related to Tarzan?), of French descent but born in Palestine. The three warring factions amid Scottish rule–Comyn, Bruce, and Baliol–all make an appearance.  There are O’Tooles, O’Briens, and even some Bacons. (How many degrees from Kevin am I?) And I laughed long and loud to find myself descended from Alfhild Gandolfsdatter, daughter of Gandolf Alfgeirsson. (Yes, I’m aware that Tolkien spelled it differently. Cut me some slack, willya? I’m having fun.)

What struck me hardest on this journey were the blank spaces where names disappeared into obscurity. Who were they, these women who tended hearth and home, birthed children and often buried them, or died giving them life? How many of them kept things running at home while their husbands and sons and fathers went off to this or that war? How many–like my Grandmother Geneva–raised their family alone after their husband died or abandoned them? How many bore the children of marauders and rapists? Why are they not recorded or remembered? Is it because they were considered unimportant, mere property like a dog or horse or sofa?

They’re important to me. Those women had faces, and spirits. They laughed and cried, swore and fought, loved and lost. Some did whatever it took to survive. Others surrendered and died where they stood. Some were obedient to the dictates of their age. Others were a constant trial to their families and likely suffered for it. We don’t know, but we should.

Remember your grandmothers. You are here because of them. Celebrate that they were here. Lift a glass to your Genevas and Virginias,  your Minnies and Lucretias. Honor especially those who will remain nameless for all time. Don’t let them disappear entirely. Salute the vanished, for they are us.