Emelia O. Revisited

Emelia O. was my grandmother. She is often on my mind this time of year because her birthday was May 9.

I’ve been lucky enough to find some family history on Ancestry.com. Born in Chicago in 1910, I found out that she lived with her parents, her uncle and her brother and sister. She was 8 when her brother was born and she loved him. He died in WWII and it broke her heart.

Reading the records on Ancestry, I found her family in the 1920 census. Her mother would die a gruesome death in 1921. I only heard my grandmother speak of it once but the census brought it home in a way that I’d not experienced before. Seeing the names and knowing the stories about some of them, hit me in a whole different way.

Knowing that her two year old brother would die in less than a quarter of a century felt different. Knowing that my grandmother would lose her mother the next year felt like a weird sort of Back to the Future. Imagining the staggering loss an 11 year old girl would endure and then imagining my grandmother as that 11 year old girl made me feel shocked, sickened and sad.

In another year, it will be the 110th anniversary of Emelia’s birth. She was a complicated, broken, tough and vulnerable woman. She hid her sorrows in vodka so that she could appear strong, but alone at night she was not the image we saw in the day. Partly because her mother did not get the time to teach her how to be a mother and partly because I don’t think she was interested in being a mother, her own children suffered.

For me, she was a pretty good friend. She was tough on people but often she could be loving. This image of her is one of my favorites. It depicts her as I knew her in her younger years; glamorous, beautiful, hopeful. Happy birthday, Emelia. Happy Mother’s Day, too. I love you.

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