Slow Adventures in Slothville

July 19, 2004

The Ambassador’s Wife

Filed under: Family, Maybe worth a look, Photography — shhville @ 11:04 am


This is a picture of a small statue in my grandmother’s garden.

My grandmother, Lyla, met my grandfather, Ed, during WWII. She was fond of telling me that she outranked him when they met. She had entered the army as a nurse and when she arrived at the base she had been assigned to in California, Ed was the first person she met. He was the only one with a car, so he had been sent to show her around. He was a handsome man, with a regal rectangle of a face and a rascally glint in his eye. He was instantly smitten with her and they married soon after.

My grandfather climbed the ranks until he became a U.S. ambassador. I believe the first country they went to was Morocco, but I could be wrong. My dad, the youngest of three, was born in Bombay, India before they moved to Holland and then to South Africa. Apartheid was very troubling to their family and my grandmother taught her children to abhor it. They grew up under the spectre of racism and all returned to America with a heightened awareness of global injustice. All three of her children were political activists in the 60’s and 70’s. In the 80’s, my dad went to Nicaragua to help pick coffee and support the Sandinistas. My grandmother had raised an intelligent, politically aware family in deserts and jungles, teaching them their manners and their letters on sea voyages that lasted for months and in the halls of the ambassador’s compound.

When they returned to America my grandmother’s duties as the ambassador’s wife did not abate in the least. She held parties, soirees in fact, and flitted among the guests in their Washington D.C. home with a grace and style to rival Audrey Hepburn. There are heaps of pictures in the study of that home of both her and her husband smiling next to heads of state and other political heavyweights. She was unbelievably beautiful.

I remember the day my grandfather died. My dad and I had been visiting and when we got to the airport our plane was delayed for three hours. We decided to go back to the house where my grandfather was ill with cancer and receiving hospice, instead of wasting hours in the airport. As soon as we walked in the front door my aunt came to tell us that he was dying right then. I held the priest’s hand and watched my dad over my grandfather’s deathbed. My dad held his mother’s hand and they cried and said some things that I can’t remember. It was my first death. I was eight.

My grandmother carried on without her husband, strong as always, and a lioness of a mother. She never remarried. She was angry with me when I dropped out of college, but proud of me to an embarrassing extent when I went back. She has always had a tendency to shower members of her family with so much praise that we have to beg her to stop.

Today my grandmother’s house is still filled with beautiful statues and paintings that were given to her by tribal leaders and presidents in various countries. A few years ago it occurred to her to have them appraised and she was startled to learn their worth. Most of these items, now considered “artifacts,” are intended for the Smithsonian, which makes the Smithsonian very happy, but occasionally when I visit I will find a sticky note here or there, stuck to a mosaic from Japan or a print from Zimbabwe, that has my name on it. There are other names too. My family members are stuck to most of her possessions now with a little piece of tape. She has set her house in order.

My grandmother died of a massive stroke yesterday. Everything is a flurry of phone calls and “arrangements.” I will be gone most of this week. Take care everyone. I’ll be back in Slothville soon. Posted by Hello

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