There’s More to the Story

My family will gather soon to say goodbye to my mom. It has been a month now since she passed, which is impossible to believe.

I looked back at my blog and counted 40 posts written about her and the challenges of how to help an aging parent. Documenting the many situations and solutions was the constant thread through all those stories.

As I reviewed them, though, I realized something. I understood what I was trying to do when I wrote them, but on these pages, her life begins at age 87. Her story starts at the end and I never shared the beginning. So I’m turning the theme upside-down. The following is a unique look at my mom; the woman who was once light years away from being an aging parent.

Her name was Gretchen Grauer, and she was born in 1930 to well-known Cleveland artists and teachers William C. Grauer and Natalie Eynon Grauer. I found an old newspaper interview from the 1950’s sharing a tiny glimpse into her childhood.

“Her memories of a bohemian childhood are some of her fondest. There was the Fine Arts Studio (in Cleveland) where a young Gretchen rode her tricycle up and down aisles of artists practicing their craft. And there were glorious summers at the Greenbrier Hotel near Charleston, where her father taught art classes while painting murals at the legendary hotel.”

Yes, mom spent most of her summers as a young girl living at The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, while her parents taught classes there. The history of this stunning, famous resort runs so deep, I cannot do it justice here.

Some may be familiar with its name because of the famous secret “bunker” once built there, which was exposed in 1992. It had been a U.S. government “relocation facility” to house Congress in the event of a nuclear war. Buried 720 feet into a hillside and attached to the Greenbrier, its location remained a secret for 30 years. (This was many years after my mother’s time there.)

On July 12, 2016, I had an informal oral history sit-down with mom about her summers at the Greenbrier. Hers was a truly unique experience, and I wanted to put her thoughts in writing. I didn’t know then that dementia was right around the corner. I am thrilled I did it.

Here is a partial interview about her summers as a child:

How did the Greenbrier affiliation begin?

“Rorimer-Brooks Company was a well-known Cleveland interior decorating business started by Louis Rorimer. His company was hired to redecorate the Greenbrier Resort sometime around 1929 or 1930. Rorimer had already worked with daddy (Bill) when he hired him for the Kansas City Club murals. This led to his involvement at the Greenbrier. It included painting the murals as well as the start of the art school and the gallery.”

How did the art school and gallery work?

“The art school was on Alabama Row. This was part of the Cottage Row section, which was separate from the main hotel. Guests at the resort were welcome to visit the art colony at any time to paint, draw or attend classes taught by several visiting artists.

The gallery was set-up in the hotel. It was called the Old White Art Gallery; it showcased the students’ work. Resident artists teaching at the school could also exhibit there. Some famous artists teaching there included Russell Barnett Aitken, who was a sculptor and the enamelist Ed Winters. Henry Keller and Rockwell Kent also taught there. They all held exhibitions there, including my parents, of course. Both my parents ran the Summer Art Colony and the Gallery.”

What was it like to be a young girl staying at this famous resort every summer?

“For many years, we had a cottage near the hotel. I had a nanny because classes lasted all day. They weren’t formal classes, really. Students were encouraged to walk in for advice and Bill was often seen heading out on location to one of the hundreds of beautiful scenes on that property. But one or both of my parents always came back to the cottage during the day to check in.

I kept busy. Sometimes, I went to the Greenbrier polo games. I played with some of the children of the hotel’s guests.

(One of those playmates was “Sunny” Crawford, who later became the heiress and socialite who married Claus von Bülow.)

There was a children’s gift store down by the cottages that had all kinds of fabulous toys, big bears, anything that a child would love. It was fine for me to go in and look, but the toys were very expensive and I never actually bought anything.

Every night, we would walk over and have dinner at the hotel. Mother made me dresses, including the popular Kate Greenaway dress. (She was a character from a well-known children’s book.) I didn’t really like it though. I hated the nylon. It wasn’t comfortable. I even attended the children’s Costume Ball every year, which included balloons, music and food. It was probably held at 5:00 in the afternoon!”

When did it end?

 “World War II ended my parent’s time at the Greenbrier. I think it closed for six years once the war started. I do remember that the cottages used by the Art Colony eventually got taken over by the government for a hospital.”

This story almost feels surreal to me. But it happened.

In 2000, when I was turning 40 and mom was turning 70, our family planned a milestone visit to the Greenbrier in order to see the work of my grandfather in person. He created the murals still appearing in the Virginia Room and the Presidential Cottage Museum. Wow, the history was palpable.

Those early years were formative. Gretchen spent a lot of her life promoting her father’s artwork and being by his side at gallery functions, etc. Right after college, she worked for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, placing color in their comic strips. She married and had my sister and I.

She dabbled in painting, but her strength was having an excellent eye for design and fashion, which served her well in chic retail positions. She always dressed impeccably. We lost my father in 1978 and she never remarried. She lived alone for the next 40 years.

