Grandma Emma on the right.
I have begun numbering these entries, as it’s getting confusing on my end keeping track of The Big Picture. On a “housekeeping” note, I’ve found that every once in awhile messages to me get lost between my iPhone and my computer. If anyone has written to me and I haven’t responded, please resend. I respond to everyone. Dianne Wolfe, did I see a note from you that disappeared before I could get back to you? Anyone else?
Now we have come to The Mystery of this narrative. When I decided that I would write this “memoir” (I really wish there was a better, less pretentious word for this genre of writing. Somehow “memoir” and “West Virginia” just don’t go together in the same sentence.) I thought I would read a few of them to get the idea. Russell Baker’s Growing Up is considered one of the classics, a book I read years ago and liked, but on rereading I found it kind of boring. Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is a terrific book, very funny, but the similarities of some of Bryson’s experiences to my own were frightening. I think that came about because small American towns in the same era, the 1950s, offered the same sorts of experiences to young boys, except maybe the Big Red Band. I particularly liked a memoir by a friend of mine, Mary Bonina, whose My Father’s Eyes tells the story of her growing up and being her father’s “eyes” as he slowly went blind. Mary writes with a grace that I will never achieve, a style that is perfect for her story. I’m afraid you’ll find little of Mary’s grace in these pages.
After reading these three books, I decided to hell with it and just plunged in.
I’ve always felt that memoirs are supposed to deal with larger themes: a mystery, a great wrong, a great evil, a great personality, a search, a loss, something larger than what “regular” people experience in a lifetime. Well, you won’t find that here. Getting kicked in the ass hardly measures up to being beaten and abused by one’s wicked stepfather. Hardly anyone went to jail in Parkersburg in those days, or at least for crimes that rose above stealing cars or chainsaws, though one day we awoke to read in the paper (there were two papers, a morning and an afternoon edition) a story on the front page about a local hunter who had gotten drunk, crawled over the fence in the city park into our small zoo and killed the only animal inmate there, a female deer. I believe the trail of blood pointed the authorities to his nearby home. Murders, of people rather than deer, were rare and usually fueled by alcohol and family grudges.
I have only one small mystery to offer. The mystery of my grandma and The Great Pretender.
As a child, I heard the following story several times, but when I asked my mom about it when she was in the nursing home she said she had no idea what I was talking about. Which doesn’t really surprise me. By then she was recounting stories of people coming in during the night and taking showers in her bathroom and conducting Dionysian revels there. Often they abducted her, and she ended up abandoned by the side of the road. To say that her memory was by then unreliable is a laughable, or pitiable, understatement.
In the mid 1950s, Life magazine published a long article about an incredible man, Ferdinand Waldo Demara, who had led an amazing life. Demara had spent years inventing himself as many different men in many different occupations, none of which was the real Demara. Much like Don Draper in Mad Men acquiring his Army buddy’s name and life, only many, many times over. Demara was known as The Great Imposter, or sometimes The Great Pretender, and there eventually was a movie made of his adventures with Tony Curtis playing the title role.
Demara, or Fred, as he was known, presented himself over the years as a master of many occupations. He was a Roman Catholic, so he started out as a Trappist Monk. He left the monastery and joined the Army in 1941, then falsified a buddy’s name and went AWOL. He joined the Navy, faked a suicide and turned up as a religious psychologist. He was arrested for desertion and did 18 months in a federal prison. After that, he invented himself as a civil engineer, a sheriff’s deputy, a prison warden, a psychologist, a hospital orderly, a Benedictine Monk, an editor, a cancer researcher, and a schoolteacher. His finest moment came when he was working as a doctor (he had no medical training) during the Korean War aboard the HMCS Cayuga and was faced with 16 wounded soldiers who all needed medical care, some of them in dire straits. Fred had the men prepped for surgery, went to his cabin and boned up on proper surgical technics from a textbook, returned to the operating room and worked on the bunch of them, including a fellow who needed extensive chest surgery. They all survived.
The story I was told… Actually, I’m not sure anyone actually ever told me this story. This is the sort of tale I probably heard while sitting on the porch on a summer evening, unnoticed as the grownups talked about the family. Listen for the crickets, the soft squeak as the glider swung back and forth, the sound of the wooden rocking chair on the wooden porch, the low voices of moms and dads, grandmas, aunts and uncles.
One day, as near as I can narrow it down, around 1950, a man appeared in Parkersburg, on Maxwell Avenue, and knocked on the door of the pebble house. I ask myself, was Grandma Emma living there alone? It had to be shortly before we – me at the age of four or five and my family — arrived from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to take up residence. Grandma refused to let this man in, it was said, and went out to the street and talked to him there. They stood in the street, at the intersection of 18th and Maxwell. They had a long conversation, and eventually the man was sent away. At that point in the story it was revealed that this man was Fred Demara, The Great Imposter himself, and that he had arrived in our town to ask Grandma to come away with him. She refused.
Whaaaa? One of my touchstones, as a non-fiction and fiction writer, is that if a story is too crazy to be true, it probably is true. Why, how, could anyone make up such a whacky story? What would be the purpose? Trust me, such wild inventiveness is beyond my humble progenitors in Parkersburg. I have no idea what to make of it. I have researched it and have come up with no corroboration. I am continuing my research, meaning I have recently read the two old books written about Demara, (God bless Amazon.com and the Internet) but there is nothing about my grandma or West Virginia in either of these biographies. I have a feeling I’ll never know the answer. Grandma Emma — short, round, apple-cheeked Emma of the iron will — the love interest of an international man of mystery? How could this be?
I have no idea. But I also have no idea how it could not be true. Why would they have said it? Is this another of my false memories. AM I INSANE?
It’s often been said that all families have mysteries, but I wonder if that’s really the case. Anyone out there have a family mystery that they would like to relate?