I had the idea to do a project for my grandma’s 100th birthday. Even though she died in 2006, even though I now live an ocean away from where she grew up, even though none of my friends in the UK have ever met her.
Her name was Celia Quint, but everyone called her Kitty. I asked her why once, and she told me her dad called her ‘Ketzele’, which was Yiddish for ‘kitten’, because she was always underfoot as a kid. This may have been true, or it may have been an answer to fill the space up after I’d asked the question. It’s a family trait that no one likes awkward silences in conversations. If I asked her how old she was, she always made up a number. When I was a teenager, I started noticing she’d been the same age for a while, so I changed the question, and asked her what year she was born. She told me. She was born in 1913. I pointed out that she’d shaved two years off her age, and teased her for it. It became a family joke for a while, and she wasn’t angry, although I feel a little embarrassed now at ambushing her, Columbo-style.
What it did though was cement that year in my brain. Whenever anything included the year 1913 – on television, in a newspaper article, in a documentary, I mentally wove my grandmother into the story. She was a month old when that happened. Nearly a year old when that happened. They didn’t have those before she was born. Her parents must have seen that – I wonder what they thought.
I started to notice a pattern (I enjoy noticing patterns. A lot of my work starts when I notice a pattern). All of the events, artefacts, and art from 1913 were amazing. Ground-breakingly amazing!
Audiences were rioting at discordant and irreverent new music and choreography. Artists were staging exhibitions that challenged everything about art as people knew it. The zip was invented. The actual zip! Before 1913, there were no zips on anything!
Amazing and multi-faceted feminist icons were born: Rosa Parks, whose direct action protest was pivotal in the US Civil Rights movement, and who really should have her own national holiday on her birthday too, I think. Hedy Lamarr, who was a Hollywood star by day but spent her evenings experimenting and patenting a spread spectrum frequency hopping device, which led to technology we use now in wifi, mobile phones and computer networking. What cool contemporaries for my grandma to have! (Um, Richard Nixon was born in 1913 too, but I will not be including him in this project because: Richard Nixon.)
It would have been amazing if my grandma had lived to be 100. She was incredibly warm, funny, caring, generous, kind, mischievous, talented and cheeky. Nothing shocked her. I interviewed her about sexual health and menstrual education in the 1920s and 30s for my Adventures in Menstruating project, and she didn’t bat an eye. She would look at Toulouse Lautrec prints and linger over the ruder ones. For reals! She was the one who told me when California had just legalised equal marriage (in those heady pre-Prop 8 days), willingly starred in my younger cousins’ comedy home movies, and she loved my digital camera. She looked like a stereotypical grandma, but she was modern. Maybe even Modernist. Avant-gran.
She helped raise me, patiently taught me and re-taught me how to knit (I have only mastered rectangles, though) encouraged me in everything I did – every project I undertook, every musical instrument or art form I wanted to learn, every place I wanted to travel, and only laid a few guilt trips on me for moving 3000 miles away. (Once she said ‘my money’s on you, kid’. I not only didn’t understand this slightly uncomfortable gambling metaphor, but took her literally, and thought she was about to hand me some cash, even though she didn’t have a whole lot. She did, but not right then, and I’m left with permanent aftercringe.)
So I thought I’d remember her by introducing her to all of you via 1913 – a person who influenced me from a year that influenced everything.
I’m sure there’ll be lots of retrospectives on events and inventions from 1913 – last year there was a focus on the Titanic, of course, and throughout the year, various forms of media carried ‘and finally’ sorts of stories about the birth of the Oreo cookie, the inaugural year of the US Girl Scouts, and the gift of cherry trees to Washington D.C. from the mayor of Tokyo. I’ve tried to spend this year looking for the smaller stories, the ones that might get overlooked, but that remind me of my grandma. Naughty, cheeky, funny, patient, kind, silly, generous, and maybe a little bit shocking. Things that link to New York, to the UK, to Sheffield, to her past and my future. Ooh, it’s all gone a bit Doctor Who. Well, looking at history or visiting a museum is like time travel, isn’t it?
A museum exhibit. That’s what I decided to do.
I’ve found some artefacts already, have plans to research a few more, and as people hear about this project, they offer up still more. And I’ll curate it – share this stuff online and in person a gallery exhibition for my grandma: The 1913 Exhibition.