Sometime in the early 1940s, my mom’s father divorced her mother. Maybe it was the other way around, but I suspect not, because Mom seemed to hold onto an animosity towards her father for most of her life, and I’ve always tied it to the divorce. Her brother suggested once that it might have had something to do with his quashing her desire to be a dancer. My grandfather, Roy Jones, was in show business (although at what level, I’m still not exactly sure), so possibly, he knew enough about it that he didn’t want her anywhere near it, or his resistance had something to do with her talent. Either way, Mom lost, I guess.
When I was not quite five years old, in 1960, Grandpa (and I use that term of endearment very loosely since I probably shared his company no more than a handful of times in my life and I don’t recall ever having a conversation with him) remarried. His new wife was Charlotte Julia Salzer. Charlotte was a hairdresser by profession, and my mom’s brother said she ran a well-respected business, very possibly working with theatrical people. So, it’s reasonable to guess that my grandfather met her through some kind of intertwining of their two professions.
I recall very well a trip we made in 1959 to New York, the summer before Roy and Charlotte married. My mom was pregnant with my youngest brother, Jim, and we made a side trip to Lake Erskine in New Jersey, where my grandfather owned a house on the lake. Mom’s brother, Skip, who likely took the above picture, held me by the hands and spun me around in the lake more times than I found amusing. It’s weird that I recall it so well, but… trauma, I guess. My unhappiness in the moment is still somewhat apparent in the above photo, but because he no doubt was amused with my reaction, Skip took several pictures of me in my state of torment.
But I digress.
Considering my age at the time of that trip, this probably was the first time I’d met either my grandfather — whose existence until then had been marked only by the $25 U.S. Savings Bonds my brothers and I received from him every Christmas — or Charlotte. I recall distinctly that they were not married at the time, and because Charlotte was not my grandmother, and because she was not yet married to Grandpa — thereby not having a family name by which to call her (such as I did with Uncle Skip) — and because social norms were such that four-year-old kids didn’t call their elders by their given names, I called her Thing.
I mean… what’s a kid to do?
To be clear, I didn’t call her Thing to her face, I only referred to her as Thing. “Mom, Thing said…” or “Thing gave this to me.” or “Would you ask Thing if…” That type of… uh… thing. Mom corrected me several times during the trip, but I couldn’t help myself… the word just came out.
It is a weird position to be in, to meet someone for the first time who occupies the traditional grandmother role in the family — that is, being the grandfather’s significant other — yet not actually being the grandmother; in fact, not even being married to the grandfather. As I said, they married in 1960, but I don’t think I ever knew they had gotten married until years later. I sort of just accepted that they were a couple that lived together outside of marriage.
So, getting to some kind of point… for the last several years, I have been looking for the people who at some point in their lives had relationships with my parents. At first — and something which is ongoing — I began trying to locate the sailors with whom my dad served in the Navy during World War II. For example, I found it kind of weird that — to my knowledge — Dad never communicated with the best man in his wedding. I didn’t even know his name — John “Chick” Gigarjian — until a few years ago.
Lately, I’ve been tracking down the families of my mom’s 1940 8th Grade graduation class of St. Margaret Mary School in The Bronx. To hear the widow of one of Mom’s classmates relate how her husband thought “Fanny” was the prettiest girl in the class and maybe the school is a somewhat startling revelation that my mom’s existence had been well-remembered by someone that probably never saw her again once she moved to Staten Island.
I wish my parents had told me and my brothers the stories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their friends, of their families; that they’d not left so much for us to imagine. I wish that we’d had just a little understanding about my grandfather’s relationship to his first wife — my grandmother. Maybe it would have helped me understand Charlotte’s place in the family, and maybe, just maybe that would have made it easier to see Charlotte as more than just a Thing.*
*No, this was not inspired by The Addams Family television program… that wouldn’t air for another four years.