It was late winter, 1992, when mom sent me this collection of childhood memories, introducing me to her mother and father—the grandparents I never knew. At the time it arrived, I was busy being 29, single, working, and in college—too busy to take much notice and still thinking that I already knew nearly everything worth knowing.
I glanced at the contents, then filed the single space typewritten manuscript and its manila envelope in a box of things to get around to someday, when time and energy and interest allowed. And there it sat, stored for a while in a basement, then an attic, and finally several of those Public Storage facilities, nondescript but for the orange roll-down doors. I carted it around the country only to let it sit some more with every move I made. For a few years I lived just hours away from where mom's memories were first lived, but still it sat, sealed in a plastic Rubbermaid tub from Wal-Mart, waiting for me to grow up enough to take down the box and open my eyes.
It's not that I hadn't heard these stories. I grew up with many of them, but I didn't have enough maturity or insight—the byproducts of living—to fully appreciate them for what they are—portraits of the souls of the departed, a dusty window that mom cleared one day so that we both could peer into the past for a little while, into the lives of those who came before us and gave us in greater or lesser ways the messages and meanings that mattered, that defined who we were and where we belonged.
They're all gone now, mom too. Most of them were gone before I was born. And yet here they are for a little while longer. Humble beginnings. Struggle and reward. Losing it all. Rising up and falling down. Living in the hardest of times with dignity if little else. Depending on each other, depending on themselves. I've left mom's straightforward, matter-of-fact title, but it strikes me that this fleeting glimpse into the past, this backward glance at those whose steps no longer echo, whose laughter and tears are now silent, might best be called, simply and honestly, "Getting to Know You."
The first thing I remember about my father was riding on his shoulders from the front door to the teller's cage in a bank with high curved windows showing a bright sky. It was 1927, and I was two and a half. In my 20's I went to see a new house a friend was building on Pennington Road across from the Reservoir. A bank was on the corner. It was the right neighborhood, only a few blocks from the house where my brother was born, so I walked in. And THERE were the windows, and THERE was the teller's cage, and THAT was the bank.
My father was Albert James Bazzel. His parents were country people, Grandma from Crosswicks and Granddad from Bordentown, two small towns south of Trenton. Granddad's parents died when he was 8 years old. He and his brother, Henry, were placed on two different farms, (as was done with orphans then) and he lost track of his brother.
Daddy remembered living on Monmouth Street in Trenton and that he had rheumatic fever there. The doctor told his parents he would not be able to walk and other dire prognostications. They brought his bed down into the dining room, so his mother could take care of him more easily and so he would be part of the family goings on. He told us he was about 7, and one day a neighbor lady had come in and was having a cup of tea in the kitchen with his mother. He said he was hungry too, so he got up and walked out to the kitchen to join them. He said they were amazed and so happy to see him walking, but he didn't think anything of it.
Granddad was a candy maker, and his shop was on Broad Street right at State, down a half flight from the street. The window was level with your feet. (When I was 3 or 4, I remember looking down into the shop and waving whenever mother and I passed by.) Their house on Monmouth Street was a couple of blocks from mother's house on Walnut; Daddy and Uncle Steve were good friends growing up. There is a picture in the album of Daddy with his dog in the Monmouth Street house back yard.
Daddy went to Clinton Avenue Baptist Church where he taught Sunday School. He had a class of big boys, most at the age where they don't want to come anymore. He held onto them by letting them play baseball outside and then come in for the lesson and discussion. The inevitable happened—the ball hit a window. However, instead of letting the class replace the glass, the board disbanded the class. Nothing Daddy said could change their minds. He said keeping that class coming was the best thing in the whole church. So he dropped out too. Still, he did want us to know what an important part of his family's life Clinton Avenue Baptist was, so even after he stopped attending regularly he took us there at Easter and sometimes on special occasions. Aunt Sarah and Uncle Rod stayed at Clinton Avenue Baptist for many years until the church was sold to a black congregation in the 60s. Uncle Rod was Sunday School Superintendent for a long while.
My father had belonged to the lodge too, although he didn't talk about it much. He kept the fez, a hat like the one Napoleon wore, and other items for lodge ceremonies in the cedar chest in the attic. He told us he felt that the ceremonies the hats were used for were superfluous rigmarole, that in his opinion a person should be judged by what he did for others, not for his role in a hat-designated hierarchy. He did let us try on the hats. He could see that we wanted to put the hat on and be Napoleon or George Washington. He told us we could use them for dress-up when we played up there on rainy days. But, he explained, although he thought of them as just fancy hats, other people felt that they should not be played with. So, we were not to get them out when other children were playing with us.
Daddy graduated from Trenton High School, the limestone building on Hamilton Avenue. He took two years Academic and two years Business. He used to tell us choice phrases he remembered from German class like: "Ich will Sie auf der Nase geschlagen!" (I'll punch you on the nose!) Next he took the Pace Institute business course at Rider College. His sister (Aunt Sarah) went to Normal School (teachers college then) and his brother (Uncle Rod) also took business.
Both Daddy and later Uncle Rod worked at the Broad Street Bank. But Daddy then became a contractor, building roads, parks, and playing fields around northern New Jersey—Somerville, Bound Brook, and Mercer County. I'm sure that was what he really loved to do, because he showed us with such pride the new part of Washington Crossing Park (across the road from the river) that he had planned and laid out. He wouldn't pass through the area without checking on whether the trees and lawn were beginning to look as he had seen them in his mind's eye when planning it. A few years ago my husband and I drove through the "new" part—it now looks just as old as the old part beside the river. You can't tell the difference. The park is all one. Looks like it was ALWAYS there.
Daddy loved gardens, parks, roses, coleus, Elms, Mountain Ash, and Kentucky blue grass. He admired them and planted wherever he could. However, as a contractor, the depression wiped out his opportunities. In those days, old buildings that had been condemned—the old Post Office and the old high school—sat there until the 1950s. Holes that had been dug for new buildings, when the financing fell through, were surrounded with old wood doors to prevent anyone from falling in. The barricades stood through the 1930s and 40s until building resumed after the war.
However, the new high school (red brick colonial) on Chambers Street was finished in 1930-31, and my father got a job there. He had been looking for work for 7 or 8 months. They wanted somebody to look after the new landscaping, but the job title was custodian and so was the pay. The trees begged for care, so he threw himself into it and in the summer even went back after supper to water them and move the sprinklers. It was like every tree and shrub was his. He used to take us over too, and it was like the whole garden was ours. (Today's Trenton Central High School is being rebuilt. Their website was offline as of September 29, 2015.)
At the school there was a staff of 16 at first, reduced later to 11. They had to shovel snow off sidewalks and driveways around 32 acres. There were no plows or snow blowers. They also divided up the evening school shift and night watchman's job among them. So the work was physical and Daddy stayed lean and had strong muscles. But he was tired most of the time. Also he was stuck with the results of the rheumatic fever: heart problems, continuing rheumatism, and occasional epileptic attacks.
