Day 21: Peg

June 9th, 2015

Gramma Peg and Ralph

My Gramma Peg and her lovah, Ralph

I’m taking part in a 30-day writing experiment. See Kale & Cigarettes for details and the Facebook Group to read stories by other 500-words-ers.

My father’s father left his wife with ten young kids and never looked back.  This was the story I was always told. Only recently did I learn the details.

My grandparents, Alexander and Margaret, were from Worcester, Mass, a blue collar town outside of Boston lacking in industry and charm. Their two oldest kids—David and Ormond—were born in New England, but at some point, Alexander decided that the grass would be greener on the West Coast, so they moved to Seattle to make their fortune.

Unfortunately, Alexander was not the hardworking type. He was a “salesman” who would be gone for days on end and could never hold a job for long. Peg was relentlessly pregnant, and had eight more children while they were in Seattle, including two sets of twins born a year apart. The youngest, my Uncle Seth, once asked his mother why she had so many children—they were not Catholic, nor particularly religious—and she said, simply, “I loved him.”

Hamilton family

My dad and his brothers and sisters in the Plymouth they drove cross-country in 1958

Eventually, they gave up the Seattle dream and packed all ten kids into their 1948 Plymouth to make the long journey back cross-country to Worcester, into the Great Brook Valley housing project, where my dad and his brothers and sisters were to spend the rest of their childhoods. It was the ’50s, and despite their poverty and the crowded conditions in the projects, my dad and his brothers remember this time fondly. It was a time when trouble meant rumbles with rival gangs, a time spent largely outdoors, a time of Sunday family dinners.

My dad recalls: “I spent my childhood outside with friends. TV was in its infancy and there were no computers, so my environment was all reality and I enjoyed the hell out of it. We hunted, fished, explored, shoplifted, and looked for golf balls on the nearby golf courses so we could sell them back to the golfers. We went to sock-hops, boxed in the community center, had 4th of July bonfires—we burned couches, tires, and railroad ties, and the flames were hundreds of feet high. We didn’t worry about the environment back then.” It was a carefree and adventurous time.

The Great Brook Valley Housing Project

A map my dad recently drew me of the Great Brook Valley Housing Project

But it wasn’t a time of excellent fatherhood, unfortunately. My grandfather barely worked, so money was tight. One day, Peg asked Alexander for some cash for groceries. He gave her a dollar. Fed up and suspicious, she waited until he got in his daily bath and went through his pockets for more food money, which is how she found a love letter from his mistress back in Seattle. Always a force to be reckoned with, Peg waited until Alexander was out of the bath, dressed and suited up, to kick him out of the house.

But Alexander didn’t just disappear. Not yet. He came back with the community pastor, who had gone to high school with Peg. Now, his thought was that the pastor would talk some sense into her. He was drawing on her sense of propriety to keep her head in the game, and thought the pastor would smooth things over.

Peg sat the pastor down and explained all of her husband’s transgressions and all of her grievances. And by the end of the conversation, the pastor was winding up to punch my grandfather in the face.

So Alexander left, and he never came back.

Peg’s cousin was married to Carlton Adams, partner in the company R&A Machines, and she was able to secure a clerical position to support her family as a single mom. She was determined never to go on welfare, and she never did. The older kids pitched in to take care of the younger kids, and a result, none of her older kids ever got a great education in the schools. But, if you ask my dad and his siblings, most of what they learned, they learned on the streets of Worcester.

My grandmother Peg, who came from nothing and managed to make it work for herself and her ten children in the projects, found her own path through poverty. She never used food stamps for groceries; she never went on welfare. She eventually bought herself a car, and then a house.

And at some point, she began an affair with the owner of the machinery company. They were lovers for thirty years. As his mistress, she was able to travel all over—Europe, the Bahamas, Las Vegas—and eventually he had a beautiful retirement home built for her on the water in Jamestown, Rhode Island. My most vivid memories of her were in this mansion on the sea, a fat, happy old lady with a gin in one hand and a menthol cigarette in the other.

But my dad and his brothers and sisters remember her best in her glory days, ruling the roost in the projects in Worcester, Mass.

My brother, Elia, and our Gramma Peg

My brother, Elia, and our Gramma Peg

My grandfather Alexander did eventually circle back. In her later years, Peg asked her son Al to track him down. He had ended up back in Seattle and started a whole new family and a different life, but that summer, he was visiting his sister in New Jersey. My dad and most of his brothers and sisters still lived in New England at the time, so reunions were arranged. One by one, the kids agreed to meet their father—either in person or over the phone. But, from what I’ve been told, it didn’t go very well.

Peg once apologized to my Uncle Seth, her youngest, for making him grow up without a father. But as Seth sees it, they were all better off not knowing the womanizing, abusive, shiftless son of a bitch. And with a parent as heroic as Peg, they didn’t need another one. 


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One Response to “Day 21: Peg”

  1. Pegg Swanson says:

    Margaret, I loved your family history story!! After learning all about my adoptive family in North Carolina, I thoroughly enjoy hearing the histories of others! We all have a best seller in our family histories! Thanks for sharing this with me! Pegg ~

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