Rebel Without a Pause

By: Renee Y. Brown

 

Sew a quilt? Not my grandma. Bake cookies? Forget it. Sit in a rocking chair? Boring.

It amazes me that here we are, well into the 21st century, and 19th century stereotypes of older women are still considered the norm. Every woman over 50 is supposed to be a grandmother or longing to be one; they all sew quilts or knit and bake cookies and sit in rocking chairs telling wholesome tales to their doting grandchildren.

Well, I’m over 50 and I’ll never be a grandmother because I never was a mom, by choice. One stereotype shot down. And even though my grandmother was born in the 19th century she shot down every other ‘granny’ stereotype.

Thank goodness because I never wanted a stereotypical grandmother. I would’ve had nothing in common with a grandmother, who baked cookies,or liked to knit or said things like “oh my goodness” instead of “goddamn it” or “nice to meet you, sweetie” instead of “who the hell are you?”

Or a grandmother who told wholesome, heart-warming tales of ‘the good old days’ instead of the truth of growing up under the political and social oppression of an empire; of the childhood diseases that commonly claimed the lives of young siblings; of leaving family and home behind for a vast and unknown country; of meeting the soon-to-be victim of an infamous crime; of dancing and drinking in the illegal nightclubs of 1920’s Prohibition-Era New York; and of watching the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A grandmother who told her grandchildren only the positive life experiences emphasizing the home-and-hearth nostalgia and ‘family-values’ of bygone days would be, to me, number-one, BORING, and number two, LYING.

My grandmother told it like it really was and didn’t leave out the bad, the sad, the ‘immoral,’ the illegal, and the fun. Because of her honesty I learned at a young age that people have always been human beings doing the same things that humans have always done since they lived in caves.  And that ‘immoral’ or ‘illegal’ are only concepts of mass belief in a particular era of history.

Bridget Elizabeth Dallat was born in 1899 during the Victorian Age, an era in history that has become synonymous with prudishness and conservative social behavior. She was also born in a country that was dominated and controlled by the British Empire. Ireland was an occupied territory. The rule of law was enforced by the British Army, and the British made the laws. Native Irish had few civil rights and no control over their own country.

Maybe growing up in a country that was occupied by a foreign power brought out the rebel and non-conformist in her. Maybe she left in 1920 because the idea of ‘freedom’ in America appealed to her. Bridget was from Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, otherwise known as Ulster, the portion of Ireland dominated by Protestants. She was Catholic.

Maybe she left because she saw few choices as a young Irish Catholic woman in Ulster and America was touted as ‘the land of opportunity.’ She never said exactly why she decided to take such a drastic step to leave home, family and country to cross an ocean to such a radically different place as America. It was certainly a non-traditional and courageous life choice for a young Irish woman at that time. I think maybe it held the prospect of being a great adventure and she was just bored and wanted to get the hell outta there.

She wasn’t alone, though; her sister Peggy joined her and the two young ladies traveled in relative comfort as second-class passengers on the liner Mauritania, sister-ship of the ill-fated Lusitania torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine during World War I.

The Dallat sisters did not enter the United States through Ellis Island, the ‘processing station’ for most arriving immigrants. Having traveled to America in second-class and having British passports allowed them immediate entry. After arriving in New York the sisters found jobs working for wealthy families as cooks and nannies. Since the sisters came from what was considered a ‘middle-class’ family in Ireland these jobs were a ‘step up’ compared to the opportunities for ‘common’ Irish immigrants of the time.

One afternoon on a Long Island beach Bridget met another nanny who was taking care of a cute curly-haired toddler boy. The nanny introduced Bridget to the son of Charles Lindbergh, American hero and world-famous for being the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean non-stop. A few months later the boy would be kidnapped and murdered in what at the time was called ‘the crime of the century.’

While her sister Peggy diligently saved her money, planning to return home someday, Bridget splurged on fancy clothes and going to dance clubs.

It was the Roaring 20’s and a young woman on her own in New York City had a lot more options than she would in a small Irish town.

My grandmother was a “flapper,” one of the first generation of women to enjoy freedom from the repressive and restrictive Victorian era and all of Western history in general. Women got the right to vote the same year Bridget arrived in America, 1920. Tightly-laced corsets were gone altogether, replaced by loose underwear and a new invention, the bra. Dress hems rose above the knee for the first time in known history displaying legs sheathed in silk stockings. Those stockings were not gartered but rolled down to reveal bare knees. Make-up like face power, cheek rouge and lipstick came into common use and long flowing pinned-up hair was replaced by short bobbed hair. It became acceptable for single women to live on their own and go out on ‘dates’ with men unescorted or chaperoned by watchful relatives.

Bridget put on a new dress every Saturday night and went dancing. Since this was also the era of Prohibition, alcohol was illegal. Of course the law was commonly and flagrantly violated. What we would call today ‘underground’ clubs but were known as ‘speakeasies’ at the time (because to get in a person had to ‘speak easy’ the secret password) flourished and Bridget danced the nights away, then returned home to shimmy out of her dress and leave it on the floor while she went to bed. Sister Peggy complained that instead of washing the discarded dress, Bridget would just buy a new one for next Saturday night.

