The Reverend Dorothy Enslow
“Name one good Republican President.” My grandmother challenged me. I stood before her only 14 years old, already taller by several inches then this diminutive lady but completely cowed by her power and knowledge. I had made the mistake of saying in a light tone “Oh, I think Ronald Reagan might make a pretty good president.” How could I know better, I was only fourteen? My grandmother had been only half listening to me up to that point. Her challenge once dropped had to be answered. You did not ignore a question my grandmother asked.
“Well,” I said quickly “ it seems to me that Eisenhower must have made a good president, after all he was a great general.”
“Eisenhower was a useless president.” grandmother replied tersely, “He got nothing real accomplished during the whole of his presidency.”
Stopped, briefly, because I didn’t have an endless supply of Republican presidents at my fingertips and the only ones that were alive during my life were Nixon and Ford. Even a 14 year old knew better than to bring them up, I paused to think.
“Benjamin Harrison!” This man, pulled out of my meager hat, belonged to my family tree. The only grandson of a former president to be elected president, he was not my direct ancestor, as was his grandfather William Henry Harrison, but family is important to women like my grandmother. I felt I had a strong candidate.
“Benjamin Harrison was a crook.”
Shot down again.
Now I had to think hard. A general wasn’t good enough, my family tree wasn’t good enough, I had to really reach down deep.
“Abraham Lincoln!” I declared with the surety that comes with knowing that you have the right answer.
As soon as that name fell off my lips I knew I had misspoken. Grandmother’s face took a form I know too well today. Tight lips, enlarged eyes, compressed pupils, all signs that a storm is coming. I see the same face in the mirror today when someone has pushed the wrong button.
“Abraham Lincoln allowed General Sherman to roll through the South, Burning down homes and killing innocent people. My great aunt’s family had the tragedy of being in his path. My great aunt was severely ill with Scarlet Fever and her mother plead with Sherman’s men to spare her house. They drug a mattress from the house and threw it on ground as the only accession burning her house to the ground. She died soon thereafter.”
I stood there, proven wrong, but not defeated. This was the beginning of my transformation into the Kennedy Democrat and the little gentleman that Grandmother Dotti wanted me to be. Carter was the first Democrat I watched and supported and whose defeat I mourned.
Grandmother (never grandma) Dotti almost always had it her way. The way we opened presents on Christmas day, the way we spoke, the way we treated others. There were always rules. Who knows from how many generations these rules came, whether they came over with the people who arrived at Jamestown in the early seventeenth century of whether they were written in stone by my Grandmother personally. No-one tended to disobey Dotti.
I spent a lot of my childhood at my grandmother’s house. Between extended visits such as the time my mother needed a place to stay between moving from Bainbridge Island to Whidbey Island, or the two times mother left her second husband, (the second for good) my grandmother always opened her house We never paid a price with money but often my mother paid a high price emotionally. My mother was a champion of Southern guilt. I of course didn’t see what it cost my mother until much later in life. In my early adolescence I went to Chinook Junior High which was only a few blocks away so I stayed there frequently. So often, in fact, I had my own bedroom.
It was during this time that grandmother addressed titles. After having asked her a question which I began with the title “grandma” that she turned to me and said “Jason, in the future I prefer to be addressed by grandmother, or grandmama, or Dotti, but please, not grandma.” Being that I was a teenager at the time and grandmama felt too childish to me and I couldn’t imagine calling her Dotti she became forever “Grand-mother. I always figured this was a throwback to the south and the stiff and formal people that raised her. Our ancestors were aristocratic plantation owning southerners who had money until their side lost the Civil War. I think that my grandmother’s generation simply didn’t want anyone to mix them up with the people who never had money. This may seem snobby or trite to some but they were very proud people who had to live with the knowledge that they had participated in slavery and lost a war.
