Juliette Harrison Bethel Ryan (July 7, 1892 - Sept 27, 1973) Juliette was my paternal grandmother. I would like to share this vignette.
Fingering the obituary page and solemnly moving her head from side to side, Juliette Bethel Ryan, aka Granny Ryan, sighed: “People are dying today that have never died before.” A roar of laughter from the unintended humor rocked the living room. Granny looked up, completely surprised by our reaction. Unaware that her turn of phrase was noteworthy, she had simply spoken what was obvious to her. When I told her that I had started attending Sunday Quaker worship services, I can still hear her enthusiastic and smiling response after more than fifty years. “Oh, those Quakers—wonderful, wonderful people, they are. Why don’t they preach what they practice!”
Granny was a natural improviser. She never composed what she had to say, she simply began speaking and honored the words as they fell into place. She embodied the spontaneous life, always finding the agreeable answer, the supportive remark. She seemed to enjoy life as she lived it. As a dedicated shopper and sale-goer Granny had an eye for detail and a memory for numbers that would have made her the winning player on the “Price is Right”. After her death we found drawers and chests full of unused sale items. She would buy anything if it had been marked down low enough. Her motto was “always keep your receipt.” The forties and fifties in America were simpler times, of course. There were no cell phones to interrupt us as we shelled peas or snapped beans sitting on the front porch.
Juliette Harrison Bethel was born in 1892 in Goochland County, Virginia, the fifth child to Lavinia and Albert Bethel. I wish I knew something about her childhood. As one of eight siblings it may have been interesting growing up in rural Virginia. I do know that she married Harry Michael Ryan, Sr. in 1912 on June 26 in Richmond, Va and gave birth to my father, Harry Michael Ryan, Jr. on July 25, 1917. Her husband died in October of 1930, leaving her to raise a son on her own at the age of 38. She was left no property, and the story goes that she managed a rooming house for young working girls during the war years, although I don’t know how this could have been if she didn’t own any land or home.
Life must have been rough for Granny. She was a lifelong smoker, and she smoked SANO cigarettes. These she ordered by the case. Cartons of these cigarettes were all over her apartment. Granny was a good cook and a photo circa 1950 has her wearing an apron in the kitchen where we all spent a lot of time. She often fed me and my brother there. Granny had an ample breast and I can remember hugging her and feeling her large pendulous breasts. She prided herself on her complexion and used cold cream every night, and sometimes Noxzema cream (I can still remember that distinctive smell of that white, slimy substance.) She bought face powder in a pale shade that was supposed to match her complexion. She had a large pink powder puff that she patted on her face. I can’t remember her using eyebrow pencil or lipstick, but she was always covered in peach colored face powder. Her bedroom smelled of tobacco smoke and face powder as I recall.
She lived with my father during the 1950’s and had her own apartment when we lived on 3211 Grove Avenue. I don’t know where she went when my parents divorced in the late 1950’s. We moved into a series of apartments in the West End of Richmond. My mother took up first fashion modeling and later apartment building management to feed and clothe us. Granny died after a short stint in a nursing home in late September of 1973 at the age of 81. I must have been 31 years old. Where was I? I don’t remember going to her funeral. I was living in Granville, Ohio at the time and was teaching. I don’t think there was much of a fuss.
Juliette Bethel Ryan, my Granny wore gabardine suits and orthotic shoes with heavy Lyle hosiery. I can still remember her garters like large rubber bands holding up her stockings. She would often sit in “her chair” and chain smoke while watching a black and white television. There was a single bed in her room where I sometimes slept when I was staying with her. She was likely 60 years old when I was hanging out with her. She dyed her hair red, I think in later years.