Seven Grandparents


Walt Whitman, Grandfather to All

Apart from the more somber anniversary we’re observing this morning, today happens to be National Grandparents Day. I thought I would take this opportunity to remember my own grandparents, both biological and surrogate (four natural ones plus three extras). All of them influenced me in one way or another and so I pay them tribute.

The old folks in question were all born between 1894 and 1912. Most of them were from rural places, and could vividly describe the different world they had known as children…a world of farmhouses (in some cases, shacks), kerosene lanterns, potbellied stoves, one room schoolhouses, and so forth.

As it happens, I only have photos of about half of them. Rather than slight the others, I’ll attempt to paint some clumsy portraits of them in words. (I may add photos later).

Grandmother's church. The Congregation was founded with the town, in 1686.

Grandmother’s church. The Congregation was founded with the town, in 1686.

My favorite grandparent was my maternal grandmother, Ruth Cady Herindeen. Her family, the Cadys had been in America since around 1630 and had lived in the area around Pomfret, Connecticut since 1714. The Cadys were our posh relations. I never knew specifically why, but it was always implied that they had more or did better or, most importantly considered themselves special. It may just have been because there were famous Cadys like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her father the Congressman Daniel Cady. Grandmother’s father’s first cousin was the successful illustrator Harrison Cady. My great-grandfather (also named Harrison Cady) had an incredible American pedigree: his mother was a Sherman (of the same family as Founding Father Roger Sherman) and his paternal grandmother was the same Martha Adams Turner I wrote about in this post, the Adams component being the same family as the two Presidents, and the Turner component going back almost to the time of the Mayflower.

The town of Brooklyn, CT was built on Cady land. This area, Windham County, CT was never anything but farms, specifically, since the late 19th century, dairy farms. Almost all of my extended family on my mom’s side were involved in that business. But neither grandmother’s father (a butcher and bookkeeper) nor her husband (a mechanic and hauler) were. (Her father was orphaned at age four when his father was kicked in the head by a horse, which might explain the lack of a farm legacy there).

But all this history and continuity goes to explain a certain gentility that my grandmother possessed. Her house in Woodstock (built around the time of the War of 1812) was the closest thing to magic that I knew. It was full of books, almost all from the 19th or early 20th century. One of the bookcases opened up and revealed a secret closet behind it, like in a horror movie. My grandmother, alone among all of my four natural grandparents as far as I knew, actually READ books: history, poetry, fiction, the Bible. She dabbled in painting (although not very well; my father is where I get that particular talent from). Her house had fine things like family china and family silver, and actual linen tablecloths (my own home had none of these things). Antique furniture, heirloom clocks.

While we had to be on our best behavior when we visited there, we didn’t mind. Because my grandmother was funny. She loved to laugh and gab and make jokes. She had terrific delivery. Two of her daughters, Norma and Ruth inherited this trait from her; my mother did not, although she loved to laugh. But during the few occasions when I saw them all in one place it was a spectacle to behold. They each had an endearing way of laughing at her own remark (kind of like Statler and Waldorf). And when they sat and talked and played cards or something, there’d be this rhythm. Pause, talk, WITTICISM, laughter. Pause, talk, WITTICISM, laughter.

We only went there on holidays: I remember Easters, Independence Days, Thanksgivings and Christmases, and never all of those in a single year — two or three at most. So it became incredibly special. It’s as though it were being rationed. They only lived 45 minutes away, but since we never traveled further than that at any point during my childhood, it seemed a great distance. Only once did I spend more than a day or two with her. When I was 7 or 8 and my parents were “having trouble”, and so my sister and I spent about a week with her. That was the only time I ever saw her cross or cranky.

My grandmother was born in 1905. In retrospect, the way she dressed made sense for someone who had been a young woman in the twenties and thirties. Her favorite song was “Sweet Georgia Brown” (absent an association with the Harlem Globetrotters). When I grew older, she would give me assignments. Once, she asked me to write a paper on the existence of unicorns. And she asked me to look into the phrase “Gone Where the Woodbine Twineth”. It turned out to be from this lyric by Septimus Winner.  This ought to explain much.

Ruth’s husband, my maternal grandfather, was Robert “Bob” Herindeen. Like the Cadys, the Herindeens had also been in America since 1630, but they didn’t move to the Windham County area until around 1795. (Previous to this they had lived in Providence  — they were among Rhode Island’s first settlers). Herindeen is a very rare name — it’s easy to find contemporary relatives with a name so weird. (“Oh there’s a guy named Herindeen in Hawaii? I’m related to him.”) It’s actually just a weird spelling, though. It’s a variant on Harrington, which makes me related to that family as well, farther back.

