Fading To White

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April 1997

I peered down a narrow alley separating big houses that overlook Pleasant Bay in South Orleans, Cape Cod, part of a row of brand-new summer homes so close-built that they prevented me from seeing the dunes and the water beyond. Then I turned around and gazed at the meager little apron of a field this subdivision of grand houses shared. I spotted a gnarled apple tree and wondered if my grandmother had climbed it as a child…

My grandmother Ellen had gone to camp here for many summers back in the teens and twenties. Camp Quanset, it was called. In the days after the Great War, she had sailed the waters of Pleasant Bay, slept in a comfortable bunkhouse, sat by the broad main field, and laughed and quarreled with her friends. She had performed in the Camp Quanset Indian Pageant in 1922 not far from where I was standing, and I imagined all the young girls dressed in Indian garb, eager and self-conscious in the Quanset interpretation of Native American people.

I gave the place a last look and headed back to my little blue house on the mid-Cape. As soon as I got home, I reached for my grandmother’s old Camp Quanset brochure.

 

My grandmother had told me about the camp many times. It was a fine camp, a place where—for the stiff tariff of $350—well-heeled young ladies from as far south as Virginia and as far north as Canada learned to sail, and swim, and ride horses—their own horses, which they boarded for the two summer months. The brochure boasts that “parents, each year in increasing numbers, valued wise leadership and loving care, with the right companions and environment for their daughters.” My grandmother often spoke of the cotton gloves the girls wore on hot day outings to Provincetown and of the white kid leather shoes that pinched swollen summer feet. She described her billowy camp bloomers, a precursor to shorts. They were uncomfortable; one had to wear half-stockings with them and forever worried about getting the dress whites dirty.

I thought, over the years, “What an upright—what a dull —family. How could it have produced Grandma?”
 

My grandmother Ellen died on a muggy day in June of 1994. She died in New York City, at the age of eighty-nine. Grandma had arrived in New York with her parents at the age of two, and she was a New Yorker for the rest of her life.

Born of strict Bostonians, she grew up just outside the Columbia College campus on the Upper West Side and attended the rigorous Horace Mann School. Grandma graduated from Vassar College in 1927, immediately entered a dramatics school in Paterson, New Jersey, and went on to work steadily for more than thirty years on Broadway. She opened in Oklahoma! She had a stage presence powerful enough to allow her to hold her own with the active locomotives in the highly popular Railroads on Parade show at the 1939 World’s Fair. She even tested for the role of Scarlett O’Hara (and was told she didn’t get the part because her waist was too large).

During the last seventeen years of her life, my grandmother Ellen lived modestly—as so many stage veterans must—in a midtown hotel close to the theater district she had worked in and loved.

She and I would sit for several hours every couple of weeks in her room and talk about subjects ranging from theater, music, and books to clothing styles, languages, and favorite desserts (hers was called a gremlin, a mint and chocolate confection that no longer exists).

Though she suffered from ongoing health problems, Grandma retained her steeltrap memory, sharp wit, and innate elegance. She could recite every line from every play she had ever performed; I once sat in silent admiration while standing before me in her tiny room, she performed a song she’d sung in a 1933 production, complete with all the original stage directions.

I would often ask her about her family. Who were they? Where did they come from originally—before Boston?

“Virginia” was always the curt reply.

My grandmother told me her mother was born Anita Hemmings. She had attended Vassar College a generation before her daughter did, and was a strong student there. Anita married a Dr. Andrew Love, whom she met while working at the Boston Public Library not long after she had graduated. She could speak seven languages and did not know how to cook when she married. She came from French and English stock.

My grandmother recited this information to me again and again, as if by rote. I thought, over the years, “What an upright—what a dull —family. How could it produce someone as lively and interesting as grandma?” Perhaps she’d inherited her vitality from her father. I asked about Dr. Love. The information about him and his origins was just as carefully worded and yielded even less than was revealed about Anita Hemmings. She said only that Dr. Love was Southern born, had graduated from Harvard Medical School and later gone on to Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and that he was proud, dignified, strict. Another dull bird.