Saturday, March 26, 2016

Entry - 3.26.16

Memories are so elusive.  Once I’d thought my memories had foundations of stone only to find later that my childhood understanding of the past was filtered through a distorting prism, that phantom events had infiltrated my chronology or that significant happenings had escaped my notice entirely or were simply washed away by the passage of time.  After so many years, the line between fact and fabrication has blurred until I’m no longer sure of anything.  And so many of the people who defined my early life have died that there really are no authorities to turn to for a more reliable truth.  I’m left with my fragile memories, flawed as they are.  So perhaps this is not so much a history as it is a story.

 I was about three years old when my grandfather died, so I have only the vaguest memories of him.  He was a gentle, smiling man who loved children.  He tried to engage me and entertain me with silly games and tricks.  Photos of him from this period show a man depleted by a long battle with lung cancer, his small frame wasted away, his head skull-like.  His visage could easily have unnerved an adult, but, being such a young child, I kept my own perspective.

Domenico Ghirlandaio - An Old Man and his Grandson - 1480
 He was found by my grandmother in his favorite armchair where he had settled for an afternoon nap.  Though I remember little of that time, I was told that the loss struck my mother and grandmother hard.  My grandmother retreated into herself, her natural gregariousness giving way to silent introspection.  Over time, she mended, or so I assume since I can only remember her shy laughter and her smiling, welcoming face.  Even from the most horrendous storms and upheavals, nature cures herself, and we are no different.  There were trips to the cemetery where my mother and grandmother would place flowers on my grandfather’s grave and we children would be scolded for darting and careening amongst the headstones.  I was fascinated by the flags and the flowers and the endless rows of perfectly aligned, identical headstones.

Unbeknownst to me a seismic shift was occurring in my young life, one that would impact on most of my childhood years.  Devoted to her family, my mother determined that my grandmother would be visited on a weekly basis.  So every Saturday my parents, my siblings and I would make the hour drive to my grandmother’s home to keep her company.  We would arrive in the early afternoon and wouldn’t leave until quite late – commonly after midnight.  When I was very young, I didn’t mind this routine.  My grandmother lived with Pete the Parakeet and an ornery, gray-muzzled dog named Smokey in a sprawling house with gingerbread colored, asphalt siding that my grandfather had built himself.  Early on, it all seemed pretty magical, but, as I got older, I grew to resent losing one day of my precious weekend… after what I considered an endless week of schoolwork.  I wanted to be at home with my things, my own routines and, most importantly, my friends from the neighborhood.

Our visits to my grandmother attained a routine of their own.  Shortly after our arrival, the children were scooted out to the yard “to play” – as if once out the door we would spontaneously erupt into fun and games.  Watching television was the great Satan of my childhood, and my parents forcefully encouraged my siblings and me to find less passive, more enriching activities to occupy our time.  So we would usually go out to the large detached garage that was set at the end of a long cement driveway that flanked the house to rock in the green wicker rockers that crowded about the structure’s doorway.  When we got bored with that we might walk to the nearby schoolyard to play on the swings and jungle gym or climb a tree.  As reward for our efforts we were handed a few bucks and sent to Babbitt’s, a small neighborhood convenience store, to buy Italian ices.  Back at the garage, we scraped away at their impenetrable skins with small wooden paddles, carefully working the edges until we could flip the ice entirely and get to the dense stew of sugar and food coloring which settled on the cup’s bottom.  Having served our time, we were granted a reprieve and were permitted to watch television until dinner.  Usually we chose ABC’s Wide World of Sports or repeats of Secret Agent and Mission Impossible.

A red patterned formica-topped table sat in the center of my grandmother’s cozy kitchen.  An old fashioned, compact refrigerator with rounded corners hummed away in the corner, hiccupping whenever starting or stopping.  Amid much grunting and cursing, my father and uncle had cut a large rectangle out of the south wall of the kitchen and installed shelving on which my grandmother displayed her knickknacks: figurines and ceramic pieces she’d collected over the years.  I especially coveted two china dogs, one brown and one yellow, that were arranged on the bottom shelf where I could easily see them.  Through the shelves you could peer into the next room where my grandmother kept a jungle of plants that were healthy and thriving – in stark contrast to my family’s feeble attempts to sustain houseplants at our home.  Having matured in a farming community, my grandmother had a green thumb and carefully tended to all flora both indoors and out in her yard.

