June 16, 2012 — I have a silver-framed black and white photograph of my grandfather and his two boys, my father and my uncle, dressed in shirt sleeves and ties, sitting in rocking chairs and smoking pipes, with their dog, Tippy, at their feet on the front porch of my great grandmother’s summer home in Sea Isle City, New Jersey. The picture was taken shortly before I was born. Of our family collection of photos, this is one most significant to me. This one picture tells the story of my early life – where I was, who was with me, how I felt, what we did and why: where I came from. As I gaze at it now a movie plays across the screen of my mind.
After I was born, in the summertime Mother and Daddy took me to that house at the shore. Aunt Marguerite and Uncle Bob would be there, too, along with my grandparents and great grandmother. When I was two, on Sunday mornings I’d walk with Granddaddy to the corner store to buy the Sunday paper. I remember the bright colors of the funny pages. He held my hand. Once we thought it might rain. I held up my index finger and said, “I have my ‘brella.” I recall the scene, and I remember it because the family thought it was so cute, relating the story over and over. We often walked on the boardwalk, the whole family, of course, and Granddaddy took me for a ride on the merry-go-round. I loved that. That was very exciting for me.
Granddaddy took me everywhere with him. At home, in the Philadelphia suburbs, I often stayed at Grandmother’s and Granddaddy’s house. Aunt Marguerite and Uncle Bob lived with them. During World War II, Uncle Bob served overseas in the Army. He looked so handsome in his brown Army uniform. Granddaddy worked at the bank in Philadelphia, and, in those days, worked traditional bankers’ hours. He didn’t drive. So, in the afternoons he’d ride the bus home, get me up from my nap and take me out for a ride on a bus or trolley or the passenger ferry across the Delaware River to New Jersey. He wouldn’t waste time getting me out of the house, because we had to be home for dinner; so Grandmother and Aunt Marguerite were mortified that he’d rush me out of the house without my hair brushed. He didn’t care; he just wanted to take me with him. He had raised two boys, so I was the first girl. I remember a street corner bus stop. There were blue spruces there on the small green semicircle lawn and old shade trees; there were red-roofed structures built of gray granite; the bus would come and it was red – the Red Arrow company: they ran western suburban trolleys and buses. I remember standing on that corner waiting for the bus, holding Granddaddy’s hand and looking up at him. I loved going on those rides with him; it was an adventure; it was like going to an amusement park. With Granddaddy, I felt secure and loved.
In November or December 1943, before Uncle Bob went off to the war, we got a puppy. Granddaddy owned a black Packard, often parked in the driveway, just outside the living room double casement windows. Daddy and Uncle Bob said the chauffeur only polished the side of the car that faced the house. Uncle Bob drove us to get the puppy. Daddy sat next to him in the front seat. I sat in the back next to Granddaddy. I wore my camel snowsuit. On the way home, the puppy, a black and tan shepherd/collie mix whom we named Butch, kept sticking his paw into Granddaddy’s pocket. The family couldn’t get over that; they laughed and laughed as they retold the story.
For some time during the war both Daddy and Uncle Bob were away. Daddy served at Fort Dix, New Jersey in a desk job. He had worn glasses since he was six. Then they came home. I remember the excitement and the relief. My brother was born in 1945. Uncle Bob brought me a doll back from Belgium. I still have that doll. I cherish it.
I remember standing in the square reception hall of my grandparents’ house amidst the group of men when they were carrying on an animated conversation about some current event or the state of world affairs, listening, looking up at them. It was like standing in a copse of tall, intelligent trees. I always found what they were discussing more interesting than what the women discussed – the sacrilege of the neighbors hanging out their laundry on a Sunday or the state of the linens; how the maid twisted the vacuum cleaner hose.
In 1947 Granddaddy got sick. “Didn’t he eat his lunch?” I asked. They said he had; it was something else. Granddaddy died in October 1948. I was seven. “I’m not going to cry,” I said, though I felt bereft. I’ve never gotten over his loss. Often when I seek solace, I recall Granddaddy. He was a handsome man, too. In his younger days, he looked a bit like Jimmy Cagney.
I know a man who lost his daughter several years ago. I can’t even imagine the emptiness of that loss. Recently, he gave me the gift of music – a CD of arias. I have to close my windows when I play them because I play them really loud.
Uncle Bob and Aunt Marguerite were second parents to my brother and me. One night the four of us and Grandmother came home in the midst of a thunderstorm. The power in the house was out. In that house above the garage was a servant’s quarters, and a back hallway that led to it off the back stairs out of the kitchen. The only upstairs access to the back hallway was through a door in one of the bedrooms, the guest room where I was sleeping. Uncle Bob got a flashlight and led us into the house. Aunt Marguerite, Grandmother, my brother and I made our way upstairs and then some spook came creeping around the back hallway with a flashlight making scary ghost sounds.
Once, before I was born, Uncle Bob took the family out for a Sunday drive. He pulled the Packard over to the curb, saying “Wait here a minute.” He walked across the street into a drug store. The family waited. A few minutes later he emerged, got into the car and drove off without a word. He told them later he had gone in and had an ice cream. The family recounted that story many times.
