My Grandmother Hiles followed her own rules and lived an extraordinary life. She stood tall, straight and thin, with unruly gray hair on top of her head. Keen, penetrating eyes peered over the top of her gold-rimmed, owly glasses. When she turned her attention to you it was best you made sense. Her nose was beaklike, reminding me of an eagle. Frankly, I don’t think she liked children.
She attended Mt. Holyoke College for two years. Handsome Judge Davidson of Augusta, Georgia, was smitten with her beauty. He was determined to make this 19-year-old his bride despite the 20-year age difference. She reluctantly agreed.
They had three sons—Douglas, Treat and my father, Sidney. Judge Davidson died early, leaving a trust fund for the boys to attend Lawrenceville School, Yale and Yale law or medical school, and a modest inheritance for Grandmother. My father was 10 years old at the time.
She and the boys returned to cousins in Warren, Pennsylvania. She next married Richard Hiles, a lawyer. She recaptured her former sense of gaiety as they traveled and shared similar interests. He died two years later in 1903. Grandmother was 36 years old then and fed up with men.
A nervous breakdown followed, and she would not speak or eat until Rosa Pasco, an English nurse, was summoned. Miss Pasco admonished her: “Tell me what to pack. We’re going to travel tomorrow.” This marked the beginning of a 50-year companionship filled with adventures around the world. Auntie Pasco, who was jolly and welcoming but entirely practical, handled the money, plus did the cooking and housekeeping when they didn’t have a servant. Grandmother simply went along.
For about 10 years they settled down in Brooklyn Heights, buying 69 Remsen Street next to us at 71 Remsen Street. (My parents subsequently moved into my grandparents’ double brownstone house at 82 Remsen Street across the street.) By now the sons had married and had their own families.
Taxis were for tourists at the time, walking or subways were the modes of transportation. The two ladies walked everywhere; they loved matinees on Broadway, setting out on foot across the Brooklyn Bridge and returning in the same fashion.
I remember these excursions, both of them properly attired in their long dresses, hats and gloves. They wore sturdy lace-up English leather shoes with a low heel. Each grasped a large furled man’s umbrella, using it as a walking stick, and over their shoulder an ample handbag that held a pair of galoshes, should it rain. They never complained about the weather or their feet hurting. Sauntering back down Remsen Street after the theater, they looked as if they were strolling along a country lane. I thought these forays were splendid; no other women on the Heights showed such imagination and high spirits about their walks.
During these years Grandmother and Auntie Pasco took a 100-mile walk around Cape Code. I can still hear Auntie Pasco in her English accent regaling everyone with her description of coming into Back Bay Boston: “We were full of dust, looking definitely seedy, and in need of lodging for the night. The concierge was reluctant to rent us a room because all we had were our handbags over our shoulders and big umbrellas. So we suggested she telephone our bank.”
Apparently, the clerk at the other end said, “Don’t worry about Mrs. Hiles and Miss Pasco. They walk all over the world, but they’ll definitely pay for their rooms.” So they had a lovely night, and both took long hot baths.
They also loved walking on the Continent and in the Alps but were especially partial to taking rambles in England. The villages were close together, and public paths crossed the farmers’ fields. “At noon we often found a church open and would stretch out on the pews for a nice nap, hoping the vicar wouldn’t come in and find us,” Auntie Pasco recalled without the slightest remorse.
Then they decided to rent their house and investigate India and the Far East. Mother was disapproving while Father wavered between being uneasy over their capriciousness, and yet, reluctantly, he admired them.
I never could imagine Father or Mother doing this sort of thing. Certainly, no one on the Heights lived as Grandmother and Auntie Pasco did, unaware of their ages and what might be appropriate. I found it embarrassing that they carried on in such a way and then told everyone about it. My parents’ travels on cruises or scheduled trips were more dignified lacking such excitement and color.
Aging was not in their vocabulary, and the amusement they drew out of life amazed me. Anything seemed a possibility, even though women were more constrained at that time.
Look for the next installment in The Charlotte News, where Grandmother and Auntie Pasco unexpectedly meet head hunters in New Guinea.