The table was set with china plates etched with a crinkly web of minute cracks and fissures.  My tenuous memory tells me that we always had pot roast and mashed potatoes, but that can’t be true, can it?  For dessert, we had oatmeal cookies, stale from sitting in the tin too long, or jello corrupted with the fruit that my grandmother added as a special treat for us kids.  At my age, I didn’t understand that my grandmother was a diabetic, that there wouldn’t be a lot of sweets in her home, the few that gained entry tending to linger there awhile.

After dinner, my siblings and I would retreat to the living room while the adults packed away leftovers and washed and dried the dishes.  As we watched Petticoat Junction, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Mannix, the adults sat at the kitchen table, my grandmother nursing a small tumbler of ginger ale while the others drank beer from the smoked drinking glasses that my parents had brought back from their Virginia Beach honeymoon.  The living room was sweltering, both summer and winter, and, drenched in sweat, we soon passed out draped across the sofa or sprawled across the carpet.  Eventually we were roused from our sleep and ushered grumpily to our car for the ride home.

My grandmother would display the flag on all patriotic holidays.  During one of our visits, she asked me if I would replace the line on the flagpole that stood in her small front yard.  I readily agreed.  Since I was still pretty young, my mother had reluctantly consented to this, but my grandmother was delighted.  As we stood around the flagpole, I was given my instructions, handed the line, then lifted and placed on the pole.  The two women pushed me by my bottom as high up as they could, but after that I was on my own.  I was a very active, adventurous child who regularly climbed trees and got into all sorts of mischief, so this task didn’t unnerve me at all.  I immediately began shimmying up the pole and was soon on level with the roof of the house.  I looked down to see my anxious mother watching me skeptically, but my grandmother was smiling broadly and cheering me on.  I must admit that as I neared the top I was a bit surprised to discover how tall the flagpole really was.  Nevertheless, I continued to the top.  Once there, the process became a little more challenging because I had to thread the line through a pulley and to do that I had to release my grip on the pole, something I hadn’t considered while still on the ground.  I froze for some moments while the ladies waited perplexed below.  Then I got up my courage, embraced the pole tightly with my thighs and fed the line through the pulley.  That accomplished, I quickly slid down to join my relieved mother and ecstatic grandmother.  After patting me on the back, my grandmother turned to my mother and said, “Did you see, Marion?  He’s just like his grandfather!”  To be compared with my grandfather made my young heart swell.

The weekly visits continued throughout my childhood, but, as we, one by one, reached our teen years, my siblings and I were permitted to remain at home while my parents made their regularly scheduled excursion.  We would do our homework, hang with our friends, walk our dog and savor a TV dinner in the evening hours before going to bed.  My older siblings worked part-time jobs during this period and would often be gone for most of the day.  We did not see as much of my grandmother as before, but she made occasional visits and joined us for many holidays.  As she grew older, my grandmother inevitably became less agile and broke bones in a number of falls.  She stayed at our home for extended periods during each recuperation and, once healed, she would return to her independent life of shopping, visiting with friends, attending church and, most importantly, playing her beloved bingo.  But the years were taking a toll on her.  I remember on one occasion my parents rushing off unexpectedly to care for her when she had a dangerously high fever and was pretty delirious.  After being reprimanded by her stern German doctor for neglecting my grandmother’s health, my father, a fearless amateur physician, stayed up with her the entire night sponge bathing her and forcing her to drink liquids.  She pulled through, but it was becoming increasingly evident that her days of living on her own were numbered.

