Episode 43: My Grandmother at 20 Years Old


The decisions that my grandmother made at the tender age of 20, when the world was in economic turmoil, changed the trajectory of my family’s history dramatically. Who knows who I would have been with a grandfather named Tommy instead?

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Good morning. This morning, I was lucky enough to be reading the letters that my grandmother sent to her aunt back in the 1930s. When my grandmother died, and her house was emptied, my mom and her siblings found many boxes of letters that my grandmother had written. One of them contained all the letters that she had written to her aunt Elise, who lived back in Salt Lake City, from all of her adventures going off to Europe and such. And so they were fascinating accounts. Because to people in those days, you know, sending a letter was a big, big deal, so they would write pieces of the letter over the span of a number of days. So there are accounts of different lunches and people they met, and people they saw during the course of their day. And it was fascinating to read all these things. And it made me think about the impossible confluence of details that have to come together in order to create a different life path for one person, like all of the things that had to come together to create me, and for me to be sitting here. Oh, my goodness, almost 90 years after my grandmother and grandfather met, what were all of those near misses, and different turns that my grandmother took to make the choices that she made that led to me sitting here. It’s wild to think about it that way. 

My grandmother was born in 1912, so she saw an incredible period of development in the United States, right? We think about the great generation, who fought in World War One and all of that, and she was part of that history. She grew up in Salt Lake City, and she was a descendant of the Howard family, which is a very powerful, rich family from England, that produced the Dukes of Norfolk and such. They were very close to the royal family Tudor, back in the days of Henry the eighth. And there’s an incredible castle that my son and I went to visit – the Howard family seat – and when we went there, we were like, “Hey, we’re Howards too, you know, where’s our rooms?” Yeah, it’s it’s a beautiful, beautiful place, incredible gardens, and momentarily, in our deepest imagination, we felt like part of the family for a little while while we visited it. That was very fun. 

However, they came to Salt Lake, you know. As I had said in my very first episode, we are from Pioneer stock, so they came across the Great Plains, in covered wagons. Some of my grandmother’s ancestors landed at Salt Lake City, and my great grandfather, her father, was in oil. That’s all I know. It’s a little nebulous, but they must have been well to do because they had a very, very fancy house in Salt Lake City. We have only a watercolor painting of it, to think about it, but it must have been fancy because it had a pond big enough for my great great grandfather to have imported a gondola from Venice. When he went to Venice, he fell in love with those and he bought one and had it sent back from Venice to Salt Lake City so that he could put it on his small lake in the backyard for the delight of his girls.

My grandmother was one of four girls and her older sister was Mary, and then came Katherine, who was next, and then my grandmother, Virginia, and then her youngest sister Jeanne. I found out only much, much later when I was doing some research on Ancestry.com. (Hey, guys want to be a sponsor of this podcast?)  But anyway, I found out only much later that there was a fifth baby, another girl. But she and my great grandmother both died of the Spanish Influenza. So my grandmother was left motherless at a very young age. 

She was lucky to have a wonderful aunt that she loved and who helped to take care of the girls when they were young. And then when my great grandfather passed away, also, before my grandmother was 20. When she was a young teenager, she also lost her father. And she and her youngest sister Jeanne moved in with my great great aunt Elise, and her husband, Uncle Burton. And they spent the rest of their time growing up, their teenage years, there with that aunt. 

My grandmother was a product of those things that no longer exist, which are finishing schools. She went to a special school for girls where she learned all of the womanly arts and such. And she became quite a wonderful singer. She loved to sing, as I know I have said before. And so when it came time for her to go out of that school, the next thing she wanted to do and decided to do was to travel to Europe, to further her studies in voice. And apparently, some European high born gentlemen, including one Count Paterno, (I didn’t even look into him) had come to Salt Lake and had visited with Aunt Elise and Uncle Burton, and they had promised to entertain the girls, if they ever came over to Paris:  “please, please do look us up,” and all of that. So my grandmother, being a bold and adventurous soul, decided, yes, I’m gonna go to Paris, and I’m gonna look up this count Paterno guy. So she traveled by train to Chicago, and then to New York, and from New York to Paris on a boat. And she tells wonderful stories of the incredible meals they ate onboard that boat. They were served seven meals in a day, apparently, including high tea and broth at 11 o’clock out on the deck and such. And they met some lovely young people who were going to study at various universities in Germany and in Paris. 

