RAMBLINGS • Grandma McCunn Was My Anchor


Old men like to live in the past, and I'm not an exception.

I try to live in the present; staying at least semi-active in the community helps that. The future is for my children and their children. If I have a role in their lives, it's helping them see how the present prepares them for the future. That's not an easy job.

I had trouble grasping that when I was younger. My maternal grandmother had roots in Ireland and she was a constant presence in the first 20 years of my life. Mom, Dad, my sister, and I shared her house on her inherited 80 acres of ground with her sister and her son until dad purchased the farm from her and built a more modern house in the apple orchard within 100 yards of the homeplace. I was in the early years of elementary school when the transaction took place.

Uncle Howard married and moved into a trailer on a rough patch of land Gramma McCunn either sold or gave him on the other side of the state highway that divided the farm a few years after our new home was built, leaving Gramma and great aunt Lizzie Ray to live in their old house alone. Aunt Lizzie was a spinster, a very reclusive woman even when the house was full of people. The old place had coal stoves on the first floor for heat, but no heat in the bedrooms upstairs–one for my uncle, one for my grandmother and her sister, and the biggest one for the four Deabenderfers (my brother came along after we moved as I was headed into seventh grade). The only water in the old house was a cold water line into the kitchen. Hot water came from kettles on the kitchen stove, and the line would freeze, no matter how much we let it drip, on the coldest winter nights. The outhouse was about 150 feet up a path past the grape arbor in the back yard.

My grandmother was a survivor, sinewy strong and usually happier than her meager lifestyle indicated she should be. She could read and print in a scrawl, but whatever education she had ended early in her life. She had a long line of brothers and sisters; I don't remember any of them except Aunt Lizzie personally because they were in a line in Rayne Church Cemetery before I had a conscious memory. Grandfather Clark McCunn, her husband, died of a heart attack when mom was 12, leaving Grandma with two kids to raise on a farm that wouldn't support them; her brothers and sisters took the family in.

My only living grandfather was Leonard Deabenderfer, but I didn't know him well. Dad was the youngest of six children. Their mom died when dad was six, and his sisters raised him in the paternal home. One sister, Mary, became a first grade teacher; she and her husband had no children, so she seemed to take an interest in "Earl's kids." Aunt Stella took in grandad when he had nowhere else to go in his elderly, sickly, bedridden years. She was an angel for that. Aunt Hazel and her husband lived on a farm near a coal-mining town. One son became a dairy farmer, the other a librarian at a state college. Uncle Cameron was severely injured in a baling accident on his own farm; he had one son much older than I. 

Both Uncle Lou and Dad wanted grandad's farm. When Grandad sold (or gave) it to Uncle Lou, Dad and my uncle became estranged. Although they lived the closest to us, I didn't know those cousins at all. He and his wife had five or six kids, but we didn't acknowledge each other. Grandad lived with them (part of the "it's your farm" bargain), but he did drive his Studebaker pickup over to visit  every other Sunday or so. He and Dad would talk, but I wasn't expected (perhaps allowed) to participate–both believed kids were to be seen but not heard. I do remember he'd bring ice cream and bananas with him to share.

I had no first cousins on my mom's side, but many on my dad's side. However, I don't remember being close to any of them. When I started hanging around Judy's family, I was amazed at how close her cousins were, though most lived out of state. When I was small and had cousins come to visit, I'd try to be busy elsewhere around the farm. Judy's family welcomed their aunts, uncles, and cousins; I found that to be pleasant. Truth be told, my first kiss was with a cousin of hers who lived in Massachusetts.

As I look back, Gramma McCunn was my anchor when I was small though I didn't realize it at the time. My dad had no time for anything but work (I'm grateful–that put food on the table); he never understood why I'd exit the school bus looking for a football to kick or a baseball to hit. When I fell on a piece of ice in the backyard and hit the back of my head, she picked me up to comfort me. When I knocked a ball through a pane in my uncle's back bedroom window, she cut cardboard to size to cover the pane until my uncle could fix it–dad never knew. When I needed someone to pitch a ball to me for batting practice, she'd toss it to me underhanded and smile when I'd hit it.

When the new house was finished, I never slept another night at grandma's, but a sugar cookie always waited when I followed the path to visit. Though she was uneducated, she seemed to care deeply about my report card and progress in school.

As I grew older, I lost emotional touch with her –my fault, not hers. By the time I left for college, she was nearly blind (cataracts) and hard of hearing–she distrusted doctors and the expense they could entail–but she still had a zest for living. I should have sat with her, asked her about her life growing up, her feelings about surviving the depression, the wars she lived through, the advent of cars, telephones, television, but I didn't. I took those things for granted, but she'd been alive when culture reflected those changes. I wish I could talk to her about them now. 

Granddaughter Kamryn asked me questions about my formative years as part of a writing project at Carlinville Junior High before she and her family returned to Hillsboro, and I'll treasure her resultant essay for the rest of my days; I wish I'd done that with my grandmother. Dawn asked me whimsically the other day if I had regrets in my past; that would be one.

After Aunt Lizzie passed, Dad died, and sister Janet and I moved out, Gramma moved in with my mom and brother. She was at Judy's and my wedding and was able to hold her great-grandchildren Dawn and namesake Jenni in a chair under the one remaining apple tree in the old orchard.

When we'd go home in the years after she'd turned 90, she'd tell me she was ready to die. She was never an avid church-attender when I knew her, but she watched Billy Graham and Oral Roberts on television once she moved in with mom, but it wasn't their golden streets that attracted her. She said her friends had gone and the world had changed so much she was unsure of her place in it. She also wanted to go while she had enough savings (from the sale of the farm in the early 1950s) to pay for her funeral. She didn't want to be beholden.

Her last years aren't the ones I want to remember, or emulate. That attitude wasn't the attitude Judy came to love, that caused us to name daughter Jenni after her. I'm not sure she meant it either, because she lived to 107 and always smiled when we appeared. She passed in 1985.

I live in a world far different than hers, but I want to be the type of grandparent she was for me. Family roles have changed, apparently not for the better, but the shared genetics should shine through. 

Thank you, gramma, for being the rock you were for a young man in the hills of PA.


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