“Ascending or Descending?”

C6 San Fran- 004

Reading a book on genealogy, I ran across an idea espoused by Bruce Feiler in The Secrets of Happy Families. He suggests that family narratives follow three paths. One is an ascending story line. We came from nothing and now we are prosperous. The second is a descending story line. We used to have it all and then we lost it. The third is a balance of the two. We have had our ups and downs as a family, but we have weathered it together.

I have spent the last couple of days doing more research on my paternal grandmother in hopes of understanding her a little more. I realized that she was a living embodiment of the descending story line which probably explains the bitter approach to life which I encountered with her. She never spoke to me about her history, nor did my father, but I have been able to learn a lot on-line.

She was raised in comfort in Paris by parents who were second generation cloth merchants. Her mother’s family had made a fortune in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. (They attended the same synagogue as Levi Strauss.) Her father’s family had done well in Europe. Her first husband was similarly well to do.

I am not sure who she thought my paternal grandfather was, but he was a Manitoba wholesale grocer, far from prosperous. Then, after only 12 years of marriage, he dropped dead in 1930, leaving her with two boys age 11 and 12. She made a bad investment of the life insurance and was left with little. She wrangled a scholarship for her sons for boarding school and left them there. She never lived with them again, at one point even going to Hollywood to “be in the pictures.”

Once her sons were grown, she depended on them for financial support the rest of her long life. She never thought they helped her out enough and complained about one to the other. But she did leave a legacy for my father and uncle. They actually proceeded to live out the ascending narrative, going from nothing to prosperity. A full arc over three generations.

14 thoughts on ““Ascending or Descending?”

  1. Huh. I would love to hear it from her perspective. Hollywood? And investing money badly? And ditching kids in boarding school but then counting on them financially…? So interesting. I wish I knew the insider scoop from her.


  2. Wow, what a story. That’s remarkable that her sons did not disown him at all. I could only think that the blood or DNA of their father is thicker than the mom. I always think that it takes 14 generations (biblically speaking) to break the cycle.


  3. So interesting! Too bad that she didn’t make better investment choices and had to rely on her sons, although it wasn’t quite enough. Some of these themes in your post today run in our family too 😦


  4. Fascinating! It’s wonderful what we can learn of our families from online sources. I’ve dabbled in genealogy over the years: my paternal grandfather being the ‘mystery’ in our family and proving very difficult to trace. What we do know suggests his too, is an example of a descending path. Of his two sons (one being my father of course), one continued the descent and the other climbed upwards.


    1. I am able to understand a lot more of my family dynamics from this exploration. A woman who would abandon her first four children to leave with a man made a poor mother to her next two.


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