The last week in March always brings back memories to me of my Grandfather and his passing. He died 50 years ago this past Wednesday, March 28, 1957. And you know, to this day, I miss him, his presence, his quiet, his strength.
He wasn't a big man- maybe 5 ft. 10 or 11 inches, very slim. But he had such strength, even in his last years, if he shook your hand, you knew it! Nothing light and limp there - just an extremely firm grip. He always took great stock in the way a person shook your hand - it was your bond, the way he felt people expressed their truths, their feelings as to the type of person that lay behind that handshake. Firm grip to him meant this person can be trusted.
He had worked very hard all his life either in the coal mines or at times, he also worked helping his brother who managed various Coal Mine "Company Stores" throughout southwestern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. It was a trade he learned early in life as he went to work in the coal mines near to the home he later built for his wife and family in the now ghost town of Peale, PA at the age of nine. When I think back to how I was at the age of nine or my grandson Alex, who is now nine, I can't imagine myself going into a deep, dark, very dirty, very dangerous mine and having to do any type of work, much less helping adult miners dig out coal and haul it to the surface. And yet, he did that as did several of his brothers too back in the 1880's.
At least twice in his work in the mines he was injured. I don't know if the one accident in which his heel got caught in a coal car and was badly torn happened in southwestern PA or in West Virginia but he survived that and in 1935, about the time his first grandchild was born, he was in a mine accident near here - I think, if memory serves me it was at what is known as the Cooper Two mine site - where he sustained a head injury. The ambulance taking him to the local hospital stopped at our house enroute and my mother then accompanied him to the emergency room there. She told me that the base of his scull had been hit and he had a severe cut there that from her description opened a flap type wound of the scull and you could actually see the brain matter there. At that time, he would have been about 61 years old and if Mom ever told me how long he was in the hospital, I don't remember those details. But, he was not an easy patient as he wanted desperately to come home as soon as possible. The reason - his first grandchild - a little girl - had just been born and his son, daughter-in-law and the new baby were coming home from Pittsburgh for a weekend - an event he was insisting he NOT miss! Yes, he was strong in body, in spirit, in love of his family and also, stubborn as the proverbial mule too!
When the family moved back to this village in 1924, after moving all around in the southwestern part of the state and West Virginia, he and my two older uncles returned to working in the mines here. Hard, physical labor that would have to have just about worn a person out you would think and yet, he and my two uncles would come home from work, eat supper and then, begin working to dig out - by hand and using wheel barrows - under most of this old house so there would be a "full basement" there. Once they completed that job, hauled rocks to the property and built basement walls that area as strong today as when they built them, they began to dig ditches along the property to try to keep the "new" basement as dry as possible. They built the building that eventually became a two-car garage - not that we ever had two cars to keep in it but the capacity was there. He and my uncles dug the ditches and larger area to hold the septic tank - also all by hand. They dug ditches that ran from under what became the "laundry room" in the basement to provide for the laundry and bath wash water to be drained away from the house. All three of them - Grandpa and his two older sons were well acquainted with working with a pick and shovel. And, they thought nothing of doing that either.
In addition to doing hard labor at work and at home, he also put in, every year as long as I can remember back and apparently from stories told by my Mom and her siblings, every year of his adult life a huge vegetable garden which he tended to with great love and care. When my cousins and I were all coming into his life, he also had a big patch of ground in the back part the yard where he had planted a strawberry patch. Near it, he had a big row of raspberry bushes, as well as 3 large currant bushes and a patch of rhubarb. The upper part of our yard, once he decided to stop planting winter wheat there, became a showplace lawn with flower gardens lined with his favorites - roses! He added a great big forsythia bush along the far side of the lawn, had flower beds all along the front of the house where he had beautiful tulips and jonquils to welcome the spring. In the back part of the side lawn, just above the beginning of one of his two large vegetable gardens, he had dahlias, asters flox and some other flowers that bloomed there, year after year too.
Our vegetable garden kept us in fresh vegetables of almost every type from early in June when the green onions began to come up along with the leaf lettuce. As the summer progressed, we had fresh carrots, peas, green beans, beets, corn, eggplant, cucumbers, squash and of course, tomatoes and potatoes - lots and lots of all of those great veggies. Always with more than enough bounty that my grandmother and my mom spent most of August and September canning jar after jar of the fruits of his labors.
