Home is where we are
I wrote a piece last week about Heaven on Earth, quoting the Lord’s prayer reminding us about that. Here is another practical concept. From Patchwork And So Forth ©2007 James A. George, All Rights Reserved.
Home Is Always Where We Are
Growing up in Mt. Gilead and then in Columbus Ohio, I was aware of my changing environment and culture. I began my life in a country town, and then became a part of a more urban, albeit, not large city. There were no African Americans, no Asians, and only a few Catholics and Jews in Mt. Gilead. Even being from West Virginia or Kentucky was considered foreign. It is difficult to imagine now, but I heard and observed how people of one majority reacted to groups with values and beliefs other than their own.
These are not proud memories, just facts of life. This was not the Deep South for which racial discrimination is well known. This was rural central Ohio.
Would small town values change when we moved to Columbus? Yes they did, but not predictably. It happened during a time when race was a national topic and when we were learning as a Nation that racial and cultural integration was more of an ideal than segregation.
Many of my Welsh ancestors came to America to escape religious persecution as some were Quakers and Mennonites, and others were Baptists and Methodists. William Penn lent a hand, though ironically, some Welshmen wanted nothing less than a pure Welsh community which Penn would not support.
Perhaps a natural reaction to persecution is to want to gain distinction through respect for one’s own identity. Assimilation begins with a foundation for mutual respect.
I want to describe more about life in Mt. Gilead. There are three major tracks that work in parallel: Life at Home with Family, Life in Schooling, and Life at Play with Friends. These were the initial formative years and therefore worthy of consideration.
At Home with Family
Essentially living in my grandparents George’s backyard was convenient if not unique. It was also walking distance to grandparents Irons’, though I can remember doing this only a few times. Since Dad worked and drove the car, we had to walk if we were going to visit in the daytime on weekdays.
The Irons’ lived on the west side of town near Edison Ohio. This was toward the manufacturing plant where Grandpa worked. Grandpa and Grandma Irons had a Tudor style duplex with a large front porch and a large back porch. Walking into the front door there was a coat closet and a hat stand, and a stairway straight ahead. The living room was off to the right where a picture window opened to the front porch, and a side window was on the wall opposite the staircase.
A keyhole shape formed the entrance to the dining room, also with a window on the exterior side. Grandma always had a fern and other plants in the window light. She also had a cactus plant that grew and grew as long as I can remember. A small doorway led to a kitchen just large enough for a dining table with settings for at least six people.
The kitchen sink featured a hand pump for well water. Later, they added city water. Off the kitchen were two doors, one led to the back porch and the other downstairs to the cellar.
I liked the cellar for several reasons. First, it was dark and scary. It is where they kept a pile of coal for stoking the furnace in the winter. It is a place where a boy could get real dirty without trying.
Second, away from the coal, there was a wooden case that held canned goods, jars of homemade jelly, canned peaches, canned tomatoes, and green beans. Grandma kept the shelves filled it seems to me, all of the time.
One bare light bulb would reveal these precious good tasting foods, and from that I painted what I remembered.
Grandma often made fresh baked rolls and muffins for us when we visited. On that we would spread strawberry jam and have a cup of tea.
Sometimes, we would visit at lunchtime when Grandpa would walk down the hill from the factory to join us. It seems to me his favorite lunch was pinto beans and corn bread with apple butter. I really liked that too.
Grandma Irons was a very kind person and did not have a single bad thing to say to Tim and me ever. She did caution about playing on the poison ivy covered hill in their back yard. It took only a couple of deviations to understand this as we had some bad outbreaks that required being covered in Calamine lotion.
I also remember the difficulty in playing ball in their back yard with all of the roses and such. It takes only a couple of times reaching for a ball that lands in a rose bush to want to avoid the thorns.
Aside from the wonderful Christmas dinners with Grandma and Grandpa Irons, I remember one very special time when I met my Great Grandfather Joseph Rush Bedwell and Great Grandmother, Pearlie Hale Bedwell. It was the first and last time that I would meet my Great Grandfather from Fries, Grayson County, Virginia, and way down south.
