May 21, 2018

My grandmother, Alison Jean Maxwell-Wood late in her life

Dateline Seattle, Washington –

Today was a low-key day with the theme of family history. I went out to see my mother for a bit this morning, but she was having none of it and didn’t seem terribly interested in engaging at all. I don’t know exactly what my mother’s dementia is, but I suspect a hereditary variant of Pick’s disease as language seemed to be the first major faculty to go. Her mother did not have issues, but died relatively young, at least by today’s standards but then 75 was considered quite elderly. Her actual cause of death was aortic valve disease from old rheumatic fever. Today, they would have plopped a new valve in but back in the 70s she was considered far too old for cardiac surgery. My mother’s grandmother and her great aunts all had the same pattern in old age of a progressive dementia that began with losing the ability to communicate. If it is hereditary, I have a 50/50 chance of carrying the gene as these processes are all autosomal dominant. Not something I’m going to worry about. Can’t do anything about it anyway.

I had lunch with my cousin Jenny, the pseudo-sibling closest to me in age, at a nice place with a terrace overlooking the water. We sat for several hours with our gourmet burgers and iced tea talking over family stories and how we, who seem to be the designated archivists of our generation, need to get all the family papers and history and photos in order for the next generation and the ones to come after that. The power of narrative and the human story keeps coming up this trip. Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something.

Dinner with my father, sibs, and one of my nieces. More family stories, mainly for my nieces benefit and we had fun poring over photographs that have been tucked away for years. I did break down over dinner and tell my sister, the tattoo artist, that she can tattoo me tomorrow evening. It’s a Tommy/Steve memorial piece and going under the T-shirt.

Story of the evening – based on my conversations with my cousin. My mother’s mother, Alison Jean Maxwell Wood, was born in Dumfries, Scotland to local gentry (her grandfather was a Victorian developer, trained as a mason, he bought up land, built houses, and sold at a profit netting a tidy sum). Her father, trained as a physician was also an amateur historian (some of his books on local history can still be found.) At the turn of the twentieth century, he relocated his young family to Edinburgh to improve his practice and my grandmother grew up there. Her father died when she was in her teens from some sort of pulmonary problem but she was bright and had caught his interest in medicine. She therefore spurned the idea of early marriage, got herself educated and admitted to the University of Edinburgh as a medical student, something that well bred young ladies of her generation just did not do. When she graduated, she became a pediatrician in the Lake District of England, serving the young mothers of the small towns and making her rounds on a motorcycle.

My grandmother, mother and aunt – late 1930s

She met my grandfather, several years her junior, who was a medical student at the time, and married him after he finished his training. He then carried her off to his home in South Africa. She took one look at the indolent colonial lifestyle of the 1930s and informed my grandfather that they would stay there over her dead body. The dilemma was solved when my grandfather was offered a position as anatomist and orthopedic surgeon at the University of California medical school (later to become UCSF) and off they sailed for the new world, arriving in 1931. My mother soon followed in 1932 and the rest, as they say, is history. My grandmother never practiced once they emigrated to the US. She threw her energies into helping my grandfather with his career (and as he rose to become the founding chancellor of UCSF she did pretty well at that) but she always remained a quiet, but strong behind the scenes advocate for women in medicine from the 30s through the 60s.

My grandmother died when I was 13 so I never got to know her as an adult. I think we would have gotten on well. For years my mother would tell me, whenever I would pontificate on the health care system, that she could swear she was listening to her mother.

Maybe I come by it honestly.

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