Andrew Wyeth - Barn Loft - 1956
So many of my memories of that time are connected with my grandmother’s garage where I had spent so many idle hours.  The structure was enormous and packed with the dross accumulated over many years past.  At the rear there was a glider seat that hung suspended on four straps.  Many a summer night, I would lie on that seat gently swaying in the dim yellow glow of a distant house light, half-listening to the crickets chirping and the unintelligible chatter of the adults gathered in the front of the garage, the aroma of beer and cigarette smoke infusing the humid air.  There was a square hatch in the garage’s ceiling that provided access to its attic.  Without a dropdown ladder, the attic remained terra incognita for many years, but bored children will eventually explore every square foot of a property given enough time.  By placing a folding ladder beneath the hatch and balancing on the top step, I could just reach the lip of the hatch and pull myself onto the floor of the attic.  The scariest part of the process was reaching up through the hatch and putting my hand onto the dusty, wooden floor.  Sleepy wasps would gather at the entrance, and more than once I got stung when I placed my hand directly upon one of them.  There was a lot of old things up there: boxes filled with papers and clothing, screens and storm doors and tall wardrobes (or chifferobes, as my mother called them).  I was most intrigued by the decorations I found there, remnants from celebrations long forgotten: welcome home parties, New Year’s celebrations and wedding and baby showers.  On one of my visits up there, I fanned open white paper wedding bells and hung them from the rafters.  I stretched banners from one end of the attic to the other.  Satisfied with the results of my efforts, I dangled from the hatch until my foot made contact with the ladder’s top step, then descended, leaving my indiscretions to be discovered by the next intruder to that space.  Perhaps my most poignant memory of time spent in that garage dates back more than thirty years.  My grandmother could no longer live on her own, so the house my grandfather had built, that old fashioned structure with crystal doorknobs, a freestanding bathtub and a terrifying, labyrinthine basement, was being sold.  We were at the house to pack up what could be saved and dispose of what couldn’t, and I had been working all day, moving furniture and boxes, sorting through years of possessions and cleaning room after room.  While out in the garage to take a break, I recognized that this would be my last visit to this place.  The new owner intended to level the garage, cut down the crab apple and pear trees that had occupied the backyard since before my birth and divide the property in two.  On the new lot, he planned to build a large, modern house that would tower over the neighbors’ homes.  It was getting late.  Sunlight was already creeping along the floor of the garage.  Someone had pulled a large wardrobe to the front of the structure, and, out of idle curiosity, I took a look inside and found two uniforms, one from each of the two world wars, carefully preserved and hanging side-by-side there.  I hoped that someone planned to save these heirlooms from the dumpster, but, being just a kid without influence or a place of my own to store them, I didn’t pursue the matter.  I thought it would be a shame to lose these tangible artifacts of our family history, a history that I had over the years learned piecemeal from my grandmother and mother.  The story, as I understand it, goes like this…

Having suffered some romantic betrayal from a longtime lover, my grandfather determined that he would remain a bachelor and devote his working life to the US Army.  He enlisted with the cavalry and quickly developed a lifelong love of horses.  I recall hearing that he joined Pershing on his fruitless pursuit of Pancho Villa in Mexico.

Leopoldo Mendez - Pancho Villa - c1944
When America became a combatant in World War I, he was sent to Europe.  I know little of his activities during the war, except that at some point he was mustard gassed and transported to a hospital to convalesce.

Otto Dix - Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor - 1924
At the war’s end, Allied troops occupied Germany’s Rhineland with the local population being required to billet the soldiers.  That is how my grandfather came to be living in my grandmother’s home on the outskirts of Koblenz.  As I have said earlier, my grandmother grew up in a predominantly agrarian community; it consisted of a core village of homes and outbuildings surrounded by fields, privately owned and independently farmed.  Most households kept livestock, a cow, a pig and some chickens at a minimum.  A church, shops and opportunities for employment were to be found in a larger town within walking distance of their small village – a journey demanding enough to be undertaken only once a week.  I would say that my grandmother’s family were solidly middle class.

(My grandmother is third from right.)
As these things happen, a romance blossomed between my grandmother and the American soldier staying in her home, and they determined that they would be married once the occupation was over.  My grandmother told me how her family tried to teach my grandfather the language by pointing at things and supplying their German names: der Tisch, das Stuhl, der Löffel, das Fenster.  I once asked her, “But, Grandma, how could you agree to marry someone who you couldn’t even talk with?”  With a wry smile and a twinkle in her eye, she replied, “Oh, there are other ways to communicate.”