I was about five years old when we arrived for brunch. Seated in the rocking chair was an elderly man with a golden handlebar mustache. He was slender and had rosy cheeks. Seated next to him on the couch was Great Grandma. My Mom burst into the room and went right to Great Grandma and sat as close as she could to her. Great Grandma laughed with excitement as did my Grandpa, Grandma, and Aunt Betty and Uncle Jim Boggs. Other relatives were expected to arrive soon.
Amongst all of the greeting and laughter, I went up to Great Grandpa and stood before him. I was told that he would be there and this would be a very special meeting. I was too young to comprehend the significance, but I have never seen a person with such an extraordinary mustache. He looked right at me and we both stared.
Grandma Irons approached and asked, “Do you know this is your Great Grandpa? He is my Daddy.”
I felt very comfortable with him. He wore red suspenders like I did sometimes when I played. He had a blue shirt and dark trousers. He reached into his pocket and pulled out what appeared to be a chocolate candy bar. He opened the wrapper and broke off a piece and handed it to me. I bit into it and began to chew. It surely wasn’t chocolate.
“Don’t swallow, Jimmy, jest give it a chaw,” said Great Grandpa.
“Land of mercy,” Grandma shouted, “Don’t give him chewing tobacco!”
It didn’t taste good and I looked for somewhere to spit it out. There was a ruckus and Mom gave me a trash can and I got rid of it. Everyone laughed and Grandma gave me some orange juice to kill the taste. It really wasn’t that bad.
I went back to Great Grandpa and sat next to him. I stayed by his side the whole visit because this man was in my favor in that he would let me explore new things, I thought.
His drawl was so thick that it was hard for me to understand what he was saying. His since of humor was oblique to my age and to my young Ohio culture. I loved that accent as my Grandmother had it too. Not so much my Mom, though she did share some phrases like, “Land of mercy.”
Here was a man who worked a farm that had been in his family as far back as the late 1600’s. The land had belonged to the Cherokee Indians, a few of which still lived in the area. I guess the Bedwells probably held slaves at one time, yet in my time, black folk were neighbors and farm hands. I would learn about this as I grew older and from having made a few trips to the old homestead.
During the visit Great Grandma Pearlie received a lot of attention from everyone, including me. Though, I cherished the moment with Great Grandpa as I sensed that I may not see him again for a long time.
The Bedwell Family Story was well documented by genealogist, Larry King who published a book recording fifteen generations including my daughter. I am able to trace the Bedwells with verification all the way to St. Giles Cripplegate Parish in London. Interesting about this is that a Bedwell was involved in translating the King James Version of the Bible. Recall that the Morgan’s, another set of ancestors from Wales were involved in translating the King James Version from English to Welsh. What a coincidence?
Another Bedwell was a captain in the British Navy whose assignment was to sail Napoleon to his island banishment.
Our Thomas Bedwell came to America between 1650 and 1660. He lived there as a woodland pioneer with support from the King. He and his offspring tromped to and from Delaware and Virginia before my grand ancestor Robert was given a grant to what is now Grayson County Virginia. Over time, if you stay in one place, things have a way of passing you by.
We were farmers and that served us well during the Depression, for instance. Yet, being in one place for a very long time, and having to keep up with the chores doesn’t leave much time for wonderment. It is hard to find time to think and without practice, I fear, thinking becomes dull.
Dull or not, I know that these people enjoyed their musical instruments: guitars, banjos, fiddles of all sizes. To this day, Galax Virginia features the fiddle festival. I took my daughter to visit my Great Aunt Fairy and Uncle Gordon Poe in Galax when my daughter was in the process of moving to London. Aunt Fairy was the youngest of my Grandmother’s sisters. She was about 88 years old or so when we showed up at their door at 10 PM. That was as early as we could make it.
I called to see if she and Gordon were still awake.
“Why surely. We stay awake late every night because we can’t sleep. Come on over,” said Great Aunt Fairy.
We arrived to a house on a hillside with the porch light on. She answered the door and said, “Bless your little old heart, Jimmy.” That was a very comfortable greeting.
She had never seen my wife or daughter and I introduced them. I told her that my daughter was a musician and performance artist. I said that Mary plays the guitar and fiddle.