Nevertheless, he was 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighed 144 lbs. On Sundays he used to carry us down to breakfast, one of us in each arm, long after I thought we were too heavy to carry. Once, when the dog's chain got tangled around my leg and the dog was pulling harder and harder, and I was yelling louder and louder, Daddy ran out in the yard and picked me up and took me inside. He thought the dog was biting me. Another time, he was eating lunch and I was looking through the knothole in the back-shed wall watching Eleanor cooking lunch for her brother and sisters. (The kids used the knothole to peek at and talk to each other.) But I saw the window curtain catch fire and all of them panic and I yelled to my father. He shot out the backdoor and over the fence and into their shed and put out the fire, calmed them down, and told them to tell their mother not to put a curtain so close to the stove. Later, he looked at the fence and said he had no idea how he ever got over it. I saw him do it... he flew.
We didn't have a car after 1930, so we walked everywhere. Daddy sometimes invited us on long walks to Stacy Park or to the Fairgrounds. At the shore, we walked almost to Neptune City once looking for a peach stand he recalled having seen on that road. Grampop Pope had won numerous medals for running and swimming in earlier days. I remember watching him and my father running on the boardwalk and swimming out into Shark River inlet and racing each other back to the beach.
Daddy and Grampop Pope had built 6 or 8 houses in Ewing Township and sold them in the 1920s. They also built the house I was born in. We used to have a snapshot of them sitting up on the framework eating watermelon. Grampop drove by some of those houses to show them to us in later years. Whenever Daddy knew somebody was building a house, he went over and helped. In those days, you built your own house from blueprints, so anyone doing it for the first time was delighted to have someone experienced to consult with. In the 40s he helped Uncle George build his house in Princeton and Johnny Hee his house in Hornersville.
Granddad Bazzel closed up the candy shop in 1932 or so when his costs continued but his customers bought less and less. He went to work for the State Highway Department "throwing a scythe" as they called it. (No lawnmowers either.) He cut grass, shoveled snow, walked all over town, and kept in shape. He was strong as Daddy but shorter. They both enjoyed baseball, sandlot games or radio games. Either might fall asleep by the radio and have to ask someone else what the score was. Daddy sometimes invited my brother to play catch with the baseball gloves. I didn't think Albert enjoyed playing catch as much as Daddy did. One day, my brother had a bow and some arrows. We stuffed a burlap bag with dried leaves for a target. While mother and I watched, my brother shot the arrow. It missed the target and broke the bottom pane of the back porch window. Daddy came to the door to see what happened, but instead of yelling, he said, "Let ME show you how to do that," and came down the walk. He shot his arrow right through the upper pane of the same window. "Let ME show you how to do that" was a quotable line in our house for some time.
Daddy often said he would take us to Shibe Park in Philadelphia to see a real ball game, but he never had the money. He did a lot during the depression—he still had his tools. He built my dollhouse out of scrap wood. I remember how proud he was of the turning staircase. He repaired and repainted toys, repaired (sometimes tearing down and replacing) porches, roofs, steps, brick sidewalks, and gates. He fixed electric switches, the furnace, etc. (If you fixed things, the landlord would often let you take your cost off the rent.) And he planted food in the backyard—pole beans, tomatoes, corn.
I do remember Grandma Bazzel—going to visit her on the trolley, running through the house to jump on her lap as she sat in her rocker in the dining room. She used to laugh and say, "Now, don't jump on my breadbasket." And I remember walking with her swishing our feet through dried leaves on the sidewalk, and I remember her ironing Grandpa's white-on-white shirts and showing me the design in the white threads. I was 3 or 3-1/2.
Both Grampop Bazzel and Daddy liked to bake bread. They had a running contest as to which one could get the most loaves out of a recipe just by adding a little water, a little flour. Daddy also baked nifty layer cakes. And he made scrambled eggs but he called them "shuffled" eggs. He made nice scrapple, but bacon always burned before he could catch it. In the summertime, he made Hires root beer by the batch. Granddad made candy at Christmas and brought us some, but Daddy left candy up to the expert.
The school dentist's office was at the high school. I had to go there one Saturday morning. Daddy was working and said he would stay in that part of the building while I was there. The Dentist, Dr. Edwards, started the work, which was very painful, and then he went away and left me alone for what seemed forever. I became more scared of being alone in that giant empty building than I had been of the dental work, so I went out in the hall to look for Daddy. He waited until the dentist came back and then scolded him for having left me alone. The dentist finished the work and scolded me for not going to a pay-dentist. (Another school dentist was easier at working with children, but I guess it wasn't his turn that day.) Daddy walked me down the driveway to the gate. A pushcart full of boxes of flowers was stopped there. He said, "Which ones do you like?" They were 15 cents a box. Bread was 12 cents a loaf, so I thought we were just talking. I remember saying, "You mean I can really have some?" He laughed and bought me a box of pansies and a box of forget-me-nots. It was something I never forgot. I planted them in my garden and they bloomed all summer. I still love to plant pansies.
Another delight. One morning I woke up and found books on my bed, books on the floor beside my bed, about 60 books all around me—girls books, The Bobbsey Twins, The Five Little Peppers, Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue, books of poems, pictures, stories, essays, Wordsworth's "We Are Seven", an essay on how to design beautiful furniture, a fairy tale about a little girl who was always losing her temper. All kinds of stuff! Daddy brought them home from working all night and put them around me while I was still asleep. He got them from someone at work whose daughter had outgrown them.
One Easter Daddy scolded me because I ate an Easter egg after he had told me not to. Then he didn't talk to me and I thought he was still mad. We were expecting company and I was afraid they would know I was in the doghouse. However, when they came he greeted them at the door and included me in the conversation. After that, I never worried about his ever saying anything bad about us to outsiders, or staying angry after a scolding. He didn't.
He always celebrated April Fools Day with word jokes. But one year, we filled his pipe with tea. He smoked it, trying to keep a straight face and asking us, "What's the matter?" when we reeled at the stench and ran to open all the windows.
Daddy taught us the most when he wasn't trying to teach us anything. But when he tried to teach, somehow he expected us to already know how. He stood me in Shark River for half an hour telling me to get down and swim. I cried and said "I don't know how." He said, "Of course you do... now do it." When something touched my foot (I imagined it was a foot long crab) I got down in the water and floundered away and let him off the hook, but I didn't learn to swim until Junior High School.
He helped me with junior high math homework the same way. Telling me things I couldn't understand in louder and louder voice until I got so tense I couldn't understand anything. I wound up crying and he wound up hollering, "I CAN'T SEE WHY YOU CAN'T SEE THAT!" And he would get up from the table and walk away.
Things used to make Daddy mad. As far as we were concerned, what made him angry was having to tell us to do something twice. The 2nd time, he thundered. When he was angry enough to hit, he rolled up a newspaper to spank with. He said it made a big noise and didn't hurt. It did hurt, but it didn't happen very often. Mostly he would tell us: "Go to your room until you feel like getting along." That was usually for our nonstop arguing. Or, "Come down when you feel better." So that made us decide the length of our isolation ourselves.
Other things used to make him mad. Things he couldn't do anything about, his health, for instance. He was taking a carload of heart drugs he couldn't afford—no health insurance back then—and then his doctor put him on an ulcer diet of baby food and milk. He stormed around fussing about other people who could go out and drink and never get sick, etc. So he decided to change his ways. He bought a case of beer, put it on the cellar shelf, and opened a bottle to go with his sparse supper. He drank half a glass, ate the supper, and went in the parlor to read the paper. Mother emptied the bottle and put it back in the crate and said nothing.
