Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Grandpa Frank

Bettyann on Mandatory Hair Bow Day at St. George Catholic School. 
One of those times Aunt Vera pincurled my hair the night before.
Sander Street - The Fifties

The staircase had a banister tailor-made for young kids, spiraling from the top floor to the bottom, curving around two landings without any hindrance. That means our cousins could hop on the banister in the hall outside their apartment and take an express slide all the way to the bottom hall that exited off our kitchen to the backyard. Aunt Vera was constantly yelling, “You kids stay off that banister!”

This house on Sander Street is where many of my stories take place. This was in Corryville, just a few blocks from St. George Church and School.

We’d moved here from Hollister Street, directly across from Inwood Park on the corner of Hollister and Vine. We didn’t live in the Hollister house too long, as I remember, but I know one of my siblings was a baby on Hollister. By process of deduction, it had to have been Nancy, because Donna, two years earlier, had been born in Morrow, Ohio, when we lived with our maternal grandfather, Lawrence Jones.

Nancy was still a baby on Sander Street. I remember her in the crib which stood against the wall next to the double bed. All of the children slept in the same room, all in the double bed except for whoever slept in the crib. When a new baby came, the one in the crib graduated to the double bed. When it became too crowed in that bed, a “rollaway” bed was added next to it, and my next eldest sibling, Phyllis, and I moved there.

Among my only memories of Hollister Street, the second floor apartment of a large, Victorian style house was learning about “Four O’Clock” flowers from the landlady, an avid gardener, and waiting patiently for entire days in the yard to see them open up at exactly four pm, which I never saw. I’ve grown Four O’Clocks for years now, and they always remind me of Hollister Street. And, no, I still haven’t been watching when they opened at four o’clock.

I also started first grade on Hollister. I’d started the year before in Morrow, at Grandpa’s, but then I caught every known childhood disease possible and was absent over half of the year. At least that’s what they told me. I know now that our lives were sheer pandemonium during that time, when I was six and eligible for school. There was no kindergarten then.

Living upstairs in Grandpa’s house, I remember bits and pieces. I remember my father was restless and hated living away from the city life. More specifically, away from the saloons and bars that he loved so much. Grandma Dean told me Dad started hanging out in the bars when he went to work during the depression to help support the family. I think he was twelve when he began shining shoes and selling newspapers on the streets.

Grandma said older men bought him drinks in the saloons, and it became a way of life for him. The drinking also wiped the hurtful past out of Dad’s mind. The reason he had to support his younger siblings and his mother was because he’d thrown his father out on the street when he was fed up with watching his mother get beat up. Dad, however, never wanted to talk about that. I saw the guilt he bore for having to do that, even though he was protecting his family.

On Hollister Street, I remember Dad taking me to the first grade classroom at St. George Catholic School, the same school he’d attended as a boy, introducing me to the teacher, a Sister of Notre Dame nun in full regulation regalia, and leaving to go downstairs where he worked as the manager of the bowling lanes, the “Georgian Club.” That nun scared the daylights out of me, and I wanted to run after my father for all I was worth.

The First and Last Time I Saw Grandpa Frank

This is how I learned Dad was guilty about forcing his father out of the home when he was a young boy. He loved his father and demonstrated this love when Grandpa Frank showed up at our house on Sander Street one summer evening.

Me and Grandma Clara Wehrle Dean on Easter, standing
across the street from our house on Sander Street, about
1952, the same time Grandpa Frank Dean appeared.

I was about ten the evening Grandma Dean and I stood at the living room window that overlooked the long, narrow side porch, and stared at a man who was a stranger to me, but who Grandma had vowed to never lay eyes on again.

Dad pleaded with his mother. “Just come out to see him, Mom. He just wants to see you.”

Grandma's chin locked in place and her head turned side to side. “I won't, Raymond. I've already told you. I said I’d never talk to him again or see him, and I meant it.”

Dad went back outside to relay the message to his father, a man dressed more fancy than I'd ever seen in my life. I remember the Stetson type straw hat on his head, set at just a slight angle as if he put it that way carefully. The black pin-striped suit. No man in our neighborhood wore a suit. And the shoes. I'd never seen a man in anything but black or brown shoes, except “gym” shoes as we called them, canvas black and white high-tops for playing basketball. But this strange man sported white shoes. That helps me remember it was summer.

Uncle Norb, Aunt Vera, and Mom were outside too. I told Grandma I wanted to go out, and she’d forbid it. “Bettyann, you will not go out there where that man is.”

