My American Family: A Tribute to my Grandparents
I came home to Pennsylvania yesterday for my gram’s memorial service. Elizabeth Mae (Murphy) Sink was my last living ancestor, preceded by my other three grandparents and my parents. She hated that I referred to her as my ancestor, an anecdote I related in my own shared time about her at the service. Our family doesn’t back down from its quirky roots, a fact acknowledged in the often funny and arguably off-color tributes which lovingly reminisced about my gram’s life. Today’s blog talks about both my paternal grandparents, which I’ve never taken time in here to do fully.
The service was small and private. It was followed by her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and first great-great-grandchild placing roses at her tombstone in the family plot. A couple choice photos sat facing the mourners. Irish music played softly from the speakers. Guests were surrounded by colorful calla lilies, roses and carnations. Gram loved color, and I dressed accordingly, topping my bright outfit with one of her favorite hats, one that I inherited.
Also displayed was her handicap placard which hung from the rearview mirror of her car. Its expiration date was March 31, 2012, the day she passed. During the service her favorite psalms were read, hymns were sung and more Irish tunes were played during the video montage of her life in pictures. The service was conducted by a family friend. I think the favorite portion of most people was the tributes given by family.
The tributes were touching, funny and often irreverent, something which is understood in context of knowing my American family a little better. My cousin brought out a visual aid for his talk on Gram—the pee pot, this version of which was a cut-up milk jug. Anyone who ever stayed at my grandparents’ house was subject to being awakened in the middle of the night to either use the pee pot or go pee (in the outhouse before they finally had an indoor bathroom). This was to prevent nighttime accidents, even if you weren’t prone to them. The pee pot also extended to road trips and fishing trips. Stops were few and far between, so you learned to drink less, develop a stronger bladder, or pee artfully into a container, or acrobatically over the side of a tiny boat.
My sister talked about Gram’s colorful descriptives—hollering “Horse and Buggy!” to get visitors to look outside for an Amish traveler as she streaked from bathroom to bedroom, or talking, frankly, about “washing her bird.” I risked mortifying people by talking about Gram’s prolific use of the word “titty” and about her frequent lecture to me that I needed to learn to get over my fear of a word, and love it for its beautiful act of nursing, which she regularly referred to as “suck ‘o titty.” She often told a story in which the phrase is central, and which I related at the service. It’s out of love for her and a promise to tell these family stories that I related it, and I was relieved to find the story was received with the humor and love it was intended.
If you didn’t grow up in or around a life like this, you might see my grandparents as caricatures of rural American “hillbilly” life. But their lives were authentic, vibrant and full of love. My grandfather grew up poor, as a lot of people did in the part of Pennsylvania that encompassed the northern parts of Appalachia. We never called it or thought of it as Appalachia, and in fact I only learned recently from the Northern Appalachian Studies that our rural area of Pennsylvania fell into that category. Looking on the history and lifestyle of my family though, it makes sense – both geographically and culturally. After the service, we passed around stories we knew of his younger years as the son of a coal miner and future coal miner himself. We heard the stories many times from his friends in the years since his death.
When I was young, visiting my grandparents often came with Pappap telling me that what we were eating—the meat in the buttered noodles—was groundhog. “Groundhog” we learned, was his way of saying it didn’t matter what meat was in the noodles, because you had sustenance. This came from a story told by his close friend, Jim Crooks, who recently passed away himself. Jim was younger than Pappap. They were second cousins and Jim idolized Pappap, following him anywhere and everywhere as a child. One story he told was about walking to Pappap’s house and finding my grandpa lying flat to the ground with a rifle poised, aimed at something the distance. Jim quietly laid with him, figuring they were on some new adventure. For Jim, who was yet too young and impressionable to see the necessities of a hand-to-mouth life for what they were, Pappap’s very existence was one quest after another. In this instance, a groundhog emerged from a hole in the distance. Pappap took him out with one shot. When Jim inquired about it, Pappap simply replied “dinner” which Jim thought was a joke. When Jim later reported the “adventure” to his parents, they realized how hungry my grandfather’s household was, and sent food.