In those days, everybody knew a few people who could fix or help fix or advise or knew someone else who could fix anything that went wrong in your household, since nobody could afford to hire a repairman. Mr. Murphy was one of those. Mr. Murphy was helping Daddy in the cellar with trying to get some heat out of the heater. Ordinarily Daddy would have offered him a dollar or two, but instead he said, "Say, you might like to have that case of beer that's up on the shelf." Mr. Murphy was delighted with getting the beer instead of money, and he was especially delighted with getting it from, of all people, Al Bazzel!
Another thing that made him mad was people's attitudes. He didn't drink or go to the corner bar. His cussing consisted of "What in thunder..." and "For crying out loud..." Joe Semansky, who worked at the school and did both rather well, used to rib my father and really get his goat. On the other hand, the teachers were called "Mister" but they called my father "Al." The biology teacher managed to see us every time we passed his house on Greenwood Avenue and he would yell, "Hello there, Al," at Daddy and Daddy would seethe and pretend not to hear him until we were out of earshot. He would not let me take biology in his class, so there was probably more than just what I know about. However, Daddy did have some good friends there, Mr. Wood, on the staff and (naturally) my math teacher on the faculty.
Daddy expected people to tell the truth. He said once he gave a recitation at church as a child and he forgot the second part of it, so he just said, "I forgot the rest," and sat down. The truth was expected of us as well. But once, his point was proved later in reverse. Junior #2, the Junior High for our neighborhood, was still not built. Mother chose Junior #3 as the best alternative, and my father said I should put down his occupation as landscape contractor (which I suspect he hoped someday to get back into) and not custodian. He said teachers would treat you better if you were higher up on the social totem pole than "custodian" sounds.
So I did. It took a whole year, but one day in 8th grade it backfired. A student said to the teacher, "Isn't her father the janitor at Trenton High?" Miss Ditmars said, "Oh, yes, I know who you mean. I've seen him there myself." Then she looked at me and said, "Isn't that your father?" Well, I was stuck and didn't answer right away. How could I answer the way my father told me to now? But then, how could I not acknowledge that that was my father? Miss Ditmars wanted an answer. She said sarcastically, "Surely, you know who your father is?" which made it worse. I just nodded and waited for her to let the subject go.
I didn't talk to Daddy about it, but I bet he would have enjoyed the backwards way I learned his lesson about telling the truth, and I bet he would have considered it one of life's little jokes.
My father never talked about religion when we were kids except to say he didn't ever want to go to heaven because there was so much work to do washing all the stars and hanging them out every night and washing the sun and hanging it out every day with nobody there to help him but George Washington. But one afternoon when I was Jr. High age, the 23rd Psalm came up, and I said that I did not understand how people could love that Psalm because for me it brought to mind only St. Michael's churchyard gravestones... they were flat tablets laid on stone posts and to me looked like tables. And that made me think of an illustration in "Gulliver's Travels" of Gulliver tied down with ropes and little people running up and down them. My visual picture of the 23rd Psalm was me tied down on the grave marker while little men poured oil over my head. Daddy stood by the kitchen stove in the doorway and, phrase-by-phrase, walked me through the 23rd Psalm, and I understood that he loved it too.
Before 1937, I thought my father was tall, strong, knew everything, and could fix anything. Around then I started to see his vulnerability. I overheard Daddy talking with a neighbor about the continuing (in that year worse) depression that seemed never to end. Their voices were full of despair. I couldn't remember his ever talking like that.
He had long lost touch with the people he had known at Clinton Avenue Baptist. Mother was attending St. Anthony's Catholic Church, and Albert and I were going wherever we wanted to. Two men from St. Vincent de Paul Society visited Daddy every week. He liked them and enjoyed their visits. Eventually he also joined St. Anthony's.
I belonged to a girls' airplane club; our hero was Amelia Earhart, of course. I saved $2 and bicycled out to the airport and took a flying lesson. Actually a lesson was $8 so I got 15 minutes of flying time, rocking through the sky over-correcting this way and that, over-correcting everything I did. The pilot didn't do anything (just got us up and then got us down) but I bet he was ready to throw up. When I got home, Daddy met me by the porch. I told him what I had done and he said, "OK, now see that you keep it up." I told him it was too expensive. There was no way I could keep it up. I had only wanted to see what it was like. The older girls were working and could pay for the lessons; they dated the instructors and spent lots of time at the airport. (In fact one, Marie Muccie, ferried planes to England during World War II.) It seemed like Daddy just didn't know. He seemed to be equating this to taking music lessons.
Close to high school graduation, we met again on the brick walk by the porch between the maple trees out front and the ferns and hydrangea on the side. Daddy said he had no money to send me to college, that I would have to work my way if I wanted to go. It sounded final. We didn't discuss it.
He had urged me to take the academic course so that I could go to college if I should have the opportunity, but he had also warned me that I'd have to work my way. But I had no idea where to go or how to do it, and no idea of a career. Daddy didn't talk to me about any of this or suggest any practical thing to do. Now, I think he just didn't know.
I knew there was no college money, and I didn't even think about going. In fact, I spent time daydreaming and reading about airplanes instead of planning for reality. I didn't want to be a nurse because I hated science. Nor a teacher because I could not imagine standing up to speak before a class. (In 11th grade, I got a D in "public speaking"). That left office work, and now I couldn't type, do shorthand, or bookkeeping, because I took the academic course.
The war was still on. On Monday after graduation, I got a job at Western Union. They taught me quickly the teletype and telephone and how to make up the messengers' payroll—enough to hold the job. I think Daddy was pleased.
Mother was upset about Daddy's still being a janitor. She urged him to try for a job using his accounting skills. He had kept up with tax law doing income taxes for small businesses, including Uncle Clarence's gas station and some other regulars, however he thought his business education was too dated for the forties. He also had been elected by a write-in vote Justice of the Peace, but did not have the $50 to post the bond.
The priest at St. Anthony's got him a better paying job. It turned out to be prison guard. Daddy later said he took it to please mother, but he hated it. Before he could do anything about it, he caught pneumonia and died. St. Francis Hospital put him in an oxygen tent and gave him penicillin, but his heart couldn't stand the penicillin the doctor said. It was Dec. 15, 1943. He was 45.
What I remember most was that Daddy helped people. He used to say when someone is kind to you, you can never pay that person back, but you pass it along and that's what makes civilization. First example I was aware of—Stella Sigafoos, the most unlikely person, taught me how to ride a bike... on her bike too! No way to pay her back. But I taught others when the opportunity presented.
Daddy judged people by the way they treated others. Even religions, in our house, were rated not by what they "taught" but by the way their members who we knew treated others.
After Daddy died I kept his copy of a little book he used to read to us at Christmas, year after year, a family tradition of sorts. "The Other Wise Man" tells of a fourth Magi who set off following the Star of the East but never made it to Bethlehem to see the Christ child because he could not pass by others who needed his help. Daddy said the book was the best example of someone doing, not talking about what he ought to do. I've given Daddy's book to my son. Perhaps a little bit of Daddy hasn't died after all.
