My mother called this photo of her mother “The Gargoyle.” Ouch. I have a different relationship with the image. A nicely framed version hangs in the bedroom next to my closet. I sometimes blow it a kiss.
Vera Kahn Glaser wanted her grandchildren to call her Gram. My older sister instead called her “Bee” and it stuck. Bee played an important role in my life. In my book, I give her credit for guiding me toward my career in photojournalism. She had noticed that I enjoyed using a camera and recommended that I read Portrait of Myself, Margaret Bourke-White’s autobiography. Bourke-White was a pioneering photographer who worked for Life magazine.
Vera was no pioneer. The rules of her time (she was born in 1900) dictated that her job was to bear children and run a household. A family history that she wrote at my request reported a luxurious childhood in Chicago as the daughter of Jules Kahn, a successful businessman, and Belle Jacob (“so outstandingly beautiful and popular that she was known as the ‘belle of Louisville.’”).
Bee wrote pages and pages about her family and my grandfather’s roots. The only reference to Judaism is this sentence about her husband, my grandfather, Clifford Glaser. “Despite all the travelling he did he was quite a playboy, an excellent mixer with as many Christian friends as Jewish – I met him when he came to Chicago with a golf team (he was a drinking, non-playing member).”
She does, however, mention Christian Science. Her father had lived with diabetes from the age of 30 until the disease killed him at the age of 57. Bee’s parents had become Christian Scientists in the early part of the twentieth century and her father refused to diet or to take insulin (invented a few years before he died). Bee writes, “I went to Christian Science Sunday School for 8 years but when I got to college I began to think and read books on Mary Baker Eddy which made me realize what a charlatan she was and that Christian Science was not a religion. I still claim my father died of Christian Science rather than diabetes.”
Bee does not report that the college she attended was Vassar. Vassar! I don’t remember learning about Bee’s high class education until after her death. Maybe not until my mother’s death and the discovery of a box of Bee’s Vassar memorabilia. Bee also did not write that during World War I, Clifford Glaser and a group of his friends shared a boat (maybe a yacht) and cruised up and down the East Coast “defending” the country.
My grandmother was a difficult woman. This scowl is her usual expression. She was exceptionally smart. Opinionated. And unhappy. Really unhappy. I think she was bored – all that intelligence and not enough to do. Her hobby was word origins. She had a library card catalog filled with her research. I remember looking up fuck. For use of carnal knowledge, the card said. I now know that’s not correct.
Bee never recovered from the loss of her family’s fortune, gone even before the Great Depression. She worried about money. When my family moved from the suburbs to rural St. Louis County the phone calls between Bee and my mother were subject to tolls. That expense forced mother and daughter to keep calls short. To add to her misery, Bee was nearly deaf. She wore clumsy beige hearing aids that she was always fussing with. Her inability to follow a conversation added to her frustration.
Maybe I liked my grandmother because the rest of my family complained about her. I have always been the rebel. But I wish I wish I wish I had known to ask for more of her story.
What we leave out can be important. Remember that when you read The Climb. Remember that when you tell your stories. And, please, tell your stories.