Monday, March 13, 2006

Monday Memory

Did I ever tell you about my Father’s family-of-origin?

Daddy’s parents seemed to me to be very different from one another. Like many couples, they seemed to have become opposites of each other in an attempt to moderate each other’s effects on people. Mama Shaw seemed demanding and distant to me. Daddy Shaw, on the other hand, was friendly, easy-going, gentle and loving – sometimes it seemed that he felt he had to “make up for” her brusqueness.

Mama Shaw kept a spotless house. I washed many a dish at her sink during my childhood and early adulthood. My sister and I used to joke that she always cleaned out the refrigerator (always called the “frigidaire” by most people of my acquaintance in those days) and cabinets when we were washing dishes. No matter long we washed and dried dishes, the counter top kept piling up with more dirty dishes !!

My grandmother was a natural executive who loved telling people what to do and how to do it. She always had lots of jobs for everybody. She was also an excellent cook; and I still regularly make chili-soup from her recipe. She called this “chili”; but I discovered as an adult that most people expect a much thicker and spicier dish than this when they hear the word “chili,” so we eventually began to call this dish “chili soup.” She also made wonderful cakes. The top of her buffet would be covered during the Christmas season with beautiful home made cakes. She was known for her fantastic fresh coconut cake and a wonderfully moist date-nut cake.

One of my most unpleasant experiences as an insecure, shy child was a conversation with my grandmother when I was about 9 or 10 years old. Out of the clear blue (my perception) she said, “Don’t worry, Joan. Some day you will be as pretty as Janice. You will probably outgrow that baby fat.” It had never occurred to me before that I was not as pretty as Janice – or that I was fat. I also realize now that she probably viewed her comment as encouraging to me and that she did not mean to be insulting.

My paternal grandfather was a great storyteller. We sat in their living room and listened by the hour as he told hilarious stories about his own childhood and about his sons' childhood antics. Mama Shaw would often interrupt, chastise him, and claim that he exaggerated. How I wish I had a recording of some of those sessions! What I remember most about those occasions is the feeling of closeness and sense of being a part of something special. One of the things that made those times of family sharing so much fun was the boisterous laughter of my uncles as they enthusiastically embellished the stories and competed with each other to add details.

Daddy Shaw died at the age of 67 of a heart attack. He drove himself to the hospital when the chest pain became bad. The doctor said that his heart literally burst as a clot formed and his heart kept beating strongly until it could contain no more blood. My sister, brother-in-law, husband and I (newly-weds) drove down from Kentucky in my brother-in-law’s convertible for Daddy Shaw's funeral. As we drove up to my grandparents' house, Daddy saw us drive up and came running out to meet us and burst into tears - crying like a baby in grief over the loss of his father. This was one of the few times I ever saw my father cry.

Daddy was the oldest of 5 boys in his family. He and his brothers were all very jovial. Getting together with them was great fun because there was a lot of teasing. Since we lived in the same town until I was 8 years old, we saw them on a more regular basis than we did my mother’s family. My older sister and I used to skate or ride bikes to their house and to Daddy Shaw’s barbershop. They owned one of the first TVs in our small mill town. Daddy Shaw owned the barbershop and was the only barber in town, and he sold Knapp shoes "on the side." I believe that he also sold vacuum cleaners at one time.

Uncle James was second oldest of the boys. He never married. He had a long-time girlfriend named Frances. It seems to me that they went together most of my childhood, but I don’t remember ever meeting her. Uncle James served in the army during the war. We visited with him the night before he died in 1993 from stomach cancer. I have never known anyone who dealt with a final, lingering, agonizing illness with more grace and courage than he did.

Uncle Grady was the next son. We grew up calling him “Uncle Junior” because he was called Junior throughout his childhood and youth. When he began dating Aunt Margaret, she called him Grady, of course; and he insisted that we begin to call him Uncle Grady. The change of name seemed pretentious to me at the time and was difficult to do; although I certainly understand it now. Uncle Grady served in the Air Force in World War II.

Uncle Bill was the 4th son. He was the most boisterous and lively of the “boys” and had the most wonderful, bubbling laugh. He was in the navy during the war. He and his wife, Aunt Eugenia, had four daughters, the second one stillborn. Uncle Bill died in November of 1987 of a heart attack – only in his fifties, and just a week after being told he was in good health. He was the third of "the boys" to die in a very short period of time. (from February of '86 to November of '87.)

Jack was the youngest son. He was only about 3 years older than I, so he was more like a cousin to my older sister and me. We went to the swimming pool together almost every day in the summer and rode bikes and skated together. His teenage marriage lasted only a short time but produced one son. Jack married again when his son was just a toddler and remained married to his wonderful second wife for the remainder of his life and had additional children with her. Jack worked for the Coca Cola Company for years, and he died in 1986 – in his early forties – of a heart attack.

Daddy and his brothers, James, Grady, and Bill were heavy smokers – as were most men in the 50’s. I remember being sent to the store to buy cigarettes for my uncles many times. They would give me a nickel so that I could buy some candy or a coke for myself – payment for running their errand. When we walked to the general store (at the end of the street just past the barbershop) we could go across the street, sit at the soda fountain and drink a cherry coke for a nickel.

I remember having arguments with my friends over which cigarettes were the best – Lucky Strike or Camels (like the argument over Fords or Chevrolets.) Daddy was a Lucky Strike smoker, and my best friend’s father smoked Camels. Most men kept a spare pack in the outhouse, and children often found them and tried them out. I do not specifically remember doing that, but I do remember seeing them there and having the argument with friends about brands. Funny I do not remember what brands my uncles smoked. To the best of my memory, we would just tell the storekeeper, “Uncle James (or Bill or Grady) wants a pack of cigarettes.” Did the man know what brand everybody in town smoked?

The two churches in town were directly across the street from each other and just down the street from Mama Shaw and Daddy Shaw’s house. I remember going to church regularly at the small, picturesque, white-frame Methodist church. Congregational singing of hymns such as “Whispering Hope” and “Dwelling in Beulah Land” provided much of the heat -- aided by the coal-burning stove between the choir area and the pulpit at the front of the sanctuary.

When I was in 4th grade, Daddy responded to God’s call for him to become a minister of the gospel. They packed up our family – Mother, Daddy, and four children at the time – and moved to Kentucky, where Daddy started college. This was quite a step of faith. Both my parents had come from mill towns, and no other family members had ever considered leaving the area or going to college.

This physical separation from Daddy’s family changed our lives. Our visits with them became, of course, much less frequent after that; but whenever we were together, a lot of laughter and a gracious supply of hugs reinforced a strong sense of belonging.

No comments: