Gratitude Going Back a Century and a Quarter

As strange as it may sound, this January has offered us in northern Ohio some of the most unpleasant weather conditions ever, but I am filled with gratitude at experiencing it because I have learned to appreciate the big picture. Plus, there is a big difference between “unpleasant” and “devastating,” the latter word often used to describe weather in our country.

In fact, most meteorologists agree that lands north of the equator and in the western hemisphere, which would be us, suffer the most destructive weather events on the planet. Early settlers of America had no understanding of such events and had to adapt or die in large numbers in order to build a nation such as ours.

As continents compare to each other, ours is relatively small but fronts on two huge oceans to the east and west, plus another large water mass comprising the Great Lakes. The combination of all that water is responsible for almost all of our meteorological disasters.

The topic of climate disasters probably doesn’t seem to go with my topic of gratitude, but for now I will simply say that I am grateful for having spent a long lifetime in “Beautiful Ohio.” The choices my ancestors made around the 1900s were almost fully responsible for my deep love of Ohio. Maybe I have been thinking and wondering too much about my maternal grandparents specifically, but an air of mystery haunts me because I never knew either of them.

My mother, two of her sisters, and one of their brothers loved to share stories from their parents’ lives, and my cousins and I were avid listeners. Until the deaths of both cousins, Lynn in ’22 and Butch last year, we often recounted things we remembered about those bygone days. There were gaps and contradictions in our knowledge, though, and it hit me especially hard that with both of them now gone, I can no longer ask, “Do you know if our grandmother ……..?”

What I am left with is ancestral records, which are quite sketchy and also reveal some contradictions.  Even the grandparents’ country of origin is somewhat uncertain, with records at Ellis Island saying Grandfather was born either in Czechoslovakia or Austria. What is certain is that he and Grandmother got off a ship at Ellis Island with their two oldest children and that the remaining four were born in St. Clairsville, Ohio, about 30 miles due west of Wheeling, West Virginia.

Immigrants at Ellis Island.

In those days, immigration laws were very strict, and I can remember my mother saying how her mom and dad had to go up and down many steps in the Ellis Island building in order to show they were healthy. Grandfather also had to present proof that he was a good worker and honest man; friends of his had earlier settled in St. Clairsville and sent vouchers attesting to his character. He had been a concrete worker in “The Old Country,” as my relatives always called anywhere in Europe. It is an assumption that the family got to St. Clairsville via train.

That area of Ohio was synonymous with coal mining country, so that is where Grandfather got his lifetime job and eventually passed away in his 60s from black lung disease, probably now what would be termed COPD. Grandmother preceded him in death, a victim of breast cancer. I often wonder what conditions in Europe were like and whether they ever second-guessed if they had made a good decision to travel to America.

Coal miners in Kentucky.

My mother and aunts were very clear about how much their father hated the coal mine as well as the strangle-hold the mine owners had on their employees. Everything was organized around the company store, and wages were low. The children all felt that their father’s overly serious personality and frequent grumpiness was caused by his inability to do better by his children than what the mining town offered.

When my mother and aunts finished eighth grade, they were considered fully educated, and their father had a requirement of them that seems difficult to understand in today’s world. Starting with the eldest girl, Helen, he told her she must leave home and she had a choice of going to either Detroit or Cleveland. She chose Cleveland. The next to “graduate” was Margaret, and Grandfather sent her north to live with Helen until Helen married and Margaret got her own apartment. Next to be sent to Cleveland to live with Margaret was my mother, Ann. All three of these young women got jobs at hotel kitchens; my mother assembled salads at the Mangor Hotel, long since torn down.

The baby of the family, Ethel, avoided the “go north” fate because Grandmother had died, and “Babe” stayed with her father. She was the only sibling who graduated from high school. Both boys had moved, my Uncle John to Canton and my Uncle Pete to Pittsburgh.

If one hears such a story out of context, modern thinking would judge my Grandfather as incredibly cold-hearted to send his daughters off like he did. However, such was not the case; his statement to each was a firm: “If you stay here, you will marry a coal miner, and I won’t allow that.” It is such a classic example of a man being able to put his daughters’ well-being for the future ahead of his own emotions. Not one of my aunts or uncles ever spoke of their father without expressing love for him. They recognized how much he must have loved them in order to put his own devotion to them aside long enough to see the big picture of the better future he wanted for them.

All of that generation led basically happy, successful lives that would have made their father proud of them. All were truly good citizens who came from nothing and achieved security and respect.