Sounds like my father was gentle as a lamb, but there were times when he and Uncle Steve would get into political arguments that alarmed Mother. Both were Democrats, but Uncle Steve was a Union member and Daddy worked for the City, so each had his own ideas about what and how things should be done to fix up the country's problems. Mother would interrupt them, and they would laugh and tell her they were NOT fighting, only "discussing things." (Another phrase used often in our house.)
And I recall when Mother was out, after we were in bed, Daddy would go in the parlor and sing, accompanying himself on the piano, enjoying it, while my brother and I upstairs listened. He liked Schubert's songs—The Lost Chord, Asleep on the Deep—trying to get the bass notes, Can't you hear me calling Caroline... Caroline? We Go This Way But Once. There's a Long, Long Trail a Winding. You are my song of love, heard through heaven's portal, echo of paradise, melody immortal. And a little Scottish song... Just a wee drop an doris... just a wee drop that's all... if you can still say it's a bricht moonlicht nicht...
He quoted Burns poetry: "If we could see ourselves as others see us..." and "the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley." He liked the sound of Scottish and enjoyed Scot performers on radio or stage. He read Zane Grey's westerns and S. S. Van Dyne mysteries, enjoyed O'Henry stories. He got the Trenton Times and the Philadelphia Sunday papers.
I was 18 when my father died. I know you should not judge the generation before you. There are too many things you don't know, don't recall, or don't understand, and besides, your entire opinion rests on an IMMATURE viewpoint. However, it seems to me now (though I took it for granted then) that my father lived life with a certain grace, despite his precarious health, and despite the terrible economy.
Of course, he might have had a harder time doing that without mother as the other half of the team.
Mother was Elizabeth Jane Pope. Her parents were both born in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England and were brought here as children, Grampop via Philadelphia and Grammom via Canada. The first thing I remember about my mother was that she had put me to bed in the iron crib in the middle room of the house on Burton Ave. There was an oil heater in the room and she told me to watch the light pattern change on the ceiling as she opened and closed the slots on the top of the heater. (Later she told me that was the coldest house she ever lived in, but for me it was my first being aware of design and of her making sure that I noticed it.) I was three and Albert was a baby in the carriage.
Grampop lived in Morrisville, Pennsylvania and went to school until 2nd grade, then went with his brothers to work in the pottery. He took us over to see his "two alma maters" one day. He had two brothers and one sister. His parents died when he was very young, and he was brought up by his grandfather and aunt. He was a self-educated man of many talents. He read everything, went to lectures at the YMCA. He heard Gene Debs there every time Debs came to Trenton. He belonged to the Knights of Pythias lodge and performed there—recitations from Shakespeare, Gunga Din, Rubenstein at the Piano, duets on guitar with Grammom on mandolin, duets singing tenor with a baritone whose name I don't know. (Later, when he sang sea chanties to us, he could only remember the tenor part.) He was a supernumerary at the Taylor Opera House in many a spear-carrying crowd scene and once or twice he got a "few words" speaking part. He could juggle, do magic, tell jokes and stories: Jean Valjean, anything from Dickens, and Kipling, ghost stories... some of them true and scary
Grampop played the fiddle and called square dances in costume. He also played Fritz Kreisler pieces on violin. He could render most of the silent movie music of the early days and the current dance music of the thirties. He had won medals for swimming and track and loved sailing. In tough times, he would invent solutions, like gathering wild water lilies, rowing down to Philadelphia, selling them in the City Hall Courtyard, and rowing back to Trenton. He knew the tides, the moon phases, planting times. He kept an acre plot in vegetables in the 30s asking family to weed and pick what they needed. He was a good cook, so even when he was older he was invited to crew along with his nephews when they brought Dr. Knauer's 60 foot sailing ship from Florida through the inland waterway up to the Delaware River. He took an optometrist's course, but when he could have been grandfathered in as an optometrist, he didn't have the confidence to do it. He said he thought he was too rough, not smooth-mannered enough. However, earlier when the Government opened the State of Oklahoma, he was selling pottery off a wagon in Ohio. He said he thought about going down to the state line to go in with the crowd who were waiting there, but he thought he wasn't rough enough, tough enough for the last frontier.
We thought he was a great man to have for a grandfather.
Grammom Pope died of cancer when I was six. I first remember her in the kitchen at Shark River Hills when I was about four. There was a fruffy noise at the front door. She said "Don't be afraid... that's Bessie..." (Mrs. Leaf's dog.) "Open the door." So, I opened the door and was face to face with a collie. I wasn't scared, just surprised that we were the same height. Grammom was a seamstress who could go downtown and look at a fashion in Voorhees window and make it for somebody for half the price. She embroidered peacock bedspreads and stuffed owl pincushions. She gave me swatches from her fabric sample catalogs for my dollhouse.
When Grammom was ill, Aunt Polly often put the card table next to her bed, which was in the parlor, and we three would have a party. Tea, crackers, and limburger cheese. I don't recall how it tasted, but mother said it stunk when I got home. I liked being included in Grammom and Aunt Polly's "parties". I also enjoyed going to Popkin's store for buttermilk for her until the day I dropped it on a neighbor's sidewalk. Bottles were glass then. Mother took a bucket of cold water and the broom down the sidewalk to clean it off.
Grammom often gave Albert and me a nickel. And I recall how often we then lost it down the heater grating. Many years later when Uncle Steve replaced the furnace, he found all the nickels on top of it. He said he found a goldmine! Grammom made a quilt using pieces of items I knew... Albert's rompers, for one. I recovered it twice, but it was then too heavy to recover again. My neighbor in Riverdale sent it in a parcel to her poor relations in Italy. (The rompers had a design in that looked like tic-tac-toe games.)
Grammom had two plates with Victorian ladies in fancy hats on, which she would put out for Albert and me when we ate at their house. (When you finished your meal, you could see the whole picture.) Once she walked me to Long's Drugstore and when she had finished her purchases, she said, "Now, we'll have some ice cream." I said, "I don't have any money." Then she said, "That's all right... it will be my treat." That was how I learned that new word, perched next to Grammom on a high three-cornered stool at the soda fountain with a silver dish of chocolate ice cream.
We were in for tons of treats (though we took them all for granted) when we moved across the street from Grampop and Aunt Polly, who was now keeping house for him. They made us feel that we belonged to them. It was a place to go when you were in the doghouse at home, or when you were just bored for somewhere to go, or when somebody was in our bathroom and you couldn't wait, or when you just wanted to visit them. And we were always invited for supper unless they were having something Aunt Polly knew we didn't like, like brains, which she made into a cold salad. She would gently but firmly say, "You kids go home now," when we saw what she was making. When we heard the firmness in her voice we understood that she was cutting off all "icky, ugh, augh," or "how gooey" remarks we might be inclined to toss off. She was remarkably and good-humoredly in control on those occasions when she made fish and chips for us all and served us in her little kitchen-parlor-dining room where the stove was two feet from the table. But after all, she was a veteran... she had run fish and chip stands at the State Fair for many years before our time.
We marveled at her span of family knowledge. She was Grammom's aunt, my mother's great-aunt, and our great-great aunt. She came to the U.S. on a sailing vessel, went back to England at age 16 on a ship equipped with steam and sails, and returned again on a steamship. She didn't want to fly in an airplane, but she did buy a glass frying pan when that was the latest thing.
