Memorial

I.

Someone from Somerset, or a group

of them, beat him for embezzling their money.

That’s what my older brother, Charley,

 

told me. But Mother, back then, said

he was robbed in an alley and came away

with a broken arm and over a hundred

 

stitches in his face. This was back

in the mid-60s, in downtown Pittsburgh

when Father was seeking another job.

 

Mother relented after that, according

to my oldest sister, Holly. Mother said

he could live with us in our new town

 

to start over, once they sold the farm,

but never would he leave Pittsburgh

where our grandmother was buried.

 

A strict Presbyterian, his mother

demanded his obedience even in death.

She raised him to be like his father,

 

a rising minister who died too young,

saving a child who fell into the swollen

Ohio River on a Saturday youth outing.

 

But grandmother’s big, gregarious son

with a bright smile and wavy brown hair,

had desires other than the seminary

 

and went against his mother’s wishes.

Drafted into the Army after college

and leading a platoon into Germany,

 

he saw his life play out differently,

and upon his return home to Oakmont,

met and married our mother, who

 

at twenty, was eight years younger,

but, many ways, so much older than him.

With a disposition like his mother’s,

 

he gravitated to her sharp wit, blonde

curls, and cute, athletic figure.  She

lived on her own in New Kensington

 

and, though being a good Presbyterian,

our grandmother didn’t approve of her,

her doctor father, or her baby daughter.

 

II.

Standing over Mother’s grave decades

later, I wonder what she saw in him.

What was it that kept them together?

 

Though long after they separated, they

never divorced. Why did they keep that

connection? How could the difficulties

 

of raising a family, the endless struggle

of navigating through the times and their

day-to-day lives create such a problem?

 

Oh Mother, tell me, were you the villain

in this domestic tragedy or the heroine?

When the time comes and we all meet

 

as a family again and greet your husband

will the river run sweet and welcoming

or will the torrent destroy old illusions?

 

III.

Holly said the Korean call-up to active duty

in 1950 surprised them both. Father worked

in town as a stock broker, but to Mother’s

 

shock, was soon back in the army.  She

proceeded to have three children in three years

to keep him stateside on a post in Indiana.

 

Afterward, when they returned to Pittsburgh

to the upper-half of their yellow-brick house,

it was clear they needed more room

 

and while others moved to the suburbs,

they chose instead to buy a working farm

in the Allegheny Mountains near Somerset,

 

much like Mother remembered from her

grandparents who would have her family

over to their farm for Sunday dinner.

 

But Mother struggled running the farm

and raising us kids, with Father never around,

commuting to and from the city.

 

Two years later, after days of loneliness

and endless hours of young children,

Mother joined Somerset’s social scene

 

for her nightly sanity and unknowingly added

to Father’s financial situation. Three years

later his company fired him for borrowing

 

heavily from his clients. Charley swears,

Mother was having an affair in Somerset,

and he tried to buy back her love.  Holly says

 

it was the cost of the farm that did them in.

Yet, Allison and I watched Mother’s country

club friend close in on her like a hungry fox.

 

In the end, Father returned to Pittsburgh,

and Mother moved us alone to Gettysburg,

a college town east of the Alleghenies.

 

He searched for work and was mugged.

Mother sold the car, became a fraternity

cook and a maid at the seminary.

 

We lived in a large Victorian house –

college boys renting the rooms upstairs,

while we kids slept in the basement, next

 

to the boiler, where our anger festered:

we hated our parents for selling the farm

and for destroying their marriage.

 

IV.

My sister Holly said our father begged

Mother to return with him to Pittsburgh,

but she couldn’t face her father again.

 

An abusive man and alcoholic, our

grandfather ran a medical practice

in his New Kensington home where

 

he raised his three children with tough

love after the death of our grandmother,

his young wife – this was back in the 30s

 

when she succumbed in one week’s time

to tuberculosis breathing Pittsburgh’s

filthy air – according to the newspaper,

 

but, as told by the longtime housekeeper,

she died of a self-inflicted abortion

given his disposition and her desperation.

 

Ten years later, grandfather’s temper

erupted over Mother’s emerging pregnancy

and her refusal to handle things privately.

 

V.

In the late 60s, Mother insisted

we visit our father at Thanksgiving.

He shared a tiny apartment

 

in Pittsburgh with an Army vet

who smelled of liquor and sweat.

Father, driving taxi, used his tips

 

for Thursday’s feast: a chicken

dinner served at a dinette table

with too few chairs to sit together.

 

We spent the weekend watching 

Ozzy and Harriet on a black-and-

white TV while Mother, we guessed,

 

entertained her Somerset friend,

the man who tore his family and ours

apart. Finally, they could be together,

 

intimate in our house. He wanted

Mother to live with him, but she refused,

not with us watching her as teenagers.

 

We were incredulous that she invited

him back into her life. We hated him

for talking to us like nothing was wrong.

 

At Thanksgiving, stuck in Pittsburgh,

we told our father – my sister Allison and me –

but he said Mother deserved to be happy,

 

and he wouldn’t do anything, given his

situation. Shocked, we didn’t understand

his purple lesions, the deep cough.

 

When we left on Sunday, he hugged

us and cried, not wanting to say goodbye,

but no longer the man we remembered.

 

VI.

One cold afternoon in March, four

months later, Mother had us sit down

after school at the kitchen table.

 

She told us Father had died of cancer

that morning, Holly at his bedside.

He wouldn’t seek treatment, she said,

 

as if to explain why, being only fifty, why

we visited at Thanksgiving, why he carried

his cancer as punishment.

 

A month later, on a Saturday, we drove

across the state for his memorial service

at his mother’s Presbyterian church.

 

In the pew, as the minister spoke,

Allison and I nudged each other,

studying Mother sitting beside us,

 

next to Holly. Mother, we realized,

was crying – tears streaming down

her face, Holly giving her tissues.

 

We couldn’t believe she was crying

for him. The years spent apart,

the man who stood between them,

 

we thought she hated our father.

We told each other it was her

fault he died – she should have

 

done something. Yet, here

she was, not the disciplinarian,

but someone else, someone

 

letting loose years of remorse,

someone we hadn’t seen before,

someone who once loved him.

 

VII.

Now, I realize, looking back at my

own life, marriage is like a fast-moving

river. My father drowned in its currents.

 

Once, though, when he was young,

an Army officer returning from Europe,

he reached out and saved her

 

from a horrible New Kensington

aftermath of an old high school,

shipping-out-to-war romance.

 

Grandfather, furious with her, moved

her across town and disowned her,

but our father wanted her, married

 

her, and adopted her daughter.

Together, they envisioned their lives

free of his mother and her father,

 

and as much as she hated what they

did to each other and what happened

to him later, the mugging, the cancer,

 

there was a moment after the war,

before the farm, before the family

fracture, when they escaped their

 

past and, like so many before

and after, dreamed of possibilities,

slipping into the glistening waters.

 

                         ****

 



Categories: A Fictionalized Biography, My Family Story, Selection: 2010 forward

6 replies

  1. I see the high polish of many re-writes in this absolutely excellent piece. Being somewhat familiar with all the characters is not a detriment, for the way you end the story with acceptance and understanding that your parents were only human, in my opinion, is true craft. Jon, this is your best. And, there is more.

  2. Tears and hugs for your Memorial. Julia

  3. This is so well done Jon! So thoughtful and insightful. I thoroughly was swept up in your family’s history which is in many ways like all of ours. Thank you for sharing.

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