Going back to those times up to about the 1920s when the generation before me was growing up, life in a coal mining town certainly had its hardships. Uncle Pete, when he was about 14, contracted osteomyelitis, a disease that causes bone weakness and disintegration. Knowledge about diseases was scarce at that time, and all in the family believed a blister on Pete’s heel had “absorbed” dye from his socks that damaged his bones. In reality, the condition is caused by bacteria invading the skin and traveling through the bloodstream and into bone.

When Pete developed a high fever, the family took him to a doctor who saw that the infection was traveling up his legs. The doctor told Grandfather that Pete needed both legs amputated to save his life. In his 40s, Pete told a gathering of his nieces, all of whom loved him dearly, that “Papa and John lifted me up and carried me out of the office while Papa yelled at the doctor, ‘No son of mine will be a paraplegic; we will take him home and take care of him there.’” And so they did, with constant warm baths, alcohol and iodine applications, plus exercises for his arms. From their accounts, my mother was his main caregiver, an empathetic person, no doubt distraught that her beloved brother was going to die.

Various diseases were rampant at that time, but most of the family seemed to have decent immune systems, except for my mother who was “sickly.” She contracted diphtheria, scarlet fever and whooping cough, but none of the others seemed susceptible. Her adult years were not much better, and she had illnesses much of the time before passing away at 54 when I was 21.

A farmer in his corn field in central Ohio.

The family lived in simple company housing until Grandfather saved enough to purchase a small home and enough land to farm. He supplemented his income by selling chickens and extra produce, and the girls often hired themselves out as housekeepers and babysitters for neighbors. Grandmother loved being outside and helped with the crops they grew. My aunts described their mother as perpetually cheerful and loving but not exactly fond of cooking, so the girls largely took over that chore.

A constant worry, however, was the aftermath of Pete’s bone disease. He learned to walk again, although for the rest of his life, he had a limp because one leg was shorter than the other. Also, almost until the end of his life, bone fragments were carried through his bloodstream and would work through his skin, always with a warning to him that started with an itch.

This is my Uncle Pete in his A&P grocery store in Smithton, PA in 1966. The sign to his left says, "Bananas - 15¢ per lb." The cereal boxes behind him have the same logos on them as the brands have now.

One of my most nostalgic memories of him was when I took a trip in June of ‘65 to the tiny town of Smithton, Pennsylvania, to visit him. I had just graduated from Toledo University and was to start my first teaching position in Mentor, having come home because my mother had died that January and my dad was desperately lonely. Also, Uncle Pete’s wife had recently died at age 47, a victim of juvenile diabetes. Having married late in life, death separated them in only 8 years.

Smithton was a tiny town with exactly one small food store, an A&P, at which Uncle Pete was the sole employee – a limping stock man, salesman, bookkeeper, janitor, everything. The store had a creaky plank floor and big barrels for non-perishable produce – plus a really spooky basement. I loved that little store.  During the week there, I drove down the steep hill from Uncle’s modest home and spent some time with him in the store, enough to learn that he was the most popular person in town. About mid-afternoon I would go back to his home and started dinner. Evenings we sat on his back porch enjoying an incredible hilltop view of miles of productive farmland.

We reminisced about everyone in the family and about his childhood, without a single complaint about the pain he had endured. Suddenly one evening, he told me to stay seated as he had something he wanted to show me. He came back with a little pill bottle with a bone fragment in liquid and said to me, “Look here, dearie, I pulled this out of my thigh last week.”

My cousins and I had seen the strange holes in his skin from which bone pieces had worked their way through over the course of 40-some years, but actually seeing one of them was still a shock to me. Then he followed up that scene with, “If I live long enough, I may be able to assemble a whole skeleton, or at least a couple of fingers.” Another memory from that same evening left both of us howling with laughter because, as a soon-to-be new English teacher, I pointed out how everyone in his town called it “Smitton,” as if the “h” were not there. He followed that discussion with the way his neighbor had accidentally thrown his false teeth over the hill with his bag of trash, and he helped the neighbor hunt for them (unsuccessfully).

As emotionally wrought as the week with Uncle Pete partly was because his wife and my mother had recently died, the other side of it was his outlandishly clever sense of humor. It made his nieces and nephews endeared to him so that we all followed him around in a motley pack whenever we were together.  After he retired from the store, he moved to Wellsburg, West Virginia, to be closer to his sisters. I can only imagine how the folks in “Smitton” reacted to losing the best comedian and most endearing man they had ever known. Most probably didn’t know that he was also very brave.