Aunt Fairy showed Mary her hands to reveal her calluses from playing her guitar. Mary was surely impressed.
Fairy’s little white dog ran about our feet, barking a bit. To control him, she got a broom and simply swept him around where she wanted him to go. That was funny and Mary videotaped this.
Gordon offered refreshments. He operated a restaurant in town for years and now his son-in-law does this. As we went to the kitchen with him we noticed a wall that was stacked with Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew has high caffeine content and that explains why they can’t sleep.
Great Aunt Fairy looked a lot like my Mother and Grandmother, and I was glad that Mary could see her as she did not have a chance to meet her Great Grandmother. We visited into the night hearing about my cousins and learned that Cousin Randy is a Baptist Minister and his brother sells exercise equipment. Their sister lived next door but was ill during the visit. I never met her. I missed seeing much of them while growing up in Ohio; they did pass through once and awhile.
That is the way that life is. Sometimes your relatives are a close part of your life, and other times they become a distant link to the past, or simply lost.
I am supposed to be telling you about life at home with my family while growing up. Dividing time between Grandparents Irons and Grandparents George on holidays was a routine. I cannot remember a single holiday when both Grandparents sat at the same table at the same time. That is really odd. Why was this so?
The Georges were clannish. They did not segregate based on financial means. They just didn’t invite any in-laws into their events. It wasn’t as if there was not enough room as Grandpa and Grandma George had a big house.
They moved to this house on East North Street after the jailhouse experience. The living room had a fireplace, though it could not be used anymore. Grandpa was dancing in front of the fireplace and apparently shook the chimney loose. Sparks escaped on the second floor in his closet and started a fire. They were lucky to put it out, though scars remained in the attic where there were charred timbers.
The house was fairly elegant with large sliding oak doors separating the downstairs rooms. There was a spiral staircase where we enjoyed sliding down. Upstairs, Grandpa had a hand at decorating. He discovered a sale at a floor tile store and bought the surplus of different colored tiles. He tiled the entire upstairs with randomly laid colored tiles. They were cold on the feet, so each room had rugs.
While living there, my Dad and brother shared a bedroom in the back where the stairs led to the third floor attic where Tim and I would escape and play. It was a classic attic with trunks of old clothes and old pictures.
When Grandpa George was living during my lifetime 1948 to 1965, Christmas Eve was the main event of the year. Since our house was in the backyard of their house, we just walked over. Other Georges lived very close in the same town with Great Aunt Retha and Uncle Don coming from Cardington six miles away. The cousins of my generation were all there and we played on the stairway and in the main hall most of the time while the adults camped in the living room on a large emerald green sofa and many guest chairs several of which were rockers, most upholstered and comfortable. Knitted Afghan throws were everywhere.
Turner painting reproductions hung crookedly on some walls. There was a very special light box featuring a waterfall scene in which the water actually appeared animated that was accomplished by a small electric motor. This was not art, though it was a most unnatural celebration of nature from Nelson’s hardware store.
Cooking for the event began in the morning by aunts Luella, Mary Jane, and Margie. My Mother cooked her share at home. Dad was fetching and arranging beverages. Grandma was working at the store and Grandpa was snacking most of the time.
He had one responsibility and that was to disappear after dinner at which time he put on the Santa Clause outfit and beard. I think everyone wanted to believe that he was the real deal, adults and children. He was persuasive as he ran around the house in the yard, Ho ho-ing. Even the neighbor children heard him and it caused lights to pop on everywhere.
Eventually he came inside and we all experienced his joviality first hand.
Uncles Wayne Shipman and Harold Robinson were always there. Wayne was married to Aunt Mary Jane and Harold to Aunt Luella. There was something special about Uncle Harold.
When I was about 8 years old I was visiting Grandpa George and he was in the hall having a private conversation with Uncle Harold. I put together the pieces later in life, but the conversation was about becoming public that Harold was a gay man.
I would have no idea what this meant, even if I had learned it at the time. I know that Grandpa told Harold that he must chose to support his wife and family as they had one son, or to choose another life. If he chose to stay, Grandpa would support him.