One day around noon, I arrived to find her wrapped up on the couch in the kitchen with the flu. She asked me to fry a couple of eggs for her lunch. I told her eggs always break when I make them. She said, "They won't break... you'll see." And she coached me through making the lunch move-by-move. The eggs didn't break. And besides that, she said she felt better already.
I remember her being angry only twice. Once because we were always teasing her about when she dropped her "h"s or added an "h" to a word that didn't have one. She would say, "Can I get you summit to heat?" or "Will you 'ave a bite?" After years of putting up with us, one day she quietly told us that she had tried and tried to correct her "h" problem, but it just stayed with her, and that she did not like to be teased about it. I don't think we mentioned her "h"s anymore. The other time she was angry, she read us the riot act. We were staying down the shore with her and Grampop—no parents along. Albert and I went for a walk without telling Aunt Polly where we were going. We were looking at the mushrooms growing on the golf course when it began to get dark. She had been calling and calling us, and when we got back she lectured us on responsibility. That her being responsible for us meant we were responsible for telling her where we were going and being back before dark.
When we knew Grampop, he worked at Uncle Clarence's gas station on S. Broad Street. He opened at 5AM and came home around 3:30PM. He took us for rides on Sunday to the airport, to the farmer's market by the river, and took us all shopping at the Giant Tiger (the first supermarket) on Saturday nights, and took us down the shore when the place wasn't rented out. Once, the car sat in the driveway with a flat. He told me to go fix it. He said I'd watched him enough times to know how to do it. I fixed it. He conned me into diving properly from the side at Woodlawn Pool. He taught me to sail the boat—I caught a beautiful breeze early in the morning, and it felt like we were flying! I could feel how nifty it was slicing through the water with the right amount of speed and in the right direction!
At Shark River Hills, he took me up the hill in the night so I could watch a thunderstorm that was going on all around us. (Mother yelling, "NO...NO..." as we went out the door.) Once in Deal, we walked into a yacht club and spent a Sunday morning on the patio. He said, "Just act as if you belong here and nobody will say a word." We did the same at Madison Square Garden on 8th. Avenue. He took me to the Trenton Arena to watch wrestling and down by the Delaware to watch fishermen mending their nets. Often he would take us early in the AM to watch the fishing boats come in and see the team of horses pull them up on the beach. The team pulled lengthwise along the beach; the cables circled big pulleys and were attached to the boats, which rolled on logs. As the men were loading the catch in baskets on a flat-wagon to be pulled by the same team to the wholesaler, Grampop bought a fish right off the boat for breakfast. Freshest fish I ever ate.
Grampop knew an Indian named Jesse Fowler (we called him Jesse Flowers), and when he came by they would run down Riverside Drive just for the delight of running, but also to see who could get back the fastest. Evenings, by kerosene lamp, we played rummy at the kitchen table, young and old alike. We learned quick adding, heard family history and ghost stories, and enjoyed family jokes, such as "Well of course you won... you were the score keeper!" The house at the shore was 4 rooms amid pine trees and oaks with a nice screened porch across one end and a garage (also fixed as living quarters) built from Fort Dix surplus.
Up at Trenton, Grampop showed my brother Albert how to order from Government Surplus and fixed him up with a small black case, which they stocked with shoelaces, handkerchiefs, etc. and Albert would make the rounds of family and friends. He did a nice job carrying things everybody needed, and none of it was too expensive. Grampop showed Albert how to keep records and order and price things. Their desk was a box under the couch. The day Albert had to show up for the Navy, Grampop made breakfast that morning, cheese and eggs, and he and I took Albert to the Induction Center in New York City and delivered him. I felt so lonesome going home. Grampop took me up the Chanin Building on 42nd Street, east of Grand Central Station. It was a nice lookout with nobody there so early so we just looked and looked. (Click here to see the ship Uncle Al served aboard for the duration plus six.)
When Grampop had arthritis so bad he couldn't play the violin or even maneuver knife and fork, he suggested I shave his face. I already had had hair cutting lessons, so with careful instructions, I shaved his face. He said you never know what you may be called on to do someday, so you may as well try everything while there's somebody at hand to learn from. He was preparing us for the "College of Hard Knocks." I think it was "How to Eke-Out-A-Living." If you wanted to do something nice, you did it yourself. He built a rowboat, then later built into it a centerboard and installed the mast. Aunt Polly sewed the sails together on her treadle machine. (The sails filled up the whole room.) Each year he painted the boat with leftover paint mixed together. We had to guess what color it would turn out. The sailboat gave us all that "rich" feeling.
The only thing untoward I knew Grampop to do was take an axe and chop up the pump organ. "Untoward" is too polite; it was downright perverse.
The pump organ had been in the garage (cottage) as long as I could remember, and we played it whenever we wanted to which was often. The year before 'axe-day" Grampop had put an old upright piano in the house parlor. "It's for you to practice on," he said. But it was out of tune and several keys did not play so we ignored it. We didn't "practice" on the pump organ—we loved it. Our pieces that sounded plain on the piano sounded "rich and full bodied" when played with combinations of stops that we could change to our liking, and if we pumped like mad we could get the volume to a point where we could imagine the garage shaking.
One sunny morning, Grampop pulled the organ out in the yard and chopped it up and threw the pieces on the woodpile where they continued to haunt us for as long as we went down the shore. Aunt Polly kept me in the house during the chopping session. The only explanation I got from her was that he must be mad at the person who had given him the organ. Afterward, when we asked him why, he said, "Well it wouldn't play anymore." But it played fine—he knew it and we knew it.
It was as irredeemably sad as watching the dog officer take away your dog who's sick with distemper.
I gathered that Grampop's personality leaned more toward the perverse in earlier days, and that he had mellowed by the time he got to us. I heard Uncle Steve remind Mother sharply how the house had been so full of fighting that they'd all left as soon as they could. Grampop had refused to let his children go to high school. At age 14, he said, they had to go to work. It was a matter of principle, not a matter of money.
Agnes got out of the house by marrying Ernie Gauck at 17.
Bill got out of the pottery by making himself a trapeze artist and performing in Vaudeville, as long as it lasted, and then traveled with the circus. He later went back to the pottery.
Mother got out of the rubber mill (where she made fountain pen innards) by demonstrating how to make monkey lace at the art goods department in Gimbel's on Broad Street. Later, she taught piano lessons at pupils' homes. She had no piano, but went on her rounds walking or on the trolley car.
Steve was last one out. He left town, going to work in the steel mills in Pittsburgh. He later became a machinist.
Mother's earliest recollection was being at the Episcopal Sunday School in East Trenton. The teacher told the children there was no Santa Claus and mother ran home to get her comb and brush set and then ran back with it to show the teacher that "there was so" a Santa Claus... look what he had brought her!
She once lived beside the Assunpink Creek, which flooded into their cellar one spring and then froze so that they had their own private ice skating rink. For a time they were the favored kids on the block.
Mother's example of name-calling that'll never hurt you was Gertrude Baker, her aunt (although they were the same age.) When they jumped rope together, Gerty would insist before the other girls that Mother call her "Aunt." Mother would refuse like a spunky 12 year old should and then the jumping verse would change to "Lizzie Pope, Lizzie Pope, went in a saloon and came out broke." Another of Gerty's unforgotten taunts was 'You are nothing but an old oyster, chewed up, spit out, and stepped on." I never met Gerty but her verbal inventions were sure part of our childhood lore.
