I was fortunate to have three of my grandparents in my life into my so-called adulthood. Widowed in 1948, my Grandma Creech died in 1992 within several months of my 30th birthday. My Dunn grandparents died in 1995 and 2008. All three of them lived to see me get married, and my Dunn grandparents lived to have great grandchildren; Grandmom (affectionally known as Gigi to my kids) died when Victoria was 14. I’m incredibly grateful for it, too. For the record, I always distinguished my grandmothers by Grandma and Grandmom.
Unlike my friends, my grandparents did not live within a day’s drive of my girlhood home in Falls Church. Grandma Creech was a teacher in Minnesota, and after she retired, she spent her winters in the DC area and taking turns staying with us and Aunt Mary Jane’s house. She returned home to Minnesota every March like clock work. She was the only grandparent who had a routine and annual physical presence in my childhood. I have fond memories of her time with us.
My Dunn grandparents–Bill and Elise–were exotic, exciting and jet setters. From the time I was born, they never lived stateside. My grandfather was a comptroller for the State Department, and their travels took them all over the world: Bogota, Tehran and Taipei until they retired to the Sydney area. They became permanent ex-pats when Dad was 20ish. My dad was the “left-behind” kid and we didn’t see them often (enough). I think it was mostly due to the fact that Grandmom was a DC native and missed her family that we saw them as often as we did. They returned stateside every 3 years with my uncles and aunts in tow, and remained committed to the triennial schedule until well after Granddad retired in 1970. As they got older, the trips happened every two years, and after my grandfather died in 1995, my grandmother made the trek every year until the year before she died. I really was blessed. Family was important to them, though I didn’t fully understand that that back then. We had different ideas of that concept.
When I grew up, all my friends saw their grandparents frequently and at holidays. I was jealous of them. Seriously jealous. Bummed. I felt gypped. Those feelings were ever present until their next trip stateside. Only then would I forget about how I felt and opted to enjoy the time I had with them. And when they left again, I would return to my heartbroken state for awhile until things normalized and the pattern repeated itself. They were at my high school graduation, but somehow, that was never enough for me. I was the only person I knew who had never been to their grandparents’ house. Until 1985, I had never, ever set foot in my Dunn grandparents’ house.
For my college graduation in 1984, my grandfather gave me the gift of a lifetime. He paid for half of my airfare to Sydney-which was about $2K at the time-and told me I could stay as long as I liked. Mom was super supportive, but Dad? He was less than thrilled. In fact, he was pretty much against it. He wanted me to find a full time job and grow up. He was 100% in favor of me adulting. Needless to say, we butt heads, Mom’s influence prevailed, and I caught a flight on Pan Am from JFK to Sydney via San Francisco and Honolulu on February 2nd and I didn’t return home to Virginia until the end of March. My careful planning, saving money and “adulting” prior to the trip enabled me to pay off my car loan so that I could be a tourist without any worry whatsoever. It was the best thing I could do for myself: I was foot loose and fancy free.
Although I had never verbalized how I felt up to that point, Mom knew. Moms know these things. She hugged me tight before putting me on the plane to New York and told me to have a wonderful time. I took her advice. I was almost 23 years old, and it was my first visit to see my grandparents on their turf.
Behind the scenes, my grandparents prepared for my arrival. I was the oldest of their grandchildren. My cousins are a lot younger than I am. There is 19 years between Dad and his youngest sister, Kathy. The Sydney grandkids were elementary school age, toddlers and babies. They put an addition on the room that my two aunts shared while growing up and turned it into an en-suite with its own bathroom. The room was directly across from my grandparents’ bedroom. I can’t remember being happier than when I was at their house. I allowed my childhood to take root at their house on Bilgola Plateau, and it was everything I wanted–and needed–this visit to be. We did so many things, traveled to Canberra, made trips to the Blue Mountains to visit my Uncle John and his family, took a ferry to Terrigal to visit with my Aunt Patti and her family. I hung out with Uncle Terry (who lived in the flat below my grandparents) and my Aunt Kathy, who lived close by. I spent a lot of time watching Grease with my 5 year old cousin, Daniel. There were ferries and quadrofoils to take day trips to Sydney, and a night to see La Traviata at the Opera House. I also appreciated them letting me learn how to drive on the other side of the road to go to the beach! I cherish the times I had with them, seeing their city and meeting their friends. I relished meeting my cousins for the first time. But my very favorite memory of all was a whole lot more mundane. It happened most nights–at least 4 times per week–and my grandparents indulged me. I forced them to pull out the photos and home videos, and I made them look through them and watch with me. I did this as often as I could, and I didn’t care if I had seen the same photos the week before. They were all new to me.