When the Americans ended their occupation, my grandfather was required to return to the States to be decommissioned.  He promised that he would come back to Germany to marry my grandmother.  Her father warned her, “He will not come back”, but my grandmother was sure that he would keep his word.  And he did.  When he returned to Germany, he suggested that they make their life together there in my grandmother’s homeland, but she felt that there was too much resentment and bad feeling after the war for an American ex-soldier to be accepted by the local population.  Instead, they were married and traveled to Holland where they boarded a ship bound for New York.

Initially, they lived in the City, but my grandmother couldn’t adjust to the crowds and the noise and the filth.  So they moved over the county border into Nassau, which in those days was fairly undeveloped with clusters of private dwellings interspersed among stretches of open farmland.  There my grandfather built the home that I knew as a child, the home in which he and my grandmother were to raise their four children.  Customary practices were changing rapidly in those early years of the twentieth century, and some of their babies were delivered by a doctor at their home while others were born in the hospital.  My grandfather was versatile and could perform a multitude of jobs, but I believe he was primarily a roofer.  He joined the Volunteer Fire Department; my grandmother, the Ladies Auxiliary.  They watched their children grow and prosper, each of them attaining a high school diploma, which was the norm for middle class kids at the time.

During the Second World War, they saw their two sons sent to join the fighting, one in Europe and the other in the Pacific.

Miraculously, they both came home, alive and uninjured.  Upon his return, one of my uncles planted hundreds of flowers in my grandparents’ backyard, an undeniably sane response to the experience of war.  Years later, my mother still recalled the sight with awe.  In the postwar years, my grandparents’ children married and settled on Long Island, as the surge in development carried families further and further out on the Island toward the Forks.

And the years slowly drifted by, as is always the case, barely perceptibly, with events to celebrate and in which to take pleasure and others to mourn and regret, though, under deep circumspection, perhaps, we would be prone to observe that most days pass unremarked with little occurring to differentiate one day from that which preceded it or that which will follow.  And so my story inevitably comes full circle to the years after my grandmother’s house had been sold and she came to live permanently with my family.

During this period, my grandmother and I became great friends.  As this entry will attest, I was fascinated with her stories of the past and questioned her greedily on details from her childhood.  When I was in grad school, I would emerge from my morning painting sessions in the basement to join my mother and grandmother for lunch.  I can vividly recall sitting at our kitchen table, my head still full of my morning’s labor, tomatoes from my mother’s garden set on the windowsill to ripen in the sun and my mother and grandmother rehashing happenings from long past, almost madly obsessed with establishing an accurate chronology of those events.  Whenever I planted anything, my grandmother, leaning on the cane that the passage of years had forced upon her, would hobble after me into the yard and watch my efforts.  Once she declared wistfully, “Oh, if only I could get down there with you and put my hands in the soil!”  Though my grandmother rarely touched alcohol, on special occasions I sometimes goaded her into doing shots of Jägermeister with me, and, with cheeks aflame, she would laugh and argue with me while the candles burned down after our evening meal.  I never heard my grandmother say anything critical of anyone.  She honestly liked everyone she met, but, in particular, she was committed to her family.  Ignoring each of our faults and indiscretions, she would only recognize the kernel of decency and excellence that she was certain resided at our cores.  She took particular delight in informing folk (the dentist, barber, podiatrist or the checkout lady at the supermarket) of how many grandchildren and great grandchildren she had.

I drew or painted my grandmother’s portrait a number of times during the 1980’s.  Whenever I asked her to pose for me, she would blush demurely and object, “Nobody wants to see an old lady.”  To which, I invariably replied, “Well, I do.”  And she would reluctantly sit, I believe, quite pleased with the attention.

