Friday, March 18, 2016

If Walls Could Talk

Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit the home of my maternal grandparents, as the home is for sale and there was an Open House scheduled.

I was just sitting there on a Sunday morning in my bedroom reading my newspaper on the iPad. I hardly look at the new home sales ads, but that I was looking to see if one of the condos in our development was listed. They’re trying to sell the models.

There it was: 1014 Pine Street.! And it was open from 1:00-2:00 PM. Church is over at noon, and I’m going to an open house.

I looked at the online ad, and I could feel the emotion rising within me as I looked at the realtor’s pictures. The pictures were also in my mind. This home was a real home, but also was my second home. My grandmother “kept house casually.” She put pieces of furniture in front of other pieces and used every inch. 

I told the realtor stories during my visit. The first story that comes to my mind immediately was the smallness of the “coat closet.” You could not even get a coat in there straight; the coat had to be at an angle. I told him I had no memory of the closet being closed. That’s what I mean by “casual.” My coat closets have always been closed!

The living room was so SMALL and yet, there had been bookcases, with a couch placed in front of them, end tables and coffee table, Grandpa’s chair, at least two other occasional chairs, the TV and the piano. There was also a fireplace. When I was young, when we were all together at Christmas, there were 12 or 13 of us, depending on whether my great-uncle, who lived there from the time I was 4 until his death on Christmas Day 1963, was able to come downstairs.

This home was built in 1928, before the stock market crash. My grandfather was employed by his parents in their florist shop (still in business today) so he didn’t lose his job, however I seriously wonder how many people bought flowers in those days. I guess weddings and funerals got them through.

There was a period of time that my grandparents moved across the street to the florist (house) and rented out their home. I don’t know the why or wherefore, but I know it happened and my mother was fairly young. My mother was the second daughter, born in 1931 five years after an older sister. It must have been during the Depression. By 1944, when the youngest daughter was born, they were settled back in their home, that I know. She lived her entire life (pre-college and marriage) in this house.

In terms of livable square footage, which does not include a basement or garage, my condo has twice the square footage as this house does. That simply blows my mind. We had many, many family gatherings in that home. My aunt had her teenage friends there. Where did everyone sit?

The house sits on a double lot. The story that my grandmother told me is that her brother would come to visit and always left a $20 under her jewelry box, and she saved them and bought the lot next door to keep it from being built upon. During the summer, we kids were outside. There was a huge side porch that offered room to play cards and games.

The dining room was small. My grandma’s dining room furniture was and is huge as it resides today in my aunt’s condo. Looking around that room, I wondered how we lived in there. But we did. We ate, played cards and games. When I was in college, I spent weekends writing papers in that room so I could have peace and quiet to write term papers. There were these two noisy boys at home. By this time, Grandma was alone and she loved having me. It was a bonding time for us.

The kitchen was TINY. I don’t know how anyone got anything done in there! It was not a place for multiple cooks and yet I do remember my mother and aunts helping Grandma fix a meal. She had a gas range and I NEVER wanted one of those. I didn’t learn to cook there. Grandma was one of the first serious customers of Kentucky Fried Chicken. She would give Dad money and send him for dinner when we stopped in.

Life wasn’t perfect. My grandparents gave me a good education in living life whatever it throws at you. When I was four, I remember going with my grandmother (and she didn’t drive, so someone else was with us, but I don’t remember it) to pick up her brother at a downtown hotel. I remember the stark, dark, single room that he had been staying in. I will never forget that picture in my mind. We took Uncle Frank home and Grandma took care of him until his death. He had been married. His wife died young. I have her end table in my home today.

But before Frank died, my grandfather was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 61. He didn’t see his 62nd birthday. My grandmother was nursing her brother in the upstairs bedroom, and her husband was in the dining room in a hospital bed. I imagine she slept on the couch. She was 57 years old. I was nine and I remember my grandfather reduced to using “baby talk” to tell her what he wanted. He went to the hospital in December. I think he was in the hospital three or four days. He died on December 21st and we buried him on Christmas Eve.

The following year, she continued to nurse her brother and as he failed, he never came downstairs anymore. He had some kind of cancer of the spine. He was supposed to live six months but no one ever told him that. He lived six years. He died on Christmas Day 1963. Grandma met the first son-in-law to arrive with “I think he’s dead.” My memory of that day was being shuffled into the kitchen and watching through the swinging door as the body was carried out. The swinging door is still there.

We went on with Christmas that year. I have no idea who cooked a meal. I remember unwrapping our gifts in the living room, and Grandma was with the funeral director in the dining room. Mom always took movies and there are 8mm movies of the funeral director leaving and waving goodbye. I am not kidding. It is a perfect example of how life moved on, no matter what happened.

