Sunday, April 27, 2014

Her DNA is in me: Mary Christine Cullin Lawton

My grandparents hearkened from an era in which the paterfamilias was not only the bread-winner, but also lent the family its identity. This is not to say there weren't extraordinary women born in the late 19th century who became famous -- or notorious, for that matter -- in the context of family lives. But it is to say that among ordinary people, posterity was the business of men. Thus in my many efforts to reconstruct the stories of my progenitors, learning and writing about my maternal grandfather, Charles Edwin Lawton,  has been and continues to be, well rewarded through the use of on-line tools like and Google searches (I just found a new tidbit today!), plus a little key input from the quickly diminishing list of survivors who knew them. But I have postponed writing about my grandmothers in large part because of a dearth of information, first or second hand, about either of them.  
My maternal grandmother, the only grandparent that ever saw me, would likely have been better known to people as Mrs. Charles Lawton than as Mary, or Mamie as the family called her, but searches on any version of her too-common names turn up vast numbers of hits, almost none relevant. So the time has come to share what is likely all I, or anyone now living, will know about her from this day forward. Also recorded here are my speculations on her motivations and emotional, monetary, and physical resources.
My mother took me to visit her for a week once a year, not less and not more, until I reached junior high, at which point I was excused of the annuality of this duty and had to go along only every few years. Mother always drove from Bloomington, Indiana, through Ohio, and across the long state of Pennsylvania to Chester, now a dogeared suburb of Philadelphia. My father the professor, who had little use for extended families anyway, and particularly not for my grandmother who had little education and with whom he had nothing in common other than her daughter who was his wife, never accompanied us. Truth be told, I also did not find my Granny, as she was known to me, a very stimulating conversationalist, or a nurturing grandparent for that matter. In retrospect she was likely a little mystified by me, uncertain of what to make of this smarty-pants little kid with the unfriendly father, and with whom she had no opportunity to be close. It's also possible my mother, or my father, didn't make it easy or encourage her to form a real relationship with me. I believe from my observations and things my mother has told me that her relationship with her mother was one of love-hate, and feelings of obligation and duty not driven by a deep connection between them.

Mary Cullin was born to the Irish immigrants John and Anna E. Giltinan Cullin on November 16, 1881, and baptized in St. Michael's Catholic Church, Chester, Pennsylvania, 11 days later. Mary was one of four daughters in this undated studio-beach portrait. Clockwise from Mary are her sisters Elizabeth (standing rear), Anne, and Catharine (or Catherine, I've seen it both ways). Looks like the girls were lovely, wasp-waisted teens at the time.
Her upbringing was doubtless conservative, and in the 1900 Census, at the age of 19, she was listed as living with her sisters and father in Chester, with no occupation shown. I don't know how she met my grandfather, Charles E. Lawton, or exactly when they married, but it was a slightly unlikely match, as Granny's family were Irish Catholic, and Charlie's  Episcopalian. Her marital life was unlikely in other ways as well. In 1909, the American Colonial Bank posted Charlie to Arecibo, Puerto Rico, to serve as cashier (a more elevated position than how one thinks of cashiers today).  By 1910, Granny is listed in the U.S. Census in Arecibo with my grandfather. I've remarked before what an enormous leap of faith and courage that must have been for her to leave her natal home to go to a foreign country 1,600 miles away by steamship, where there were few English-speakers, strange food, tropical climate (pleasantly warm winters and springs, followed by hurricane seasons stretching through long hot summers and falls), and exotic diseases to contend with. In spite of these odds, the couple thrived there, and by March of 1912, baby girl Mary Eleanor, my mother, had arrived. 

I have gleaned many ships' manifests documenting that the family returned to Chester periodically to visit their families. This photo seems to have been taken there, probably around 1914 or 1915. I would think the photographer was intending to capture the fast-moving, scowling toddler, my mother Eleanor, but the camera instead focused on Mary, my grandmother. This is one of the clearest images of her face among the many blurry and faded photos I have.
Although Arecibo was truly provincial at the time -- known for its pineapple plantations, but not for its worldly sophistication -- my grandparents carved out a busy social life among American ex-pats of similar social status and wealth. In 1919, when my mother was 5, a second daughter, Louise Edwina arrived. Around that time too they moved to the capital San Juan, where the girls could be properly schooled and Charlie was promoted first to chief cashier, and later, to director. It's clear that she was enjoying her little daughters. The family prospered, and there was a nanny to help.
They eventually built a very nice house on Carrion's Court in the neighborhood of Santurce, and accoutred it with lovely furniture, two pieces of which I am lucky to still have. Mary Eleanor and Louise Edwina posed at the entry of that house with dog Rosie about 1922 or so. Not very long after this photo was taken, the family suffered the blow of the loss of a child. Louise contracted what I believe was a streptococcal infection called erysipelas, for which there was no effective treatment. My mother told me, trying to sound matter-of-fact, but with a very slight catch in her throat, that their mother never got over Louise's death. I do not know the basis for this belief,  and whether or not Louise was Mary's favorite child we'll never know.  But I do know my mother's relationship with her mother was not unalloyed by the briefness of her sister's time on this earth.

As my grandparents aged, my grandfather's bank was being transformed by the tides of the times and no longer had work for him, and their sole child, my mother, had become an independent adult, they decided to return to the United States. By 1947 my grandmother was living in Chester again, this time in the home of two of her sisters, the widowed Catharine Glenney, and the spinster schoolteacher Elizabeth, at 17 East 18th Street, which had been the sisters' natal home.  Then suddenly, on January 11, 1948, Mary's husband, my grandfather Charles Lawton, died in the San Juan hotel he was living in as he wrapped up business in Puerto Rico and prepared to join his wife in the U.S..