To stay was Harold’s choice and the whole family appreciated that. My mother and I appreciated it because Harold was the most fun and interesting as his occupation was selling furniture and being a mortician. Perhaps the seed of tolerance was planted with that experience. There was something wonderful and special about Aunt Luella too. She was extraordinarily kind and polite.
Thanksgivings were spent with the Irons’ family, though were celebrated at the Boggs’ farm. Aunt Betty was married to Jim Boggs and they lived with the Boggs. Mr. Boggs was a quiet and jovial man, and his wife was equally humble, though cheerful.
Before we had a big dinner, Mr. Boggs had to milk the cows. That was a big deal for the fellow as he did this alone. When we visited I went out to watch and Grandpa Irons would help him. My Dad claimed that he knew how to milk cows and he demonstrated once so I know this is true.
When I first had a chance to try milking, Mr. Boggs told me to approach the cow from the back end, grab the tail, and start pumping. I tried that and fortunately I had a patient cow.
Everyone had a big laugh and that experience stuck with me. If I had been more observant, that humiliation would not have happened. I was caught up in the exhilaration and missed the main point. That is what my wife means by moving forward with great confidence while lacking competence, I suppose. Such behavior starts early.
There was a special earthy odor and special comfort about a farm house. The cooking kitchen was a separate building from the house. All the food had to be transported from one building into the serving area next to the dining room. The house was warm and cozy, stoked by a log fireplace, though they also had an oil furnace I think.
Mostly, there was a lot of sitting and the women talked about domestic things and looked at knitting and tatting products. The men drank a little, and after eating we all went walking in the field, out to the edge of the woods, unless it was too muddy.
Mr. Boggs had sold a piece of his property to some people from West Virginia. He called the property, Boggs’ bog because it was swampy, not good for grazing or farming. In fact, he had to put up a fence to keep the cows out of the woods because one time they ate something there and got sick. Well, the relationship between which he called, “hillbillies” and Mr. Boggs wasn’t good.
Mr. Boggs saw those people trespassing on his property and he posted signs telling them to stay out. I heard that those people took warning shots at Mr. Boggs when he was close to that area. Mr. Boggs called the sheriff. I never felt comfortable about that place, though my Dad and I went squirrel hunting in those woods. One time, we were there when the paw paws were ripe, and I had an opportunity to taste what was like an Ohio banana. Paw paws are seedy, but the fruit is tasty.
Another interesting thing about Boggs’ farm was the pond. The fishing was great, and the deep pond was created when paleontologists removed a dinosaur from the peat-filled pond. Most people drive by that place and have no idea about its ancient history.
Uncle Jim Boggs was a chemical engineer working at Hydraulic Product Manufacturing (HPM). He and Aunt Betty moved to the village into a nice old house with a large screened front porch on Union Street close to my school. My Mother visited her sister a lot. We had dinners together as Betty was an excellent cook. She especially liked Italian-style and that was unusual for us. After dinner, Betty would play music on a 45 RPM record player that had a big speaker. We didn’t have a record player at the time, and hearing good music was a treat.
One of Aunt Betty’s favorite tunes was a talky-style song called the Whispering Shifting Sands. My brother and I insisted on hearing this at least once during a visit.