One of the more elegant events mother talked of was a winter holiday trip to Lakewood with her mother. They stayed at a beautifully furnished resort hotel and enjoyed sleigh riding, ice skating on the lake, meals in the perfect dining room, music around the piano, conversation before an enormous fireplace, and (eventually) slept in lush featherbeds.
The first night they went to bed and all was quiet until one of them turned over. Then, the bed collapsed, and they heard laughter from the hall. Mother said the hall was full of the hotel's "regulars" who had been waiting for the big bang to happen. They had set it up by slanting the bed slats. She said she couldn't imagine how so many could keep still for so long. She hadn't heard even a whisper.
Mother recalled, as a child, listening to her father playing the violin after she went to bed at night. But when she was older and wanted to read, he wouldn't let her keep a lamp lit. She said she would hang a coat over the keyhole and shove the bedside mat against the crack under the door, so she could read unnoticed.
Uncle Bill and mother had a great interest in the stage. They saw Sarah Bernhardt and whoever else came to town, and Uncle Bill later insisted that his children attend every ballet he could get them to. He trained his older girls, Pat and Rucy, and Uncle Steve's oldest daughter, Grace, on the trapeze. Grace gave an amazing one-man performance at Sports Night at Trenton High and the others performed in Uncle Bill's show in the circus until the State insisted that he put them in school.
Music was the key to life for mother. When Uncle Bill set up his trapeze equipment in Grampop's yard in 1931, he wanted to teach me along with my cousins. Mother said, "NO," not telling me 'til I was grown what I'd missed. But, by 1931 I had already played in a few recitals; she emphasized piano from Day 1.
She never said, and I never thought to ask her, when she began to study piano. There was no piano in their home. She didn't play the violin, guitar, or the mandolin. But she had to pass the Trenton Conservatory of Music every time she walked downtown. I suspect that one day she just walked in, asked for lessons and a place to practice.
The way her first upgrade (the job at Gimbel's) happened makes me think she must have decided on music for her next step. She had got the job in the morning, then went to a friend (who did needlework) at lunchtime and learned how to make the lace, and demonstrated it for customers in the afternoon. She kept the sales job in the department.
By the time she was 16, she had pupils on every trolley line and was her own boss. Some of them remained lifelong friends. I'm thinking of the Wegner family in Hamilton Square. The original pupils grew up and brought her their children. (When she was ill on Garfield Avenue, I taught old Mr. Wegner's granddaughter for her.) I remember meeting him years before, when they still lived in the old farmhouse on Hamilton Avenue.
The Conservatory arranged for her to qualify for the Cornell Music Teachers course by exam since she didn't have high school. It was a happy time for her; she talked about Cornell often and had photos of friends at the college and at Watkins Glen. The Cornell Certificate hung in her studio for many years, but I don't know where it is now.
Mother was an able and an all-around musician. She taught singing, harmony, theory, adults, children, advanced and beginners, and disabled people. Nothing fazed her. Pupils quit because they ran out of money or time, but nobody quit because they didn't learn. She coached singers and accompanied them at their recitals. She played in Conservatory Alumni recitals and played two piano works with other teachers. They did all their timing with their eyes and were fascinating to watch and hear. Before there were recordings, radio stations used to broadcast "sustaining music" between programs or wherever they needed to prevent "dead air." Mother got the job for WFIL but on the day she was to play, Albert was taken to the hospital, and she didn't get another opportunity.
Before jukeboxes, live musicians played dance music at restaurants and clubs. Mother on piano, her dad on violin, Ed Doman on drums, a neighbor (who lived in a house Daddy and Grampop built in Ewing Township) on banjo, and a neighbor from Logan Avenue on trumpet. They practiced at our house once a week and played whenever they could get jobs. Two-steps, waltzes, rags, tangos... their sheet music ran from the 20s to the latest of the 30s.
Photos in the album showed the interior of Mother and Daddy's house on Crestmont Avenue. And there was the grand piano with pedestal vases of roses beside it. Not just the house and its beautiful furnishings—they each had their own business and their own car, a Franklin. Mother said she was driving around the Monument in Trenton, and the wheel got stuck in the trolley track, so she continued driving around it. Finally the traffic cop yelled at her, "Madam, don't you pass me again." She said, she was so angry she wrestled the steering wheel, got out of the rut, and sailed past the cop with her nose in the air.
The Depression hit them in the eye. The house and the Franklins became pictures in the book. The two Fords that had replaced them sat idle and rusted down, one in front of the East Washington Street house and one in the empty lot behind it. But the harder things got, the more determined she became. When Public Service shut off the electric, she turned it back on, so the doctor could examine my brother's ear. After living at Grampop's while Daddy was hunting for a job, she worked off the furniture storage bill of $40 by preparing and serving formal dinners for Mrs. Freese on Hamilton Ave. She served meals at St. Francis Hospital. She relined Daddy's coats, turned his pants cuffs and shirt collars. She bought everything including our bikes at $1 a week. She worked on the poll board, belonged to the PTA, and regularly prospected for new pupils. And when we had space, she rented rooms. And she taught at the Conservatory, a nursery school, as well as piano.
The less we had, the more enthusiastic she became about our "doing" things. She let my bother Albert line up the chairs for a train and seat my dolls for passengers. She kept us in watercolors and we saved store bills (blank on the back), cardboard and boxes, to sew or paste or cut into new creations. Albert's Punch and Judy show for 2nd grade—what a great whale that was. Punch did not go in back of him—the whale actually swallowed Punch. She made me a cardboard dollhouse with furniture the year before Daddy made the wooden one. I remember the delight I felt watching her make a rocking chair of sewed cardboard and paint it purple. And she held birthday parties for Marion, Eleanor and me since our birthdays were all together. And mother showed us how to make peanut brittle, and let us make cheese sticks or jelly tarts out of leftover pie dough. She encouraged rhyming and poetry and wrote some good ones, which I'm sorry not to have copies of. She sang around the house... "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." And often she rocked us singing, "The toyshop door is locked up tight and everything is quiet for the night...
The front room of our house was always the studio. The middle room was our sitting room, and our dining furniture was in the kitchen. (They were large kitchens then.) We were not allowed to interrupt or disturb anything going on in the studio. The front of the house was to be kept neat, quiet, and professional looking. Everything else goes out back. Mother insisted on our knowing our manners... "in case you ever got invited to the White House you should know how to behave." She also stressed looking neat when you go out, because you are judged by manners and by how you look. Part of this was for us, and part was so as not to detract from her position as a music teacher in the community.
She took us to Clare Tree Major plays at the War Memorial Building and to the State Museum. She showed me how to set up a library with my books so friends would return them. She played Mrs. Malaprop in a local production of Sheridan's "The Rivals". She was extremely good at playing bridge, and went with Edna and Vince Weiss to St. Anthony's card parties. She brought home a prize every time. (One was a pretty quilt for my bed.) Vince would give her his tickets for the Trenton Symphony concerts. He was supposed to review them for the newspaper, but he would ask her how the concert was instead.