I didn't have to wonder why she hated this man so. She'd already told me. She'd started telling me family stories as soon as she knew I could listen and understand, and that was pretty young. I was groomed early by two teenaged aunts, Dad's sisters, Dorothy and Clara, along with Grandma, to pay attention. Listen and learn.

The three of them spoiled me as much as they could get away with. They owned me from the moment I exited the womb.

Dad was stationed in Hawaii, in the army when I was born. It was 1942, World War Two. Mom stayed with her parents most of the time because my Grandma, Cecile Leeds Jones, was dying of breast cancer, and Mom took care of her at home as much as she could and let the Deans take care of me.

Mom told me when I got older that the odor in the house where my Grandma Cecile was dying was almost unbearable and how the poor woman cried out in excruciating pain. The cancer had almost completely eaten away the afflicted breast that my mother had to wash and keep clean.

I also found out from Mom, when she told me that story, how my Grandpa, Lawrence Jones, her father, was out running around with other women. I guess he had what you call “needs.” She said he even brought one of the women home while his wife lay dying in another room.

I didn’t know this until I was an adult. It was hard, remembering how much I’d loved my Grandpa. It was harder understanding my mom’s forgiveness of her father.

I still can't believe my mother had to go through that. How awful she must have suffered. But she left out part of the story, a big part, I wouldn't hear until my sister Phyllis was dying years later.

My other grandmother, Grandma Dean, that early summer evening on Sander Street, spoke in a hushed voice as we crouched at the window and stared out onto the sidewalk, “He always was a dandy, that man. Always had to dress just so.” Dandy, I'd learned, was a man who looked fine.

Like my other grandfather, Grandpa Frank was a player too. That might have been forgiven him, but when he came home and hit my grandmother one time too many, my father put an end to it and told him never to come back.

Then Dad dropped out of school and went to work shining the shoes and selling the papers. He felt responsible for his younger siblings, Dorothy, Norbert, Clara, and “Junior” (named after his father. I called him Uncle Junior for most of my life. I don't think Grandma liked to call him Frank because it reminded her of his father.

“Why is he here, Grandma?” I said. She just shook her head. “I don't know. He's stayed gone all these years, supposed to have gotten married again and had two more kids. Your father says he's sick, but I don't know.”

It's true that Frank had gotten married again, but Grandma never divorced him because of the Pope. She never even tried to get a dispensation from him. She believed in her heart that those marriage vows stood until death do you part. It was okay if you never saw your spouse again, or lived with them. But you stayed married. That was what you signed up for. The idea of my Grandma ever seeing another man would make you laugh. That just wasn't her.

Finally, my Grandfather Frank was gone. I don't remember if he had driven a car or if he walked back up to Vine Street to catch a bus. I only have that memory, that scene, locked in my head of that evening over fifty years ago.

Not long after that, but I'm not sure how long, Frank did end up in the hospital where he was dying of cirrhosis of the liver. He was an alcoholic, had been all of his life. It’s a gene that resided with my Dad and my brother Ray, and finally with one of my own sons.

His father dying, again Dad tried to get Grandma to go to see him in the hospital, but she refused. Dad went and tried to get a priest to come and give his father the last rites of the Catholic Church, but all of them turned him down. Frank had committed the sin of bigamy and had been excommunicated from the Church for a long, long time. Dad came home from the hospital, and I watched from around the corner of living room as he cried on my mom’s shoulder. That was the first time I saw my father cry. It hurt him terribly that he could not get a priest to give his father the last rites.

I’d wondered then, watching his cry, why it was so important for Dad to help his father, when he was the one who threw him out of the home. Later Grandma explained he loved his father and only did what he thought was right for the family, and she was grateful to him.

I also knew my father to be a kind man, a generous man, never to hold a grudge. He had a great capacity for love in his heart. He took pity on homeless men out on the streets, some who were drinking themselves to death. Dad’s own alcoholism never gave him a reason to miss a day of work or not take care of us. I was never abused physically. Dad never raised his hand to our mother. He got in bar fights only when he had to protect Uncle Norb because his younger brother had a big mouth that got him into trouble over and over. When Norbert would smart off to big guys and they went to take him out, Dad stepped up and knocked them to the floor. But he was not a mean man.

1920 Census showing Frank and Clara Dean in Hamilton County, Cincinnati,
before my father was born

Grandpa Frank Dean and Grandma Clara Wehrle's Marriage Record

1 comment:

  1. Bless you for sharing your story. I believe God uses the writing process to help bring healing, to help make sense, to inspire grace, forgiveness, and hope for the future. Keep writing!