My brother’s in town, flew out to be with his daughter, who just had a baby. She had a very difficult pregnancy, and we’ve all been worried about her and the baby, but it all seems to have gone well, as well as medical technology allows. Another of his daughters also lives in town, and drove up to pick him up at the airport. En route, she spun out on ice, and was in a three car accident, totaling her car, from which, thank heavens, she emerged unscathed. And so my poor brother had to cope with that–arranging to tow a car, rescuing a shaken but unhurt daughter, all before he could comfort another daughter, in recovery from her Caesarian. In the meanwhile, my daughter was also in a three car accident, but again, she was unhurt.
So tonight, we went out to dinner, my brother and my wife and my two daughters, and told family stories, sitting there in P.F. Chang’s chatting for an hour after we’d finished our food. And we told stories of my Grandmother, Lucile Thorne. It was very interesting–Grandma Lucile was a remarkable woman, but my brother and I, though we both loved her and knew many of the same stories about her, understood her life, I think, somewhat differently. For one thing, my brother insisted that she wasn’t a feminist–‘wasn’t a woman’s libber,’ as he put it. I was surprised at this, and insisted that she was very much a woman’s libber, though it’s certainly possible she might not have put it that way. But . . . well, let me tell her story.
Lucile Markham Thorne was widowed in 1940. She had five children under the age of nine when her husband, my grandfather, Harold Arthur Thorne, was murdered. Grandpa Harold was a traveling salesman, and picked up a hitchhiker, who killed him for his car. The killer, Donald Condit, was subsequently arrested, charged with the murder, tried, found guilty, given the death penalty, and executed. By firing squad, the last man executed via that method in the US until Gary Gilmore.
Grandma Lucile’s bank, unmoved by the plight of a young widow, promptly foreclosed on her home, leaving her homeless and penniless. (I will forgo further commentary on the hardness of bankers’ hearts). She moved in with her mother, Mary Markham, in Provo. Grandma Mary raised her children, and Grandma Lucile went to work, first as a librarian, then as a teacher. While supporting her family, Lucile also managed to earn a college degree, a Master’s Degree, a second Master’s, and a Ph.D. She was then hired by Brigham Young University, one of the first female members of the BYU faculty. When finally she retired, she embarked on a career as a professional actress, with small roles in a Disney movie, Take Down, the holiday TV movie Mr. Krueger’s Christmas, and a number of local commercials.
I knew her well. Grandma was almost unnervingly insightful. As a child, I would write stories and send them to her. Her response to a story from a grandchild wasn’t to say ‘oh, that’s lovely, dear.’ It was more like ‘you’ve misspelled these words, there are four grammatical errors that pulled me right out of the story, and I think your main character lacks motivation.’ I remember a story I wrote about a wolf. His family killed by evil hunters, he vows revenge. But his heart softens in the end, and he decides to let the hunter’s golden-haired daughter live. She read it, liked some of the writing, but said (I will never forget this) ‘you need to do more research on Montana (where I’d set the story). Plus, I found the ending sentimental. I think the wolf should go ahead and kill the child.’ I was nine. That was her advice to her grandson, the writer. And she was right. Wolves do kill; that’s what makes them wolves. I kept that letter for years.
Grandma loved books; every room in her house had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and visiting grandchildren were allowed one book from her shelves to take home. She was a dreadful cook–I’d visit her when I was in college, and she’d feed me ‘dinner’: a can of Chef-Boy-Ar-Di spaghetti, dumped on some browned hamburger. She loved Diet Coke, and kept a supply in a fridge in her office, until some officious BYU busybody removed it. Her response was to make labels reading ‘family home evening root beer,’ which she pasted on her Cokes; she was untroubled by officialdom ever after. At one point, she discovered that her assistant, who did not have an advanced degree, was paid more than she was. BYU salaries are confidential, but she accidentally learned of this pay disparity and went to her Dean about it. The Dean responded that the assistant was a married man with a family, and deserved higher pay. She pointed out that she was a widow with children at home, and received a condescending ‘you women’s libbers’ put-down. She came across his desk, grabbed his tie, and informed him he would give her a raise or face legal action. She got the raise.
I’m making her sound formidable, even ferocious. She could be. But mostly she was fun. She was a hoot. I remember she was visiting, and my Mom decided we needed to hold family home evening (a rare enough event). And invited Grandma Lucile to give the lesson. She kept us spell-bound for half an hour telling J. Golden Kimball stories. For those of you who don’t know J. Golden, he was a General Authority of the Mormon Church known for the saltiness of his language–which suited Grandma Lucile just fine.
All my cousins and I learned soon enough to have Grandma Lucile meet our prospective girlfriends (and boyfriends, I assume, though my generation of cousins ran mostly to boys). I had a girlfriend for two years in college that Grandma didn’t care for. When finally we broke up, she was delighted. “Oh, dear,” she said, “she would never have suited you. I’m thrilled you finally cut her loose.” Not quite what my broken heart wanted to hear, but she was right, as always. When I began dating the woman who became my wife, Grandma Lucile’s approval gave me courage to persevere.
She loved BYU basketball, but she didn’t like it when people stood up; she wanted to sit and watch the game. When fans would stand for a particularly exciting play, she’d whack ’em with an umbrella. They’d whip around, offended, and there she was, a sweet little old lady, beaming at them with a (carefully calibrated) beatific smile.
She was one of the most important influences of my life. A role model and exemplar, a treasured friend. My brother’s response to her life is to urge his daughters to pursue advanced degrees–certainly an appropriate response to a remarkable life. But mine is a bit different. What I get from her life is this: be yourself. Be fearless in that pursuit.
Families shape us in ways we don’t anticipate, and in which we may not be aware. I am convinced, for example, that my family remains touched by murder. For my brother, I can see it in the care he takes of his family, the way he is always there for them. For me, it’s story-telling. I look at my aunts and uncle, deeply esteemed and wonderful people that they are, astonishingly bright and kind and capable people all, and I can see some ways in which their lives seem still touched,for good and ill, by the horrific events of 1940. I’m certain my grandmother Lucile, with her preternatural insight, would have seen far deeply and far more truly than I could possible do. But she never talked about the murder. Not ever. And I understand that as well.
After Grandpa Harold’s death, she wrote him a love letter. She kept writing him, thirty years of love letters to the deceased love of her life. Those letters move me every time I read them. Some day, I will write about her, a play, a novel. I’m still not ready.