There were all kinds of people at and around our house. Mrs. Crews, affectionately called "Crewsy" and who cooked and took care of me until I was 3 yrs old, was black. Neighbors named Marchiachio on E. Washington were Italian. Concetta (Cunchie) took care of me then. Irish were Mrs. Murphy, the Franeys, Aunt Maude Hutton, the Morans, and Mr. and Miss O'Toole. Mother's pupils were German, Italian, Polish, and Mrs. Williams was French. Louis Irshay was Hungarian and disabled. Mother gave him piano lessons and his father taught her Hungarian. They were from a variety of religions. Milton Cantor played violin and I accompanied at PTA meetings. Mother came back from talking to his mother one morning with a mezuzah (a pretty container about 3" long that has a prayer curled inside it, sort of a "Bless This House") which she had seen on the door frame and had asked her what it was. She borrowed it to show us. One of Mother's Greek pupils brought her the Greek alphabet and her language lesson book.
Only a few Chinese families lived in Trenton. They had restaurants or hand laundries, and none lived in our neighborhood or went to our school. Once, mother had gone on a tourist bus trip to Chinatown in New York City. The tour used a tawdry come-on, "See the opium dens..." and worse I assume. She had been thoroughly frightened by it. Even years later, when I invited her for lunch at a nice downtown Chinese restaurant she tried to refuse. I did get her inside and seated with the menu, but she kept looking around and as soon as the waiter approached for our order, she stood up and headed for the door. He asked me what was wrong. What could I say? I apologized and fled right behind her.
Mother belonged to the Trenton Piano Teachers Association which one year began to discuss a method by which they could assure that all piano teachers were properly educated or would not otherwise be allowed to teach in Trenton. A bit shaken up, she signed up for courses at night school. She loved plane geometry and did very well. But then she began to think. Her reputation was already established, and a reason for high school at that point was moot. Perhaps her business might be badly affected if people saw her there. So she did not continue. And the new "method" was discussed and discussed and then forgotten. But she was hungry for learning. She read history, geography, English. Daddy gave her the 100 classics, which she read over and over. And library books, books borrowed from friends. From anywhere.
I remember mother as a woman of determination. She would not let anything baffle her, or anyone, or any task she had to do. When life dealt her lemons, her goal was to make the highest lemon chiffon pie she could imagine.
But one man's determination can result in the next guy's getting steamrollered. Not only did she use music to rescue herself from oblivion, she loved it—not even Ashkenazy can play Chopin like she could—and she wanted to pass it on.
I knew that later, but music drove me up the wall from the beginning. When I was four, the afternoon of a recital arrived and I still didn't have "Birdie With a Yellow Bill" (in the First Williams Book) memorized. I remember the frustration and crying and screaming and playing it on and on. Well, I played that recital, at a little Episcopal church on the corner of Liberty and Chambers Streets, and because nobody said "No," to my mother, I played some fifty more recitals, and countless dates in somebody's combo, accompanying some singer, playing for some Sunday school party, etc, dates mother would brag me into and then commit me to fill.
Every day, it was misery, from "No practice, no breakfast" to being stung on the legs with the flyswatter and delivered to the piano already crying. Finally, screaming and banging the infernal eternal wrong notes, I broke a key. Daddy replaced it immediately, and Mother gave me to Mr. O'Toole. He put me in a class of three and took us through "Creative Book II" After a year of practicing and studying, both harder and more calmly, I learned that I would never play the piano. Mr. O'Toole said I knew all the wrong notes because I practiced them so hard. He would not give me the certificate for Book II.
The only recital I played in at the Conservatory happened to be when Mr. O'Toole was out of town and the other teachers arranged it. I played "Noontime Whistles," first demonstrating the 4 tones of the whistles that blew noon in Trenton, and then showing them the chords I made and what I did with them. The audience was delighted and so was I. Dr. Campbell, a colleague of Mr. O'Toole's from New York City, had come to speak. When he later saw Mr. O'Toole he commended my "Whistles." Poor Mr. O'Toole... he couldn't then tell him I had played in the recital behind his back.
In 1951 when I was in Montefiore Hospital sick with Tb, it was Mr. O'Toole who prompted me to write music for publication. He made corrections and suggestions by mail, and bought my first piece, "The Donkey." Then he told me where to send them, and he told them to expect a packet from me. I owed a lot to him for his kindness, and I owed the connection to my mother's exasperation.
Music got between mother and me. I hated it and her and everybody. Because, while music was the best thing that happened to my brother and her students, it was the worst thing happening to me. I couldn't see why she couldn't see that. Not until writing this family history have I truly appreciated her.
She led me to notice and enjoy design and pattern in all sorts of places, in rugs, fabric, pottery, anywhere it can be found. She gave me paints every Christmas, stencils, sponges and rubber cement, swirl paint to make vases out of jars. She put up with my drawing a house on the wallpaper behind my bed where I thought she wouldn't see it and let me paint a scene on the window shade. When I drew crooked lines around pictures without white margins in her photo album—I thought they needed a "frame"—she provided me a scrapbook of my own to do what I wanted in.
She taught me to embroider and to crochet. And we played endless word games such as Teakettle on homonyms, or we just made rhymes and poems while setting the table, doing dishes, or otherwise puttering around. I wrote a bunch of poems in school in 5th grade, but mother's word-puttering eventually led to my High School FOOTBALL letter. My "Ebb Tide" won the Quill and Scroll Society poetry contest and I got to sit in the front row on the stage at graduation and my letter was awarded before the football team was awarded theirs.
It was mother's sharing with me her enjoyment of history, geography, and the sounds and rhythms of language that eventually nudged me along toward the BA degree. And I am glad to be aware of the technical construction of music—that's what I listen for—what the composer did with what he had in mind.
Mother and Daddy complemented each other. Daddy thought good things would happen and that life is an adventure that you should appreciate and enjoy. Mother thought bad things would happen and that you should be prepared and always be wary just in case.
The March of the Unemployed to Washington went through Walnut Avenue. A wide street, it was curb-to-curb angry men with flaming torches. Mother saw the mob, pulled down the parlor shades, picked up my brother, took him back in the dining room, and rocked him singing "The Toyshop Door."
Daddy stood in the open doorway talking with neighbors who were on their porches all trying to encourage those in the parade that they knew.
I stood in the back of the hall where I could see both of them. Looking around Daddy, the torch parade seemed thrilling. Looking in the dining room, I thought they were missing it all.
Together they pulled us safely through the depression. I should have learned patience from my father. I should have learned endurance from my mother. But I can't say that I did. Those are my weakest attributes—the ones I'm still working on. But mother and daddy are still around. The way they said things, the way they did things, keep reappearing in the way I say things and the way I do them. So I notice and smile and wonder if they are somewhere, near or far, keeping an eye on me...
A few weeks before mom passed and after she had been in a nursing home for well over a year and with Alzheimer's dementia for several, I witnessed the following.
Mom, in a cheerful moment and cajoled by an aide, sat in front of an upright piano in the activities room—the room where folks slouched in geri-chairs and sang or mumbled songs from decades ago, fading smiles on their lips and drool. Mom played and played and played that piano, without sheet music, tunes that to this untrained ear sounded perfect. It was the last time I saw mom smile
Thanks for that memory, mom, and thanks for introducing me to you and yours in ways I could never have imagined, for filling in the empty spaces, for building this bridge over time and place and guiding me across it, your hand in mine. Thanks for giving a voice to those who have passed on, for not letting them pass me by, for making your memories almost mine. To you and to them, I say simply "until we meet again..."
