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Continued from Developing a social conscience

Yry and Norah both looked forward to the daily mail. Picking through the stack of paper that landed on the floor twice a day, they weeded out the bills and advertisements, searching for the pale blue onion-skin envelopes with dark blue and red flags marching around the edges. These had flown across the ocean from relatives scattered about Germany, England, and South America. Norah’s parents and brothers were living in Rio de Janeiro. Like Herman, Grandfather Dillon’s business was also international. What business? That is another mystery. I remember only shadows of the grisly tales mother told about atrocities the Dillon family endured in Brazil. But that would be another story for another time.

It is enough to recognize that Grandfather Alfred Dillon was a positive, though distant, mentor as my mother negotiated puberty. He encouraged Yry’s writing with the kindness and eagerness of a man hungry for family ties. Besides piano and voice lessons, Yry practiced drawing and painting and photography. She tried to enclose some small personal creation or at least a photograph with each letter to her grandfather. He reciprocated with stamps for her philatelic collection. As his wife grew increasingly frail, Alfred took on all the correspondence, always careful to include her good wishes at the end of each missive. My mother described Grandfather Dillon to me: “He had a thin face and wild hair red hair. His Irish temper matched his hair, but if left alone after an outburst, he always calmed down.” In sepia photos I found of him in his later years, he looks like a thin Colonel Sanders.grandpa-dillon

None of the Dillon clan settled in one place for long. Some deep circannual rhythm kept them all tracing elusive dreams or looking for excitement in new places. Norah’s brother, John, traveled frequently and, while they were capable, both Alfred and his wife frequently crossed the ocean between Europe and South America. Alfred’s loneliness increased after his wife’s death in 1928. He was quick to chastise Yry if her replies were too slow. Each letter from him contained some word of advice about how she must be diligent in her studies. He preached the importance of language fluency and asked repeatedly if she was practicing her French and the little Portuguese he’d tried to teach her . . . and of course, she was not.

In searching through the correspondence between my mother and her grandfather, I find an alarming harbinger. In October of 1928, Alfred wrote:

Tell your dear mother & father & Mr. Levi (Adolph) not to sell the house you live in without letting me know at least one month before hand. My reasons are powerful ones and I can’t bear the idea of your poor mother having to give up her home again, it is a sad thing to have to leave your home after spending a fortune on it…

Please ask your Uncle Levi to let me know what he knows about Messrs. Pain, Webber & Co. 25 Broad Street, New York. Are they capable of putting a loan of 5,000.000 Franks on the N. Y. market successfully?

I am as surprised by his reference to “giving up the house” as I am that he would discuss such issues with a financially innocent fifteen-year-old. Then oddly, in a letter written to his daughter Norah in 1929, there is no reference to an impending move. He does, however, complain of the deteriorating political situation in Brazil that was disrupting his business. The lapses in information, I realize, may be due to missing letters. But what was going on?