Gert and Ken: A Love Story

When I was a little girl, I saw my grandparents through a child's eyes. Of course, they looked and always had looked the way I saw them, in the present.

My grandmother was fifty-two years old when I was born. She had blue-gray hair and was pleasantly plump. My grandfather was two years older and sported a snow-white crew-cut. Both wore what we'd consider, the old-fashioned, metal-framed glasses of the fifties. Grandma was sweet and practical and usually wore a simple cotton housedress. Papap was gruff and somewhat cantankerous. His favorite item of clothing was a white, cotton, tank-type t-shirt which he'd reluctantly cover with a plaid, flannel shirt in the winter.

Neither had their own teeth. I used to love to catch them late at night or early in the morning, before they'd have a chance to replace their dentures.

As far as I was concerned, teeth or no teeth, my grandparents were perfect. I loved them dearly, just the way they were.

So you can imagine how intrigued I was by the photo tucked into the corner of Grandpap's bedroom mirror, of a smiling young woman, lounging in the grass along the banks of a river.

Tucked beside it was the photo at the top of the page. Grandpap always documented his photos, and these two were no exception. Written right over the top of the photo he wrote, "Aren't they a happy couple! Gee but she is a sweet GIRLFRIEND. Ken."

For years, I wondered who the people were in those photos and when I finally got old enough, I asked. I could hardly believe what I heard. My grandparents had been so young and in love. I get such a kick out of the way Papap put the quotation marks and underscores beneath the word, girlfriend. He was so thrilled that she belonged to HIM.

My grandparents had a big old basement that was filled with built-in cabinets and wardrobes that were strictly off-limits to my brother and I. As I got a bit older though, Grandma would let me explore their contents while she did her laundry and ironing.

On one such occasion, I opened an old cedar chest and found the mother-load. The chest was stuffed with old photos and mementos. I dragged the chest over to where Grandma sat ironing and began to pull things out. That's when I found, the Memory Book; an old scrapbook crafted for my grandmother by her best friend as a birthday gift in 1926. It held eleven years worth of photos, mounted on black paper and hand labeled in white ink.

Among the first pages of the album, I found two photos of my grandparents sitting on a bench under a trellis, smooching. In retrospect, these pictures must have been quite risque. After all, they weren't married yet.

Just look at how much in-love they were! My grandparents had a long courtship for those days because Grandpap was the sole support for his family while his father was recovering from tuberculosis. Grandma waited.

Gertrude Catherine Barrett and Michael Kenneth Donovan were married at St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Hazelwood, on November 28, 1929. After they were married, Grandma quit teaching to stay-at-home and take care of her husband. It was such an accomplishment for a woman to be educated in those days, that her teaching mentors were sincerely disappointed. Still, she felt her priority was to her husband.

Further into the cedar chest, I pulled out the portrait below. In my innocence, I thought it was a photo of my grandparents and my eldest uncle, Raymond. When I asked Grandma to confirm my assumption, she looked at the photo, turned off the steam-press, and pulled her chair closer to me. She took the photo, and began to tell me the story of Tommy, their first born.

Thomas Kenneth Donovan was born on March 27, 1931, and according to Grandma, he was the apple of his father's eye. They named him after Ken's best friend, Thomas McCarthy and called him Tommy.

I can only imagine the pride my grandfather must have felt, as he stood holding his son, his young wife by his side, in this photo with his parents.

How carefree Grandma looks here, with her mother (to the left) and her Aunt. You can almost hear the three of them giggling as they fuss over and admire the baby. Grandpap was undoubtedly the photographer.

Sadly, Tommy's life ended five months after his second birthday. His death was the result of a tragic accident, at-home. He fell over a garden rake left lying in the yard by an uncle, and his lip split open. He died a short time later of infection from the tiny wound.

Of course, the entire family was devastated, but nobody took the loss as badly as Tommy's father. According to Grandma, things were never the same afterwards. The man she married, would never be the same. The carelessness of the circumstances surrounding Tommy's death hardened him. He began setting standards for behavior that were unrealistically high. He no longer had any patience for whimsy, and he never embraced another of his sons the way he did Tommy.

In a way, my innocence ended the day my grandmother told me that story. I was still only a child, but the story explained so much. I now had a grown-up understanding of two people that I had only thought of as Grandpap and Grandma. I'd never look at my grandparents again, without seeing the sadness that lay buried beneath the surface. A big piece of my grandfather died and was buried along with his first-born babe. That must have been so sad for Grandma.

Gertrude and Ken were married fifty-seven years when Grandma was called to heaven to join the children and grandchildren that had gone before her. I made a trip to Florida shortly after her death to visit with Papap. He was terribly sad and lonely. We sat on his porch after supper one evening and he started to tell me of his regrets. It was hard to listen, but I did. Then, he talked about Grandma, the love of his life. He said she deserved better than what he'd been able to give her. He cried as he spoke of her.

There is a vulnerability that goes hand in hand with loving. A potential for hurt. Some people run and hide from it, and others embrace it. I believe its a gift from God. One best not squandered.


  1. This was a beautiful post. I couldn't help, but get tears in my eyes at the end. How sweet.

  2. "Papap was gruff and somewhat cantankerous"

    Ok, you win the 'understatement of the year" award with this sentence.

    As for that buried grief, I'll never forget a time when Grommy was told that Bradly had some ailment. She was visitng us in NJ, and the news came by phone. She cried out "It's just like Tommy!" I had never heard her speak his name, nor did I ever hear her speak it again. I can see her and remember that moment, and we're talking 40 years ago, now.

    Another great post Sis. -rw

  3. You are such a talented storyteller! I learn something new about our family each time I stop by- and I love that. I never knew the story of Tommy, but worse, I've never asked!

    ditto what Brooke said. The same thing happened to me! So sweet.