There is more.
In early 1958 the grandma I never knew was evaluated by a physician, presumably a psychiatrist, following a period of decline in her ability to care for herself while living alone. The physician summarized his findings and conclusions in a letter to mom which turned up a few years ago in a box of papers at my cousin's house in New Jersey. The letter, itself a time capsule from a bygone era of psychoanalytic thinking, reads as follows.
DOUGLAS H. ROBINSON, M. D.
113 KING GEORGE ROAD
PENNINGTON. N. J.
April 7, 1958
25 Branch Brook Place
Newark, New Jersey
I wish firstly to thank you for the very valuable history that you gave me on the past behavior and personality of your mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Bazzel. It proved a number of conclusions that I attentively arrived at for myself, and put in the foreground other reaction patterns I have not been able to appreciate for myself. It also clarified her own statements concerning you, your father end your brother, which I had felt were untrue and probably had a delusional basis.
I will say firstly that your mother continues under my supervision though not as closely as formerly. After a series of six hourly visits in the office I concluded that I had done all that I could for her in the way of office treatment, and particularly since this was at the expanse of a local organization, I preferred to continue seeing her at intervals of about every two months in a local hospital clinic which I felt would enable me to supervise her medication. This is the way in which I will handle this problem in the future.
Your mother presents a combination of difficulties, both psychiatric and neurological. I had felt before receiving your letter, and felt even more so afterward that she presented a very severe personality disorder, which, as you suggest yourself, is not to be modified by any type of psychiatric treatment at this late date. Your mother might be described as an "injustice collector" who derives masochistic gain from feelings of being injured and mistreated by others, and there is no doubt in my mind that she provokes other people to meet her need for mistreatment and exaggerates the significance of what they do in order to obtain this type of satisfaction. With the passage of time I feel that your mother has actually become delusional on the subject of her relations with others, for example she describes her brother as an active Communist Party member, which I am not prepared to believe. I am satisfied that her delusions do not render her dangerous to others.
In addition it would seem that there has been a certain degree of depression recently with retardation and apathy, and the medication she is taking is designed to combat this. Furthermore, I am certain that your mother has a neurological problem, I have been fairly satisfied in my own mind after neurological examination and electroencephalogram that she has been having epileptic seizures and I am treating her accordingly. I admit that nobody has ever seen her have one of these, since she lives alone, but with the evidence above, I am satisfied this is the meaning of the "blackout spells" in which she loses consciousness and injures herself. When I saw her last, she stated that she had had none of these since being put on appropriate medication.
Nonetheless, I believe the time will come, and perhaps within the next year, in which your mother will no longer he able to care for herself and hospital care of a custodial nature will probably be necessary, possibly in the Donnelly Homes here in Trenton. Your mother of course is living alone and I am not satisfied with the care she takes of herself. In addition to my seeing her at intervals in the hospital clinic, I have asked Mr. Leyshon of the St. Vincent Depaul Society, who originally referred her to me, to keep himself informed of the situation in her home and whether she is satisfactorily caring for herself.
I am thoroughly aware of the complete impossibility of anybody getting along with your mother, considering her personality tendencies, and I do not wish to imply in any way that you should change the pattern of your present relationship with her.
Douglas H. Robinson, M. D.
The grandma I never knew passed from this world and entered eternal life sixteen years after her husband and two years before I was born. Her death followed a long period of decline in health related to an intracranial neoplasm. Her final resting place is beside her dear departed husband at St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery, Trenton, NJ.
At the time of her passing, neither her son nor her daughter could afford a headstone, so none was placed.
Mom began to demonstrate a significant decline in thinking and functioning as early as 2001 and by 2004 was no longer able to live at home, despite the earnest efforts of my father to care for her in that setting.
It began as all storms do—scattered raindrops tapping on the window pane, gently at first then louder and more insistent. Mom's dementia grew into a downpour and then the deluge it was destined to be, washing away taken-for-granted abilities and hard fought accomplishments alike without pity or remorse. Her confusion and bewilderment worsened at a dizzying pace. She lost the ability to put simple puzzles together. She began to mistake me for her brother who had recently died. Unable to feed herself for well over a year, mom was fed via PEG tube. Unable to control or even recognize the urge to eliminate, she wore a large square pad folded and taped like a diaper.
On the last day of her life, mom was discharged in the late afternoon from Condell Memorial Hospital where she had spent several days recovering from pneumonia and dehydration. Nearly unable to speak, she said nothing as I kissed her while the ambulance crew readied her for transport. I followed the ambulance back to the nursing home. The traffic was heavy on Milwaukee Avenue; it was the height of rush hour. I parked behind the ambulance on the circular drive. It wasn't long before mom was tucked in her bed. The ambulance crew retreated, and nursing home staff busied themselves cleaning up the evening meal. I dimmed the lights in her room and sat at the bedside. Holding her hand, I watched mom die.
It didn't really happen this way. It could have—it should have, but sometimes another hand picks up the brush and adds a few strokes to the canvas that lies before us, and all we can do is stand back and accept the results. The staff at the nursing home said they needed "a little while to get her in bed." I chose to leave—to grab a bite or run an errand or do something I must have thought mattered. I told the staff I'd return within the hour. Not long after I left, I received a call from the unit. In a matter of fact tone, a voice said that mom was deceased. Sounding more urgent, the voice asked for the name of the funeral home the family preferred. I didn't hold her hand for the last time—no one did—no one still trapped in this mortal world at least. She died alone in a bed that was not her own in a room she did not choose on a hall permanently inhabited by strangers. She passed from the world of confusion and fear and little things that made no sense. It is often said the deceased look "peaceful" and "at rest." Mom just looked tired and sad.
I've often wondered what eternity might look like. Perhaps it's warm and sunny, and there is a gentle breeze, and all one hears are the sounds of children squealing with delight like on a playground with swings and a carousel. They say there aren't words that capture its beauty. Perhaps the new arrivals are speechless or simply gasp the way one does when one sees Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon for the very first time, or when a little girl excitedly tears the wrapping from a package found under the Christmas tree and finds the doll she's wanted all year long. One thing is sure, however. In Heaven, everyone utters the same opening remark... "Hi, mom. I've missed you."
Foreword and afterword by Wallace Heller.
--A Simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
--Her beauty made me glad.
"Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?"
"How many? Seven in all," she said
And wondering looked at me.
"And where are they? I pray you tell."
She answered, "Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.
"Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother."
"You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven!--I pray you tell,
Sweet Maid, how this may be."
Then did the little Maid reply,
"Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree."
"You run above, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five."
"Their graves are green, they may be seen,"
The little Maid replied,
"Twelve steps or more from my mother's door,
And they are side by side.
"My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.
"And often after sun-set, Sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.
"The first that died was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.
"So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.
"And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side."
"How many are you, then," said I,
"If they two are in heaven?"
Quick was the little Maid's reply,
"O Master! we are seven."
"But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!"
'Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, "Nay, we are seven!"