Central Ohio, early 1950s. Glimpses.
Granville: My mother’s father, at the head of the table in the house on Main Street. Grandmother at the other end, next to my mother. At least two of the three daughters and the lone son present and polished. Oldest cousin seated at the adult table, next to my giant father, across from an aunt. Men in coats and ties. Ladies in dresses. Children in white shirts and blouses and Buster Brown shoes. Silver knives with yellowed, ivory handles. Odd things called napkin rings. I recall starch.
This grandfather was dean of alumni at the small private university, Episcopal deacon and mayor of the village, where churches sat near each of the main intersection’s four corners. His only son had made if through World War II, whose Pearl Harbor horror he heard announced on the radio in the basement, smoking his pipe near the coal furnace. The daughters were all beautiful and smart and their children healthy. Grandmother took food to the hobos who marked the white fence in front of the house and sometimes were given shelter in my grandfather’s Mayberry-like jail.
Newark: I’m sure my immediate family would pile into a Plymouth for the drive the down the road to Newark later in the day, to my father’s parents’ house — they tied to home with two disabled daughters. Pies cooling on the screened-in porch, a few ration stamps still tucked in corners of kitchen drawers, the house smelling and feeling like one big roasting pan. There may have been some resentment of the fancier Granville ways, but there was no looking back. I can still feel the warmth of being enveloped in my red-haired grandmother’s freckled embrace.
I was in awe of polite Granville and always proud of the family’s graces. I was respectful in Newark, too, — and loved Granville no less — but with my father’s family things were less restrained, more open-armed. The family’s plights were obvious and we rolled with the punches. We ate too much and laughed until it hurt. My grandfather’s napkin would be tucked into the neck of his open-collared shirt, purple traces of his favorite berry pie worked into the hard creased corners of his downturned mouth, almost painting on a smile. My grandmother, my aunts on either side of her but briefly relieved from cooking and cleaning and feeding, would sit and beam, enjoying the moment to take it all in. One aunt’s spasms would blessedly calm; the other’s unpredictable pinches and squawks, until tiredness took over, turned to belly laughs and grins. We’d sit at the expandable Formica and chrome dining set in the kitchen as long as we could and then move to the Davenport and reclining chairs in the front room, everything covered in heavy, clear plastic to protect store-bought prestige, formality otherwise unbuckled.
My father’s parents had made it through World War I, the Depression and World War II and had much to thank for Social Security and my grandfather’s long-running refinery job. Their lives for more than 60 years revolved around caring for the two daughters, who suffered cerebral palsy and what was then called mental retardation. But, wars over, Depression past, together for a day in the house by the railroad tracks on Craig Street, with the apple trees on the side, the strawberry patch, raspberry and blackberry bushes out back, root cellar down the dark, mouldering stairs and the portrait of FDR on the bedroom wall, we were merry and bullet proof.