From the staff

Column: Interviewing Grandma makes family’s history come alive

akenney@newsobserver.comMay 23, 2013 

I misspelled my middle name for most of my childhood. I was maybe age 10 before there was a total epiphany, when my parents told me that “Jon” had no “h.”

That’s where it stood for 15 years. The three letters, I assumed, were an anchor to our Judaism and not much more. I knew Jon was my father’s first name, but he didn’t go by it. I never asked further.

I wouldn’t learn the name’s real meaning until this year.

See, history in my family has a way of going untold until you ask. We never had family Bibles or pristine genealogical trees. Our records, our money and our story have been scattered by young deaths and a tumultuous New York City century. My grandfather even chose our modern last name, Kenney, from a phonebook, as the story goes.

Through all that change there was Grandma Blossom, the oldest in my line and the best history book on Dad’s side of the family. The stories about her have inevitably become Kenney legends. Some seem almost too fantastic.

She once beat a mugger with her purse. She met her husband at a summer camp for communists. Joe DiMaggio trained her in the Army. A quintessential Brooklyn Jew, Blossom Pearl Gold once claimed she wrote a song for Lead Belly, the blues god.

I did make an elementary school family tree once. And Grandma was the subject of my first half-completed documentary, an interview on camcorder. (Uncle Alan paid me $50 for that one, making it my first freelance job.)

Still, all through my teenage years there was a patina of doubt on the family story as I knew it. We didn’t have strong traditions or tons of living ancestors to reinforce our historical arc. And, truth be told, the Lead Belly story made me question Grandma’s reliability as a source. Blossom is not a blues woman.

Missing the story

It was the dread of loss, really, that made me realize I’ve been guilty of a cardinal sin of journalism: missing the story under one’s nose.

Grandma had been calling less, stepping back from her job as family switchboard operator. Our daily talks became weekly and shorter in recent years. The large, argumentative woman has been sounding calmer, happier – and slower, seeming to drift toward the end.

By last December something was screaming in me: Go. Go. Go. I booked my trip to San Antonio. Days before my flight, they rushed Blossom to the hospital. The doctors prepared her for hospice, in case she made it that long.

I found her swollen, awake and recovering when I arrived. As usual, she was curious about me and the cousins above all else.

I didn’t know what to ask back, so I interviewed her.

Memories of Brooklyn

She seemed to pull up the past un-aged and undamaged – her memories of Brooklyn before the Depression, of her father and his fruit truck and his real estate, the cars they drove and the clothes they wore and the New York arts scene that blossomed in her adolescence.

We showed her photos of the New Dance Group – her one-time leftist dance troupe – and she easily named the young women. I asked her about Lead Belly, too. She said she’d never actually written a song for him, but she remembered him as a broad-shouldered man playing piano at a party.

I asked everything I could remember, trying to make her stories mine.

It was my uncle, though, who really surprised me. Over terrible pizza in the hospital lobby, he told me the story of the namesakes.

Peter, Robert and Jon, he said, flew alongside my grandfather in a World War II bomber. I imagine they became friends out there in the Pacific. Maybe they shared his ideology – a leftist, he had sneaked off as a teen to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. And they were likely young when they died. All three perished in a horrific crash, my uncle said, while Grandpa Dick was grounded sick.

Dick gave the names of his friends to his three sons as they were born, my uncle said. I’d never heard this story, not that I can remember. If it’s true, it means those men are bound to me, as is my grandfather, by that word I once misspelled, passed down by my Dad: Jon.

And Grandma Blossom, now out of the hospital and back home, corroborates the whole story.

Andrew Jon Kenney is a reporter for The N&O’s Cary News.

Kenney: 919-460-2608, akenney@newsobserver.com or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary

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