The permanent move and simultaneous death of her husband slammed shut those long, mostly prosperous, doubtless interesting, and fundamentally happy years of my grandmother's life, and marked the beginning of a quiet 25-year widowhood in the house she was born into.

My earliest memory of my grandmother is cemented by this photo taken by the puddly walkway at 17 East 18th Street, a couple of weeks before my 4th birthday and 6 month's before Mary's 73rd. By then her always slight frame had developed a distinct curve down the back. My mother maintained that she had likely suffered from polio, or the scoliosis may have been caused by osteoporosis. In spite of the fact that it was bad enough that one hip was by this time much higher than the other, I don't recall that she had pain or reduced mobility from it. It's hard to believe that she didn't. The deformity of it scared me. 

It was probably around this time that my grandmother and her sisters unwittingly managed to appall me one morning as I came down the steep stairs at 17 E. 18th Street to say good-morning to the two of them when they exclaimed (with "amazement") that I must be a little boy, dressed in blue jeans as I was. My, how the times have changed, but then I was  mortified and ran back up the stairs red-faced that they would make such an awful mistake.

Four summers later my parents, and me in tow, spent a summer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (where they had met about 10 years earlier). Mary came to spend much of the summer, maybe to take advantage of the roomy house we rented (our apartment in Bloomington was far too cozy for the comfort of three adults and kid). That was the longest stretch we were ever together, and while I have some other very distinct memories of that summer (oh yes, I had my first horseback riding lessons there) I have no sense at all of what the multi-generational  dynamics were like. At the age of 77 my grandmother looked every bit her age, through as far as I know she was essentially still healthy.
Mary Cullin Lawton on the porch of our rented house, Ann Arbor Michigan, summer 1958
In those, and the ensuing years, with us back in Bloomington and her back in Chester, she continued to try to do the right thing by me. There are birthday cards in my scrapbooks, and memories of packages arriving full of attractive but (to me) disappointingly inedible licorice Allsorts.  There were certainly also occasional phone calls between visits to Chester, but in all this time, no bond formed between us.
Mary Cullin Lawton (left rear) with her sister Catharine Cullin Glenney, at home at 17 East 18th Street, in the only color photo ever taken of them. Mid- to late 1960's.
As I became more able to form memories of my experiences and observations, I remember some distinct things about that house and life at 17 East 18th Street, like the incredibly hot summer nights trying to sleep in the little upstairs room where there was a bed for me but no breeze and no fan. I remember a large and beautiful oriental rug on the floor under my grandmother's bed that I later used in my own home until it became threadbare; there were two antique tables my grandmother brought from Puerto Rico, one of which displayed the most lovely and fascinating Leerdam Serica vase that probably Elizabeth, the schoolteacher sister (d. 1963) brought from European travels, which is now in my treasured possession along with the tables. The utterly beautiful vase is pictured at the foot of every page of this blog. My grandmother had a diamond cocktail ring she promised to give me when I turned 16. Before that could happen, it slipped off the side of the bathroom basin and vanished down the drain. And Great Aunt Catharine promised to sell me her 1940's auto (don't know what kind it was) upon earning my driver's license, but evidently some guy came along and offered her $50 before my birthday so, alas, that never happened either.

Speaking of money, I have no idea how the ladies survived. Perhaps my grandfather had been foresightful (he was a good money man, after all) and had tucked away something for my grandmother; maybe the ladies' husbands had had life insurance (was there such a thing then?) or pensions (very doubtful, especially in Charlie Lawton's case). Or perhaps the real fate of the ring was a pawn shop, and Catharine could simply not wait for the $50. My mother never made a lot, I doubt she could have helped much. Maybe they suffered, quietly, I will never know.

In 1969, my otherwise healthy grandmother needed cataract surgery. While under general anesthesia (conventional at the time) she suffered a mild stroke. While Mary was battling her own issues, Catharine had a fatal stroke, and in a matter of a few days, the family's legacy at 17 East 18th Street was at last ended.

Although her eyes recovered, and she was able to walk with help and talk semi-coherently, my grandmother's memory was wiped out, she became confused and unable to care for herself. Blessedly she never knew that Catharine had died. My mother's only choice was to settle her into a nursing home for her last years.

On April 29, 1973, while my mother was on sabbatical in Spain and I was attending graduate school in Arizona, the news came that Mary Christine Cullin Lawton had died peacefully at the remarkable age of 92. She was unceremoniously buried next to her beloved Charlie near the other Lawtons of that generation.

But no headstone had been placed. I don't know why, perhaps my mother assumed their names would be added to the family stone, or very likely, Mother did not have the money to have one carved for her parents. She was also an unsentimental person, perhaps it was not a priority. In any case, shortly after Mother died, her cousin asked if I wanted to rectify the situation. I was more than happy to do so, but to be able to place accurate birth and death dates on the granite, I had to launch my genealogy journey that yielded almost all the information I have about my grandparents' lives before I was born. Gone but definitely not forgotten.
Charles and Mary Lawton, rest in peace.
17 East 18th Street, Chester, Pennsylvania
Fall, 2010

1 comment:

  1. Remarkable research there. And now an interesting story!