She grew up on a farm, the middle daughter of Irish immigrants who settled in Missouri by way of Pennsylvania. She had an older sister, Mary, and a younger brother, Tomy, who was the light of everyone's life. He was handsome and strong and spirited, and he used to ride two horses across the farm fields standing up, one foot on the back of each bay.
Gramma did what farm girls do--she canned, she gardened, she tended the chickens. She was not well-educated, though one year when she was 14 or 15 her parents sent her to a convent school for a year--near Maryville, I think, or near Clyde--where she saw things she'd never seen on the farm: mosaic tiles and gilt-framed paintings and hundreds of books and a pipe organ. She only went to school there for a year; she said it was the best year of her life.
Her dream, when she grew up, was get to the city. In those days, in that place, the city was Kansas City. When she was still quite young, she married my grandfather, John, perhaps as a way to get off the farm. He was a town boy, from St. Joe, the youngest child of German immigrants--Germans by way of the Ukraine.
John was born in America, though some of his older siblings were born in the Ukraine and at least one had died there. He left school in the eighth grade and eventually landed a job at Western Union, which lasted him the rest of his life, except for periodic layoffs during the Great Depression.
If Gramma thought that John was going to get her to Kansas City, she was sadly mistaken. John was not an ambitious man. St. Joe was fine with him.
There are family stories from early in their marriage about John being sent to a psychiatric hospital and Gramma escaping briefly to Kansas City before John was sprung by the formidable Aunt Barbara and some of her sisters. Gramma was retrieved from the big city, and she and John resumed their married life. True? It doesn't sound true. I imagine that something happened, but I doubt if it was that.
Gramma and John had three children--two sons right away, and a daughter ten years later. During the Depression, which was most of my father's childhood, they lived in a series of small rented houses all over the north side of St. Joe. They had almost no money. Sometimes John would plug the gas meter with slugs in order to get heat.
John, during layoffs from Western Union, found work where he could. He collected eggs from farmers and sold them in the city. He swept up the grain samples at the grain exchange at the end of the trading day and sold those, as well.
None of these stories are unusual or dramatic. (Unless my grandfather was, indeed, slapped in an institution so his wife could go galivanting. That would be unusual.) They're pretty typical, I think, of middle America in that time.
They raised their children. They fought like cats and dogs, for 60 years. Oh, those fights were mean. Gramma liked getting her way, and she didn't care what she said to get it. My mother, when she first married my father, talks of being shocked by some of the things that Gramma said, and how nobody seemed fazed by it except her.
Gramma and John eventually saved enough money to buy their own house, which proved to be haunted. They made frequent trips to California, where they always visited Knotts Berry Farm, and to Las Vegas, where they were enchanted by Circus Circus.
In the early 1960s, when my brother John Patrick ran away from home, my grandparents took him in. They didn't tell my parents for several days, and during that time my parents were frantic. Finally, Gramma called long-distance and said that John was there, and safe, and they wanted to keep him. My father said no.
A year later, when John Patrick died, you know what Gramma said. If you'd let him stay with me, he'd still be alive. That's the kind of person she was--or that was one of the kinds.
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