By Cecil Hoge
My grandmother was one of the most terrifying persons I ever knew. She was a large woman in every way. She was tall and in the years I knew her, thickset, but not fat. She was an imposing woman with very strong opinions which she was more than happy to share with anyone within sound of her voice. She was thought to be a beautiful woman in her day. She was a Louisiana Belle and it may be in her youth what constituted beauty was somewhat different than what it is today. To me she was a large scary woman who loved me very much.
I was her oldest grandson and she was most concerned that I be brought up correctly and become an upstanding young man. She had some reason to be concerned. My father’s marriage to my mother had not gone well. They divorced by the time I was eight and for many years I attended private boarding schools and saw little of either my father or mother. When I would come home it was under the guardianship of my father.
My grandmother took it upon herself to complete my education. This started very early and whether it was helping me put together an erector set or learn my catechism or give me advice about not going too far with girls, she was always there through the years to give me stern and depressing advice.
Duty, she told me, was the most important thing. When I asked her duty to what, she gave an answer I did not like. Duty, it seemed, was something you gave to everything and anything but yourself. Being young and yes, I admit it, self-centered, this duty thing did not sound like much fun. Apparently, you were supposed to do things you didn’t like just to obey your parents. You had to sacrifice the things you liked to do and do things you didn’t like for other people.
Duty included going to war for your country when you had just got married to your young and beautiful wife – I was too young to have to worry about this and I did not even have a beautiful girlfriend. Duty included giving all your earnings to your father, mother, grandfather and grandmother when they might not have enough – fortunately, I had no earnings to give. Worst of all, duty included going to Church with my grandmother – alas this was something I could not escape.
So from the age of eight to about the age of eighteen my grandmother dragged me off to the local Catholic Church, for my grandmother was Catholic. This happened sometimes in New York City and sometimes in Southampton. At the time, the Catholic Church favored Latin on the premise that it was better to use a lost language that sounded mysterious and impressive than use a current language that the Church goers might understand and question.
In attending the Catholic Church it was also an important part of my duty to have communion. This is in turn meant that in order to go to communion, I had to first purify myself by having confession. My grandmother gave me long and elaborate instructions on the duty of going to confession. It was, to put it mildly, tough duty. First and foremost, you had to go into the confessional and face the priest, who, as most people know, was happily able to hide behind a screen while you outlined your list of offenses. It always seemed a one-way process to me, this duty of confession.
Worst of all, you had to tell the truth. My grandmother was quite specific on this point. You had to tell the priest everything. If you kissed a girl on the mouth, you had to tell. If you had an impure thought, you had to tell. If you did something impure under sheets in the dark, you had to tell. If you wanted to get back at someone and you hated them for something, you had to tell.
The worst part was fessing up to the priest. It was a big relief when you left the confessional feeling pure and contrite. Then you could go to get your wafer, feeling good about yourself.
I have to admit that my grandmother was a good person at heart and she taught me many useful lessons, which though I hated, I respected after having followed through on her advice.
My grandmother taught me many things about life.
“Do not worry about someone being richer than you,” she would say, “there will always be people richer than you.”
Boy, was she right about that one.
When Sidney Cecile brought up her children, she did everything within her power to see that they had every opportunity. She had come North as Louisiana bride with new husband, Huber Hoge, to live in New York and make a suitable home for her children to be. This meant to her, to know the right families, to join the right clubs, to take her children to church. As time passed, her sons lost their enthusiasm for going to church, so she turned her attention to me. In a way, my grandmother, Sidney Cecile, became a big scary surrogate of a mother.
Sidney Cecile, as I have mentioned, was a lady of strong opinions. Coming from the South, her view of the Civil War and the role of black people was not, to say the minimum, politically correct. Her sense of family and upbringing would seem foreign and in some ways, quite ignorant. About her upbringing as young girl, she would say.
“Father was Attorney General, don’t you know.”
Her voice was high and lilting and she used the phrase “don’t you know” a lot.
“We lived on a plantation. We had 100 colored folks to tend it. It was 5000 acres, don’t you know.”
