I have a grandmother I never got to meet. She was my father’s mother, Jean Hellman. Before I was married, my middle name was her maiden name: Chrystie. In the dozen or so photographs my family has of her, I can’t help but see an uncanny resemblance. I look almost exactly like her. Jean died of a rare form of meningitis when she was 46 years old and my father was 21, several years before I was born. My mom once described a turquoise pantsuit Jean had made herself—she made a lot of her own clothes—and that she was “very social,” and because of these details I have related to her in tiny ways. But, I never met her.
What do we do with the knowledge of someone who is genetically part of us but who we never knew in life? For me, Jean was one of the main inspirations for starting to research certain women I am related to and building a website of grandmother stories. Something about the unknown parts of Jean’s life, and the “void” my father talks about feeling since she died, made me want to delve in and imagine her, I guess because part of me is in those places too. If I could imagine what a day was like for her in her early forties, working two jobs and raising two sons, having fun on the weekends with her friends, maybe I could discover something about myself, the way I move about my own life.
Jean Chrystie Hellman is a large part of why I am interested in grandmother stories. I have more "stories" to tell about her, really bits and pieces I've heard from family, along with fiction I've written as a way of imagining knowing her. The facts I do have—she was born on April 5, 1921 in Jersey City; her parents died when she was young; she was a gifted seamstress; she liked hot weather and tropical places; she loved the beach; she was a single mother from 1954 on—tell a lot, but of course there is so much more I will never know.
This glimpse of Jean's story is here now as a welcome to others to post their own stories of the grandmothers they never knew. As I find out more and write more about Jean, I'll post it here. An unknown story is never ending.