Bella & Tina
Clara Bella Donna Matilda Wold Anderson (1909-1985)
My grandmother, Bella, was born in Minnesota but raised in China as the daughter of Lutheran missionaries. She left China to attend university. She became a pharmacist, first in Iowa, working for many different towns in northwest Iowa, and then in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and worked in that capacity until her health no longer allowed her to work.
Christina Fernald Whitney (nee Smith) (1906-2000)
Excerpts from my 2011 post about my grandmother, Tina, in "One Common Reader" in Open Letters Monthly:
Lee was a gaunt Yankee apple farmer with a ready laugh and an easy manner. In the late 1920s, he fell in love with Tina, a slim and pretty English major. She always had her head in a book, but Lee didn’t mind. He liked Tina’s sharp wit and they loved to laugh in private at the follies of others. She made him feel smart, and, frankly, it was a relief to retire to her company at the end of the day. Lee’s family was less sanguine. Tina spent so much time reading and knew so little of farm life that she thought a boiled egg and asparagus was a suitable farmer’s dinner. What, they wondered, did sweet, funny Lee see in this bookish college girl?
A few years later, just a few weeks after the birth of their second child, Lee died. It was spring. There had been a flood. Lee went to help a neighbor and caught a chill. Now, Tina’s eccentricities rose to the level of crimes. Blinded by grief, Lee’s family blamed Tina, the English major who cooked meager dinners, for their beloved son’s death. Tina sat in bed, nursing her newborn daughter, shooing her toddler son away. She never cried. Lee’s family refused Tina any help. As soon as she was able, she put the children into foster care so she could enroll in secretarial school. It was 1936.
Tina kept reading. She read through the long years of her children’s growing up; she read when her son would race to the end of the driveway to greet each passing truck, hoping daddy was coming back. She read after work as a secretary in a private school in Worcester. She read when she sent her son off to boarding school, and she read while her daughter made her way through the public high school. When her son was in the Army and her daughter in college, she judged it acceptable to remarry. Whit was not as charming as Lee, nor as smart, but he was rich. Besides, she had married for love once and it hadn’t turned out well. She kept reading. It didn’t make her kinder or warmer. She never forgave the gods for taking her first husband from her. She raised her children, never shed a tear, and kept reading…
…After Lee died, Tina froze too. She never stopped reading, and she must have derived some pleasure from it. But, faced with a son who did not die young and make his wife a widow, and a granddaughter who was not forced by economic necessity to secretarial school, reading was also useful as a kind of vengeance. Reading was her salvation and her weapon. She wielded books—the giving and the withholding of them—with the accuracy of a crack shot. When I was about thirteen, she gave me my father’s old copy of The Portable James Joyce for Christmas. To me, it was an extremely puzzling gift, at once cheap and intimidating. Unsure how to feel, I went looking for my mother whom I found staring in disbelief at yet another hideous frilly apron. “I didn’t know what to get you,” Nana had said, “because you don’t read.”
What my grandmother seems to have longed for, and what she seems not to have had, is the legacy that she gave her children: ease with the idea of being a reader among readers. Though the communities of readers she found here and there may have provided some transient company, she was a solitary woman who left behind a family of readers. Both her son and daughter are readers, married to readers. My sister reads when she can, as does her husband, and their sons are avid readers in turn. My husband reads, as do his mother and grandmother. And our two little girls happily remain in bed, sometimes for half an hour at a time (an eternity to two children under seven), reading to themselves, telling stories about the pictures…
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