The Shifting Whispering Sands, lyrics by Billy Vaughn
I discovered the valley of the shifting, whispering sands
While prospecting for gold in one of our western States
I saw the silent windmills, the crumbling water tanks
The bones of cattle and burros, picked clean by buzzards
Bleached by the desert suns
I stumbled over a crumbling buckboard nearly covered by the sands
And stopping to rest, I heard a tinkling, whispering sound
Then suddenly realized that even though the wind was quiet
The sand did not lie still
I seemed to be surround by a mystery
So heavy and oppressive I could scarcely breath
For days and weeks I wandered aimlessly in this valley
Seeking answers to the many questions
That raced through my fevered mind
Where was everyone
Why the white bones
The dry wells
The barren valley where people must have lived and died
Finally I could go no farther
My food and water gone
I sat down and buried my face in my hands
And resting thus, I learned the secret
Of the Shifting, whispering sands
How I managed to escape from the valley I do not know
But now to pay my final debt for being spared
I must tell you what I learned out on the desert
So many years ago
When the day is awfully quiet
And the breeze seems not to blow
One would think the sand was resting
But you'll find this is not so
It is whispering, softly whispering
As it slowly moves along
And for those who stop and listen
It will sing this mournful song
Of sidewinders and the horn toads
Of the thorny chaparral
Endless sunny days and moonlit nights
The coyotes lonely yell
Of the stars seem you could touch them
As you lay and gaze on high
At the heavens where we're hoping
We'll be going when we die
Yes it always whispers to me
Of the days of long ago
When the settlers and the miners
Fought the crafty Navajo
How the cattle roamed the valley
Happy people worked the land
And now everything is covered
By the shifting, whispering sands
How the miner left his buckboards
Went to work his claims that day
And the burro's broke their halters
When they thought he'd gone to stay
Wandered far in search of water
On to old sidewinder's well
And there, their bones picked clean by buzzards
That were circling when they fell
How they found the ancient miner
Lying dead upon the sand
After months they could but wonder
If he died by human hand
So they dug his grave and laid him
On his back and crossed his hands
And his secret still is hidden
By the shifting, whispering sands
This is what they whispered to me
On the quiet desert air
Of the people and the cattle
And the miner lying there
If you want to learn their secret
Wander through this quiet land
And I'm sure you'll hear the story
Of the shifting, whispering sands
Shifting, whispering sands
Soon, Jim and Betty would have a son, Cousin Kevin. We looked forward to visiting even more as he grew from baby to young boy.
Uncle Jim got sick, diagnosed with leukemia. Speculation was that he may have contracted this from his exposure to nuclear testing when he was in the Navy. Though undergoing treatment, he continued to work hard which included being a volunteer fireman with my Dad. Dad and Jim would go to the firehouse every Friday night as that was poker night.
The way that the system worked in Mt. Gilead was that when a fire was reported the siren would sound. Any volunteer in range of hearing would come to the firehouse, suit up, and drive to the fire in one of two trucks.
One weekend on Saturday night, I think, a fire broke out at the Globe Hotel. Fireman responded including my Dad and two uncles, Jim Boggs and Earl George. We could smell the smoke from where we lived as it traveled all over town. I believe that it was cold and icy that evening. Uncle Jim was on the roof and slipped, falling to the ground and injuring his back. He never fully recovered from that and it complicated his struggle to fight leukemia. Tragedy strikes some people in multiples, it seems.
Easters were set aside for lunch with Grandparents Irons. We all looked forward to Grandma’s southern style cooking that included biscuits and gravy.
There was another dish that Grandma Irons prepared and copied by my Mother and that was Swiss steak. She made tomato-red mushroom gravy and served it with mashed potatoes and carrots. I had something like that at a restaurant when I visited Amsterdam in 2002 only they called it stroganoff.
Dogs Playing Poker in Grandma’s Living Room
I was reading the arts section of the newspaper in which a critic slammed the “general public,” commenting that “many prefer Dogs Playing Poker to Willem de Kooning’s Woman I.” That’s funny. Though, I wonder how many people in today’s prime demographic group understand the comparison. Have they exposure to either?
My personal brush with the “Dogs” occurred in my Grandmother’s dining room where it was featured prominently behind the head of the table. Picture a dining room for which the entrance was a key shape on one end and kitchen passage on the other. Red velvet carpet gave the room formality as did Turner’s print, Richmond Hill. On a third wall was Our Lord Jesus Christ, a token for contributions made to some tabernacle.
If I told you that Grandma Bertha Lee Bedwell Irons came from Southern Virginia via England, and that she was deeply religious, you might not guess that “the Dogs” would adorn her prime dining and family meeting space. It was amusing to young boys, something to look at while plying through mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and corn bread.
I came of age and asked the question. “From where did that picture come, Grandma?”
“Your Grandpa won it in a poker game,” she replied matter of fact.
“Why is it hanging in your dining room?” I asked.
Grandpa answered, “She likes it.”