In 1928 Bridget married Thomas Sebron Brown, a U.S. Navy sailor from Georgia nine years her junior. She settled into married life and motherhood, my father being the middle child of three.

Thomas was stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when on one December morning in 1941 my grandmother, my seven-year-old father and nine-year old aunt heard loud booms that weren’t thunder. They ran outside to see explosions and smoke coming from the navy harbor. Japanese planes returning to their carriers in the Pacific after dropping their bombs flew close enough for my young father to recall “we knew they weren’t ours and we didn’t know who until we heard it on the radio.”

My grandfather’s submarine was not in the harbor that day but out at sea. My grandmother, father, aunt and infant uncle soon found themselves on a ship bound for San Diego and safety.

After the war my grandparents divorced. To this day I’m not certain of the reason why and I never met my grandfather. ‘Elizabeth Brown,’ the name she used for the rest of her life raised her three children alone in Los Angeles.

Since I never met my grandfather and my mother was estranged from her adoptive family the only grandparent I ever had was ‘Grandma.’ We just all called her ‘Grandma’ and everyone knew who we were referring to because she was the only one. But she more than made up for the missing three-fourths. My memories of Grandma began in the 1960’s but I really got to know her in the 70’s when I was a teenager.

She was a firm believer in ghosts and the paranormal, which may have come from her Irish heritage where the supernatural is an accepted fact of life. She owned books like “True Ghost Stories,” “Ghosts of Ireland,” and “The Search for Bridey Murphy,” about a famous reincarnation case.

I read those books and discussed them with Grandma. She told me ghost stories she’d heard back in Ireland. I loved it, not because it was “scary” but because the books were about investigations using science to research the paranormal. Grandma always encouraged me to be open to a wider realm of consciousness beyond what we perceived in the physical world, to be an explorer and seek knowledge but to use reason and common sense in my quest. And so I have.

But Grandma had her not-so-serious side, too. She wore multi-colored flower-print Hawaiian dresses that would make the loudest and brightest Hawaiian shirt silent and dull in comparison. She loved to read lurid and gory “true detective” pulp magazines. And of course she did like more than a few beers now and then. Our annual Christmas gift was a bottle of Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey, distilled near her hometown of Ballycastle.

After those few beers or whiskey shots her Irish really came out: “Where are they, those English bastards! I’ll take them on! I’ll fight the whole damn British Army by myself! I’ll kick their arses outta Ireland.” She’d take them on all right – all four-foot-eleven of her.

She never became a U.S. citizen and never said why. She sometimes talked of going back ‘home’ for a visit which was possible since my dad worked for a major airline. But she never did go back.

She loved the desert and enjoyed trips to the Mohave and exploring Old West ‘ghost towns.’ She kept cacti in her apartment.

Once my mother asked her why she never remarried.

“Oh, I didn’t want no old man around to cook and clean for and telling me what to do all the time. On my own, I can cook if I feel like it or not, I can watch TV or read when I want to and go to bed and get up when I want to. I don’t need no old man.”

I originally wrote this essay for a book of Baby Boomer reminisces about their grandparents. It was to be called ‘Grandma’s Quilts and Grandpa’s Attic,’ which I thought was a stupid name because not everyone has that type of grandparents. I certainly didn’t and they rejected this essay. Too non-stereotypical for them. They wanted ‘warm and fuzzy’ stories and my Grandma’s life wasn’t bullshit like that. Her life was REAL. My Grandma would’ve had a good laugh over that.

Grandma passed away at age 89 fighting to the very end. While in the hospital she smacked so many doctors and nurses they finally had to restrain her. I’m sure being restrained is what killed her. Not literally; she had other health issues. But tying down an Irishwoman who wanted to take on the entire British Army by herself isn’t killing her fighting spirit but setting it free. With her firm belief in the afterlife and knowing she would be reunited with all 17 of her deceased siblings (some of whom never made it to adulthood), I know she didn’t fear death. She didn’t fear anything.

She’s buried in a Los Angeles cemetery. As far as I know she’s the only Dallat buried in America. Someday soon I’m going back to L.A. to take some soil from her grave and take it all the way back to Ballycastle. All the way back home.

I’m a woman without a true home and still searching for one. Perhaps in bringing a bit of the American earth under which my Grandma lies to her native land I’ll find some small portion of a true home for myself.

In the meantime, I like to imagine Grandma in the afterlife, as a mighty (but short) Celtic queen battling the Anglo-Saxons; as a carefree ‘flapper’ dancing the Charleston; or, mostly, in an Irish pub with all her brothers and sisters drinking Guinness beer and Bushmill’s whiskey. A Gaelic band strikes up ancient rhythms that pulse within the hearts of the Irish and they all get up and start dancing.  And one of the dancers is me.

So please, Grandma, save me a seat in the pub, but excuse the American in me that feels drinking Bushmill’s is like swallowing rocket fuel and that Guinness tastes like warm mud. But I’ll raise my strawberry daiquiri to ya anytime, Grandma.

Pháirtí a ligean ar! (Let’s party!)