Vacation brings out family skeleton
August 29, 2002
I am looking at a photograph of my mother, dated September 1917. She is barely 3 years old and sitting by herself in an adult-sized wicker buggy on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. The afternoon would have been hot, yet she is dressed from head to toe, from bonnet to little leather boots.
What dominates the photo is the protective image of my grandmother wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. Grandmother must be snapping the photograph and captured her own shadow as she encouraged my mother, squinting in the bright sunlight, to smile.
It’s a grim photo of a family trying to have fun.
Fast forward about 40 years. The little girl has four children of her own. In a tradition I describe with irony, we now made the annual summer trek to her childhood home in Pittsburgh — the same place from where she and her family sought summer escape a generation ago.
My grandmother died several years before I was born, leaving behind my grandfather rattling around alone in the family home which also served as his doctor’s office on the city’s North Side, a gritty neighborhood of streetcars, store fronts, train tracks and crumbling apartment buildings.
As soon as school was out for the summer, my parents would load the four of us into the Chevy for the drive from Columbus, Ohio, to Pittsburgh. I won’t belabor the fights over the front seat or the bouts with car-sickness. Just know I was in the middle of it all.
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My father would spend a day or two there busying himself with little fix-it projects for my grandfather, then return to work for 10 days or so before picking us up.
That left my mother to enjoy her “vacation” as her mother had done before. Not only did she have to care for the four of us away from home, she had my irascible grandfather to contend with.
The ground rules at my grandfather’s house never changed. We had to be quiet so we wouldn’t disturb his patients, we couldn’t leave the yard, we were never allowed to make friends with the neighborhood children because we didn’t know “their people,” no peeking in the waiting room window at the patients, we couldn’t even sit on that side of the big front porch.
I remember the smell of rubbing alcohol and the four of us lining up for shots if we needed school inoculations.
We were allowed to read, sit on the family side of the front porch and watch the streetcars and play games like cards or Monopoly if we used our “quiet” voices. We could sleep in and eat as much leftover Halloween candy as we could find in the back of the my grandfather’s hallway closet.
Despite the Dickensian overtones of this account, there was a bonus to spending vacation with grandfather.
At some point during the visit, he would unwrap the skull in the basement.
In addition to mending broken bones, my grandfather was a fine craftsman. He made wonderful quirky pieces of furniture and wooden games. My sister has the wood bank where the coins disappear and I kept the toy chest with handles made from piano keys. Because of the dangerous and expensive tools, and just the scare factor, the basement was off limits.
Occasionally, however, he would lead us down the narrow staircase for a look at the skull.
He loved to tell the story of when he was a medical student, bringing the skull home wrapped in newspaper on the streetcar.
“Did the ladies scream, Papa?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. The story never changed.
“The skull rolled off my lap, out of the newspaper and down the aisle.”
He would take the skull down from the basement shelf and slowly unwrap the newspaper revealing the unknown soul who became a medical student’s project and his grandchildren’s curiosity.
Even though we had seen it 10 times before, we covered our eyes and peeked through our fingers.
Since I come from a long line of liars on both sides of the family, I have no idea if any details of his story were true, but it made a hell of an impression.
After my mother’s death last September, my sister, brother-in-law and I made a nostalgic trip from Ohio to Pittsburgh to visit my godmother — my mother’s closest friend — and see if we could find the house with so many memories.
We did. It looked about the same, except the gritty gray siding is now aluminum and the front porch is gone. The apartments with the long-ago neighborhood children are still there.
My sister spied the lasting tribute to my grandfather’s ingenuity.
The handrail up the steep front steps, which he had fashioned out of copper piping, had recently been painted a bright green.
Sheila Gardner is the night desk editor of the Nevada Appeal
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