Sally Donaldson: Searching for Lydia

Posted:  Friday, September 9, 2016 - 8:45am

I grew up under the serene, blue-grey eyes of Lydia Kirk Donaldson, my father's mother who'd died when he was 16. Her portrait, strategically hung over her mahogany desk across from the fireplace, dominated our modest 1950s living room. She had a strong jaw line, a straight, tidy, WASP nose, and thin, precise lips. Looking down at me from widely spaced, intelligent eyes, framed by full dark eyebrows, she was more handsome than beautiful, stately in a quiet, pensive way. When I was young, a part of me wanted my grandmother to come down off the wall and talk to me, another part wanted to give her a quick curtsy and be on my way out the door.

I was curious about how my middle name, Kirk, connected me to the portrait of that grand lady and the desk with its flap that folded out, revealing cubbies, small drawers and hidden compartments perfect for Easter eggs. Lydia's elaborate tea service from the family company, Samuel Kirk & Sons, circa 1850s sat on a sideboard where it was polished weekly but never used. By the time I was old enough to ask about her, Lydia had been dead for 25 years. Idealized in life by an adoring husband who had been grateful that she'd deigned to marry him, she'd become a saint in the eyes of my father; Lydia the magnificent, a lady, a great wit, an accomplished artist and writer, a free thinker, avid, intense and thorough in all her endeavors. My father spoke admiringly about how before beginning to paint with oils, she learned to grind and mix her own colors.

My father's memories of his mother had collapsed into a few stories told over and over again. He claimed that she knew how to take apart a model T Ford blindfolded.

"Why blindfolded?" I asked.

"If she had to work in the dark she'd know what she was doing, like if she was in London working for the ambulance corps during the war," he said.

But Lydia never went to London. Instead, she spent World War I comfortably ensconced in an apartment on Claremont Avenue in New York City, where she watched the warships on the Hudson and heard the sounds of bugles from the Students’ Army Training Corp. at Columbia University from her window. Although she never used this purported skill, I liked to think of the elegant lady in the portrait down and dirty and covered in grease. My favorite anecdote — a claim more than a full-blown story — was how Lydia started the first YMCA for African Americans in New Jersey. In spite of her unthinking acceptance of segregation as the norm, I saw heroic possibilities in these small shards of information. Here was a devoted wife and mother, who was competent and far seeing, who painted and wrote and took herself seriously, a lady who learned how to do masculine things but most impressive of all, she had been worshipped by her husband and adored by my father.

Having noticed that my father's deepest feelings were reserved for a woman who'd died in her prime, I wondered if I'd have to die in order to be awesome like Lydia. I took pleasure in imagining my funeral. After a slight where I felt unappreciated, I'd say to myself, "They'll be sorry when I'm dead." I'd envision my funeral; my mother is crying, wishing she'd been more sensitive, my father's trying to figure out where he went wrong, the teacher who accused me of purposely pushing Muffy off a swing regrets her harsh words. My schoolmates are dazed. No one can believe that Sally is dead at 8  years old. People would say wonderful things about me. Exactly what they'd say was unclear, but surely I, like Lydia, would be honored and become a tragic heroine of what-might-have-beens.

But I didn't want to die. I just wanted to penetrate Lydia's unblinking gaze with its suggestion of unspoken standards. I would glance up at her portrait and wonder if she'd like me, if was I worthy of being a Kirk. I imagined Lydia at her desk, head slightly bowed, writing thank you notes in the morning and serving me tea on leisurely afternoons. I'd learn from her how to grow myself into a woman that men, particularly my father, would see as the final authority on all that was original and true.

In my late teens I found the Lydia book, a collection of her drawings, poems, short stories and journal entries compiled by my grandfather the year after her unexpected death at 42. This memorial book was intended for Lydia's children and unborn grandchildren and beyond. The grandfather I knew as a child was a gruff man with a scratchy mustache and a loud, commanding voice. He sat at the head of the table, carved the meat and demanded warm plates. But the man writing the introduction to this memorial book in 1932 was soft and vulnerable, struggling with a void beyond all mental and spiritual conception. He was relying on love and grief to attune him to his tasks of portraying his wife's personality for a completeness such as Lydia's is too rare, too wonderful to permit corroding time to dim the memory of that personality.

In my grandfather's grieving eyes, Lydia lived on a pedestal, where everything she did or said was marvelous, just right, perfect.

Over the years I poured through the thick pages of this beautifully rendered, self-published book, looking for Lydia. Sometimes I simply wanted to validate or expand my father's mythic tales. At other times I wanted to debunk the myth of her perfection and find a more human underbelly. Mostly I read in search of a heritage to embrace.

My grandfather's account of Lydia's involvement with “the negro problem” was more circumspect than my father's grandiose claims. In his introduction, my grandfather described an interest of Lydia's that mystified him. “Her insatiable thirst for knowledge of things that piqued her curiosity always mystified me.... During the winter of 1931-32...Lydia became interested, through an unusually intelligent colored maid, in the so-called "Negro problem" ... After considerable study she joined a committee of women interested in the colored YMCA...When one considers that Lydia was born into a community that takes the Southern attitude toward the negro, that she was reared in a home largely operated by negro servants, her interest in this subject indicates her mental curiosity, and more important, to put the fruits of that curiosity to some useful purpose."

