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Finding My Grandfather by Sylvia Newman

By Sylvia Newman

Finding My Grandfather

by Sylvia Newman

sons of Wm. E. Newman, Harry (15), Frank (14), Rob (12) and Rolla (6) 1914

My paternal grandfather died at the age of 44, decades before I was born. My maternal grandfather died when I was two, and I have no memories of him except the stories I’ve been told. My dad’s mom married again, and I knew my Grandad Ray until he passed away when I was four years old. I remember being shocked to learn my age when he died, because I have such vivid memories of him. He smoked a pipe and had the most beautiful array of crystal liquor decanters, something that, according to my father, perplexed me because, even at four, I had internalized the LDS prohibition of alcohol and tobacco. But I loved Granddad Ray dearly, and he called me “Jelly Bean,” which I loved. When I went to Kindergarten, everyone introduced themselves including their middle names. I don’t have a middle name, so I told everyone that my middle name was Jelly Bean. When Granddad Ray died, my parents took me to his viewing, and I have a clear memory of his pale and waxen face in the coffin.

I have never had a living grandfather, grandpa, or granddad. I’m not sure how old I was when I learned that my dad’s dad was an alcoholic, an alcoholic of such seriousness that he died of cirrhosis of the liver at the young age of 44. Because my parents and siblings are pretty much straight arrows, so to speak, this held some fascination for me. Some people thought my family was “the perfect family” and one friend even told my sister that we were “the richest family on the block” because we had a basketball standard and, gasp, two cars! (This was the early ‘70s). Perhaps being able to trot out that my grandfather was an alcoholic gave me some street cred, or it showed that my family wasn’t so perfect—the “perfect family” is so much less interesting than a family with an alcoholic grandfather.

My dad never offered up any information about his dad, so I had to ask about him. Even when pressed, my dad was reluctant to say anything because he was taught that you just don’t talk about negative stuff. But I learned over many conversations that my grandfather was a mean and surly drunk, and was abusive to my grandmother. She even took my dad and his siblings to live with her parents in Long Beach one year, clearly contemplating divorce. No one alive is sure what prompted her to go back, although I’m sure the prospect of being a single mom in the 1930s was even more daunting than it is now. I asked Dad what he did on the weekends. In his responses, I noticed that he never mentioned his dad. When I asked where his dad was, my dad said, “At the speak-easies.” Speak-easies always held a bit of Hollywood glamour—until I imagined my grandmother home with four children while her husband was at one drinking.

My uncle’s recorded memories include his wish that his dad would do things with him like he saw his friends’ dads do. Interestingly, Grandma and Grandpa always took my dad, the oldest, and his three younger siblings to church even though they didn’t go themselves. Grandma and Grandpa were party-ers, and Dad remembers many quiet Sunday mornings when his parents slept late, and he and his brother, Parley, would sample the wine and liquor remaining in the glasses left around the house.

My aunt told me once that she and the other two siblings especially loved my dad because he took the brunt of my grandfather’s anger and abuse. I asked my dad once, “Do you have any good memories of your dad?” He said, “Well, there was this one time. Parley and I had found some cigarettes and were smoking in the backyard. A neighbor saw us and called the house. Dad came out and, perhaps, because he smoked himself, he very kindly asked us never to smoke again. And we never did.”

Just recently, I learned the most horrifying encounter my dad had with his dad. Grandpa had come home drunk and was bullying Grandma. Grandma said, “Frank, take your dad in the back room and beat him up.” When they got in the back room, my grandfather turned supplicant and pleaded with my dad, “Frank, you’re such a good kid. You’ve always been such a good boy.” When the door opened, he became the swaggering bully again. Dad never hit him.

Through the wonders of online genealogical programs, I recently learned that my grandfather served an LDS mission, but came home early. He was a WWI vet. And then, just this past summer, a cousin posted memories she had recorded from my dad’s sister Analu, who passed away in 2001. This is what Analu said:

[Our] Aunt Almeda told me of an incident in Dad’s [my grandfather’s] life which helped me to better understand and lose some of my hurt and bitterness in regard to him. When Dad was about nine years old he was allowed to drive the horse and buggy to the railroad station to pick up his grandfather Wilson who worked in the office. As Dad was going along something “spooked” the horse, which bucked and began to run. It threw Dad off his seat and he caught his foot in the buggy. Dad was pulled along and his head kept hitting the hard street. Finally some men ran and caught the reins and stopped the horse. They knew who Dad was and carried him home unconscious. He lay in a coma for three days. Grandmother went into his room, knelt down and said to Heavenly Father, “Please, please make him well or take him so that he won’t have so stay like this.” Grandmother Newman got up from her knees, walked to the door, and heard her boy say, “Mama, Mama.” Dr. Rich told grandmother that she must take special care of him, because if he had another blow on the head it could kill him. From then on, she was so careful that she tended to smother and spoil that son which caused his feelings and thinking to be undisciplined, and he easily hurt himself and others.

The lesson my father and his siblings took from this story was “don’t spoil your kids when they’re sick.” When my siblings or I stayed home from school sick, we were not allowed to watch TV and received no special privileges or treatment. While we were not neglected, we were ignored as much as is possible when we were sick. When we told our parents we were sick, my dad would jokingly say, “Well, you know what that means. When you’re sick, you get a spanking!” Of course, he never spanked us, but learning the source of my parents’ behavior toward us when we were sick was very interesting. What a unique response to my grandfather’s story.

A modern reader might take something else from my grandfather’s story: it seems pretty clear that he had a traumatic brain injury (TBI). His anger, violence, intemperance, volatility—all are potential symptoms of TBI, or as stated in one explanation,  “Since our brain defines who we are, the consequences of a brain injury can affect all aspects of our lives, including our personality” (Lenrow).

My grandparents were married in the Salt Lake City temple “for time and all eternity.” My grandmother told me more than once that she did not want to be sealed to her husband, though she never told me anything about the events I’ve explored above. I now take great hope in the idea that his brain has been made whole—or will be, and that when I get to meet him, he will not be the same man my father feared as a child. I imagine no one else is happier or more relieved to know about TBI—and the resurrection’s promises—than my grandfather.

Lenrow, David. “What is Traumatic Brain Injury?” TraumaticBrainInjury.com. Traumatic Brain Injury.com LLC. Philadelphia, PA. 2006.






Newman family circa 1930

About Sylvia Newman

Sylvia Newman has been a mom for 30 years, a teacher for 24 years, a wife for 11 years (well, 22 if you count both marriages), an empty-nester for five years, and a lover of all things literary since her parents began reading her books as a child. It is a thrill and a privilege to be included in the Segullah community.

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