I come from a hunting family. I am a newly minted vegetarian, due initially to poor meat digestion, and I fall off the wagon a little more frequently than my belly is comfortable with. I’m not going to launch into a diatribe about meat-eaters versus vegetarians, but I understand the traditions of hunting as passed down to my father, to my brother. In school I took the Hunter’s Safety Course as offered to most rural schools in the 70’s and 80’s. I shot a rifle and I still own a muzzleloader, enjoying the occasional black powder shoots, but I have never been able to shoot anything but targets.
I don’t know what desperation it might take for me to kill an animal myself for food, being what my brother calls “Bambi-fied,” but for me, the issue of hunting is far from black and white. I do find the “sport” of hunting unappetizing, and won’t have trophies related to it in our home. It’s one compromise I choose not to make. But I can’t bring myself to condemn the practice fully when I see it still providing a winter worth of venison for my relatives. Many of my dad’s family and friends still live in that same rural Pennsylvania area, where if you’re fortunate enough to have a job, incomes can be humiliatingly low.
When you hear stories of great-grandparents and grandparents who barely had enough from their garden to survive, and who simply couldn’t last the winter if there wasn’t a skilled enough hunter in the family, you know that the issue of eating meat is colored in many shades of gray. Hunting wasn’t just cultural. It was survival.
Another thing I know about my grandparents is that they cared for the animals that cohabitated their land. Pappap rehabilitated an owl (see photo below). He rescued a fox that they named “Renard” (get it?) (see photo above). In fact, a menagerie of wildlife came through as family pets from time to time. My grandfather, in another story related by Jim Crooks, was concerned with animals and knowing the value of taking that life. After spending a day setting traps to make his food gathering easier, he woke Jim up in the middle of the night because he couldn’t live with the idea of the suffering of animals in traps. They spent the rest of the night with lanterns wandering the miles of woods they had covered in the day, setting off the traps that Pappap wouldn’t use again.
Gram was a devoted wife, faithfully preparing whatever Pappap hunted, and being as conservative as possible with the food they had. Most of the meals I remember eating at my grandparents were white starches, and some meat. You filled up on big slices of bread with even bigger pats of butter. Potatoes and buttered noodles with that “mystery” meat Pappap would call groundhog were the main course, and they insisted you have second helpings of bread and butter. If you made it through all your food, you got dessert.
My gram made the best chocolate, which was often coating delicious hickory nuts she had carefully and painstakingly picked from the shells, from the trees grown on their land. Walnuts were easier to pick. I know, because part of staying at Pappap and Gram’s meant picking various nuts from their shells, no matter how little meat was obtained from all the work at picking the shells. I challenge anyone to pick a pound of nuts from hickory shells and then come post about your experience. Imagine living hand-to-mouth on those nuts and whatever you could pickle, can or preserve after a drought summer.
But staying with my grandparents also meant going on long, adventurous hikes to pick berries to go with ice cream. Gram would buy ice cream as a Saturday night special, getting the Neapolitan treat in big, frozen blocks that she would cut into giant chunks for your bowl with a butcher knife.
But the best thing she made, and another thing I talked about at the service, was Divinity. Divinity is a fluffy, white sugary confection that takes time, patience and a specific cooking temperature to achieve. Her recipe was in her head and consisted of pinches, dashes and “this much”es. It’s unrepeatable. And it was perfect. There are not enough ways to thank my grandparents for the type of America I grew up in. It was vastly different from my mom’s family, in ways both good and bad. But it was an amazing framework for who I am.
If you’ve read this far, please take a moment to tell me one thing about your own American family, some quirky or happy memories, and if you knew my grandparents, feel free to share a story of your own, or correct or add to one of mine in the comments.
Thank you for reading. Love, Marla