While Lydia was not the dedicated reformer my father had led me to believe, she engaged in a world beyond the confines of her comfortable existence. I don't know if this interest was a form of noblesse oblige, typical of ladies of her station or something more interesting, a social conscience perhaps. Whatever Lydia intended to do remains a mystery, for she died soon after joining the YMCA committee

Excerpts from her War journals, 1917-1920, portray a lady with little formal education, protected by class privilege and a small independent income, striving to recreate her gracious, turn of the century, Baltimore childhood. She noted the shortage of stables, the fluctuations in prices, and wondered, "how can the working people live?" She complained, "With most of the house servants in the factories women of modest means, are having a difficult time. Cook get[s] $60 a month. Laundresses and cleaners $3.50 a day...we look a long time at $5.50 before we buy two tickets to the theatre with it. Having gone through... six maids in succession at enormous wages ($16 a week) each one more antagonistic and incompetent than the next," she tried her hand at housework. She stated, "I am doing all the cooking and prefer fatigue to a Bolshevik in the kitchen."

While her war journals were replete with classist assumption, Lydia appears capable of managing her household on her own.
In an entry dated Dec. 27, 1918, Lydia described attending a march down Fifth Avenue for returning veterans. Angered that soldiers did not get sufficient applause for the travails they'd endured, she wrote, "Is the American crowd stupid or is its indifference due to lack of imagination?" I hear my father's admonishment, "Come on Sally. Where is your imagination?" reverberating through the generations.

The Lydia book included short stories she'd written for a class at Columbia University in 1918. In the short story entitled Spode Cups, the heroine, an older woman, the charming, mellow 50 that is made possible only after a sheltered, comfortable life, struggles in reduced circumstances to keep her large house afloat until her son, John, is established in a career and her daughter has married someone of our set. At dinner with her son they reminisce about better times when there were four maids and a complete set of Spode cups. When John gets a much-needed job with a wealthy contractor, he's served tea in Spode cups by the wife who, much to his surprise, is a former maid, our Mary O'Brien. The mother chastises her son for evading Mary's invitation to call, saying, “You need not have done that. I think you rather a snob.” She explains that it's the turn of the wheel and asks for Mary's address so she can call upon her the next day.

I liked the heroine's spunky defiance of the class barrier her son was upholding on her behalf, though I wondered if Lydia accepted the "turn of the wheel" as inevitable or was she simply inventing a falsely magnanimous self in the story. Did she worry about holding her place in society? Was she disturbed by the contradiction between a sense of justice and the privileges she took for granted? I have no idea.

Eventually I came to accept that much as I stared at her portrait or how closely I studied the memorial book as a Talmudic text, I would never know the real Lydia, a woman with ordinary insecurities and maybe a hint of a dark side. The Lydia I could know was like her portrait; an iconic image, airbrushed by longing. My grandfather, father and I all had different versions of who we needed Lydia to be. My grandfather had needed an object of devotion to give his life focus. In the memorial book he said, “My one real interest in life was Lydia.” My father, who'd experienced his father as exacting and critical, needed someone creative to appreciate his artistic temperament. Perhaps only the love of Lydia the magnificent could ward off the pain of his father's disapproval and defuse their unspoken resentments.

I needed someone who could see beyond the confines of my suburban 1950s childhood. My father had emphasized good sportsmanship and kindness, instructing me on the first day of school to be especially nice to the new girl in the class. My mother expected good manners, tidiness and niceness, reminding me whenever I was irritable, "If you don't have something nice to say about someone, don't say anything at all." Getting good grades to secure future success was not required since being an attractive, polite girl was sufficient to marry well, the only goal imaginable at the time.

In my need for someone to ask more of me than my parents, I, like my grandfather and father before me, I turned to Lydia Kirk, that is to the imaginary Lydia I cobbled together from my father's stories and my grandfather's grief, for inspiration. For me, Lydia, the grinder of paints, the fixer of cars, the woman who single-highhandedly built the first YMCA for African Americans stood for excellence, curiosity, justice, the primacy of the imagination and artistic pursuits. She prefigured other strong, determined, often severe and judgmental women I sought out and admired. These women, my living Lydia replacements, my elderly Russian analyst, the wife of my psychology professor, and certain highly accomplished women friends, set high standards but believed I could meet them.

Sally DonaldsonSally Donaldson has worked for the past 30 years as a psychologist/psychoanalyst in private practice in Greenwich Village, N.Y. She is a recent graduate from Stonecoast, with a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction. She is currently working on a memoir, Falling in Love After Fifty, about how two people with complex pasts and children on both sides, come to love each other. Her work has appeared in the Penobscot Bay Pilot and Method Madness.

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— Kathrin Seitz, editor, and Cheryl Durbas, co-editor

"Everyone, when they get quiet, when they become desperately honest with themselves, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there." — Henry Miller

Kathrin Seitz teaches Method Writing in Rockport, New York City and Florida. She can be reached at Cheryl Durbas is a freelance personal assistant in the Midcoast area. She can be reached at