And when she got to Paris, she speaks about it as being the coldest place she has ever been. She arrived there in October of 1932, when she was only 20 years old. And I think it’s so funny, having come from Salt Lake City, that she describes Paris as the coldest place she’s ever been, but I guess it was cold and wet, damp, you know, in that way that Salt Lake isn’t. And they did meet up with Count Paterno and his young friend, and they had a lovely afternoon together, although my grandmother talks about not being able to speak French well enough to really communicate well, although she said the count was very patient and endured the translation of much of her conversation. She and her sister Catherine actually traveled together and met with Count Paterno. But then apparently, there was a series of misunderstandings, following them going to the opera, where they were supposed to meet the count. But of course, the count was sitting in the expensive seats down in the orchestra, and she and her sister were up in the sixth balcony, looking way down and trying to figure out where the count was, and they never did meet up with him. So there was some sense of being slighted and they never met up with the count again.

And that forced her to decide to leave Paris and travel south to Italy. Because among other people that had come to visit her aunt Elise, who was very important in politics apparently, was a woman named Madame Biaggi. She had been on a tour of the United States, and keep in mind that this was all after the stock market crash, so the United States was a depressed and frightening place during that time. But Madame Biaggi had been on a tour of the states and had been in Salt Lake City, and met Aunt Elise and Uncle Burton. Apparently she had had some kind of illness while there and so they were part of her convalescence. When she left she had said, “Please, please, if your nieces come to Italy, please have them look me up.” That was a thing people did in those days, right. So my grandmother resolved to take up Mrs. Biaggi on her invitation. After she went south to Italy, and she landed first in Rome, by train, and then she toured a bit to Venice and Florence, and finally to Genoa, where she was received in high style by the Biaggi family. She described a very funny, third class train experience, where there were awful people who had giant baskets of dead fish that made the cabin smell absolutely terrible. She kept trying to open the windows, and the Italians, of course, were like, “Oh, my gosh, no fresh air! No open windows in the train!” Because they knew, which she didn’t, that people often throw, you know, various things out the window, and they would come flying right back into their cabin including, who knows, urine! Anyway… she kept trying to open the window to get the fish smell out of their cabin, and the Italians kept closing it. And she was very frustrated. 

In any case, she finally landed in Genoa, and was received with open arms by the Biaggis. And now this is January of 1933. And my grandmother is not even 21 yet. By April of 1933, she was engaged to be married to their son, Leo. It’s a fascinating trajectory to read those letters and hear her wrestling with the idea of giving up her nationality, giving up her hometown, and her family, not that you would have to give them up but to give up close association with them and being with them all the time. If she had returned to Salt Lake, and married someone named Tommy, who apparently she was perhaps engaged to or definitely very involved with. She speaks about Tommy and giving him up as her other choice of lover and possibly husband. So that would have been a very different turn for my family. Certainly, my mother wouldn’t have been the wild and fiery spirit that she is, without, you know, the injection of the European roots. I think of the Italian and the hot bloodedness of Italy as Shakespeare always imagined, you know, the addition of the Southern passion. So those decisions that she made at the very tender age of 20 shaped the trajectory of our family, for generations to come. 

By July of 1934, my uncle Gianni was born, so my grandmother had been barely in Europe for a year before her entire life changed as a result of a visit. And as she settled into motherhood, her in laws bought her and her new husband a beautiful house on the water there on the Mediterranean Sea in a little town near Genoa, called Bogliasco. 

This house would come to be a place of great significance for all of us who followed from their union as well as for hundreds of others, because it now functions as an artist residency for painters and sculptors and dancers, and writers and filmmakers. So what a incredible path was set up by the considered and yet impulsive decisions of this young 20 year old from Salt Lake City. I will tell you more about my grandmother and her trajectory and how her life influenced mine in the next few episodes. Thank you for being here, and I look forward to telling you more next time!

Published by dianathebard

Podcasting about growing up in the Hudson Valley in the 60s and 70s, falling in love, raising kids, getting divorced and being a free and creative world traveler!

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