This weekend T and I will be joining my mother’s side of the family in Isle of Palms, SC for the annual golf tournament in honor of my grandfather. My uncle devised the tournament and obtained the prize-a trophy with a base of anthracite coal. Mom’s family hails from Wilkes Barre, PA, an old mining town. Eastern PA and South Wales are the only places anthracite, a harder and more valuable coal is found.
My grandfather had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. He suffered a massive stroke in 1980 and was partially paralyzed with the vocabulary of a toddler until his death in 1993. But his mind was not affected. Pretty tough way to spend the last decade plus of your life, and he did have epic temper tantrums, but for the most part he played the hand he was dealt with grace. I thought he was the best Grandpa in the world.
My grandparents were married for more than 50 years when he died. Grandpa was Irish Catholic and stubborn as hell his whole life. When he was about 12 his priest caught him smoking in the basement of the church. The priest told him to get out and never come back, and grandpa took him at his word. When he and his siblings were sent to Mass he’d ditch them and go hang out with his “Syrian friends” (it was the 30s everyone was labeled by their ethnicity and/or religion) on their front stoop. His friends lived across from the Presbyterian Church. A few years later he was on the stoop when he spotted Gram, also of Irish stock, going into the church. Evidently she had a pretty nice pair of legs and Grandpa told his friends that he was going to marry her.
They started dating in high school, although that fact was kept from both sets of their parents. Their many siblings were in on the secret and helped cover for them when they went on dates. There were near misses, like the time Grandpa arrived early to pick up Grandma for a date and her parents got in the back seat of his borrowed car. They mistook him for the brother of their daughter in law who was picking them up to take them to their son and daughter in law’s home for the evening. My Grandpa had no idea what was happening, thankfully my Gram’s little sister was in the car and able to give him pointed cues until he figured out what the deal was.
Then in 1942 my Grandmother’s minister, who was also the head of the draft board, informed my grandparents Grandpa was to be drafted. Grandpa’s own maternal grandmother had just died. His mother died when he was a toddler and he called his grandmother “mommy”. His father had remarried, and he had many younger siblings, but he and his stepmother never got along and he felt completely alone in the world. So he told my grandmother that he wanted to marry her. They were both 21 and Gram thought that was too young, but he said if she wouldn’t do it he was going to join the Air Corps, which was tantamount to suicide. So she gave in.
Her minister performed the wedding, they sent telegrams to their parents, and they hopped on a bus to New York City for a weekend honeymoon. They saw Frank Sinatra perform.
There was fallout. Gram’s father told her he never thought she would do anything like this to him and he said he would never forgive her. I don’t know exactly what Grandpa’s family said. I think things got better after they had their first son. Grandkids heal a lot of hurt. But their story has always completely amazed me. Back then dating someone outside your faith was a big enough deal, but the fact they were both Irish? It was about the worse thing they could do in they eyes of their parents. But they loved each other and that was enough for them to risk alienation from their families. Grandpa already felt like he wasn’t a real part of his family because he was the only child with a different mother, I’m guessing he had no problem rebelling by pursuing my Gram.
But the balls on my Grandma! She was born in 1921 and she was never told she could be anything she wanted to be. I don’t know if she thought she had a choice beyond becoming a wife and mother. She knew she was lucky to graduate from high school, and that she never would have the chance to go to college. But she found it in herself to take a chance without knowing if her parents would ever speak to her again. Even though I’ve been raised to believe I can do anything I set my mind to and been given every privilege imaginable I’ve been scared my entire life, especially of what my parents think. I admire the hell out of her for throwing caution to the wind and marrying the love of her life. She is a firecracker, this year she turned 89. I can’t wait to see her with her family surrounding her. It’s going to be one hell of a weekend.
Gram and Gramp
Gramp at basic training
Gramp in France 1945. The only time in his life he was downright skinny.
In front of the Iwo Jima monument in 1982.
My lovely Gram a few years ago.