Imagining a Life

Imagining a Life

July 30, 2013  |  Personal, Portraits

These opera glasses are part of a small collection of objects I display because they are beautiful and because they have meaning for me. They belonged to a woman I never met: my grandmother, Ethel Maugh Brown, my father’s mother. They have fascinated me since I was a little girl. We were not a family who had much use for opera glasses. As I recall, they spent most of their time safe in their almost-distintigrating leather case, in a drawer nestled among my mother’s also-rarely-used silk scarves.

They are one of very few artifacts we have of Ethel. Half a dozen photographs, a gold-nibbed pen with a delicate mother-of-pearl handle, and a letter she wrote to my grandfather (I like to imagine she used the pen to write it) one week before they were married in September 1915.

Other than that, we have dates. Lester Brown was born in Plymouth, Michigan, on October 13, 1880, and Ethel Maugh was born in Mooretown, Ontario, on March 25, 1884. They married on September 2, 1915, when Lester was almost thirty-five and Ethel was thirty-one years old. They were mature newlyweds by the standard of the day. Ethel was thirty-five years old when she gave birth to her first and only child, my father, on August 6, 1919. She was forty-eight years old when she died on September 6, 1932, four days after Lester and Ethel’s seventeenth anniversary. My father was thirteen.

I try to imagine their love story. That’s all I can do, with so little to go on. I don’t know how they met, only that Ethel was a schoolteacher. I do know that in March 1915, Lester started working for A. Bentley & Sons in Toledo, Ohio. Lester kept a small notebook in which he listed all his places of employment, from starting his first job at Conner Hardware Store on May 3, 1900, to starting as a payroll auditor at Michigan Mutual Liability Company on July 15, 1918. He worked there for twenty-five years. He used the same little notebook to record his daily expenditures starting on November 15, 1906 through June 15, 1907. Every meal, every streetcar ride, every visit to the barber. Lester was a detail guy.

Ethel, on the other hand, sounds like the Gracie Allen to Lester’s George Burns. In that one precious letter, written one week before her wedding day, she tells him, “Received your letter this a.m. Was in the midst of packing my trunk. You see I left it until the last moment. Will you look after it when it arrives? Of course I didn’t remember the number of our house so I just sent it to Toledo. Hope nothing happens to that trunk. Most of my earthly possessions are in it.” I just love that. I’m sure Toledo was a smaller city in 1915, but still.

My grandfather lived to be ninety-six years old. He married again in 1941, and lived with Alma, the only grandmother I ever knew, until he died. Grandpa was friendly to adults, but he never really knew what to do around kids. I remember him as a Sunday-dinner-mind-your-manners kind of grandpa. For the last dozen years or so of his life, he and Alma lived around the corner from us. I don’t think I ever saw him without a tie.

I never heard Grandpa talk about Ethel. I’m sure he would have thought it inappropriate, and disloyal to Alma. It never would have occurred to me to ask him about her. My father died in 1994. Toward the end his life, he gave my sisters and me the gift of going through old family photos and sharing his memories. Whenever he picked up one of the pictures of his mother, Dad’s face would soften and light up all at once. It seems she was a special person. That’s why I particularly love the picture of the two of them below. I love the playfulness of it, the way Lester looks so happy. It takes a woman I never knew to show me a side of my grandfather I never saw.

Yes, I am a romantic. But I love the mystery of these few mementos, and I’m happy with the way I have filled in the blanks. I believe Ethel was the love of Lester’s life. I wish I had known her.

Perhaps she would have introduced me to the opera. I bet she would have made it fun.



  1. What a fabulous post Dorothy. I do love the way you’ve filled in the blanks too, no-one can begrudge you that, and taken us on your journey through delicate words and images.

    • Thank you so much, Ed. In my family, we are all reminded of Ethel because my oldest sister looks just like her. But somehow the objects — the opera glasses and the letter — speak more to me of her than the photographs. I hold them, and I wonder.

  2. A gentle story, nicely told.

    • Thank you, Deb. It is kind of startling to realize that Ethel was born almost 130 years ago, and I am only two generations removed from her. It is possible to keep the story alive for her great-granddaughters. It is the best kind of history.

  3. I find this post fantastic, Dorothy. For what it tells me about your grandmother; for what it tells me about your grandfather; for what it tells me about your father; for what it tells me about you; for what it tells me about your family.

    I also love this story because it reminds me of the importance of photographs and of mementos. Those small things that are so important to the meaning of our lives, that define for us our place of belonging, our connection to others through place and especially time. They point the way back and they point the way forward. They are poignant and cut right to the quick: what matters; what is important; what is of value.

    I have heard it said that we die thrice: Once when we meet our physical end; once when people stop speaking our name; and lastly when there is no-one left who remembers us. I wonder what she would make of hearing the impact she has on your life?

    • I am really touched by your response to this post, Brian. Thank you. It’s coming up on 100 years since Ethel wrote that letter, and I’m so glad we still have it. Her voice really comes through to me. I love the connection through time that you speak of. I feel so lucky.

  4. I loved reading this post, and it resonated with me today, having worn the earrings of my great-grandmother I never met. I found them in my grandma’s safe when I moved her out of her home. They were labeled, “my mother’s” and smelled like old but sweet perfume. All I know of my grandmother’s mother are the few things grandma mentioned, and I often imagine her life, too. You have done so here with Ethel’s life so eloquently and with such a beautiful display of mementos. This post was a joy to read and see. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thank you, Moriah. I love the connection, however tenuous, of items handed down through generations. I think that’s why flea markets make me feel sad sometimes. So much displaced history. I love that your story includes three important elements: the objects themselves, the scent (trust you to notice that!), and your grandmother’s handwriting. I’m so glad you found them.

  5. Such a lovely, poignant story in so many ways. Thank you for sharing it and the photo. My mother’s mother died at 27, when my mom was 7, so I have had a lot of speculative thoughts about her, too, teased by the very few details I heard through the years.

  6. Love this,Dorothy. I didn’t even know any of this story or the dates. I like to think they loved each other and that there was a time when Grandpa was happy and had joy in his life. A big thank you.

  7. Dorothy, what a perfectly lovely piece–it resonated on so many levels–imagining, and catching a glimpse of a softer side of your grandfather–the wonderful story about Ethel addressing her trunk to Toledo, with no other address–the mementos you have, that hold a bit of the stored history within them. I love it that you are connecting the dots in your imagination, and I do believe you are right about Ethel being the love of your grandfather’s life. What a wonderful and inspiring project you are immersed in!

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