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Grandmother's Travel Memories

John Lawton Reflections

Photo: John Lawton

When I returned home, I put Ida’s album away. I had my own pictures now. She’d done her job and that was the end of it.

Except it wasn’t.

Not long afterward, during a weekend in Middleburg, Virginia, my husband and I took a side trip to Leesburg to see Oatlands plantation. The 22-room Greek Revival house, built in 1804, is now a National Historic Landmark, its glorious terraced gardens set off by a series of distinctive balustrades. As I walked up the hill, past apple and pear trees, the land seemed hauntingly familiar; I thought of Brideshead Revisited’s opening line: I have been here before. But I’d never been to Oatlands. I’d never even set foot in Virginia.

Several months later, while doing some unrelated Internet research, it occurred to me to look for my grandmother’s name on the Ellis Island Web site. Fully expecting her to have eluded even the U.S. immigration officials, instead, I easily located her among the passengers sailing west on the Adriatic. According to the ship’s manifest, she’d paid her own way, traveled "second cabin," and was neither a polygamist nor an anarchist. Her occupation was listed as "maid." (For the sake of a good story, I’d have vastly preferred polygamist.) I struggled with the blurred handwriting to make out her destination. It appeared to be "Oakland." That was a surprise.

"I didn’t know my grandmother lived in California!" I told my husband that night. "That’s not Oakland," he said, magnifying the entry on my computer. "It’s Oatlands! Look, it says right here—Leesburg, Virginia." I couldn’t believe it, and yet why had I recognized the house?

I took my hunch to Andover, and with my 87-year-old mother by my side, carefully turned the brittle pages of the albums. Next to a picture of Ida boating in Japan with a man in a dragon kimono were two other photos of her sitting in a pile of leaves, patting a retriever. In the background was a garden balustrade.

"Bingo!" wrote Elizabeth Simon, the house manager at Oatlands, after I’d e-mailed her scans of the pictures. She also confirmed that the children in the other photo belonged to Oatlands’ owners—Mr. and Mrs. William Corcoran Eustis. His namesake grandfather founded the Corcoran Gallery of Art; her father, Levi P. Morton, was vice president to President Benjamin Harrison and so rich that Washington chronicler Henry Adams referred to him as "a money bag." Edith Wharton made her debut in the Morton ballroom in New York. Too bad my grandmother hadn’t kept a diary. Unlike Wharton, she must have literally known where all the dirty linen was.

Thanks to Ancestry.com and the ProQuest archive of historical newspapers, I was able to track my grandmother’s progress from one old-money enclave to the next. In 1910, she "wintered" in Aiken, South Carolina, with Thomas and Louise Hitchcock (William Eustis’s sister), who drew the Whitneys, Astors, and Vanderbilts to the sports resort, and whose famous polo-playing son, Tommy Jr., was an inspiration for the aristocratic Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.

After that, Ida popped up in an apartment at the Dakota, on Central Park West, then in Natick, Massachusetts, where she worked for Mr. and Mrs. William S. Patten—he of the contracting company Holbrook, Cabot & Rollins, which helped build the Times Square subway and the Russian railroad; she from the socially prominent Thayer family, at whose Newport cottage my grandmother spent several summers before cruising through the West Indies.

My fascination with these characters bore no fruit: none of them could be linked to Ida’s foreign travels. But by now I was obsessed enough to plan a trip to London to fill in the gaps.

I had no specific plan; instead, I wandered like a tourist through her life. First stop, her childhood home, on Great Titchfield Street, in Marylebone. "So this is where your grand adventure began," I thought, walking past rows of red-brick Victorian buildings. Then I reached her block, where a hideous modern building had devoured several pretty houses. Her address was now the Winchester Club. A sign promoted a "Members Only" party: "Summer snacks, blackjack, and the Malibu Girls grooving the night away."

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