To their credit, they never suggested I find something else to do. I think deep down inside, they knew I needed to have a link to the past and they made that possible. Both my Dunn grandparents were marvelous storytellers. They were natural born conversationalists which ultimately presented as being great entertainers. Granddad was George and Grandmom was his Gracie. It was during this trip that I learned about my grandfather’s childhood in Mount Comfort, Indiana. Until then, I had always assumed he didn’t get along very well with his family and moved away to put distance between them. Why did I think that? I really don’t know. Maybe because I just didn’t know the truth. I didn’t understand the choices and consequences, and it just wasn’t true. It became obvious that he loved his parents, siblings and extended family. He just longed for a grand life away from Mount Comfort. He spoke fondly of his people from Indiana, and I learned more about my extended family–most whom I had never met. Would never meet. My dad had certainly met many of them when they traveled back to Indiana. But as I said before, I missed that part of childhood and my dad wasn’t from Indiana. So it was foreign to me. By this time, Dad was already doing family genealogy, but researching them wasn’t my bag at 23. I was, however, desperate to learn about my grandparents’ past.
I carry some of the stories my grandfather told in my heart, and can remember his laughter as he regaled his tales. He had a great sense of humor, which I hope I inherited. I left Australia in 1985 with a heaviness in my heart because my life had been irrevocably changed by my connection to them. The best outcome was that I returned to Virginia with a piece of my heart healed. All those feelings of being gypped disappeared. For the first time in my life, I was thrilled my family was weird and different.
A few years later, my wandering soul took me to Mountain View, California. A day after the green Mayflower truck loaded my stuff on the truck, I caught a flight on United to San Francisco. The next chapter of my life began on my sister’s birthday in 1988. Shortly after I arrived and got settled into my crappy apartment, my grandparents called. They wanted to let me know they were planning their next trip to the US the following summer and assured me that San Francisco was going to be their first stop before venturing east. It was during this call my grandfather said, “I know I told you about my Aunt Ruth. You would have loved her: you have kindred hearts. So I’m giving you the phone number of her daughter, my cousin, because I think the two of you will get on well. Her name is also Ruth, and she lives in Marin County. It’s not far from you.” Grandmom agreed and I called Ruth soon afterward. Ruth Bondy Linvill became my San Francisco mother. Her kids all lived elsewhere, so I adopted her as my own.
Much like my grandparents did with me on my first trip to Sydney, Ruth taught me more about the city where we both lived. She, too, was a fantastic conversationalist, interesting and funny. She was generous, kind, and my refuge in a place where I knew no one. She also told me stories of her childhood and visits to Mount Comfort. She told me about her mother, Ruth Dunn Bondy, the youngest of the Dunn siblings. I appreciated her letting me adopt her and she was only too happy to oblige. Once I started dating Kevin, my trips to Novato became more sparse and ceased when we got married. I hope she knows that I regret that.
It’s only been since I started working on my ancestral roots that I’ve been able to place people and stories in conjunction with my tree. They came to life and I realized that I knew more about them than I originally thought. But I still had a way to go on that journey. My grandparents laid the ground work for what I’ve discovered since. I appreciate that trip to Sydney back in 1985 more than ever. It gave me a gift I didn’t recognize as such at the age of 23. Now that I’m 57 and have had the chance to expand my Dunn family to include 2nd and 3rd cousins, I fully acknowledge the gift of family as the biggest blessing bestowed on me.
Thankfully, my parents were–and still are–a constant presence in the lives of their granddaughters. Vic and Val have never gone a year without seeing them, either at our house or theirs. When Vic turned 11, she started a trend of heading to Virginia to stay with them for a month. They did all the things with her that I did at the age of 23. Well, except that my folks took her to London one summer for a week and then to Scotland for a month the following year. I don’t regret how it played out, because in the end, the results were identical. We both know/knew our grandparents as adults. With a little luck, my parents will live to meet their great grandchildren too.
In early 2009, shortly after Grandmom died, Mom, Dad, Vic and I were on a group phone call. Vic blurted out, “I’m so surprised that we haven’t been to Ireland yet.” My parents laughed. The next day, they called us and requested a group chat. They announced that they would take her to Ireland on one condition: that I came with them. She agreed and I jumped for joy. I asked Mom and Dad if they were sure. Dad said, “Yes. Your grandmother is making this possible and somehow I know she would want us to make this trip as a tribute to her.” Choked up, I couldn’t argue with that. We traveled together in memory of her.
I never imagined in 1985 that Mount Comfort, Indiana, would mean something to me in 2019. It means even more than it would have in a different set of circumstances. I guess God really knew what He was doing when he gave me the situation I thought was awful and turned it into something wildly wonderful and very special. I only wish they were here so I could tell them how much I love them just one more time.