The boys, Bud (Daddy) and Bob, as teenagers one year decided to keep their Christmas tree up until Valentine’s Day. They did, and then put it into the fireplace to burn. Flames shot halfway across the long living room.
My brother and I stayed with Uncle Bob, Aunt Marguerite and Grandmother for two weeks when I was in high school and our parents were in the midst of divorce. At dinnertime Uncle Bob would grab the plastic ketchup squeeze bottle and make to chase us if we didn’t behave. Later, when Uncle Bob, Aunt Marguerite and Grandmother had moved to a Center City Philadelphia high-rise co-op apartment, we sat in the living room watching TV after dinner. Uncle Bob got up to get his usual evening snack. He came crawling back into the living room out of the dark kitchen with a Cheeto on each of his eyeteeth, like fangs.
I got married. Our daughter, Kellie, was born in 1967. The U.S. Navy stationed us in Southern California during the Vietnam War. We found lying on the beach in January and the outgoing lifestyle appealing, so we stayed. In 1970 we divorced. In July 1973 I had an awful foreboding. That August, Uncle Bob was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was 61. Too young: he is too young to die; I am too young to lose my uncle. I am devastated. I was attending beauty college. There, my good and spiritually evolved friend Robert M. sat beside me day after day telling me it was my uncle’s time to go: “Let go, let go,” he said. “You must give him clear passage so he can go into the light unobstructed. Let him go in love,” Robert said. I did, but I couldn’t have done it without Robert’s uplifting support and guidance. My uncle died on December 5. Daddy lost his older brother. Aunt Marguerite, who loved dogs, and told Uncle Bob, when he asked her what she wanted for Christmas, said “Something with four legs,” lost the husband who gave her an electric frying pan that year.
Daddy lived a good, long life. He was healthy and got around just fine; he mowed the lawn up until his last years. He sat on the side of the bed one night setting his clock radio for morning when he felt a sharp pain in his chest. His aorta split. He was rushed to the hospital. The next day the whole family stood around his hospital bed, my stepmom, his children and grandchildren holding his hands and telling him we loved him, gently easing his journey. He died September 16, 2004. He was 90.
Daddy spent a lot of time with us when we were kids. He was always teasing us about stuff, making us think. He frustrated me when I’d ask him the meaning of a word and he’d tell me to “go look it up.” He played catch with us, cards, checkers and other board games, and Battleship, in the days when we drew the battleship, cruisers and destroyers on graph paper, before the board game was made. He wrote coded messages for me to decipher. He repeatedly told us his favorite story, scrolling the words and sentences out slowly, setting the scene of intrigue: “It was a dark and stormy night and all of the men were gathered around the fire, when one of them spoke up and said, ‘Captain, tell us a story.’ And so he began, ‘It was a dark and stormy night …’.” He took us on Sunday drives and many road trip vacations, especially up into New England, upstate New York and Canada. He loved it up there.
He played the piano and organ. In the early years we had a black Steinway baby grand piano in our home. I’d often find him sitting at the piano, pencil in hand, writing something in a spiral bound notebook. “What are you doing?” I’d ask him. “Composing music,” he’d say. Before he was married, he played the clarinet. He wanted Granddaddy to set him up with a band, like Benny Goodman. But Granddaddy said no; he told him he should go out and get a regular job to support himself and later his family. He attended the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School and became an accountant. After dinner many evenings he’d play his records – big band or classical music. I owe to him my introduction to and my deep interest in and love of classical music.
When his eyesight deteriorated, before he had cataract surgery, he couldn’t read his two daily newspapers or historical novels as he loved to, but he could listen to music. He made boxes of audiotapes and sent them to me in California. I cherish them. What a special gift. To me the gift of music is about the greatest gift I could receive. Music is my refuge. I used to imagine when I was very young that classical music came from the spheres. Then I found out it was made by an orchestra of musicians playing musical instruments. Now I know it comes from the spheres.
After Daddy’s cataract surgery, he no longer needed glasses. He had worn them for 80 years. He loved the TV show “Seinfeld”. It was his kind of humor, mine too. He also loved the “Inspector Morse” BBC/PBS long-running series. It was his kind of cerebral drama; mine too.
We had a lot of fun together in those old days. We were always laughing. We’d have dinner at one house or the other on weekends. If there were three football games on, Uncle Bob would line up three TV sets, and we couldn’t eat dinner until half time. Daddy and Uncle Bob were avid storytellers. Somebody was always telling a funny story of the antics of their youth or about the family, or a joke, or Uncle Bob or Daddy was teasing us – my aunt, my brother or me. When Uncle Bob held our dinner plates and scooped the mashed potatoes out of the serving dish, holding potato-loaded spoon in hand over our plates, he’d ask us, “Do you want them easy or hard?”
Often when I sit on my front porch now and I see a dark-colored car full of people drive up the street, I anticipate it’s Uncle Bob, Aunt Marguerite and Grandmother “rolling in”, as they used to say. I half expect Emma to be in the kitchen cooking a roast, Daddy watching baseball on TV. But, that’s not it. Most likely it’s a big car full of guys listening to rap.