Lum: Ancestral role models |

Lum: Ancestral role models

Frank, my maternal grandfather, was one of the sweetest, funniest men I had ever known. Since he died when I was 6, my memories may have been formed naively, and he did have his quirks.

For one, he thought that college for his two daughters was a complete waste of money and refused to invest one cent in their higher education. His wife, Monie — a formidable woman — got around this impasse by selling milk, butter, eggs and magazine subscriptions to put both girls (my mother and my aunt) through Agnes Scott college.

If money was the impediment, here was the solution. What could Frank say?

I have a better memory of the relationship between my mother and father. During the 1940s, the primary bond was between husband and wife, with the children being somewhat peripheral. Not unloved but not the center of their universe, either, as kids are today, starting with listening to Mozart in utero.

My parents never fought, and part of the reason for that was secrecy. For instance, my mother hated Gran, my father’s mother, who came to live with us when she was widowed at 57. And vice versa, Gran didn’t hold much truck for my mother. This was blatantly obvious to me and my two siblings, because we were the ones who would hear them muttering about each other, out of each other’s earshot.

“I put something down, and it disappears,” my mother would growl, while Gran, in the next room, could be heard saying, “Mess, mess, mess.”

My parents never fought about this because both women kept their secret from him or, as I suspect, he was a willing accomplice to the silence.

My mother was in charge of cooking breakfast for my father (we would grab for the Cheerioats) and dinner every day for the family, a rather drab affair since my father had an ulcer and the cure back then was blandness, consisting of a baked potato, a vegetable, a beef or fish produce (chicken was a delicacy, more rare than prime rib) and something like a pudding.

Gran was right about the “mess” part, but my mother did all the sewing except for my father’s suits, reupholstered the furniture, put up wallpaper and became an expert potter, moving on to quilting in her 80s when her old hands couldn’t use the potters’ wheel.

My father was an electrical engineer for the Bell Labs, first working in the city and then making the move to Murray Hill. He did secret decoding things during the war and always came home with complicated homework involving slide rules.

My parents’ roles were so defined that I couldn’t imagine one without the other. When they were together, my father always drove the car. He was in charge of everything mechanical, of building our radios, tending to the mowing and raking of the yard, while my mother was in charge of the vegetable and flower gardens. If a control on the stove broke, we waited for my father to get home to fix it.

My father was brilliant, but I don’t think he could have cooked a scrambled egg if his feet were held to the fire. Cooking was not his job or anything he wanted to learn how to do, but he sharpened the knives with a whetstone and did all the carving.

My father was hopeless regarding gifts, relying on my mother to shop and wrap for us at Christmas, and usually the two of them agreed on buying each other something for the house. One holiday season when I was about 9, my father got all excited about a present he actually had picked out and wrapped for my mother. Doors were closed, and you could hear his moans as he wrestled with ribbons.

The next morning he presented it to her, and we all were stunned to see a garish purple, puffy bathrobe. My mother, horrified, put on her best act and wore that robe every morning at breakfast and removed it the second my father left for work.

Su Lum is a longtime local whose parents loved each other. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at

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