Updated: Sep 21, 2019
I remember both my grandmothers. My paternal grandmother, Helen Donelly Beattie, came from an affluent, illustrious family of silk manufacturers in Paterson, NJ. The family owed many homes, had numerous servants wearing different uniforms depending on which floor of which house they worked on, and sent kids to expensive boarding schools. Even though it can be said that in some ways they were “dysfunctionally wealthy,” they were good people and gave a lot of money to charities. However, I am not going to talk about grandma Helen here. She would not like it. She always believed that a proper lady’s name should not appear in print other than on the occasion of her birth or death.
On the other hand, the name of my maternal grandmother, Mary Catherine O’Rouke, surfaced in newspapers quite often when she was alive. She was the youngest in a family of six children and grew up on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Because my great-grandfather died young, the family struggled financially. The older siblings, however, worked hard so Mary, who was very bright, could attend prestigious private schools, such as Loyola and Cathedral High. She made them proud by winning all the possible math and language awards.
Mary was about seventeen years old when WW1 broke. In Manhattan, there was the custom of keeping candles in windows, with each candle representing every family member who went to war. When Mary announced her plans to enlist, my great-grandmother was already burning five candles. Naturally, she strongly opposed her youngest daughter’s idea, but Mary had the ingenious idea of convincing a local Catholic priest to talk to her mom. Thanks to this envoy, Mary became a French interpreter for General Pershing during the WW1.
Not only was Mary talented and brave, but she was also beautiful. She fell in love very young, had her romantic passionate love story, and got married. Unfortunately, the man she loved died soon thereafter, and they did not have any children. Mary remarried many years later and her second husband was a Frenchman. She was in her 40s when her first child, my mom, was born. After giving birth, Mary quickly came back to work and my grandfather, who’s schedule was lighter, raised my mom. This was a very unusual arrangement back then.
Mary always knew what she wanted, and how to get it, despite difficulties or social conventions. She was educated, well-travelled, and had fantastic taste and style. She brought me little trinkets, samples of perfumes, and shampoos from her journeys. We had a wonderful connection, a great relationship, and had lots of fun together. When she visited my parents’ house, she often threw off her shoes, sat on the floor, and let me do her manicure, or give her a foot massage. While my mother was more conventional, it was grandma Mary who inspired me to dance by telling me how graceful I was. She always took my side in situations where my mother was trying to impose rules that my grandma thought too strict or pointless.
I think I inherited my rebellious spirit from her. Strangely enough, my family is a testimony to a theory that inheriting a character ‘skips’ a generation. While I am like Mary, my own daughter reminds me of my mother. At the same time, my granddaughter is independent and free-spirited as Mary and me. I already wonder how she is going to be when she grows up.