Friday, January 3, 2014

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: #1 - My Grandpa

Amy Johnson Crow from NoStoryTooSmall is setting up a challenge: 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.
52 Ancestors in 52 WeeksThe challenge: have one blog post each week devoted to a specific ancestor. It could be a story, a biography, a photograph, an outline of a research problem — anything that focuses on one ancestor. Not only should this get me blogging more, but also to take a deeper look at some of the people in my family tree.
I have to begin this project with the person who had the most positive influence in my life: my maternal grandfather, Carl Johnson.  To me, he was "Grandpa," and I adored him.  He was the kindest, most thoughtful and loving man of my childhood.  He was the beacon of hope for a future, the sanctuary I could run to, the wise old owl who gave sage advice, and could aways be counted on for a game of Monopoly, cards, or just some really great quiet times with lots of hugs.  I remember the scent of his after shave, that he liked Schlitz Beer, and loved his Chicago sports teams--the Cubs, the Bears and the Blackhawks.
Carl was my mother's father.  He and my grandmother, Esther, married in their twenties, and had their only child, my mother, in their thirties, and settled down to life in Chicago.  It was a stormy relationship.  Esther was a spoiled, vain and self-centered woman who really didn't want the life she had.  Carl was the opposite: unselfish, hard-working, patient and non-confrontational.  I'm told their fights often included episodes of Esther throwing things, such as dishes or other glass objects, at Carl, while he remained calm and tried to smooth things over with her.  Finally, when my mother was only about five, Esther moved out.  She eventually remarried and moved from Chicago to Shreveport, Louisiana with her new husband, leaving her only child with Carl.  You can imagine the message this sent to my mother, and it remains evident to this day that she felt abandoned and unwanted by her mother.  (more on this in other posts.)
For me, once I was old enough to understand the meaning of divorce, it was a bitter pill to swallow.  How anyone could treat my sweet Grandpa that way was beyond me.  My father, who adored Carl more than his own father, abhorred the sight of my grandmother for the rest of her life.  All I know is, Grandpa was always there for us.  He worked at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago (although he worked for the Chicago Transit Authority as an accountant), and he would often buy sample dresses and clothes for me when the fashion lines came out.  I had an amazing wardrobe as a little girl, and it was always because Grandpa knew what size I wore and had this unquenchable desire to dress me up beautifully as an expression of his affection.
Christmas time was always special because of Grandpa.  We moved out to the suburbs when I was a toddler, and my brother arrived when I was 3, and my sister when I was 7.  Each Christmas, my dad would either drive into the city to pick Grandpa up, or he would take the train in, and his arms were so full of bags of gifts for us, it was mind-boggling.  Not only did he shop for each item himself, but he wrapped them lovingly and beautifully, and we knew that he had put a good deal of thought into each and every gift.
Grandpa always helped "Santa" on Christmas Eve, drinking the milk and eating the cookies we left, and lending a hand for any last-minute toy assembly.  Then, no matter how late he'd stayed up, he was up with us at the crack of dawn, oohing and ah-ing with us over each gift as we opened it.  He'd patiently play our new games with us, take pictures of us in our new clothes, and tell us how wonderful we looked in those new outfits.  He'd share in our big Christmas dinner, and finally, Dad would take him back home. He could have stayed with us always, if it had been up to me.
The last time I saw Grandpa....I remember it so vividly.  It was the Fourth of July, 1970.  I was 12.  Grandpa had come out for the weekend, having just retired from his job at the CTA.  We kids had a new game, lawn darts, and he sat outside in the sunshine as we played and Dad grilled.  I remember distinctly that when he was leaving, I ran out to give him an extra hug and kiss.  I'm so glad I did.  A few days later, on a Wednesday night, I was lying in bed and heard the phone ring.  My mother screamed, "Oh no!" and my brother and I knew in our hearts something bad had happened.  We were both too scared to go downstairs and find out, but we knew...Grandpa had suffered a massive heart attack and was gone.  I am crying as I write this, 43 years later.  My advocate, my protector, my precious Grandpa....was gone.  I was inconsolable.  I kept having dreams in which he would call and say it was all a mistake; it didn't happen and he was still fine.  But it wasn't fine, and he really was gone.
As I write about other family members here on this blog, the significance of Grandpa's role in my life will become more evident.  My father was a lifelong alcoholic who was prone to violent outbursts and often beat us; my mother started out as a caring parent, but dealing with her own emotional baggage, my father's issues and my baby sister's serious illness turned her into a irrational woman who was inconsistent at best in her motherly duties and worsened as the years went by.  Grandpa never raised his voice to me, never raised a hand to me, and never criticized me.  He offered affection, encouragement and safety, which were in short supply in our household.  
After Grandpa died, my father's drinking increased, the level of tension and unhappiness grew, and our little family unit became the epitome of dysfunction.  I'm sure Grandpa never knew what a stabilizing influence he was, but it is a fact that life was much more lonely and unhappy after he died.  I visited his grave this past summer, for the first time since his death (I now live in the South), and it was an interesting experience.  The cemetery is huge, with over 65,000 souls interred there.  My best friend Carol and I went to the office, got a map, and some mumbled instructions on how to find him.  We found the general location, but the markers were so overgrown by grass that we didn't see them.  So, we decided to divide and conquer.  Carol went one way and I the other.  I encountered a young man sitting under a tree, and he asked me who I was looking for.  I told him I was trying to find Grandpa's headstone.  He asked me his name.  When I spoke the words, "Carl Johnson," a huge wind instantly arose, almost knocking me off my feet, blowing leaves off the trees and creating a tiny whirlwind tornado right in front of me.  The young man replied, "I think he knows you're here."  We determined that the marker was on the other end of the area, so I met back up with Carol to drive around to the other side.  When I mentioned how odd it was to see such a strong gust of wind on a cloudless day, she replied, "What wind?"  She had not seen or heard a thing, yet she was only about 25 feet away.  By the time we found Grandpa's marker, I was sobbing, telling him how much I missed and loved him, but I knew he knew that.  Whatever that wind was, I don't think it was a coincidence.  It was affirmation, from beyond, that Grandpa still loves me.
Dedicated to my beloved Grandpa:
Carl H. Johnson (1903 - 1970)
Me, age 3, & Grandpa, cir. 1960
The dress was sage green with white embroidery, a gift from him
Copyright 2014 Linda O'Donnell
All Rights Reserved


  1. With your detailed description, you have painted a vivid picture of your grandfather and the special relationship the two of you shared.

  2. I was crying as I read your post. What a beautiful tribute to your beloved Grandpa. If only every child could have a grandparent like that! Thanks for sharing those memories.

  3. What a fabulous story! I'm so glad I decided to check out your blog. I have focused so much on sharing the research I've done, I fear I may be forgetting to share what makes some of our relatives so special to us. I also believe your grandfather knew you were looking for him. - wonderful!

  4. What a wonderful beginning to your 52 weeks! I love that you have described the black and white picture so we can "see" the colors.

  5. Thanks for the positive feedback, especially since this was my most beloved "ancestor." Anyone who knew him loved him, but he was so extraordinary to me. In a childhood that was uncertain at best, he was my rock and I will love him forever. Thank you everyone.