As we said above, Bob was a mechanic. He worked on vehicles and hauled things like firewood and sand and gravel for a living. When I was a kid I didn’t think that was too interesting, but in my adulthood it occurred to me that to be a mechanic in the era when he started meant to work on vehicles that looked like this:


And all the sudden I find that very interesting indeed. The car barn in front of their house was a former horse barn, and if I recall correctly it may have originally been used for smithing. I also seem to have dim recollections of rusting vehicles not unlike the one above in there.

Grandpa Herindeen was born in in 1898, which easily explains why his middle name is Dewey, Admiral Dewey being the big national hero of the moment due to his service in the Spanish-American War. Grandpa was just the right age to have served in World War One. I’ve seen his draft registration card, but he was never called up.

I only have vague memories of him; he passed away when I was only five. But he was a kind of legendary family character and he lived on for me through the stories of and impressions of older relatives. He was an old-timer of the Swamp Yankee type I described in this earlier post. (I have a brother who very consciously patterns his life on that of Grandpa Herindeen). Stoic, hard working. Maybe a little eccentric. He liked to tease my grandmother (whose name was Ruth) by calling her “Mary”. He liked hot cereal — steaming kettle water poured over shredded wheat. He loved Bob Hope. I knew him in his last years, when he never put his false teeth in.

Long after he passed, his presence lingered. His office remained as it had been when he died, and I think it was left that way a long time afterward. It had its own separate outdoor entrance and an old fashioned roll top desk where he sat and did his accounts. If he’d had a ghost (and I used to believe he did), that’s where the ghost would have lived.

Walker Evans photos for "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" were taken in Hale County, Alabama. Grandp Stewart's mother, and one of his great-grandmothers were Hales. This is literally what their house would have looked like

Walker Evans’ photos for “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” were taken in Hale County, Alabama. Grandpa Stewart’s mother, and one of his great-grandmothers, were Hales. This is literally what their house would have looked like. (photo by Walker Evans)

As for my other grandfather, Ezra “Glen” Stewart, I’ve already written a bit about him (in this post, in particular). A struggling Alabama sharecropper, he had moved his family to Rhode Island (where he’d been stationed in the navy) after World War Two. Our branch of the Stewart family arrived in America in the 1680s, and were among the earliest settlers of Tennessee.

I think of Grandpa Stewart as my second favorite natural grandparent, although that may not be fair to my other grandfather, whom I never got to know as well. I think of Grandpa Stewart as an impractical, eccentric man. He had a deep rumbling hillbilly voice, and a high-pitched laugh. He was kind and gentle and my father idolized him. I knew him in his retirement, when he divided his time between delivering the Westerly Sun and dealing with the rental properties he owned and puttering around with the kind of projects retired men often do. He did a paint-by-numbers of The Last Supper on black velvet that they hung in their home. He made gimmicky windmills for people’s yards (you know, those things where the wind power makes a puppet of a man saw a log, or a woodpecker seem to peck). I remember one time he took us down the basement to show us some kind of a Rube Goldberg chutes-and-ladders type contraption he’d made, where you drop a marble at the top and enjoy its journey to the bottom. He died when I was ten; the first death I was old enough to experience any grief over.


My paternal grandmother Flora Parker Stewart, was a scary and primitive hillbilly woman. She was easily my least favorite of my four natural grandparents, mostly because she was so scary to a child but I learned to appreciate her as I grew older — especially the connections to the past she represented. Old folkways were strong in her.  For example, she had a large purple birthmark on her hand that was sort of shaped like a bird. She claimed her mother had brushed a baby chick with that hand when she’d been withchild. And that was her explanation for the birthmark. It wasn’t just a story to tell the children. It’s what she believed. Grandma was a subsistence farm wife. She knew how to make soap from hog fat, churn milk into butter, and wring the head off a chicken. My mother used to speak about the dark and crazy “Stewart eyes” a kind of murderous look we’d all get when we got mad — staring mad, you might call it.. But in reality, that look came from Grandma, who wasn’t a Stewart at all.

I’ve heard it expressed by some that she may have been borderline illiterate; all I know is she signed my birthday cards and there were always True Detective magazines on her coffee table. Such culture as she had came from religion. She and grandpa were Baptists (he was actually related to some influential ones). I can recall her singing “Armored Christian Soldiers” and playing the organ she kept in her parlor, one of those ones with all the buttons and the corny rhythm click track. You know, one of these babies:


She drank buttermilk every day. She cooked things like fried corn bread, and kale and hominy. She disapproved of my grandfather’s whiskey drinking, but she herself dipped snuff (chewed tobacco). She used to spit it into a coffee can. It eventually gave her mouth cancer and killed her.

Remarkably, Grandma had been the youngest of TWENTY children born to her father George Washington Parker (he married twice — I guess he wore the first wife out). Our branch of the Parker family arrived in Virginia in 1645. The most famous members of this family are probably the actor Fess Parker, the early Texas settler John Parker (for whom Fort Parker was named) and his “half-breed” Comanche great-grandson Quanah Parker. A story for another day.