The A&P was not open late into the day, and the weekend I was to leave, he wanted to wash his car, a huge green Buick that was many years old. I volunteered to help – not a new job for me as I had “helped” him wash that car many times. The fact was, car washing (or worse yet, waxing it) has always been the most odious task on my list of things I hate; however, I had always volunteered, first because I loved him, but secondly because if I didn’t stick by him, I might miss a really funny comment or a great joke. In truth, I don’t want to imply that my love for my other aunts and uncle was any less deep, but Uncle Pete gave me the greatest gift of all –  laughter. Thankfully, I never lost my love for it.

In the interest of brevity (Ha!), gratitude is abundant in me because I understand the sacrifices that generations before me made. None would have been thinking far into the future about how many people would be affected by their decisions. As a person who really dislikes almost everything about the inconveniences of travel, the idea of my grandparents, probably with very little money, braved an ocean passage to a new country out of fear of the old and optimism about the new. They must have wondered sometimes if they had made the best choice.

In the above account, I did not wish to ignore my father’s side of the family, who also immigrated somewhat earlier than my mother’s did. However, I know little about Dad’s parents. They bought land in Warrensville and farmed it. Dad, his two brothers and his sister said almost nothing about their parents, but the implication was that their father was a hard-headed German, and hints were given that he was mean to his wife. My cousin Larry, now in his mid-nineties and living in Puget Sound, Washington, says he vaguely remembers visiting the grandparents only seldom and that they were “unapproachable.” I deduced that my father and his siblings did not want to talk about their parents.

I am often overwhelmed by how the choices my maternal grandparents made deserve my gratitude.  I do not live in a war-torn area, such as Europe and Asia have always been and always will be. Peace in the East and Far East? Dream on. And here I am, in Northeastern Ohio, where we all complain about dreary days with hours of rainfall day after day, or “a little bit of snow,” or excess humidity in July and August, or whatever.

Throughout my years in Ohio, my entire life so far, I have never considered re-locating. There was one summer a few years ago when we actually had a serious drought, and people either replanted grass or trees, and plants rejuvenated on their own.

On one July 4 many years ago, Painesville Township (north) and Perry were hit with a small tornado, which damaged a few houses around Lane and Hale roads. We did not call it small. A neighbor’s dog was carried intact inside his house and transported, unscathed, into a neighbor’s yard. Usually, however, we have much needed noisy storms that spread nitrogen and rain to nourish vegetation and create hugely productive farmland. The things that are labeled “strawberries” or “sweet corn” during winter in our stores make me wonder if Californians have ever tasted an Ohio strawberry or ear of corn to realize how little taste their western crops have, irrespective of the distance traveled. It is no wonder that agriculture is Ohio’s main economic foundation.

As a person in this area, I know I can look forward to April or May, when nature bursts forth with flamboyant spring days that feature every possible color of her palette with a background of deep green that continues into October. Add to that the very low likelihood of a tornado but rather, a refreshing thunderstorm. A tendency for Lake Erie to stay warmer than the land in autumn gives the perfect combination for a long growing season AND the perfect home for a nature lover like me.

Considering all the reasons I have for feeling gratitude, I have made a new year’s resolution to force myself into one attitude adjustment. The task I hate most in any given week is grocery shopping, something I have never liked but even less so now that I am both short and arthritic. I am working on seeing things in a new light. The two stores I shop in offer almost everything a shopper could really need and want. I have on occasion called myself a lowlife ingrate for being so negative while living in a land of plenty.  Plus, we shoppers do not have to go out into the hot sun and dig in the dirt to satisfy our appetites.

Helping this positive change of attitude along, I have vowed to at least smile and possibly speak to most fellow shoppers and grocery workers who make eye contact and don’t appear horribly grumpy. Almost always, they return the positive vibes. I have also developed a respect for store check-out clerks. They stand for hours sliding other people’s stuff down conveyors, bagging it, and listening to complaints. The floor workers also have always been gracious about getting something off a high shelf for me.

Grocery store employment probably isn’t especially rewarding work, and it requires a good deal of skill. I have found that being kind and offering them a sincere compliment takes no effort on my part and just might make their day better. When I can get organized enough, I also help bag my groceries, and many a clerk has thanked me for something that was hardly a difficult task. Any work well done is worth much more than just a paycheck; it deserves the gratitude of those who are served.

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