The most impacting people in our lives rarely realize their significance. Especially when their impact lasts long after they’re gone. The strongest influences in my life are my forebears, particularly my grandmother Emily (Grand Emmy.) We share more than our names; she praises similar fondness for, and impact of, her grandmother, Emma. Without Grand Emmy, the depth and breadth of my namesakes’ lives would vanish with time.
Beginning 5 generations ago, it’s realistic to imagine an 1800’s born and bred woman upholding feminine servitude; most women did. I respect traditional roles with tandem admiration for feisty rule-breakers.
Emma – my grandmother’s grandmother – was loyal and respectful as a circa 1860’s woman, but she didn’t conform to expected female roles. She lived 89 years with as much passion and energy as women do today. She honeymooned in a Civil War camp, published her writings, reputedly inspired Eggs Benedict, traveled from Europe to the Wild West, and by personal tragedy dodged RMS Titanic’s catastrophe.
While these stake no common claim to fame, her romantic pioneering qualities are evident in her descendants through present-day fifth generation. Emma was a tremendous inspiration for my grandmother, who in turn is one for me; their independence and zeal fuel my love of, and desire for, writing.
Shortly after Emma’s elementary school sweetheart Le Grand Benedict enlisted in the Union Army, she traveled by train and carriage from Vermont to Virginia to honeymoon with her betrothed. She published a 1897 article about that honeymoon in Outing magazine titled, “The Romance of War“.
Le Grand maintained regular journal entries, describing various employment and homesteads. He details his Civil War service, providing rich history from unique personal perspective. One hundred thirty-five year old dialectical differences are fascinating to read, but I equally enjoy reflecting on the familial similarities of recording passionate observation and deeply impressionable experiences.
When the war ended the young couple established residence at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria. They bustled about society — common practice for their pedigree — dining in fine restaurants and hobnobbing with elites. Emma was especially fond of Delmonico’s where she befriended staff and reputedly assisted in the creation of Eggs Benedict. Substantiated by Chef Ranhofer’s recipe for Eufa a’ la Benedick in his first of its kind 1894 cookbook “The Epicurean”, family oral tradition maintains this story as first told in a New York Times Letter to Editor:
Emma traveled through Europe and on one of those trips she booked passage back home on the RMS Titanic. It is an odd feeling to have family even remotely involved with a well-known catastrophe. A month before Titanic set sail, personal tragedy struck Emma’s family; while sledding, her first grandchild skid onto the Albany river where thinning ice cracked and plunged the sweet boy of three underwater until he drown.
Emma’s son Harold, father of the deceased little lad, maintained a daily journal (like his father before him). Unlike his father’s splashy prose however, Harold’s entries detail the practical side of life in his day; investment lists, household inventories, how many hours he spent at his office and descriptions about the weather. Each meticulous entry, maintained daily without fail, isn’t necessarily trivial but it does become mundane. Until they stop, for nearly a year.
Ten months after little Le Grand’s death, Harold wrote again. The entries reflect a style quite unlike preceding pages, emoting pain and delving regret. His forthcoming manner, changed by unimaginable loss, lends a different perspective; trauma tends to incite such inner authenticity. I want to hide from the rudeness of peering into his soul.
Harold intended to bear only one child; after losing the boy he acceded to a second child, hoping for another lad; instead he blessed future generations with my grandmother. Pondering little Le Grand’s death (named after his grandfather, Le Grand) is mysterious and bizarre — had he not drown it is unlikely my grandmother would have been born, which naturally means I would not have been born either. Similarly, had he lived, Emma and her husband Le Grand would have sailed home as planned on the doomed Titanic. Would they have survived? If so, how imperceptibly changed they would be from Titanic’s sinking around them.
Why elaborate my blog with ancestry and namesakes and tragic drowning accidents? Because ancestral lines are windows to our character traits and personalities, reinforcing why we are the way we are. Genetic attributes run along equally significant lines, like writing. From Emma’s “The Romance of War”, to Le Grand and Harold’s journals, I identify with generational traditions of written recordation, be it details of the day, or recesses of a heart.
My grandmother bestowed me with the family ancestral trunk; memorabilia brims along with Emma’s, Le Grand’s, and Harold’s diaries and journals. Le Grand’s (senior) comprise twenty-five slim volumes, leather-bound covers worn smooth from use, accented with gold tipped pages, stored in a dark mahogany box inscribed with his initials. Pretty fancy journal keeping when you consider I write on anything I can find.
I write in part as homage, to the past and all its pain; my great-grandfather Harold’s grieving words for his lost child form an image so powerful, and conjure emotion so deep I literally feel I am standing next to him watching inconsolable tears spill over his fountain pen and blur the letters below. I wish he knew how significant his journals are to me, how the shift in his writing inspires me to push authentically on with mine. The entirety of my ancestors’ traits and habits shaped me to be doing precisely what I am at this moment, writing.
I write because I am destined. It is in my blood. Writing reminds me we are never as alone as we feel and that effect lasts long after we are gone. I am obliged to record a life that, like my grandmother and hers before her, will not be standardized by a societal role. And though I’ll never know it, maybe I too will impact future generations in the millennia to come.