Gangster Grandparents

Chuck and Cookie Dillingham, circa 1927.

My grandparents on my mother’s side.


(click to embiggen)

He was from southern Oklahoma. She was a daddy’s girl from Sherman Texas; her name was Hazel, though I never once heard her called anything but Cookie. They were drinkers, card players. She was a flapper with temper – he was an inveterate ladies man, a baseball fanatic, a guy who liked to dance. He was ten years her senior, a dashing, masculine figure who loved fast cars and what she called ‘dirty blonds’.

He worked for the merchant marine in the years after WWI, then later, after they married and had their one daughter, they ran a diner in Long Beach (Chuck ‘n Cookie’s Diner). Later, they lived in Reno where he made a living playing poker (often as a shill for casinos, one of those guys paid to play on the house’s dollar, to dither people to the tables).

Cookie named her daughter Greta, after Greta Garbo. She loved movies and elegance, and felt deep shame over her own working class background. Low-class, she’d say, her favorite adjective for anything she didn’t like. There was nothing more loathsome to her.

The list of things I don’t know about them is far too long; things I should have asked my mother to write down. I have only a handful of photos, and an old photo-diary of Cookie’s. I don’t know when or where or how they met – I don’t know if it was at some bonfire my lake Texoma, or at some wild jazz dancehall, or if they met in Long Beach where he worked in the ship yards.

When I knew them, they were a retired couple. He smelled like tobacco and smoke, from the pipe he always had in his mouth or his hand. She smelled of gin and butter mints, and always had a jar full of cookies (which as a child I found ironic – gramma Cookie gave us cookies). When I knew them, they lived in an odd, incredibly tidy upstairs apartment in Long Beach. We saw them rarely – we lived in mostly in norther californis, they in southern. A couple if visits a year at most, apart from the one year we spent in east north-east LA when my father worked at at Cal State).

Later, her drinking got away from her. She’d struggled, my mother told me later, for most of her life. She was the vodka-for-lunch type of drinker, the flask in the purse type. She was also, most likely, bi-polar or something similar; the mood swings were worse when she drank. One day she had what people used to call a ‘nervous breakdown wandered away, and no one saw or heard from her for a week.

My grandfather faded after that; Cookie was in and out of a home, never really the same. As his health failed, we moved him north. He lived with us for a couple of years, before his heart finally gave out. he was near 85, and still fierce and proud, listening to sports on the radio and smoking his pipe.

Cookie held on longer. Her mind trickled away slowly, and each visit was harder for my mother, as Cookie asked who are you and what have they done with my daughter.

I never knew them, not in any real way. My mother’s relationship with her mother was strange, hostile and bitter, and I Cookie only as a plump little story-book gramma who cooked and handed out snacks.

What I have of them, the image that for me most defines them, is the picture above. That picture sat on our mantle from the time Chuck moved into our house; I saw it every day when I lived at home, every time I visited my mother after I moved out.

Who knows what story lives behind that picture; honeymoon? Road trip south, for the wild border-land fun of 1927 mexico? My mother was born in late 1928, so cookie would soon lose her flapper’s figure to pregnancy (she never regained it.)

In my head though, they are Bonnie and Clyde. There’s a shotgun under the seat in the car, maybe a tommy gun in the rumble seat (hidden in a violin case, of course.) He’s got a .45 under that jacket, and a straight razor in his pocket. She’s got a little pearl-handle .25 in her bag, and has used it more than once.

The money they’ve been spending, on a romantic trip to Tijuana, is ill-got and quickly gone.

And whose shadow is it in the foreground? She took that picture? It’s ominous, somehow, and all the more when we imagine them wheeling away in a hail of bullets, maybe minutes after this picture is taken.

My grandparents never were gangsters. He was an average guy, who worked average jobs. They didn’t own weapons, or have a secret past. But that’s how I know them; the wild and dangerous young couple on the back of a model-T ford. She’s the very image of a moll, and there’s something about his shadowed eyes and the un-easy set of his hands that says potential for violence.

I love these people – these grandparents who never existed. I want to meet them, and hear the stories they’d tell. I want to visit Cookie in jail, bring her cigarettes, and ask her about the day the road ran out for them, and how it ended.

They have a story to tell, those two. I just don’t know what it is, yet.

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