Grandma Betty's Travel Journals

I never got to know my Grandma Betty as well as I would have liked. She died when I was four.

As with most of the women in my family, she was not your average shrinking violet. In addition to being quite the beauty, she was willful, well-traveled and ran the household finances with an iron fist. My grandpa handed over his paycheck each week. She gave him his due, then invested the rest - except for a single extravagance: Grandma would buy one piece of gold-trimmed Noritake dishware each week, using her employee discount from Marshall-Fields. (This was an era where owning good china was the equivalent of driving a Mercedes.) I inherited the complete set - more than 80 pieces, total. It's so beautiful, I'm scared to death to use it for fear of breakage.

Apparently, Grandma Betty also knew how to play the market. Grandpa was surprised to find that, after her untimely death from lung cancer in 1971, her investment smarts and compound interest had made him a small fortune, despite his modest salary. His financial security did little to console him. After 50-plus years of marriage, he never really recovered from her death, and never dated again.

Knowing these sorts of anecdotes and possessing these objects from relatives is wonderful: It weaves the tapestry of your family history and serves to connect people through time. But it also feels somewhat like an archeaological expedition. I am more interested in who the people actually were - what did they feel? What did they like? Dislike? What were their quirks? Passions? Scandals? Peeves? It's so hard to know, especially when they come from an era where people didn't share their feelings openly, as they do now: Silence and strength went hand-in-hand during the 30s and 40s of Grandma's prime. Weakness was shunned, and wearing your heart on your sleeve was weak.

So, beautiful Noritake set or no, my favorite treasures from my Grandma are her travel journals, written in her own hand with real ink pen on now-yellowed pages.

She travels across the USA, taking notes of her hotels ($8 a night for a 4-star lodge was the costliest extravagance of her trip).

She flies to London from San Diego in what today would be considered private-jet style with gourmet dinners, sleeping accomodations - the works. Only then? That was coach service.

She motors through Europe with Grandpa, visiting my Aunt and meeting long-lost relatives in her birthplace in Luxembourg. She opens a window into her perspectives, her passions (fine sculpture, her kids, cocktail hour and bridge) and for once, provides insight into who she really was.

For that, I'm grateful. Otherwise, she'd be lost. In just two generations, the memory of her life would be blurred to a few in-focus highlights: A set of fine china, some treasured pieces of jewelry and a few dozen yellowing snapshots. She deserves better than that. We all do.

That's why the journals are so valuable to me: They're her real last words. They're my time machine to knowing her - or any hope of it, anyway. My little archeaological treasures.


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I am a writer and lazy artist who loves travel, architecture and design. Right now, I'm into photography. My fabulous husband (a.k.a. The Varmint) and I are also the principals of a San Diego-based creative agency - and new parents to the divine Baby Mak. Read More >