Georgianna Brown Anderson was the paternal grandmother of my three half brothers . While I wasn’t biologically related to her, there are ways I was closer to her than my two actual grandmothers. One reason was that she lived much closer to us than the other two and I saw a lot more of her.  My mother remained close to her, despite the fact that she’d divorced the woman’s son (the woman was known to everyone — even my father — as “Nana”). My mom and Nana spent time together, did things like made pies together.

Unlike my two natural grandmothers there was nothing “unique” about her, she was just a nice old lady, and a kind of a mentor. It is because of Nana that I was raised (for no other good reason) as an Episcopalian. My mother’s people were all Congregationalists; my father’s all Baptists. So this was a major impact she had on me. The Episcopal church was one of the most positive and lasting influences in my childhood.  And I was the kind of kid, frankly, who preferred the company of old ladies to, say, wild boys. My idea of a good time was not, for instance, playing with matches or smashing pumpkins  (In fact, those were my idea of a horrifying, lamentable time). Talking about the Book of Common Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed or something was more my speed.

Nana was from New Brunswick, Canada — a place just as rural and isolated as my natural grandparents had known. I’ll always remember a story she told of seeing the Northern Lights as a girl and thinking the world was coming to an end.   She was way older than any of the other folks listed here. She was born in 1894, over a decade before Grandma Herindeen and nearly two decades before Grandma Stewart. The woman had memories from the 19th century! She was born just one year after Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the West closed!


Robert “Bob” (or sometimes “Robby”) Burns was my Grandmother Herindeen’s second husband, whom she met and married when I was about ten.  He was quite a bit different from my relatives. He was a salesman for a company that made personalized writing pads, pens and water-activated sponges. He was always giving us samples from the trunk of his car. He was a fun-loving guy. In the early days, when he still had a bit of energy, there was romance to him.  He was the kind of guy who, without music or provocation, would spontaneously dance with my grandmother and make her laugh and say “Oh, stop!” He seems to have swept her off her feet.  He was a little guy with shock white hair and a high pitched voice like Eddie Albert’s. He was a gentle guy, liked to laugh and joke. When he moved in, he had a pool table brought into the house. He was also much more attuned to his Scottish heritage than we were ours. Ours had been long forgotten — probably for centuries.

When we first knew him he carried around a portable bar and would drink with my dad on family visits, but my grandmother disapproved and that stopped before too long.  Because he was a salesman he traveled around the area a bit. Unlike my mom’s family who pretty much kept close to one town, he visited far-flung ports of call like Webster and Worcester and Hartford. Like Willy Loman, he kept making those rounds of sales calls well into his old age, but without the desperation as far as I know. He loved it.



Now one last one, and apologies in advance to anyone who thinks it’s weird, but it’s heartfelt. John S. Monagan was actually my father-in-law…but there are ways in which he was more like a surrogate grandparent to me, as well. After all, the age spread between us was 54 years. He was older than one of my grandmothers.  And he came into my life after all my actual grandparents were gone, thus filling a void, one that had only recently opened up.

I had the advantage of being an adult when I knew him, which meant I paid more attention to his memories and knew the right questions to ask. This was a man who had attended silent films when they were first run (Charley Chase was his favorite comedian), and he had seen the Marx Brothers features in the cinema during their initial release as an ADULT. He was 21 when the Palace ran their last two-a-day, ending vaudeville. He loved the music of Bix Beiderbecke.  He wrote in his memoir that he had memories of the horse on which his father, a small town doctor, had ridden to make his house calls. And he recalled the horse drawn fire wagon the town (Waterbury) still had in his childhood.  He had been an adult during Prohibition and the Depression.  Furthermore, he was very traditional. That was probably a drag at times for his older kids, who grew up during the 1960s (there are hair-raising tales of the sons being kept in short pants at private school, English style, and having to wear a tie at the dinner table). He preferred the Latin mass. He sang lots of old Irish songs and told old Irish jokes and stories. So, like all my natural grandparents, he passed along lots of very old human culture on to me.

Interesting digression: because of John’s Connecticut roots, a long time ago my ex joked that somewhere down the line she and I were probably related. I scoffed. But…though he was primarily Irish Catholic and some of his ancestors (including the ones who bore his patronymic ) were recent immigrants, he did have some older American ancestors as well. And so I learned to my amusement a few months ago that we DID have common relatives, by marriage anyway, in a Connecticut family named Hyde. They arrived in the early 1600s, settled around New London, and then around 1800 one of the Hyde girls married a Munson and moved to NYC, a path that leads to Croliuses, then Mulrys, then Monagans. So in a technical way, he, too was a relative.

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