Grandma had about twelve years to live there, travel to visit her sister in Florida, and have a good life. We still had family reunions in the summer. Christmas moved to the rotation of her daughters’ homes. Grandma still entertained my grandfather’s newspaper co-workers for Christmas, even after he was gone. I was delighted to hear about these parties from a man who worked with Grandpa at the newspaper, and who later in life was a volunteer working with me. It was so special to know him and have a connection to Grandpa, who left me at a tender age of nine. Allan was full of stories and I loved them all. I saw him several years ago at the Summer Arts Festival and I knew it was the last time I would see him.

But back to Grandma. She moved into an apartment in 1978, the year after I was married. She was now 73 and taking care of the double lot was too much. I don’t think the house was, but an apartment was much easier. We all helped her move. She was granted nine more years of life there. She had a heart attack and we all had the time to get to the hospital, for in 48 hours she had another, which took her life.

It was hard to leave that house, but I had already left my other grandparents’ home in 1972, so I had some practice. You go into the house, look around at the emptiness, and say goodbye. It’s a life change for everyone. I’ve done it several times, but this one was very hard.

The person she sold it to in 1978 flipped it and resold it in 1979, and the person selling it this time had lived in it 36 years. Grandma lived there 45 (taking into account the five years she lived in the other house).
It’s in very good shape, for its age, but it’s so small! I pray for a good family or couple to move in there and enjoy the big yard, the side porch, and feel the “vibes” of the living areas, although they are small.

Those walls tell stories, many stories.

This is not the realtor's photo. I was picking up
flowers from the floral shop across the street. Yes,
I still use them!
When I first walked in, it seemed SO SMALL!
But I could imagine this picture taken in 1968.
Notice the closet--always open.
Grandma pushed her piano back against the wall,
but this one is negotiable with the sale.
Much good music was made here. 1974?
The infamous staircase. Many children flew down
the railing.

My aunt and I at the open house. Notice the coat
closet is CLOSED!

Our mothers a FEW years ago!

A wall in the living room, with the dining room in
the back.
But here is the Kline family in 1967. Note that
dining room furniture.

There was a BIG side porch that was used often,
Much ice cream was consumed.
Mom and her girl, my Aunt Petie with two of
her children.
The kitchen today.
The table was where the cabinets are now, and
let's just say it was multi-use!!!
This was Jo's room.
My mother fixing my hair in the same spot.
That stairwell again.
We had my wedding shower here. Here I am with
my bridesmaids that could make it.
This picture is taken in front of the staircase looking
across the room at the front door.
Grandma at the shower. Notice the mail drop behind
her. What I wouldn't give for one of those today!
Here's a picture of the dining room. This room
had a large expandable table (it was big when
not expanded), a buffet on the left wall and a
china hutch on the right. Also a sewing machine
on the wall you can't see. HOW did we get all that
furniture and PEOPLE in there for Christmas dinner?
Well, somehow, we did!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Why Obituaries Matter!

I’ll be the first to admit that death of friends and loved ones makes me incredibly sad.

I read the obituaries because it was part of my job when I worked at a museum. It was important to know when one of our donors passed.

That created a habit which I still practice today. However, the reason is different. I am losing too many people at an alarming rate. It’s mind-boggling.

All death notices are not equal. Some are “just the facts, ma’am” and others tell a story. If I am honest, I feel cheated when, for whatever reason, the families choose not to tell the story of their loved one’s life. Even if I didn't know them personally, I am interested.

Obituaries are history. They are the last time we have to tell the story and preserve it for future generations. I love the stories that tell what the person did with their lives. Not just the occupation, but what they were truly interested in, hobbies, organizations belonged to. Some of these stories are fascinating, and the person lived a wonderful life. Others, maybe not so much, but there is something that can be written! Every person has some kind of story.

Now, I have my own prejudices about who to list as survivors, based on what my families did as I grew up. To me, no matter what the situation, the children should be listed. Their spouses or partners should be listed with them. I believe grandchildren should be named, unless there are twenty or more of them, which means there are a few great-grandchildren too! (And steps also) It disappoints me greatly when families are left out to save a few bucks of column inches.

Indeed, some lives are complicated. One needs a chart to figure it all out. However, that doesn’t remove the decency of naming survivors.

This may be a morbid blog to some readers. That depends a lot on how much peace you have made with your own mortality. Personally, I have written “some” of my own obituary and it’s in my file at church along with my final wishes. My pastor, whoever it is at the time, can guide the family, who may have different ideas. I have been both specific and general, so that there is some flexibility.

The obituary and funeral or memorial services are the last message you have to the world and your survivors. Think about what you want to say. Think about how you want to say it.

Even if you say, "I don't want any fuss," it’s important to those left behind, those whom you care the most about.

P.S. What obituaries are NOT: Announcing the cause of death (murders, automobile accidents and suicides are on another page of the paper). A clue may be given in the donation suggestions. Sometimes the story opens with "So and so lost their battle with cancer on....." I guess that is a private matter, but I don't feel cancer wins. But that's another blog. "Surrounded by loving family" is nice if it happens that way, which in these days is seldom.