I was the only grandchild on my dad's side. These were the things I knew about my grandparents (two of my very favorite people ever): Cleo, my grandmama, loved to take me shopping for clothes and Barbies. She was straightforward and honest and statuesque--she always had a wonderful figure, which she was very proud of. She was fun. When we visited them in the summer, she would fry up a pound of bacon each morning because she knew it was my favorite. Around the house, she wore silver sandals that sparkled. She smoked cigarettes until the day she died. She would sit for hours brushing my hair and talking to me about celebrities and Hollywood and books (she loved to read). She liked to have a cocktail now and then. I could tell her anything, like a girlfriend. When she got older, she began drawing an "X" over her face in pictures because she didn't like her wrinkles. When it was time to leave her, after a summer at their house in the North Carolina mountains, her eyes would grow misty and she would draw back against Granddaddy, his arm around her shoulders, as we got into the car. By the time we were pulling away, she would be inside the house already, unable to watch us go.
My granddaddy Jack was a successful businessman, an avid golfer, a mischief, even though he could intimidate people just by walking into a room. He had a temper, which I never saw, but which I sometimes heard, the few times he had to take business calls at home and there was a problem he needed to straighten out. He could be formidable and reserved, but never with me. He grew up in the high, remote mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, one of ten children, without running water or electricity. When I knew him, he was an immaculate dresser-- he loved nice clothes. He was always-- fiercely-- in shape. He was disciplined, a man of routine. He ate two prunes for breakfast every day, along with a small bowl of oatmeal and, as my mother remembers, the world's best coffee, which he made himself. Grandmama was a night owl like me, but he went to bed early and got up early. I would lie next to Grandmama in their king-sized bed and we would read together while Granddaddy slept. Grandmama and I would giggle and whisper, and at some point, he would say, eyes closed, "There's too much kissing in this bed." Which was our cue to hug him and kiss his cheeks. He could make anything magic. Next to Grandmama, I knew he loved me most of anyone in the world. He was my best friend.
I also knew this: he and Grandmama were truly in love. They are, to this day, the only couple I have ever seen close-up that I have aspired to emulate. They were in love with each other till the day Granddaddy died, too young, in 1987.
What I never knew much about was what came before, in those mysterious years before I was born. I'd been told Granddaddy was a football star, a baseball star who could have gone pro. He won a freckle contest when he was eleven. I knew that he'd seen Grandmama and fallen in love with her at first sight, but that she'd been engaged to another man at the time and had to be wooed. I knew they each came from big families with lots of siblings and that Grandmama's daddy had died young. I knew that Granddaddy had fought in World War II.
The following letter was written by Cleo, my grandmother, to her sister-in-law Elizabeth on July 11, 1944. At the time she wrote it, Granddaddy had been serving overseas for over a year. She didn't yet know much of his large, sprawling family. She was living in Bristol, Pennsylvania, far away from her brothers and sisters. My father (Jack Jr--she called him "Jackie"), their only child, was nearly two years old. His cousin Paula, orphaned when Cleo's youngest sister died, was just a baby. Cleo took care of both children as well as her own mother and, for the first and only time in her life, worked outside the home to earn money.
Your letter arrived and I can't tell you how much I enjoyed it. In fact, I read and reread it. Jack had written me that you were going to write, some time ago, and I had been looking for a letter.
I think it best to tell you news of Jack first. Last week I received six letters from him and four today. His letters usually come regularly. Jack's outfit was one of the first to go into Rome. He was awarded a combat badge for exemplary conduct in action against the enemy. All I do is write Jack and pray for his return to us soon. War is such a horrible experience even for the brave. Jack's most recent letter was written July 2nd and all was as well as could be expected then.
I know you are glad your son is out of the Merchant Marines and that, I don't believe, is being disloyal to the cause. My baby brother who is nineteen has been overseas in the S. Pacific a year. Bob is in the Marines and enlisted in his last year at school. We haven't heard from him now in two months and are almost frantic. He's our baby and we love him so. My older brother in the army was overseas but has been back in this country since January. He is still a patient in a New York hospital. Soon, I think he'll return to duty.
Jack and I visited in NC twice since our marriage. The first time I was just a few months along with Jackie--and when Jack was inducted in the army we were down. On our first visit we only saw Mack and Ann but our last visit was longer and Jack going in the army made a difference, I think. I met Sam and his family, Cathleen and her family, Jim and his, Johnny, Ann, and Jack's mother and daddy. My family is large too-- so I understand it takes quite a time to meet them all.
Jack tells me I'm very frank about everything and he's glad. Well, I like all of Jack's people. They were lovely to me, but I can't understand them. They seem much too distant to one another to be a happily united family. Maybe I think this because my father died when we were so young and naturally we grew up together so closely. Even though some of us are hundreds of miles apart we are close together in spirit and love at all times. I very seldom hear from any of Jack's though. Mack writes occasionally and once I had a letter from Ann. She was coming to Seattle, so she said.
I firmly believe this war will make a difference in everyone. The reunion in NC will be something to look forward to-- I do hope I get to meet you and your family soon for I know we'll have lots in common to talk about.
The picture you mentioned Jack sent-- he has so many. I don't know which one he sent you. The last snapshots I sent Jack were not very good but they were at least familiar faces to him. Soon, I'll have more taken and send you some good ones. Jackie's hair is cute now--cut like a boy's. Makes lots of difference in his appearance.
Jackie is a typical boy--spoiled--but that's our fault, but lovable as anything. He's the joy of our lives and we give him more than the usual amount of love. The way he talks is so cute, and a pleasure to watch. I wish Jack could be here to see him grow. He's missing so much.
Jack and I have great plans for our future. If only God sees fit for him to return to us. I work all the time and try and save. Jack is the most important thing in my life--without him, I'd be lost. We are terribly in love--people say as you are married longer you grow out of it, but we seem to grow more in love with each passing day even though separated.
The weather here has been awfully warm. No relief at all. Maybe we should live in the mountains, eh?
Elizabeth, thanks again for writing and answer soon, won't you? Your letter meant so much to me and I'd like to feel close to someone who also belongs to Jack. My love and best wishes to all. If Ira is like Jack, I'll love him--for Jack is the most wonderful husband any girl could ask for. My people think so too.
Causes Jennifer Niven Supports
Alley Cat Allies
The American Cancer Society