|Back in our day . . .||
First things first; today is the birthday of my oldest grandchild. Happy Birthday, Brian! The celebration begins as soon as school lets out. But first...
As we have stated as our clear purpose, this blog is first and foremost for the grandchildren. I am trying to be completely honest in everything I write here, because after I'm gone, this will form the tangible memories they, and if I'm fortunate enough to be remembered, their children have of me. I look back across these posts, and I see an isolated child undergoing a mild sort of abuse, spanked almost daily, though not in the emergency-room-visit manner that we all hear about on the news, blamed for everything bad that befell anyone in the family, and constantly made to feel worthless. I'm sorry for that. I merely report what happened. Lest this blog become an unreadable crescendo of doom, I will point out that I lived under a roof, never missed a meal that I can recall, never slept outdoors unless it was by choice, and nobody made me carry an AK-47 in their revolution before I turned 10. But there was an exceptional bright spot.
Marie Wheeler, nee Holt. Auntie-Ree I was taught to call her before I could form a memory of why, and she was in my life from the beginning. She was my great aunt, my grandmother's sister, and she thought I was the greatest thing since carbonated soda; or at least if it was an act, it was a good one. I never received a cross word, a backhand across the face, or any expression of displeasure whatsoever from her. Her husband, Otha Joseph Wheeler, Uncle Joe, followed her lead where I was concerned, and whenever their car pulled up in front of the house, I couldn't have been more thrilled if the circus had set up its tents in my yard.
She always dressed up for her visits; I guess it went with the times. I remember most strongly a navy blue dress (probably more than one) with white polka dots, open-toed pumps, and a sweet floral perfume. She would come in, and the first piece of her ritual was to bend over from the waist, kiss me on the cheek, and hand me a dime. She visited on average about twice a month, and that dime stood as my allowance for all the time she was with us. The grandmas hounded me mercilessly about not squandering that dime on anything worthless, by which they meant "fun," but I always did. Sometimes she would bring an inexpensive toy, usually a small cap pistol, or a toy tank or airplane... She had a fine instinctive understanding for what a young boy would like, and war toys hadn't yet been branded Products of the Devil.
There were a few occasions when the grandmas went out of town, or once one of them was in the hospital, and I was sent to spend a week with her and Uncle Joe. Their house was... interesting. It was, in the strictest interpretation, an apartment. They had one unit in a duplex in which the two units were stuck together back-to-back instead of side-by-side as is usual. There were, I think, three of these arranged around a grassy common space, with the garages enclosing the fourth side. It was very cool.
Auntie-Ree was a collector. Every horizontal surface in their house was filled with Oriental brass. I learned early the differences. Indian brass items, slippers, bowls, human figures and so on were thin, and their decorations etched into the surface. They were delicate and looked fragile, even though they were made of solid metal. To my child's eye, they paled next to the Chinese brass they shared the shelves with. Chinese brass was thicker, had a duller, more substantial appearance, and the carving most often went all the way through, giving the bells and bowls the appearance of quarter-inch thick, solid metal lace.
She also collected U.S. coinage. She had blue folders for every variant of every denomination. I was amazed to learn that there had been pennies with Indians on them, nickels with buffalos, dimes with Mercury, and gray pennies made of steel. I learned to tell which mint a given coin had come from, and to locate the marks of the artist who had engraved the design. She tried to get me started with my own little collection, but money in any denomination was far too rare and precious for me to justify laying up a hoard that would never be spent. She interacted almost constantly with me when I was staying with them; Uncle Joe read the paper and watched boxing on their black-and-white TV.
Uncle Joe was a big-shot with the Teamsters' Union. This was in the heyday of Jimmy Hoffa, and I still wonder sometimes what his real function was. He used to talk about driving a truck, and some of the jobs he worked on, and no doubt he did, but grandma told me several times that he was one of the men that would pull scabs out of the trucks and leave them bloodied by the roadside. I don't know. His "grunt" days were before my time, and he was never anything but gentle and friendly toward me, but this is Hoffa's Teamsters we're talking about, and how many times have you heard that you never really know somebody? I do know that by the time I came along, part of his employment arrangement was that every year he would go to a prominent San Diego dealership that is still thriving nearly sixty years later, pick out his new Oldsmobile, and drive away without a cent changing hands. There was probably a great story there, if only I'd had the awareness to run it to ground.
But every chapter closes, and in 1957, the year I turned nine, she paid a visit to her doctor for treatment of a nagging cough. All the women in the two generations before me smoked like chimneys, and it shouldn't have come as a surprise when Uncle Joe called my grandma to tell her that Auntie-Ree had lung cancer, and a life expectancy measured in a small number of months. Back then, any cancer diagnosis was a death sentence. There was no cure, there was no treatment. They just made you as comfortable as possible, and sent you home to live out your last weeks. As Uncle Joe had a job he had to go to, she came to stay with us. I remember always making myself available to fetch her things and fluff up her pillows, but if I had truly understood what was coming, I never would have left her side. Children in those days were shielded from things considered too mature for them, like sex, death, and property tax, and I can't say that was a bad policy, but the curtain came down on this particular chapter when I was nine years old.
She converted to Catholicism at the end, and had she sworn allegiance to a witches' coven, her sister couldn't have been more upset. My first exposure to the Catholic religion was thus listening to grandma go on and on about how it was a cult, her poor sister was going to hell because she'd turned away from the Lord, and a lot more things in this vein. Even today, when I have interactions with a Catholic, I have to consciously remind myself that not everything my grandma taught me was necessarily true. The funeral was held in a Catholic church, and my impatient nine-year old self sat in the pews through what seemed like hours of ritual. We finally formed a line and filed by to view the body, and the moment I saw that cold, perfectly constructed face, so lifelike and yet somehow not, I knew that a corner had been turned.
I have carried on without Auntie-Ree ever since, but despite all her efforts to teach me about coinage and culture, what I learned from her was that there were decent people who cared about children, and hope could not be taken, only surrendered. I don't think she ever realized what she was giving me, and I didn't have the maturity to tell her, but if her religion turns out to be right, then she knows. I think she would be pleased. Uncle Joe remarried a year later, something for which grandma never forgave him. I only saw him once more, at grandma's funeral, where he was kind and gracious as ever. My final assessment: He deserved better in-laws.
I'm sorry, it seems I've ended on another downer. If there's a positive side to all this, it involves the growth of my character. I've heard it said that what doesn't kill you makes you tough, and I'd have to say that that's true. Auntie-Ree's influence was an early step in the forging of the man I am today, and while she was taken early, the lesson I want to leave you with here is the good you can do without even realizing it, if you just decide that today, just today, you're going to be decent to the people you meet. Marie Holt Wheeler always did this every day, and in the 56 years she's been gone, I have never heard one unkind word about her. There are worse ways to be remembered.
And I'll leave it there. I have a million stories, but I think, like an Oriental painting, a few clean brush strokes paint a clearer picture than the clutter of minute details. Next time we meet, I'll tell you the story of the oldest person I ever personally knew, and I promise it will have a more positive note than you've become accustomed to. Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
All the best,
This is for the grandkids, the family, close friends, and anyone else who can keep a civil tongue in their heads! It amounts to an interactive book of memoirs, but only if you interact... so get to it!
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California has been my home since 1965. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I'm home to stay!
What is there to say about a ten-year old turning 65, besides, what the hell happened?!??