Gerard Wickham - Franziska Normann-Young - 1980
Of course, once established in her new quarters, my grandmother had to scope out a new location at which to play bingo, and luckily my parents’ church provided a convenient venue.  My father would take her there in the evening once a week.  When he wasn’t available, one of us kids would do the driving.  On one occasion when I was the designated chauffeur, I discussed logistics with her on the drive over.  “I’ll drop you off at the front of the church.  You’ll wait there while I park the car, then I’ll come get you and help you to your place.”  She looked at me defiantly.  “I don’t need any help.  I can do it on my own.”  I pleaded, “Please, Grandma!  If you get hurt, it will be me who gets in trouble.”  She grumbled unhappily.  She was already over 90 then, and there were two flights of stairs to be maneuvered to get down to the large room where the bingo games were held.  Once at the church, I pulled over to the curb and helped my grandmother out of the car.  I looked down at her stout frame supported on her cane.  “Now just wait here.  I’ll be back in a second.”  After tearing through the parking lot to quickly find a space, I raced back to the front of the church to collect my grandmother.  She was gone.  I rushed into the building, sprinted across the lobby and, upon approaching the stairs, found my grandmother, still on the first flight, frantically scurrying downward, two hands on the railing, her cane, hooked over her forearm, trailing behind.  I quickly caught up with her, grabbed the cane away from her and helped her down the stairs and to her seat.  She huffed a little and fought me a bit but had to succumb to this minor indignity.  I left the building feeling completely exasperated, but, at the same time, couldn’t help but admire her undiminished tenacity.

Understanding in her early 90’s that her stay with us was finite, my grandmother began to spend hours in her room sifting through papers and documents, old cards and letters and photographs, organizing them in bundles secured with rubber bands.  During those last years, my nephew lived at the house with her.  She would invite him into her room and show him photographs of members of her extended family overseas until, at the age of two, he could identify each individual on sight, pronouncing his or her name with a perfect German accent.  Apparently, my grandmother was taking stock, tidying up her legacy, in anticipation of a time when she would no longer be available to offer information or provide answers to our questions.  Being of a similar mind, I asked her one day to pose for a photograph in the morning light at my parents’ backdoor.  She disappeared for about a half hour, returning formally dressed, bedecked with a necklace and earrings, her hair carefully arranged.

She died rather suddenly from complications resulting from extremely minor surgery.  I was living in the city at that time and didn’t get a chance to see her in the hospital before she was gone.

Endnote:  I like to visit cemeteries, a habit I probably picked up in my teens during camping trips made annually with my parents and siblings along with my aunt, uncle and their children.  My uncle would suddenly pull over to the side of the road upon sighting a particularly old graveyard, and we would all tumble out of our cars to tramp amongst the graves, studying the headstones, reading the often unusual names and determining the age of the markers.  The practice has stuck with me to this day.  In my own town, I am particularly drawn to a timeworn cemetery located behind a church built in the early 1800’s, its confines girded in a low, flagstone wall.  Frequently, while my wife shops nearby, I’ll visit this cemetery and meander among the markers, each individually unique and commonly quite elaborate.  There are sections of the cemetery that are very old.  Some of the individuals buried there were born around the time of the American Revolution; others must have fought in the Civil War.  I construct stories about the dead.  The husband and wife, whose headstones are surrounded by those of their young children who predeceased them by many years, lost them in a horrible epidemic.  The widow who lived for forty years after her husband’s death remained faithful to his memory while watching the world change dramatically: cars replacing horses, electricity coming into use, a world war consuming a generation of our nation’s youth.  The two teens who died on the same day, their headstones positioned side-by-side, were the tragic victims of an ill-fated, drunken, midnight joyride.  It consoles me to delude myself that I can recreate the narratives of these individuals from a few lines of numbers and letters, that their stories, once as vivid as my own, did not die with them.  But that is purely an emotional response.  Intellectually, I recognize that, for the vast majority of us, the imprint we leave behind will be erased completely within a generation or two after our deaths.  Not a comforting thought, to say the least.  Perhaps that is why I made the effort to record here these impressions of my youth and resurrect my grandparents’ saga in this spare and flawed account.

As always, I encourage readers to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at:


Conrad Wickham said...

Great work.

Conrad Wickham said...

Great work.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Conrad.
Thanks, Conrad.

RB said...

This one had me tearing up quite a bit. I have islands of information from stories Grandma would tell me, but this passage connected some of them together to the Wickham peninsula. May it ever grow!

Gerard Wickham said...

RB: I was hoping to catch a mood of bittersweet nostalgia in this entry. I may have hit my mark. Mary was weeping while reading it too.

Gerard Wickham said...

RB: Oh, and I forgot to mention that you made a cameo appearance in this blog entry. Did you notice?

RB said...


I did! I still have some vivid memories of great grandma. Sitting with me and telling me about her relatives back in Germany. Her laughing and feeding me medallions of a banana she had been slicing is high among my favorite memories.