The First Woman on Television...

Eleanor Walker

My grandmother, Eleanor Walker Janssen, was the first woman on television.

She played the organ in an experimental broadcast from Whippany, New Jersey, to West Street, New York City, in 1927. Her name is right there, on the printed page of the Bell Laboratories Record from May of that year.
Bell Labs Record

She studied at Juilliard before it was Juilliard. In 1909, when it was still New York's Institute of Musical Art, they told her that she could have been a truly great organist had she learned different fingering as a child. But she loved music and spent her life playing in concerts and in the Presbyterian church in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, then later, in El Paso, Texas. Even though my grandfather had a degree in agriculture, he worked as an accountant all his life to give her access to venues that would showcase her giftedness. My quick-tempered German grandfather told me that when he would start a fight with her, Grandmommy would smile and say, "It takes two to have an argument..." and he would always simmer down. Mr. & Mrs.
              G.A. Janssen

I was twenty when she died in 1974. You would think I'd have a nice folder of memories to draw from, considering the special shelf I keep reserved in my heart for her, but I was a self-absorbed twit who never asked about her story. My younger brother recalls her taking him to church - a place my family never ventured - when she and Granddaddy visited. I was older, and cherish different memories:

In 1957... She didn't spank me when she found me on her staircase with a broken teacup, muttering, "gob-dammit, I'm in twubble." She cheerfully overlooked, not only the teacup, but the language, recognizing I was repeating things heard at home. I also remember the dabs of mint jelly she would give me before she served roast lamb. And I remember she was always busy knitting, or sewing, or making odd urn-shaped baskets from Christmas cards crocheted at the edges. She made beautiful sequinned flannel Christmas tree skirts, tacky crocheted-poodle toilet roll covers, and those stuffed monkeys seemingly made from socks. My brother cherished his. I do not recall ever seeing her idle. She was always ready to make pancakes.

Xmas ccard basketI remember, in 1968, Grandmommy and Granddaddy visiting my family in Scottsdale, Arizona. My dad supplied Grandmommy with her favorite drink - a Manhattan - and invited her to put up her feet. She wore lace-up Oxfords with the little heels old ladies wore back then, and a rayon dress with a large floral print on a navy ground. (I am certain she never owned a pair of slacks.) Her hair was tidily pinned up, her figure, corseted but still huggably dumpy, her smile, delightful. And she told a story: "I knew they were raising the price of stamps from five to six cents - so I went out and bought two rolls before the price went up!" And she laughed, at herself, uproariously.

In 1971, I brought home, from a sprawling Phoenix flea market, a Frank Sinatra album. (Side note: Grandmommy and Granddaddy raised my uncle and my mom in northern New Jersey. Uncle Donald frequented the restaurant where Frank was a waiter. My mom, four years younger, was one of those girls who swooned and cried when Frank performed.) So I put my new-found relic on the turntable and, as it played, my grandmother mused, oh-so-drily, "I never did think that young man could sing." Her tone made it, not a rebuke, or even a criticism, but a line drawn in the sand between generations, and between popular and classical music, to which her life was devoted. She thought Frank "slid into his notes."

People loved her. My aunt said, "Mother Janssen was fun!" (imagine that being how you describe your mother-in-law!) My father, who hardly liked anybody, liked Grandmommy. And among our family papers are a stack of beautifully penned notes, thanks for her hospitality, her musicianship, her friendship. I have worn, for fifty years, the ring her church group gave her when she moved to Texas from New Jersey, a garnet set in white gold.Grandmommy's ring

I can't squeeze who she was onto the page, try as I will. I'm glad she was the first woman on television, that she has that tiny claim to fame, but it wouldn't matter if she didn't.

What matters is her imprint on my life. Like a thumbprint remains on a doorknob when the thumb's owner leaves the room, every person's life leaves an imprint. DNA is carried through generations; I hope personality is passed down, too. I always hoped to pass along the impression of my grandmother's life on mine.

If I don't succeed in putting her on the page, I can perhaps succeed in imparting the cheerful safety and grace that enveloped me when I was with her. With any luck I can be enough like her to press the imprint she left on me onto those I meet. Fifty years after her death, my grandmother's life still reminds me to keep a loose hold on the unimportant, a firm grip on the essential, and a cheerful delight in letting other people be themselves.
Eleanor Janssen,

Thanks for reading - this one was particularly personal, and I had a few delightful days collecting memories and impressions to condense into this post. I was tickled to find this 1973 sketch I did of her before she died.

Who in your life has served as an "I want to be like them when I grow up" figure? I always love hearing from readers.

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