A Portrait of Mothers

An old family photograph hangs over my shoulder on the wall beside my desk. Within the spartan metal frame are two professionally captured portraits—one of my mother, the other of my grandmother. There is no date or inscription, but judging by the ages of the two subjects, I’m guessing the images were captured around 1935—in the midst of The Great Depression.

While my mother’s parents, Beatrice and Orville Newell, did not have much money, her grandparents, Ida and George Newell, were allegedly quite “well-off”. When it came to extraordinary expenditures, it was usually Ida who provided the funds and it may well have been she who paid for the dual portrait.

My mother, Georgia (named after her father’s stepfather) is on the left and appears to be about 10 years old. Her gaze falls just to the right of the camera, as if directed by the photographer to look there. Her expression is sober and steady. On the right is the beaming visage of my grandmother who was only 19 years older than my mother. She looks happy and relaxed as she aims her charms into the aperture.

The contrast in moods between mother and daughter is noteworthy. My mother was indeed a serious person, but also a happy person, which is not evident. Perhaps the photo was taken early in the morning and she’d not wanted to crawl out of her warm bed to ride a crowded streetcar to the portrait studio in downtown Detroit. Perhaps she was unhappy with the dress my grandmother had chosen for her to wear that day. In many ways, however, the picture exemplifies their innate temperaments and the relationship between them.

Georgia and Beatrice
Georgia and Beatrice

My mother was an only child and the person my grandmother, an orphan, loved more deeply than anything else in the world. Beatrice had reluctantly married her adopted half-brother, Orville, who was eight years her senior. From all appearances, my grandmother resented the union her entire life. But, she’d agreed to do it, in part, to put an end to the persistent pressure inflicted by her stepmother, my Great-Grandmother Ida.

So my grandmother’s joyful countenance makes sense. Until my mother came along, her principal occupation was to cater to a man she wasn’t in love with and appease the severe disposition of her unyielding stepmother-turned-mother-in-law. The portrait was probably taken during the most fulfilling period of her life.

Knowing what I know about these precious guardians of my childhood, I find both of their expressions predictive of the decades that followed. Ever the dutiful daughter, my mother never lived more than 30 minutes away from her parents’ home. She spoke with her mother frequently on the telephone and they saw each other in person at least once per week. When my mother traveled, a steady stream of postcards arrived through my grandmother’s mail slot.

Yet, my grandmother often infuriated my mother—a chronic condition that my mother worked diligently, yet not always successfully, to hide. They each held opposing political and religious views. My grandmother had vehemently objected, to my mother’s marriage to my father, going so far as to threaten suicide by jumping off the Bell Isle Bridge into the Detroit River if my mother went through with it.

One might argue that my parent’s wedding was the boldest act of defiance my mother, who grew into a civil rights and anti-war activist, ever undertook. Yet pictures from the day present an obedient mother-of-the-bride, standing in reticent solidarity with her cherished daughter and dashing son-in-law.

The notion that my mother’s marriage might destroy their maternal bond was rooted in foolishness. My perky and charismatic grandmother inserted herself into every aspect of my mother’s existence. In many ways, my mother felt trapped. Yet, it’s hard to imagine a more devoted child. While my father deeply resented his mother-in-law throughout his life, he and my mother had vowed before marrying that they would always live close to their parents’ homes and play an active role in their daily lives.

For me and my sister—the only grandchildren on both sides—a positive result of this pledge was a steady showering of grandparental affection. Added to the adoration was a modest supply of candy, cookies, and potato chips—practically forbidden in my parent’s house but always available at Grandma and Grandpa’s.

A downside, however, was the semi-annual blowouts when my father and his father squared off against my mother’s parents. (Make that quarterly blowouts during an election year.) Orville would storm out of the house, vowing never to return but within days, Beatrice would call to say she was working on smoothing things over (meaning placating Orville) and promising to return within a few weeks. The importance of supporting my mother, sister, and me formed the basis of her ever-successful argumentation.

When it came to entertaining us, Beatrice took first place. She kept a toy box of modest treasures that we delighted in playing with: discarded shampoo and lotion bottles to fill and dump while taking a bath; an array of tiny wire and clay figures from a Mexican bullfight; a child’s metal tea set on which we served spoonfuls of pine needles; an ancient game of Chinese checkers; dilapidated pocketbooks, high heels, and ladies hats and gloves for playing dress-up; and, a mishmash of battered figurines and wobbly vehicles.

With respect to games, our Grandma Beattie (as we called her) was an eager participant. While my mother enjoyed games as well, it was clear to me that Beattie was better at any activity that involved a hint of coordination: jump rope, jacks, catch, badminton, paddleball, and hopscotch to name a few. When I was around 10, Beattie taught me to type, praising my ever-increasing speeds, which were probably dismal. At 12, I learned shorthand from the workbooks she walked me through. I transferred the efficient encoding scheme to my closest friends—a means to share secret messages.

By contrast, my mother was often too busy to play but always made time to read to us. Evidence that she majored in classical studies might be found in the fact that shelved among the spines of Dr. Seuss and Winnie the Pooh were volumes of Greek and Norse mythology, Japanese Folktales, Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, Uncle Remus, A Child’s Garden of Verses, Aesop’s Fables, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Anansi the Spider, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and Kipling’s Just So Stories.

