Next weekend, I travel back to where I grew up for a cousin’s reunion on my mother’s (Ackerson) side. My mother, Jane, is the middle daughter of 3, and is on the right in the photo. Her older sister is Marilyn (far left) and her younger sister is Barbara (middle). My mother is the only surviving sibling and so it seemed a good time to gather to acknowledge her and honor our ancestors that can’t be with us.
My mother, Jane Renee Titus Ackerson Cleaver is now 87 and the last of the Ackerson daughters still alive. She married my father, Robert Cleaver, in 1951 and they were together for almost 64 years until he died in April 2015. I admire her ability to manage the changes that come with getting older. She still goes to exercise class. She is the first person I saw doing yoga.
My grandfather was Alfred. Born in Bedford Stuyvesant, he eventually moved to Wilkes Barre, Pa, where would run for office, work in a Studebaker-Packard dealership and, with my grandmother, raise 3 daughters who would attend Wyoming Valley Seminary Day School.
Almost up until the year he died in his 80’s, he drank alcoholic beverages and smoked a pipe . I attribute his long life to the fact that he kept busy pretty much up to the end (and of course, healthy living!). I remember his piano playing (duets with my mother), his swizzle stick collection, the Prince Albert tobacco that he smoked in a pipe and that he called me “Stevie”, in his gravelly voice. He loved Manhattans and being social.
My grandmother, Edna (Ed), didn’t live as long, but left a greater impact on me . She was a gentle person and stills erves as a guide in my life. Her maiden name was Pope. She figures in my play, In the Bardo, when she tells that main character that it is best to tell grandma the truth because grandmothers know everything. This story comes from a summer when I stayed with them and I broke a ceramic apple in a display in the dining room. I was 8 and had been throwing it up in the air (which is what one does with ceramic apples, right?) and I dropped it. Rather than tell her I put it back in the centerpiece. Like ceramic apples just break on their own? She asked me and my brother if we knew anything about it and fortunately I “fessed” up. She told me (with no anger) that it is always better to say something right away. That lesson has stuck with me.
She also figures in Gaps Between the Platforms. Daniel, the main character, visits her grave in Brooklyn (where my grandmother’s grave is and where she was born-around the corner from Barbara Stanwyck). Next to her grave in Gaps, there is an oak and the oak figures powerfully in the book. The name Acker means “meadow of oak trees.” Thankfully, I now have a big oak in front of my house that both supports, guides and stands where I can see it out my Writing Room window. Like many of the saints who gave off the scent of flower, Daniel’s grandmother returns in spirit form with the scent of Prince Matchabelli’s Stradivari, the scent I identify with my grandmother. She died after that summer that I stayed there, and I remember being homesick. I told her and she asked, “Are you sure you want to go home?” I stayed another week and afterwards I wondered if she knew if it would be the last time I would get to spend with her. I am glad she questioned my desire to leave earlier.
It is fascinating to look back and see how these people have influenced my personal story and the stories that I write. I look forward to continued stories. Oak trees may have large and expansive branches and limbs, they also need strong roots.