His loves were his gardens - vegetable and floral - baseball (Pirates and the old Philadelphia Athletics) from spring to late fall when the World Series took place and then, over the winter months after he retired, he read - the newspaper, every page of it; The National Geographic Magazines he loved to pour over and visit countries all over the world from the comfort of his favorite arm chair in our sunporch, The Reader's Digest - another magazine he read cover-to-cover, The Grit weekly newspaper and books that his children would try to find for him to read, to learn more about some of his favorite people from history - George Washington and Abraham Lincoln along with books about geography of the world. The only novels I ever knew him to read were a couple that had been written by Swedish authors about people's lives in Sweden of his era in time. (He was born in Sweden and immigrated here at the age of seven.)
And, he loved animals! Boy, did he ever! Sometime back in the thirties, he had chickens at the time and decided to buy two turkeys, both Toms which he named Adolph and Oscar. Adolph, according to my Mom was meaner than all get out and she was frequently terrified of coming home from work at about 11:30 p.m., pulling the car in the garage and then trying to figure out exactly where old Adolph was in the back yard so she could judge how fast she was going to have to run from the garage up to the house without alerting him to come into attack mode and flogging her as she ran to the house!
When I was a baby - about six months old or so - my Mom's younger brother brought home a puppy - part collie and part shepherd of some type. "Lady" was supposed to be "my" dog but although I loved her dearly, she and Grandpa had a rapport that lasted the rest of his years and ended six weeks after his death when old Lady mourned herself to death.
Nothing made Grandpa prouder than to be able to go visit his son's homes and see what they had done with their own hands to build houses for their families and to see their abilities - obviously learned from Grandpa - at landscape and tending to gardens and flowers and such. And today, my one cousin, Ray, at least apparently had enough of his Dad's landscape knowledge and interest in flowers, trees and shrubs passed down from our Grandfather to his dad and to him as he is always doing something around his house - carpentry, masonry, building a pond in his backyard, planning a design for his flower gardens around his house. Grandpa - and his Dad - would both be very proud of my cousin Ray's interest and abilities there.
And this year, as I remember the twelve years I got to be a part of my grandfather's life, I was reminded too of someone else who had been a part of my growing up here too. The newspaper the end of the week contained an obituary for a lady who had lived a couple of houses up the street from us and who I knew because her one daughter, Loretta, was the same age as me. She was 88 years old when she died now - leaving only one other former neighbor who was a surrogate-type parent to me as a child now.
And, it's funny the two things I remember about this lady as a sort of "legacy" to me. One involves her neighbor across the road from their house who was a big hunter and one year he had managed to bag a bear. As is the norm for hunters here - probably all over - to do, he had brought it home and hung it from the tree in their front yard. It was dark at the time he and his hunter friends had done that and the next morning when Lori's Mom awoke to get her husband up for work, when she glanced out their bedroom window, all she could see in the early dawn light was a silhouette of this things hanging from the tree. And she panicked! Waking her husband up by screaming "Oh my God, Jim's hung himself!"
And the other little story is one she always remembered about me which was the summer when I was perhaps five or six years old, I invited all the neighborhood girls to a party at my house, in our backyard, to celebrate my birthday. Nice idea, huh? Except for the fact my birthday wasn't until October and here come these kids my age, all decked out, each with some little gift for me and my Mom had no clue what the heck was going on. Luckily , she was able to mix up a batch of kool aid or lemonade, put some cookies on a plate and let us have our little "party" and then, she sent each kid back home, with the gift they'd brought me, apologizing to the parents that her dear little daughter had contrived this whole party thing unbeknownst to her, etc., etc.
Kind of nice to think this lady always remembered that event and also, that she remembered it with good humor as her daughter Lori said she always got a big chuckle out of that story every time she remembered and retold it.
So tonight, I really do have to manage to get myself organized, dressed, out of here in time to go to the funeral home about 8 miles from here to pay my respects to my old childhood-schooldays life-long friend, Lori's Mom.
And in doing so, to also have some time to chat, to remember some of the other things about her Mom, about us, our lives as we grew up together and intertwined and see too how similar or dissimilar the turns have been as we have spent the last 45 years living about 220 miles apart.
And, I'm betting there are more similiarities there that we ever thought there would be.