The following is a portion of the foreword I wrote for my great-grandmother’s memoir, In Pursuit of Leo. This holiday weekend, I hope you take time to tell stories, look at old photos, and remember the sacrifice of those who left home to secure our country’s future and the dedication of those who vigilantly waited for their return.
When I was a kid, my parents would round up my brother, sisters, and me for what we referred to as Dad’s Memorial Day Tour. This event didn’t happen every year, but it happened consistently from the time I was in grade school, through high school, and into my college years.
The tour would begin at our home in Oswego, and travel south, stopping at several cemeteries along the way. My mom would prepare flower arrangements in advance and, at each stop, we would place flowers on the headstone of a family member, and my parents would tell us stories of that particular person. When I was a little girl, I didn’t know any of the people whose graves we visited. Both of my grandfathers passed away before I was born, and as a child, I had not yet suffered great loss. It wasn’t until I was in high school and my Grandma Jan passed away, that I was able to join the storytelling with my own first-hand accounts.
Every year, the Memorial Tour culminated at historic Oakwood Cemetery. We’d pile out of our station wagon and carefully make our way through the bending paths of Oakwood Cemetery, passing great monuments along the way, until we came to a simple stone bench. Engraved on one side was the name TOBEY and on the other side read LOCKWOOD PAINE.
These were familiar names, the centerpieces of many of my dad’s stories. However, the details of these yarns seemed complex and remained convoluted in my head. My dad would sit us down on the bench, feet dangling over the side, and begin, “Your Grandma Jan’s mother, Mama Grace, married your great-grandfather Demetrius… ” Before long, I’d be asking questions like, “Wait, which Frank?” and “How many Russell’s were there?”
The truth is, Mama Grace’s story was complex because it was interwoven with the stories of her parents and sister, her lovers, and her children who she loved dearly, and far too many of these stories ended abruptly. The little bench we were sitting on had found its way to Oakwood Cemetery because Mama Grace needed a place to sit with those she loved, and hoped that in the future, other family would come and do the same. I would sit there and wonder how one person could endure so much heartache.
In fall 2014, I was having dinner with my cousin Bob while he was in town on business. Between bites of pizza, I told Bob that I wanted one of my upcoming writing projects to be interviewing my dad about the stories he’d told us when we were young. The accounts were so rich with history, love, and tragedy, it saddened me to think about them fading away as the generations of our family extend forward.
In response, Bob nonchalantly said, “Mama Grace had an affinity for writing too. I believe I have a manuscript she wrote at my house.” My eyes grew big and I just about dropped my fork in my lap. I asked Bob if there was any possibility of locating it and he agreed to keep his eyes open for it the next time he was in that particular section of storage.
On a rainy October afternoon in 2015, I missed a phone call from Bob. It was followed quickly with a text message that said, “Guess what we finally found?” and included an image of a white sheet of paper, with “by Grace Holmes Tobey Lockwood Paine” in a faded, typewritten font. He scanned it and put it in Dropbox for me immediately.
That Saturday, I went to a local print shop and printed In Pursuit of Leo, Mama Grace’s original title for the work. Walking out of the store that day, a stack of 94 warm pages in my hands, I was elated—filled with pride and gratitude to be holding the words of a woman that, since childhood, I’d so desperately longed to know.
I went directly to my favorite coffee shop and, over two cups of coffee, read the entire manuscript from beginning to end. It was beautiful and triggered a wide variety of emotions. I laughed at her tales of mischief, pondered life’s bigger questions of life and death, and cried more than I would like to admit; tears of joy for the clarity I finally gained and tears of sorrow for finally understanding the losses that took place.
In his novel My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Fredrick Backman writes, “Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details. Even when you are wrong. Especially then, in fact.” There is something special about relationships that skip from generation to generation.
In Pursuit of Leo is the story of a community.
It’s filled with the laughter of practical jokes and of dancing to live music.
It’s a testament to the necessary chaos of Sunday dinners together and sunsets at the beach.
It’s the unraveling of what happens in our hearts when we lean into our closest relationships.
It’s a memorial to those who left home behind to serve in our military during some of the world’s most turbulent days, and a note of gratitude to those who vigilantly waited for their return.
Featured Image: My great-grandmother Grace Tobey with her husband Russell and three children: Jan, Russ, and Frank (1944)