My runaway great grandmother

September 2017


I was told by my mother that her mother’s mother (my great grandmother, whose last name was Sild I think) grew up on an estate in Sweden in which her father was the manager for a wealthy family. She was the oldest daughter and because her mother was blind, she was told she could not marry. Her job would be to take care of her mother.

She was having none of that, and ran away (at the end of the 19th century), taking a boat to America, where there were no immigration restrictions of the type we have now. On the boat, the official story is that she met and married a Danish man. She also got pregnant.

When they landed in New York she went to the Swedish section of Brooklyn, her Danish “husband” disappeared, and she had her daughter, my grandmother, who spoke only Swedish when she went to school for the first time.

Having no way to support her daughter, my great grandmother went to Newport to work as a maid in one of the mansions, leaving her daughter in the care of strangers, I believe. I’ve toured one of those mansions that is open to the public, and it is enlightening to see the servants’ floor compared to the rest of the “cottage” — which is what the super rich called these summer homes.

At some point she met an electrician named Irwin who worked on the mansions and he proposed to her without knowing she had a daughter in Brooklyn. My mother said that her grandmother told Irwin (I don’t know his first name) about her daughter the night before they were to get married.

He was furious, but he didn’t call off the wedding and afterwards they brought my grandmother up to live with them. Later, they had one child of their own, my great aunt May, one of my mother’s favorite people in the world.

Grandma was a very intelligent and feisty woman. They said she was the smartest woman who ever graduated from Newport High School. But she conformed to the standards of the time and instead of going on in school she married my grandfather, John Vinti, and joined him in his tailor shop.

Her first child was born in 1907, my Uncle John, the mathematician who went to MIT at 16. My Aunt Helen (one of my favorite people in the world) was born in 1909 and my mother, to whom I will be forever grateful for her unconditional love and sacrifice, came along in 1911. I now realize just how strong a woman my mother was.

My grandparents lived downstairs in a two-family house (which my daughter now owns) and because my mother had to work doing telemarketing from the dining room table, I spent my pre-school days in my grandmother’s care.

She and my mother often clashed but she was always good to me, and as I got older I would still go downstairs at night after supper, play a game of cribbage with my grandfather and listen to radio dramas by myself in the bedroom, or watch TV (which they got when I was eight) with both of them.

Grandma had Type II diabetes for which she gave herself a shot of insulin every day. She was not, however, very good about her diet (she thought ice cream was OK as long as it was vanilla) and as she got older she lost pieces of her foot when her circulation failed.

She died of a stroke, lingering for a couple of months, unable to move or speak. I visited her regularly and found the visits very upsetting.

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Reply