Although she was a stay-at-home mom, my mother was neither a great housekeeper nor a talented cook. But she kept herself engaged, embroidering pillowcases, hanging and ironing laundry, sewing curtains and clothes for my sister and me and our dolls, and volunteering for a variety of initiatives to better our neighborhood, schools, church, or the economic and social standing of people in general. My early memories of her are of a tall, slender figure, focused on her work as she glided about the house in a freshly pressed, homemade apron.

When playing alone, if I became frustrated with a puzzle, she’d help me rotate a piece into place. If I stubbed a toe or scraped a knee, running about on the city sidewalks, she’d provide the curative kiss required for rapid healing. On a hot summer afternoon, she might pull a Kool-Aid-filled popsicle tray from the freezer to treat me and the neighborhood kids. She was a reassuring and gentle presence but rarely a playmate. The only time I recall her putting considerable energy into a kid-centric activity was when she painted the city of Athens on a white sheet, hung it from a clothesline in our basement, and directed me and my friends in the performance of some ancient play.

My mother died 22 years ago today, Friday, July 5, 2002, lying on a hospital bed that had been installed in my parents’ living room weeks before. Days earlier, knowing that the end was imminent, I packed up a suitcase and bag of toys for my one-year-old son, preparing us for an indefinite stay close to my mother’s bedside. Frankie and I arrived on Sunday, picking up the 96-year-old Great-Grandma Beattie en route. There were other visitors at the house that afternoon and my mother was in good spirits—the final rally. On Monday, she drifted into an unconscious state from which she never returned but my father and I relished those long and languid final days, allowing our ambitions to be guided by the will of a precocious toddler.

On the morning of the 4th, eager to share the holiday with my husband Andy and introduce our son to favorite traditions, including a parade, neighborhood picnic, and evening fireworks, I hugged my father, kissed my mother goodbye, and headed home. For months, I’d been looking after Grandma Beattie, who lived in an assisted living facility. She spent that Independence Day, perhaps for the first time since becoming a mother, away from her daughter’s side. On the 5th, I hurried to her apartment, located at the apex of a squished isosceles triangle with my house and my mother’s located at the other vertices.

En route, I picked up her standard list of groceries and prescriptions. We chatted about the weather and Frankie’s latest escapades. She asked if mom looked any better than she had on Sunday, still holding out hope that her daughter would somehow recover; or, perhaps, feeling she was protecting me by pretending there was still a chance for recovery. For me, her acts of faith had always seemed like fruitless exercises in denial, but I wasn’t about to challenge her primary source of comfort. The one positive aspect of my mother’s illness had been to draw me and my grandmother even closer.

As I left Beattie’s apartment that day I was torn, wondering if I should head to my parent’s house or go home. I decided to drive home, listening to Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, on repeat. When I walked up the steps to our house, I could see Andy standing at the front door with tears in his eyes. “Your dad just called. Your mother died a few minutes ago.” I fell into his arms and cried in despair. I’d not expected the long-anticipated announcement to provoke such a bitter and overwhelming shock, but it did.

Grandma Beattie lived for exactly 18 more months, taking her last breath after a bout of pneumonia ended her life on February 5, 2004.


Would I change anything about the picture if I could? The answer is unequivocally no. I’m far too much of a realist to do so. These two women made me who I am today. They taught me much about life, not the least of which is that close relationships are to be cherished. If I could go back in time to turn the corners of my mother’s mouth upward or ruffle her perfectly combed bob, if I could add a wrinkle to my grandmother’s collar or lift the light wisps of mascara from her eyelashes, I might well upset the very fabric of my existence.

Georgia and Beatrice
Georgia and Beatrice

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.

8 Comments

  1. Mothers do so much to shape who we are. I’m sure those books of tales from other lands helped you become the kind of person who would take such an interest in a foreign language and culture today.

    It’s unfortunate that your mother and grandmother were often in conflict. Threatening suicide over an adult child’s choice of marriage partner is really beyond the pale. It sounds like they eventually overcame that conflict, but it must have been difficult. And it must have been hard indeed for Beatrice that her daughter pre-deceased her.

    Thanks for showing us this portrait, as well as the self-portrait in words.

    • You’re welcome. Thanks for reading. As frustrating as it often was, I don’t think my mother would have characterized her relationship with her mother as unfortunate. Despite the disagreements, my mother did what she wanted to do and knew that she’d never lose her mother’s respect or devotion. I might use that adjective, however, to refer to Beattie and my father’s relationship. 😉

  2. This is a very poignant portrait and a succinct slice of multiple generations, Carol. I appreciate both your honesty and your perspicacity in being able to see these conflicting family dynamics so clearly–and, finally, to embrace them.

    • I feel like from an early age I adopted a fairly stoic attitude towards family turmoil, coming to the conclusion that there was little I could do about it other than lying low and trying not to add on to the upheaval.

  3. Une histoire émouvante… Et une très belle photo…

  4. Hi Carol, I enjoyed reading your poignant family story and it hits home how much of our beliefs and personalities are shaped by those who came before us. Family history and traditions carry on, especially in those families who record their memories. 🙂

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