Watching her own mother as a co-director both at the Greenbrier and as a city college art teacher, I know that ideas of equality and a certain level of confidence were instilled at a very young age. Her astrological sign was Leo, the sign of the lion, and that suited her perfectly. In fact, her mother and she had birthdays only a day apart. I think that dual dynamic absolutely influenced her and the raising of her daughters – the next generation. Piece all that together, and it is a portrait of a strong, modern woman. It’s quite a life we will be celebrating.

Mom’s high school senior photo

PostScript Thought:

Who in your life has a story to tell? Hold a conversation (or several) and write or record their words, whether it is a friend, a sister or a spouse. I don’t think it has to be limited to young and old. I can only share that it is uniquely comforting to end up with the documented words of a loved one.


19 thoughts on “There’s More to the Story

  1. I wrote about my mother too–a lot–on my blog. Then I wrote a memoir, which included her stories and ancestry. Watch out, Melanie. You can do a lot with those blog posts and that beautiful photo, which looks a lot like your retirement picture posted not so long ago.

    A loving tribute! Thank you. . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You have landed on a very interesting premise Marian, something I have been thinking about this summer. I respect your thoughts because you have been there and Mennonite Daughter was great. It’s encouraging that you think the content may be of interest. Thank you so much for that and thank you for enjoying the tribute and photo too. I wanted to show mom’s beauty as a young woman.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like your idea of letting us get to know your mom during her earlier years. All of the stuff about life at the Greenbrier was particularly fascinating. Did your mom ever date after your dad passed, or was that idea unthinkable to her? How great that you thought to interview your mom. Thank you for sharing this backstory of her interesting life.
    As you know, I often write about the most influential people in my life. To this day, I say that my mom was the absolute best person I’ve ever known. To say she had a significant influence on me is an enormous understatement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those are special words to say that your mom “was the absolute best person I’ve ever known.” What a tribute to both mother and son! You are truly lucky. My mom did eventually date, but I remember only two suitors. One was long-distance and the other man passed away. At that point, I think she was done. I interviewed mom on 3 or 4 different topics, so if I can’t remember something, it’s like I can still get the answer from her in my paperwork. That brings me joy. I’m glad you enjoyed getting to know my mom a bit more Pete, you have read all 40 posts I think! Thanks so much.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’ve been a wonderful daughter to your mom. I’m sure she must have been proud of you and the courageous way you dealt with your health issues.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What a beautiful tribute to your Mom Melanie. She would have been so proud to have read this. She was quite the renaissance woman! Such an interesting read on the history of The Greenbrier resort – part hotel, part bunker, part art studio! I never knew. Also-I thought I was looking at YOUR high school graduation picture! Beautiful. And a beautiful life well lived.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Greenbrier is undoubtably a fascinating place and that it intersects with my own family history is incredibly random. I mean, I grew up in Ohio! I do hope to return there someday. And I agree, I never really thought I looked much like my mom until I saw that photo! Holy smokes! It was sort of a full circle moment. Thank you Pam. ♥

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  4. Wow, Melanie! What a wonderful thing to do to write your mom’s story. You’ve written 40 posts about the later part of her life and now you go back to the beginning. Your mom’s high school senior photo is beautiful. It’s a great thing to have her photo and yours side by side. My daughter does that a lot, having her photos and her kids side by side. I save a few of her baby dresses and she put them on her kids to compare.
    Thank you for your follow. I saw that I followed you already. Sorry that I have checked the blogs for quite some time because of the moving. I’ll get back to normal in a couple of months.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment here Miriam, I know your life is FULL right now. 🙂 That’s a good idea about side-by-side photos, I will definitely do that! Yes, I felt like I had focused so much on her later years (which in all honesty was the sole reason for my blog for awhile) and I never shared her at her best. So, you’ve “met” her when she was young and full of life and brightness. Anyway, thank you and best of luck with the move and your book launch and everything!

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  5. What a lovely tribute to your mother Melanie. How exciting that must have been to live at the resort during her childhood. Her photo is so beautiful. You and she were both blessed to have such a wonderful mother/daughter relationship. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Debby. I had to reach this place with her, but am grateful that I did. It was a journey to understand the influences that made her who she was and I believe writing this blog helped me through that process! I am also grateful that by moving closer to her 7 years ago, I had frequent opportunities to push that understanding along. I am in a good place. ♥

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Fascinating story about your Mom and grandparents. She was very pretty. When i go to memorial services I always like looking at the pictures of the person when they were young. A lot of the time I only knew the person when they were old so it’s really hard to imagine it’s the same person sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Janet. My sister ended up bringing some photos on board last minute, and they were a big hit. Just think, a very long time from now, there may be a few photos on a photo board of your own college days. 🙂

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