My paternal grandmother, Margaret Brooke Earle, passed away on August 3, 2009.
Although being so far away from home is particularly difficult at a time like this, I know that my grandmother supported my adventurous spirit and would have wanted me to keep traveling the world, collecting the stories that will one day be passed on, like her stories, to the next generations. And so to a woman who has inspired me, molded me, and loved me with the indulgence that only a grandparent can bestow, I’d like to dedicate these pages in loving memory.
Grandmom grew up in the small town of Front Royal (or, as she used to call it, “Front Roll”), nestled into the Shenandoah Valley of the Appalachian Mountains in northwestern Virginia. Despite her small town upbringing, she did the unthinkable for a single young woman of her generation and first left home to study art in college, then later left Virginia to see the big wide world. She moved to New York—something that would come much harder to me nearly 60 years later—and lied about her age to become a stewardess for American Airlines when air travel was still young. Back then, being a stewardess was nearly as glamorous as being a movie star—and only the young, beautiful, single girls were chosen for this prestigious job. She moved to Hollywood, California, where she lived in a house with the other young stewardesses among the stars…and she had any number of great stories about these young, crazy, independent years. After the war, she returned home to Front Royal, where she married her childhood friend and sweetheart, an Air Force pilot named A.B. Honts. The next few years saw the young couple moving around with the Air Force and the arrival of my dad, uncle and aunt. But in the early 1950s while test piloting a B-52 bomber, my grandfather died when the plane malfunctioned and crashed. Not long after, my grandmother remarried to a longtime friend, also from Front Royal—my Granddad, Samuel Earle. Until the children were grown and gone, Grandmom and Granddad continued to move around the U.S. and the world, even living for a time in such places as Peru, Morocco, and the Philippines. Though my grandparents moved back to their hometown later in life, my grandmother never lost that adventurous spirit that drove her to leave home as a young woman and see the world.
I was fortunate to grow up near Richmond, Virginia, close enough to visit my grandparents regularly. My grandmother was therefore a constant presence in my life, and I believe much of my artistic tendencies and wanderlust were fostered by her own skill as an artist and by stories of her journeys. Wandering through her old Victorian home was like a visit to a museum where you could see and touch the relics of times gone by—the walls were draped with decades of her oil paintings, and all around the house were the decorations and trinkets she’d picked up from her travels across the globe. When nobody was looking I’d sneak over to her paintings and touch the canvas—an indulgence I was forbidden in the art museums she took me to—and I’d fantasize about which of these landscapes, still lives and portraits I might one day hang in my own home. Likewise, it was hard to resist running my fingers over the Moroccan doll or tooting out piercing notes on the Peruvian rock whistle carved in the shape of an animal. I’d stare at the Chinese silk screen at formal dinners in the dining room and trace the patterns of the oriental rugs with my toes. In hindsight, as an adult, it’s pretty easy to see that I soaked all that in and followed in her footsteps.
The older I got, the closer I became to Grandmom. As I matured, so did the nature of her stories; as I accomplished more, the more she encouraged me to go on; the more time we shared, the more we developed our shtick and inside stories. We shared something special—she was my confidant, my mentor, my sidekick, and my role model.
One of my earliest memories is playing tennis with my grandparents on the courts at Randolph Macon Academy in Front Royal. Both of my grandparents were avid tennis players, and I even went up to Front Royal the summer after 4th grade for tennis camp. Every day, my grandmother took me to the sports club for a morning of tennis (a sport which I never really mastered the necessary hand-eye coordination to play), every afternoon she’d take me for a chocolate malt at the local classic 1950s diner, The Royal Dairy, and every evening I’d catch fireflies out on the lawn. That was also the summer that I got a really bad case of poison ivy by walking on the brick wall next to the fence separating her yard from the neighbor’s yard. I knew better—my parents and grandparents always told me to watch out for the poison ivy there—but I did it anyway. …And I learned that I have a severe reaction to poison ivy the hard way. I can remember spreading the ointment all over my body (since the skin all over my body pretty much looked like a giraffe’s pattern at that point), and Grandmom doing her best to distract me with oil pastels and a sketchbook.
Thanksgiving dinners with my grandparents were classic. This was the only time of year that the whole extended family was together, and it was always a loud, loving full house. My grandmother would often stay up until 2 in the morning the night before Thanksgiving, preparing as much food as possible in advance; then she’d already be in the kitchen when I came down for breakfast, still preparing the most amazing meals of my childhood, aside from the tomato aspic, which was dreaded by all of the grandchildren. Good, Southern table manners were enforced, and we were constantly reminded how good we had it—that in my grandparents’ day, children were seen and not heard. No one was allowed to take the first bite until my grandmother—the hostess—took the first bite…and after a long Thanksgiving prayer, waiting for this moment wasn’t easy. After I’d graduated from the children’s table to the adults’ table, I still had to be on full alert—an elbow on the table could lead to a painful flick from Grandmom, the sting of which was always surprising coming from such a petite woman. However, Grandmom still allowed a few things at the table that wouldn’t have been allowed at home—only at her house was I allowed to sprinkle sugar on my breakfast cereal!
My grandmother was also an avid skier, and she surprised us all by going skiing with my family in Breckenridge at the age of 75. I was in high school at the time, and I remember imploring my parents to talk to her and convince her not to go. But at the end of the day, my grandmother had skied a day of perfect runs, and I was the one who took all the spills. She could be quite stubborn and tenacious, and I believe that kept her going for a long time.
In recent years, Grandmom lost her independence and her health. But through it all, she was still the same, sparking woman—part Lucy Ricardo, part Grace Kelly—the clown, the charmer, and the belle of the ball. Our visits were filled with incontrollable laughter, plenty of Jitterbug, and her beloved treat, a margarita.
When my sister had first started dating her husband, I was hanging out with my aunt, uncle and grandmother in Connecticut. My aunt and uncle posed one serious question after another about my brother-in-law’s character and his intentions, while my grandmother listened in silence. After a few minutes, Grandmom spoke up. “But what I really want to know is”—all eyes were turned to the matriarch of the family, expecting a grain of wisdom from her many years—“…Does he like margaritas?” We laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe.
The last thing my Grandmother wanted was a margarita. I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard this—in full Grandmom style, she still had her charm and wit about her to the end. Grandmom is going to be dearly missed by those she left behind. But someday I’ll see her again—and when I look for her in Heaven, I’ll find her, in a new and perfect heavenly body, perhaps with a margarita in her hand.