Grandmother was raised by her grandparents. Her father killed himself and her mother became unable to take care of herself, let alone her children. Her grandparents were from a time when ladies didn’t cook, or do the cleaning. You always had people to do that for you. Her Aunt married an Astor and lived in a grand house in Chapel hill, keeping up appearances of a well founded family. The grand house, however, was in disrepair due to lack of finances and they lived for a time on things like dandelion salad when they could find enough weeds on the grounds. Because of this my grandmother never learned to cook well, and her house while superficially clean always had a layer of dust and a disorder behind the closed doors. This did not matter to me, children love disorder. As for her cooking, one of her signature dishes was hot dog casserole. A dish she came up with during my mother’s childhood when she received 50 pounds of hot dogs as an incentive for buying a deep freeze. This dish while getting carefully covered sighs from my mother, aunt, and uncles, delighted me. Her liver, on the other,was the kind of food that could cause starving men to scatter in front of a plate of it. She would take the liver out of the container, boil it until it was gray, fry it until it was black and dry and cover it with under cooked onions. To this day I can still smell the aroma of liver and feel the texture in my mouth.
A woman with strong religious conviction and strong ties to the church my grandmother followed her husband into the seminary after he died. She continued going to school even after driving her little sky blue Carmen Gia over an embankment smashing her face and hands. She had to hire someone to read her lessons to her but she endeavored and was one of the first women to be ordained in the Olympia dioceses. The ordination was performed in a stone church on first hill in Seattle and of course the whole family came. She became the Reverend Dorothy Enslow instead of Mrs. Hamilton Enslow.
She started out as a chaplain at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue Washington I used to visit her, sitting in her office listening to the documents and communications fly through the tubes overhead. She had a box under her desk with a large cross on it that was labeled “Bear Aid.” Opening this one would find a dozen teddy bears Dotti kept for sick children that visited the hospital. When she finally felt she couldn’t handle the four bedroom 3 bath house in the suburb of Clyde Hill she moved, with mother’s help, to a condo in Seattle and worked at a small church a few blocks away. As a young adult I visited her a few times in that little condo. I spent the night on her sofa, cramped and uncomfortable. I woke up to find my grandmother wearing her clerics uniform of black with the white collar making herself a small breakfast. Upon seeing me awake she asked if I needed a shower.
“I don’t really go to church anymore, grandmother.” I replied.
There was that look again, and I hadn’t even mentioned republican presidents (Reagan was still in the White House at this time and I had long since become an extremely liberal democrat.)
“As long as you are in my house on Sunday morning you are going to go to church and take communion.”
I went to church and took communion from my grandmother’s hand that Sunday. I remember that while my religious feelings had changed greatly and I did not any longer believe in the church I still felt a swell of pride in seeing my grandmother dressed in her robes, on the dais, the sacrament in her hand.
Rituals such as going to church were important to my grandmother. When I was little I remember the pre-dinner snack that grandmother and grandfather shared each having one bottle of beer. On Fridays however, they split one beer. Visiting my grandmother a couple of years after my grandfather had been taken by Leukemia I noticed that she still shared a beer on Friday. She would Carefully reseal the bottle with the intention of drinking the other half on the coming Friday. Opening her fridge you would always find carefully wrapped items waiting, slumbering, hoping to be opened and finished. Most would stay until someone came along and emptied the rotting things from the fridge.
The last conversation I had with my grandmother was well into her Alzheimer’s and she could remember me, and even my girlfriend whom she’d only met once, but couldn’t remember which child was my parent. Shortly thereafter she was moved from independent living to a care facility where she could get the help she needed. She died in 1999 after having spent thirteen years of her life with advanced Alzheimer’s. I went back up to Seattle to attend the inurnment ceremony when her ashes were placed next to her husband’s under St. Mark’s Cathedral, the dioceses headquarters for the Northwest area. I’d said goodbye to my grandmother years before when she ceased remembering all of us but seeing that little box with her ashes put away in its tiny crypt made her death real.
I will always remember my grandmother as the southern bell she was. A tiny strong willed woman who but couldn’t tune her clock radio. Stern and a little stiff, but still full of such love for me. She taught me many things, southern gentility and restraint, a love of family and the importance of ancestry. Many people and experiences contributed to who I am today but my grandmother helped build the foundation.
I still miss her, and probably will till the day I can no longer what it was like to be a child in my grandmother’s home.