This exchange was indicative of their simple life. They were honest and plain folk. Yet, the combination of visual icons juxtaposed in the dining room caused me to query beyond Grandma’s wide grin at Grandpa’s answer.
Grandma had a sense of humor and so did Grandpa. It was wry as the juxtaposition of Ireland and England. It was a contradiction of icons, graphic disharmony.
My Grandparents were subject to passionate addictions: gambling and “the Lord,” Camel cigarettes and “the garden,” snuff and corn bread, Dogs Playing Poker and Richmond Hill. Drink was not among them, or at least not apparent.
He was her poker-playing dog, and she was his woman.
James A. George, 1974
Grandpa Roy loved automobiles. Even though he was a blue collar worker of modest means, he still managed to drive a fine 1951 green Dodge Coronet. My Grandmother frequently advised him to drive slowly.
I learned later in life that in 1933, his brother George was driving with Grandma’s younger sister Hazel from Mt. Gilead to his home in Cardington. She was 19 and he 36 years old. There, his wife was awaiting assistance as she had just delivered the last of six children. As George approached the train track, he apparently tried to beat the oncoming passenger locomotive. They collided and his car was hurled 1000 feet. Both George and Hazel died that night.
There was George racing home to help his wife and to take care of the family. George was a hard working soul who was a machinist at the Kelly Machine Shop in Cardington. Then there was Hazel, still a teenager and far from her Virginia home. One so close to home; one so far away, and both on course to depart their loved ones, trapped by machines over which humans had inadequate control.
Ironically, perhaps, Grandpa and I liked to drive to Marion Ohio to watch the trains, big black steam locomotives like the ones that killed George and Hazel. We sat in the car and watched them while chewing Black Jack licorice-flavored gum. Sometimes, we would have a vanilla ice cream cone. It was a simple thing to do, but seemed to me we could sit there all day watching trains with great pleasure. I remember the sound of arriving trains, screeching to a halt. I remember their letting off steam. And, I recall their chugging away as they departed. Most of all, I remember their gigantean size and power.
I wanted to spend more time with Grandpa Roy, though it just didn’t happen. I know that he would have liked to take me deer hunting with him when he would go to Pennsylvania once a year for this purpose. He would return and call to have us come see his eight-point prize. He would have the buckskin tanned and had gloves made for my mother. These things I remember.
While I went hunting with my Dad every year, I only hunted with Grandpa Roy once. He had given to me a 12 gauge shotgun to replace my smaller 410. We were hunting pheasants in a corn field. Pheasants move swiftly on the ground to hide from hunters, and fly up only at the last moment when there is no other avenue of escape. Dad and Grandpa gave to me a good position where they anticipated the birds would flush over head.
I approached and the birds flew. I aimed my shotgun and followed them in my sight. It seemed like slow motion as I was thinking to myself that I did not want to kill such beautiful birds. I did not pull the trigger.
They both laughed as they watched me do this. They offered advice about getting off the round earlier. They did not know that at that moment, I decided to end my days hunting. I kept the shotgun as a souvenir, and switched to fishing.
Once again, Grandpa Roy was at the ready as he was a fly fisherman, and tied his own flies. He showed me how to do this and the technique of casting a fly. I tried it and caught some fish, though decided that I liked a casting reel better.
A machinist, Grandpa Roy liked mechanics, and precision. He carried with him his micrometer calipers in a pouch on his belt.
He liked the outdoors, and he liked gambling on horses. During horse racing season, he carried a large bundle of cash in his coat, and he liked to show it to me. When Grandma saw this, she would say, he had better hang onto it. I don’t think that he was much good at that.
Grandpa Roy was a good bowler. His name appears at the lanes where he bowled still today as he was a record-setter. I watched him bowl and know that he had a powerful hook and spin that knocked the head pin and surrounding pins with a flurry. He deserved more of an audience for his performances, I suspect. Now, I can only look up, think his image before me, and applaud.
Grandmother bowled too and this seemed so out of place. I have a picture of her posing on the lane wearing peddle pusher slacks and a bowling shirt. I think her average was 130 and that was not bad for a grandma.”