At look of sadness would cross her face.
“Everybody said he was up for Governor, and he would have been if it had not been for that other woman,” a stern and unsettled look passed over her face, “it was just so unfair. He would have been Governor, but then the newspapers reported about father seeing that other woman. I know it was not his fault. It was her. Mother was truly broken-hearted. She took father back, of course, but it just wasn’t the same. I declare life is sometimes just so unfair, don’t you know.
“Father never did make Governor. Everybody said it was his. Anyway, daddy came back to his practice, but he just could not make the plantation make money. We had to cut back on the colored folks we had.”
“It was just so unfair. Why they found oil on every other plantation around Father’s. Why they found gushers of it just a few hundred acres to right of our house and just few hundred acres to left. They all found oil, but not Daddy. I declare it was just so unfair.”
My grandmother, who held duty and family honor in the highest esteem, also was a hopeless bigot. I do not blame her. She came from a different time and culture, growing up as a young child in Louisiana in the late 1800s. The Civil War was a vivid memory that she and many of her relatives remembered. No doubt her ideas were formed by the recollections and reminiscences of her early childhood.
“The colored men,” she would say in her lilting, high Southern voice, “are savages, but the colored women make fine maid-servants.”
How’s that for a politically incorrect statement. Yes, she was prejudiced, but strangely she bore great love to the very people she maligned.
“I was brought up by my Mammi,” my grandmother would say, “She was a wonderful strong woman. She nursed me as a child and she taught to become a woman. She had a fine heart and she was the strongest, wisest woman I ever met. When father went off with that other woman, I cried in her arms for hours.”
“Don’t you fret child,” my Mammi said, “he’ll be back. Sometimes the menfolks got to go away for a time, but they always come back. They needs us womens.”
“That’s what Mammi said and Mammi was right,” my grandmother went on to say, “Father did come back, but it was just not same…mother never forgave father and father lost his chance to be Governor, don’t you know.”
My grandmother never forgot the fact that her father never made governor of Louisiana. She never forgot that they never discovered oil on her plantation. They were two of the great injustices of her life.
She also never forgot that her sons were never able to keep her in the style she thought should be hers.
“If I knew that I’d end my life without a lot of money and lot of maid servants, I doubt I would have married your grandfather. He had such good prospects. I left everything I knew to go with him. And he did so well in the beginning. We had such a good life together, with kids growing up and a new boy every one or two years. And his business was just doing fine. We lived in nice apartments and nice houses. In the winter we lived in the city, in the summer we went to the mountains or the Hamptons – we had such a time deciding which was better. In the mountains the air was wonderful, but in the Hamptons you had the wonderful ocean. For many years, we just couldn’t decide. Finally, we settled on the Hamptons. Life was going so well, don’t you know.”
“But that’s the way life is, just when you think everything is going just fine, something happens to slap you down, don’t you know. It was then that dreadful depression came. Why all the money just disappeared.”
“And what you don’t know is the happiest years for you and your family are the last years of your parents.”
And while my grandmother felt that she should have ended her life as an heiress, she still spent all her living and waking hours trying to figure how to improve her children’s and grandchildren’s lives. This ultimately ended in me listing myself in the New York Social Register. As a college graduate I did not think that there was much point or importance in being listed in the New York Social Register. But my grandmother insisted it was an essential of life and she nearly wrote the check out for me.
My grandmother grew up in an era when people were transported by carriages pulled by horses. She grew up in a time when people had to get up in middle of the night and go outside to what my grandmother called “that smelly little house.” She was raised by people, black and white, whose memories were seared by wrenching changes and burning memories brought forth by the Civil War. She ended up living through the 1880s, 1890s, World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, the 1950s and some of the 1960s. She saw her four sons and daughter grow up, get married and have children. She managed through it all to be mother, grandmother, matriarch, social battleship, ignorant, intelligent, loving, spiteful, driven, honor bound, duty bound, conflicted, confused and totally focused. In short, she was our family center for most of the 84 years she lived.