I love this photo of my two-year-old Grandma Gerry at Christmas, holding a brand new doll. Accidentally (but ironically), it is placed right below the Hearst Castle ornament on our tree this year. With so much English in my blood it’s sometimes hard to remember that I am a quarter Swedish. My Grandma Gerry’s father was a first generation immigrant, and his wife was a second generation immigrant. They always insisted that English be the only language their daughters ever heard, so sadly my Grandma never learned to speak Swedish.
My Great Grandfather was a highly successful commercial artist who created the original picture on the Quaker Oats box, the art for Marvel Mystery Oil, the logo for Florsheim shoes, and other endeavors. He also did a good business painting the multi-story advertisements at movie theaters, which necessitated his own warehouse/studio with a hole cut in the second story floor so that he could paint from the top of the canvas to the bottom. He was also a passionate gardener, and their double lot house and garden provided all of the flowers for the local children to decorate graves with during Armistice Day.
My Great Grandmother was a well-known cook, and noted for her generosity. Their house was on the “hobo-trail”, meaning it had some sort of notch on the fence that signaled to vagrants that it was safe to stop at the back door and ask for a meal. My Great Grandmother never turned anyone away, and my Grandma Gerry would often sit next to the men while they ate and listen to the stories they had to tell of their adventures.
Both of her parents loved to spoil my Grandma Gerry and her sister at Christmas time, whether it be with the beautiful doll pictured, or a baby grand piano. We have pictures of their living room with the wall to wall shelving my Great Grandfather built, stuffed to the brim with a giant Christmas tree, baby furniture and presents. But then the Great Depression hit, and you can probably guess where this story is going. Work for commercial artists like my Great Grandfather quickly dried up and Christmases of abundance became a thing of the past. Like so many families then and now, my Great Grandparents lost their house.
One of the greatest presents my Grandma Gerry every received was from her mother, who sold the very rings off her fingers in order to afford for my Grandma to stay in school and finish high school, instead of drop out and get a job. My Great Grandmother believed that education could still be the ticket for her daughters to achieve the American Dream. This is a big legacy in my family, because my Grandma Gerry not only graduated from high school, but was enormously proud that all three of her children became college graduates someday.
When I was growing up, my Grandma always ensured that Christmas was a time of abundance and over-the-top present giving. I think she wanted to make sure that each and every one of her grandchildren left Christmas morning knowing that there was Plenty with a capital P, and nothing to worry about. This probably also explains why when we moved my Grandma out of her house and into a retirement home we found almost 100 lbs. of macaroni stockpiled in the garage. 🙂
I want my children to feel safe and secure Christmas morning too, just like my Grandma did. But I also want my kids to understand my Great Grandmother’s example; that you make every personal sacrifice necessary to make sure your children get the best education possible, and that you give generously to those less fortunate than you up until the very last minute when you too are bringing home bags of dry beans from the bread line, that you have no idea how to cook.
There is a movement afoot that you may or may not have heard of called The Advent Conspiracy. The idea is simple. Instead of spending a bunch of money that we may or may not have on things that the people in our lives may or may not want, what if we gave our time and our attention instead? What if we used some of our Christmas money to help those less fortunate then ourselves?
I think if my Grandma Gerry was here today she would LOVE the idea of the Advent Conspiracy. That wouldn’t stop her form shopping till she dropped and spending 12 hours tying enormous bows the size of your head on every Christmas present she delivered, but she would love the idea of using Christmas as a way to give generously to those less fortunate than herself.
At her very core, my Grandmother was one of the most generous persons you have ever met. I’d like to close this post with another famous family story from our archive. One day when my Grandma was visiting Mt. Soledad in San Diego, she came across a couple of San Diego tourists, struck up a conversation, and invited these people to my parents’ house for dinner that night. It was your typical family get together with total strangers! Flash forward to about twenty years later and my own family was vacationing in Yellow Stone National Park. My dad met a couple of Australian tourists and invited them to come stay at my parents’ house in California a few weeks later! I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.