My grandmother was a helpless creature suffering from a severe case of asthma. She spent much time at the kitchen table, making a tent of newspapers and inhaling strange incense-like fumes, which must have been thought therapeutic at the time. She was a member of the DAR and had a noble family lineage. The ladies of the DAR would meet at their home regularly.
The three daughters all became strong women, perhaps in rebellion against my grandfathers dominating attitude. Surrounded by women he ruled over his lair. My Mother was the only one who remained close. My grandfather died in my parent’s bed which they had ceded to him on his final days.
When my grandparents would take a vacation, my Mother and I would care for the hardware store. It was a three-story brick building on a sloping street just off the main thoroughfare of the town. The two upper floors were rental apartments. The store had two large dusty showcase windows filled with farm hardware. Not much thought was given to display. The store itself was dimly lit and filled with glass cases containing the usual accoutrements expected of such a store. There were cases for firearms and tools and bins filled with nails and other small items that could be pulled into paper bags with a clawed rake and weighed on a balance scale. The business center was an old roll-top desk with a handy spittoon. There was a hand operated elevator that took one to the darker yet basement where larger pieces of farm equipment were stored. The air reeked of decline. Chain hardware stores had begun to appear, but my grandfather insisted that the better quality of that which he sold was worth the higher prices he had to charge.
While my mother tended the store, I would play amid all the wonderful cases full of antiquated equipment. I would go up and down in the elevator, being just strong enough to pull the rope that activated it. I never would explore too far into the dark basement. Before closing I would help sweep the oiled wood floor with a foul smelling compound.
In the 1930’s, during the depression, my father was unemployed for six years. We had income that my mother made by teaching elementary school. However, this necessitated our family living with my grandparents. This created a tense situation, since my grandfather could not understand why my father could not find work, and my father’s ego was injured since he could not help but sense this attitude.
An example of this friction concerned my grandfather’s pride in his automobiles.
He had owned a Hupmobiole and at this time a La Salle, both considered luxury transportation. One of the weekly events was a pleasure ride in this plush behemoth. My grandfather, being the former farmer that he was would never let a lesser car, such as a mere Ford, pass him as he had never let a lesser horse and buggy pass him in his youth.
This resulted in a couple of situations where we would end up in a ditch, and my father would insist on taking over the driving to protect his family. For the rest of her life my Mother had an imaginary brake pedal on the passenger side of any car with her right foot vigorously active no matter who was actually driving.
Preceding these Sunday afternoon adventures were hours of tinkering with the engine of JS’s pride and joy while the engine idled. I remember my father, a trained mechanic, grumbling that this did nothing to enhance the vehicle, and even did it harm.
The tense atmosphere in the stately, for the time, brick house came to a boiling point one weekday like any other. Every day my frail grandmother prepared a hot meal for the family at lunchtime. My grandfather came home in his vested suit and tie from the hardware store and we all sat down with me on his left. The trigger was a glass of milk. I reached for the glass and it toppled, spilling most of the milk in my grandfather’s lap onto his three-piece suit. Naturally, he began to reprimand me. It was the middle of a business day, and I am not sure how many suits he actually owned.
This did not sit well with my already smarting father. He declared, rather forcefully, that he was the one who should punish me, not my grandfather since I was his son. At this point, the situation became Wagnerian. My grandfather rose from his seat, dripping milk, went to the hat rack in the corner of the kitchen and found my small baseball bat, and raising it in a threatening way, in a quavering voice, told my father to leave the house, in no uncertain terms.
My mother, then in a quavering and squeaky voice declared that, ”if Carl goes, we all go.” I was glad I was included.
The rest is a muddle in my mind, but I do know that we moved down the street a couple of houses to an upstairs apartment owned by friends.
Of course it was not long for all to be regretted and forgiven and we were asked to return to the brick house up the street, but that never happened.
After six years of unemployment my father finally was rehired by the Pennsylvania Railroad and continued in various occupations till he retired in his seventies.
My mother and I would still care for the hardware store while my grandparents drove in the luxury mobile to exciting places like Natural Bridge, Virginia.
My grandmother died before my grandfather and he finally poisoned himself with his own cooking and limped to our brick house in that car to die in my parent’s bed.