Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Verna: 1909-2002

My grandmother, Verna Hazel Hewer, was born in Windsor, Ontario, on February 11, 1909, into a world we would scarcely recognize today.
The automobile was an expensive novelty, and most people still got around by horse and carriage. Flight was experimental, photography was in black and white, cinema was silent, and the average life span was 54 years.
As a child, Verna developed a love of dancing and choreography which never left her. When she was 3 years old, Verna performed before the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and Edward Windsor, the Prince of Whales who eventually became the King of England – only to abdicate the throne for the woman he loved.
Verna, her sister Lorna, and parents, Clara and Vernon, immigrated to the United States on Thanksgiving Day, 1920, ending up in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  She became a naturalized US citizen on May 28, 1940.
While growing up in Grand Rapids, Verna became a student (along with the young Betty Bloomer) at the renowned Calla Travis Dance Studio, eventually becoming their lead teacher.

By the early 1930s, she had married and was living in Jackson Heights, New York. Verna was more than a mere witness to our times, she was an avid participant, utilizing her talent in the art of dancing and choreography. During World War II, she volunteered at USO clubs, teaching soldiers and sailors dancing and the social graces.

My grandmother with my mother at Atlantic City, New Jersey, summer of 1940. By this time, she had already accepted that my grandfather was an alcoholic who couldn't hold down a job, and that she would have to support the family. In 1947, she met Fred Astaire, who asked for her assistance while researching Latin dance steps. At a time when women were relegated to the kitchen, Verna was asked by Astaire to help create a network of dance studios which carried his name – a chain still in existence today. Verna opened the first Fred Astaire Dance Studio outside of New York City, in Columbus, Ohio in 1947. Studios in Akron, Youngtown, and Cleveland (where she moved in 1948) followed. In the 1960s, when Fred Astaire Dance Studios became less about dancing and more about crunching numbers, she sold her share in the studios and returned to her first love, choreographing several musicals and becoming a founding member of the South Euclid/Lyndhurst Recreational (SELREC) singers. In addition, she once again organized adult classes which she continued until 1997. She reluctantly retired from teaching at 88 years old.

By 1983, I was living with my grandmother in the aftermath of my parents' divorce - from which my mother never recovered. I had my own issues, but "GrandVern" guided me through a rough adolescence with great skill: deftly balancing the values of responsibility, tolerance, and sociability - she was determined that her shy grandson engage in a social life. In the 10th grade, I joined the Brush High School drama club. GrandVern never minded when I stayed out late, as long as she knew where I was. I blurrily recall returning home after 1AM one night in the summer of 1984. As I was in the bathroom, brushing my teeth to cover the smell of cheap beer, GrandVern popped her head in the door. "Did you have a good time?", she asked. I nodded in the affirmative. "Good. Now be sure to take an aspirin before you go to bed so you don't have a hangover in the morning." I never could pull anything over on her. My grandmother harbored great bitterness toward my father and forbade him from attending my high school graduation in 1985. Her feelings were more than justified, but I was quite upset. Within a few months, I'd moved to Massachusetts.

It is often said that one is remembered for one’s labor and for one’s love. Verna will certainly be remembered for her accomplishments, and by the many people who loved her. But Verna will also be remembered for her charm, her grace, and her determination. She made things in life seem so effortless that her iron will was sometimes forgotten. Verna also had a temper which could sparkle like a Roman candle, and I don’t think it inappropriate to recount that when this diminutive lady felt she was being treated unfairly, her brilliant blue eyes would take on a fiery quality that would cause mere mortals to cower. But Verna seldom held a grudge (with a few exceptions), and real or imagined offenses were quickly forgiven. In that respect, her capacity for forgiveness, Verna was the truest of Christians. Those of us who were closest to her will always remember, with admiration, her unconquerable spirit which carried her through family difficulties, serious medical problems, and the most terrible event a mother can bear: the death of her daughter.

In 1994, I visited Ohio for my grandmother's Spring Party, an annual tradition of many years' standing. By then, my mother had died and my grandmother, then 85, was starting to slow down. I decided to return to Ohio and care for her in her last years. She died in 2002, aged 93, and had survived her daughter by nine years.

The last picture of my grandmother, her dog Trinka is on her lap.

1 comment:

Dinger said...

Hank, Thank you for this tribute to your grandmother. I feel very lucky to have even met her and even luckier to have learned to dance at her class in Bedford. She never forgot who she was, because she never stopped being Verna Stevens. She taught us as if we were all to perform before thousands, and it really mattered if we did it right or did it with style. I will never forget her shock when, while running the choreography for the musicals at Mayfield Methodist, most of us had no idea who Eddie Cantor was. I got to hear her stories, see the giant picture of Astaire in the basement, see all the photos on the piano, and of course, met her Chihuahua(s) over time. I was also lucky enough to have spent time with your mother, who I really enjoyed when she was up to it.