The Florence Journals: Random Musings on My Birth Story, Grandparents, Literature & Identity

I was born two months premature in the front bedroom of my grandparent’s house on Lafayette Ave in Urbana, Ohio.

Urbana house

The house where I was born

My mother, who had turned 19 years old two weeks before, was alone during her labor and my delivery;  her parents were “out west” on vacation. When she realized what was happening she called a friend, who called a doctor, who came to the house. After my birth, I was rushed to the hospital where I stayed for the first month of my life. Weighing 3 pounds at birth, I had to reach the 5 pounds that would allow me to go home. From what I am told, I was lively, feisty, and alert from the first. I charmed everyone.

As a child, I was well loved, especially by my maternal grandparents, particularly my Poppa. He was the “unconditional love” person in my life. Poppa and I had the kind of connection I share with my son, effortless. We simply understood one another. Poppa died in 1974 when I was 16. He and my grandmother had started wintering in Florida several years before. Grandma had severe arthritis and the damp, winter cold of Ohio was too hard on her. We didn’t know that Poppa was ill before they left, but there was something between us as we said our goodbyes and hugged for the last time. I think both Poppa and I knew we wouldn’t see each other again. As my mother and her brothers made plans to bring him home, I knew that he would not make it. I sat down and poured out my heart and my love in a 14 page letter. Only after his death did I realize he hadn’t received my letter. The hospital returned it to my grandmother and she gave it back to me, unopened. I burned it as a goodbye to my Poppa, again precious words lost to the ashes. I wish I knew what I’d written, but that letter was a gift to my Poppa, not to me.

For months, I would laugh at a story or see something interesting and think “I have to tell Poppa”, only to realize that he was gone and that we wouldn’t get the chance to laugh together over whatever silly thing had happened or interesting fact I’d learned. As I understand it, my first words were “bite butter” and my Poppa gave me a bite of butter, the first of many. Poppa stayed with my sisters, my brother and me during the summer months while my mother worked. He sat for hours, day after day on the deck at Meadow Lake in Ohio watching my siblings and me swim and hang out with friends. I have trouble understanding that kind of commitment, that kind of comfort in just being someplace.

As a child, I loved bedtime stories, particularly those my Mother and my Poppa told me. Once they told me a story, I remembered it word for word and if they changed it even slightly the next time I asked for that story, I corrected them. As a mother who told my own children stories (and was corrected by them if I changed plot lines or wording, I know how difficult it is to tell the same story the same way each time, especially if you are making it up on the spot). I must have been quite a handful. I wonder if this is why they started reading me books. For me, books were magical. From those letters on the page pictures and movies emerged. I could see what they read. I could not wait to read. I wanted to be able to make those pictures and movies happen too.

I got my love of reading from my Grandma, as well as my love of culture and history. My Grandma told me I could read by the time I was 3. She helped me learn by teaching me to pick words out of newspaper articles. She gave me a red pencil and I would circle the ones I knew. I could pour over a newspaper for hours at the table in her dining room. Then, when I was ready, she would point to each word, ask me to read it, ask me what it meant, and ask me how to spell it. She also taught me to try to understand the meaning of other words through the context of what I could read. Later, she gave me abridged versions of classic novels. They came in a series and I loved getting the next one. Through this series, I read the books that would have the greatest impact on my early years, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Little Women, Great Expectations, The Count of Monte Cristo. I loved entering the world of a book. I still do. These books also taught me an appreciation of the complexities of the world, from unrequited love and oppression, to unfairness and hypocrisy. They taught me to treasure fairness, justice, love, compassion, a strong work ethic, and care for others.

When I was 14 years old, my grandmother took me to see the movie Nicholas and Alexandra about the last Czar and Empress of Russia. I have no idea why she picked this movie, but when it was over she said, “I have never been able to travel outside the America. You will. Someday you will go to Russia.” I think my love of travel was born in that moment. Later, I would live in Russia for a year, on a Fulbright Fellowship teaching at Kazan State University in Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia.

From my Grandmother, I also learned that I have an almost photographic memory. This skill runs in my family. Once I learned a word, I never forgot it. When I would try to remember things I’d read my grandmother would say, “Picture the page in your head. Can you see it? Ok, read it”, and I would. I had no idea this was unique. I thought that if I could do it, everyone could. This later made memorizing speeches during forensics in high school and college very easy. To this day, I can picture pages in my mind and read them to myself. I’m lazier with it now. This is one gift I haven’t refined. Perhaps because I read so much I don’t want to picture or remember everything.  I just want to know where I can find it again later if need be.

When I was little, after my bedtime story, and before I went to sleep, I loved to have my back rubbed, and my Poppa or my Mom would rub my back as I fell asleep. This is likely why I love massages so much today.  This is likely the foundation of my tendency to show physical affection easily and liberally. I’m a hugger, a toucher. I know how important touch is to health.

Because of my birth story, because of the gifts I received from my grandparents, because of many other factors that had formed my life trajectory, I have believed and still believe that my life is a gift and that much is expected of me. I believe I was born to make a difference in the world. This is not conceit. I don’t believe I am destined to change the world in any history making way. I don’t believe I am destined to have a big, splashy impact. I simply believe that those whose lives I touch should benefit, their lives be enriched, from our interaction, as my life was enriched through contact with my grandparents, as it is now enriched by those I know and meet. This is why I became a teacher. This contributes to my multi-tasking tendencies. This is why I’m not always good at just ”being”. At times, I do not know who I am unless I am doing something and what I am doing defines me. I’m working to both understand and moderate these tendencies. (Yes, I see the irony in my wording here. 🙂 )

2 responses to “The Florence Journals: Random Musings on My Birth Story, Grandparents, Literature & Identity

  1. A friend, Nancy Strapp, forwarded your “letter” to me and I was so impressed. I lived and still live on Lincoln and I went to St. Mary’s grade and high school. I was a year behind your Aunt Mary Jane and you are correct, the Pences were smart kids. I think Mary Jane was Valedictorian of her class. I remember both of your grandparents very well and I know your grandmother was reader. And your Grand dad was a really nice man. As you probably know,he ran the Western Union Telegraph office in Urbana and during the war, he had the terrible job of delivering telegrams to the parents or wives of young men who were killed in WW2. Normally a young man would deliver telegrams, but he personally delivered the death notice ones.
    Your uncles went to school with my brothers and I have not seen or heard of them for years. I know they moved out of Urbana and married. I think I heard that one of them had passed away.

    Well I envy you your time in Florence. What a beautiful city. How long have you been there and how long will you stay? Are you teaching? Imagine spending a year in Russia. I don’t envy you that but what a wonderful experience.

    Well it was very nice to read your letter and I will read some of the others. I hope you can remember your grandparents’ house when it was white. It was on the Tour of Homes several years ago. The owners painted it yellow just before the Tour. The color was quite a topic for the visitors.

    Have a wonderful time in Florence. Kathy Ryan

    • Kathy, Thank you so much for writing to me! I love the house on Lafayette. I’ve always hoped to own it one day. 🙂 Both of my uncles Bill and Jim have passed away. Both lived for years in Florida. You will find some writing on my blog about my Uncle Bill. He passed away a year ago in August and I was his health care proxy and held his Durable Power of Attorney. It warmed my heart to hear your kind words about my grandparents. I remember Poppa working at the Western Union, but much later. Thank you for telling me the role he played with families who lost loved ones. My mom and Aunt Mary Jane are still alive and healthy. Please take care and thank you again for writing. Deborah

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