By John Flack
As Susan was instructing me in class to write about an event conjured up by the remembrance of a kitchen smell, forming almost as she spoke, was a long ago Thanksgiving dinner at my Gram mom’s house. Why that, I can’t say, but since it happened so quickly I have decided to write about it.
I was young, around the age of 8, I believe, and my family was at my Gram mom and Gran pop’s house for Thanksgiving. They were my dad’s parents. I always liked their house better than ours. It was, and is, three stories, semi-detached and made of red brick. Then as now, there was a small yard between the house-wide front porch and the hedge abutting the sidewalk. The house, the lawn, the hedge and the metal gate in the hedge were always well-maintained by Gran pop while he was alive. The house and the lawn never changed and seemed ageless. The road in front, crowded now with cars during rush hours, was much less travelled then. It has a long history, being originally built by Swedish settlers in the early 1600s as a means of getting to the interior from their village in Upland, on the Delaware River. It may be the oldest road into the interior of Pennsylvania. The house was given as a gift to Gram mom and her new husband in 1913 by her parents who ran a business of some kind in downtown Media – the small town in which we all lived. My father was born there on the second floor in 1917. His sister, my Aunt Helen, was born in 1920, but I think she was born in a hospital.
As best I remember, it was late in the day around 3 or so when we parked out front, opened and closed the gate and entered the living room through the front door. I imagine Gram mom had been in the kitchen prior to our arrival, preparing dinner and, although she is cooking a turkey, just like my mom did, the smells are different – to this day I remember the difference, although just like then, I can’t figure out why nor explain the difference. I just know it was. It is the only holiday meal I can recall eating at their house. My gram mom was a very good cook and I remember enjoying it.
My brother and I made a bee line for my Cousin Jimmie’s comic books, as we always did when visiting them. He had far more of them than we did. I don’t remember much else about that day. I suspect my parents, Gram mom, Aunt Helen and her husband, Junie, sat in various chairs in the living room and chatted. I don’t remember what Jimmie may have done. My dad probably smoked and may have sipped on a highball.
My father’s father, Gran pop, was certainly sitting in his rocking chair in the far corner of the dining room, abutting the opening to the living room. He always sat there – it was his place. It did not seem unusual to me. No doubt, he smoked and occasionally took a nip from the pint bottle he always seemed to have in the back pocket of his pants. Whenever we visited he sat there while the rest of us occupied the living room – the adults sitting in chairs, the kids sitting or lying on the floor. His hair was white and, although old, he never seemed as old as Gram mom. My father looked a lot like him. They both had high foreheads, combed their hair straight back and were of medium height and thin. Like my dad he had a very good sense of humor, although I’m not sure that Gram mom and Aunt Helen would have agreed with me. Occasionally, as was his wont, he would break into the conversation in the living room with a remark or a witticism of some kind, but mostly listened. My impression was Aunt Helen and Gram mom tended to tolerate him and his behavior and didn’t really engage with him much. Unlike Gran pop, my father was a social drinker. I wish now I had more closely observed the interactions of my father with his parents and sister, but I was too pre-occupied with reading as many of my Cousin Jimmie’s comic books as I could. I’m sure my dad got along well with his mom and sister – I know there was always some tension with his father.
I would imagine Gram mom sat with us during breaks in her kitchen work. She was old, always old in my memories. She was short, maybe 5 feet tall, sort of comfortably pudgy and her hair was cut short and was white. She always wore a dress. She laughed a lot and was very warm and inviting. Of my 3 grandparents she was by far my favorite. Born with a club foot, she walked with a very noticeable limp and the sole and heel of the shoe on her atrophied leg were many inches higher than the other. As best I can recall, it was her right leg that was the short one. She never complained and it really didn’t seem to bother her in any way. I liked her smile and that she always called me Johnnie, the same as she called my dad.
When the time came, we moved into the dining room. I can still see the table all set for the occasion with the lights low and candles flickering, as well as a general impression of the other, dark furniture in the small dining room. It seemed foreign to me in comparison to our dining room and table settings.
As it was, this was a good day, in a good decade, from the end of WWII for the Flack family. By now, the adults’ memories of their hardships during the Depression and The War were probably muted – during the Depression, my father left school at 16 to go to work and Gran mom took in laundry in order to pay their bills. Gran pop, a mill worker, was probably mostly unemployed, but I really don’t know. My dad and Uncle Junie, who both fought in battles in Europe, had survived physically intact, were discharged in 1945 and safely returned to their families. I remember my dad cussed a lot when we were young, a habit, I suspect, he acquired in the war, but by this time in my life he no longer did. My mom and dad married in 1946 and my brother and I were born, respectively, in 1948 and 1947. Helen Flack married Junie Leonard, probably in 1947, and had a son Jimmie who was born in 1948, the same year as my brother. The three of them lived in gram mom’s house. We had our own house and, when we would visit, I would occasionally wonder why they did not. It didn’t occur to me that they may have liked living as an extended family.
Within the next year, however, Uncle Junie would suddenly die at the age of 36 from a heart attack and a little over four years later my father would also suddenly die of a heart attack, 4 days after his 43rd birthday and one month after Christmas. I remember the elders agreeing that it was the war that led to their early deaths. That never made sense to me and still doesn’t.
I don’t really know why, but we saw much less of Gram mom, Gran pop, Aunt Helen and Jimmie as time went by. I don’t know if it was some rift with my mother or if they were in too much pain, or some other reason. My mother never gave me much of an answer. With my Cousin Jim’s death last year, they are all gone now and there is no one to ask.
It has long been puzzling to me that children, like me, live so intimately with parents and family yet grow up to know so little about the basic facts and sentiments of their lives.