They set the bar high for grandparenting, these eighth-grade educated parents of my dad, whom I knew not as Grandma and Grandpa but as, simply, Mom and Tom.
Their home all the years I spent summers with them was Latty, Ohio, although I have one photograph of my toddler self on the porch of a farmhouse where they must have lived for a while.
I know they weren’t trying to practice some child development specialist’s ideas of how to be terrific grandparents. Mom Hayes, her jet black hair in a bun, would shake her head at you, put her black-rimmed reading glasses back on and return to her rug hooking. “I never heard such foolishness,” Tom would say in his husky base voice that could make a kid want to crawl under the table.
I suppose I’d have similar fond memories of my mother’s parents had I spent big chunks of my childhood with them, in nearby Van Wert, Ohio. In truth, Mom’s parents were a lot funnier than Dad’s.
But it was in the tidy Cape Cod house where my formal education was so richly supplemented. As a rule everybody gathered there for Thanksgiving. Dad and other men in the family would go pheasant and rabbit hunting early. Mom Hayes would pluck and skin the game. Somehow, as if by magic, the dinner would be on the table by mid-day. Lacking a successful hunt, Mom Hayes and maybe Dad’s sister, my Aunt Norie, would serve up an old German dish of roast pork and potato pancakes, seasoned with caraway seeds.
It was during such holiday dinners – the same routine repeated Christmas Day – that I found out that if you had anything to say, you had better speak up whether or not anybody else was speaking. This advice made sense because in Dad’s family, everybody tended to speak at once. Stereophonic family you could call it. Everybody on that side of my family also had strong political opinions, mostly of the Republican variety and mostly opposed to anything the Roosevelts every did or thought.
Yet, during my summer holidays with Mom and Tom, we all read the editorial page of the daily newspaper of the area, The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, which I would work for many years later. And while faithfully studying the editorial page, my grandfather and sometimes grandmother would comment about some editorial or column.
“Well, now that makes sense, even it’s in this Democrat newspaper!”
Even in summer, Mom and Tom, in the 60s by the time I’m remembering here, spent afternoons in their bedroom on the first floor. Propped up on several pillows, they would listen as their brown plastic Crosley radio blared out the play-by-play baseball games of the Detroit Tigers, announced by one of the great sports announcers of that era Harry Heilman over WGR.
In the 1950s, when somebody bought them a TV, Mom wouldn’t watch a ball game. “I don’t think I could follow it,” she’d say.
“From the radio, I’ve got the game worked out in my head.” For that reason, I suppose, she wouldn’t attend my cousin Bill’s ball games when he played for a semi-pro team in the area.
Sundays were a different story. I have to explain that Tom’s own father, John Hayes, was a preacher as well as a farmer who helped start churches in northwest Ohio and Indiana.
“He wasn’t much of a farmer,” Mom Hayes would say when the subject of her father-in-law could come up. Anyway, sometime before Mom and Tom lived in another small town, Tom was a Sunday school superintendent. They also regularly attended church in Paulding, the county seat during the years Dad was in high school. So given this history, you’d assume that living in Latty, they’d spend the Sabbath mornings in church.
That would be wrong. In Latty, they didn’t attend services. They listened to radio preachers. In fact, they’d listen about all day and all evening to Billy Graham’s “Hour of Decision,” “The Old-fashioned Revival Hour,” and “The World Tomorrow” with Garner Ted Armstrong. There were others.
Now it so happens there was a Methodist Church just down the street and around the corner from their house. They sent me to the Vacation Bible School there. But for them, there was only one church, the Church of Christ. If you weren’t in that church, you weren’t in church. No Church of Christ in town, no services for them!
Nevertheless, Mom Hayes taught me hymns and choruses. She had me memorize the books of the Bible and long passages, too. She read Bible stories to me. Both of them frequently told stories of their favorite ministers and evangelists, holding them up as examples of great preachers and important persons as role models, although I doubt that they consciously were trying to implant in my head the dream of being a minister. Years later, when I studied in theological schools and even served as a student minister to small churches, I often wondered how much my summers in Latty with Mom and Tom was the beginnings of my dream of becoming a minister. I suppose all that talk of great preachers and listening to all those radio preachers helped keep the ambition alive. If there were alive today, they sure wouldn’t understand how I left the ministry for teaching, then for a job at the same newspaper they scoffed at daily.
They sure would have trouble accepting my change in churches from Brethren and then to the Unitarian-Universalists.
But looking back, I give them credit for how they accepted and did not judge those in the family who chose a church other than the tradition they remained so attached to all their lives. Nor did they judge family members who divorced, although Dad and Mom did get back together and the three of us, when I was in high school, moved from Defiance to a big house across from the general store in Latty of all places.
I credit them,too, with not judging the black folk in town. George Goings delivered the paper faithfully each day. Behind their house stood a corn field, property of another black gentleman by the name of Sad Day. There must have been quite a story behind that name. It never occurred to me to inquire. No matter who it was, Mom and Tom treated everyone with respect. I never heard a comment of racial prejudice from either one, though Tom liked to tease Mom Hayes about her German heritage. (Her mother, I was told, never learned to speak English.)
It’s hard not to miss them. I miss the warm summer evenings as we sat on lawn chairs near the apple tree and watched the starlings converge on the maple trees that lined the front of the house and the occasional car pass by, often with a gentle tap from the horn to say hello. I miss the smell of the lye soap Mom stored on the back porch and the crackle of the floured cube steaks in the frying pan. I miss listening to the chatter as they played Pinocle and Euchre in summer evenings with Floyd and Emma Baxter who had a farm west of town. What a calm, predictable life for my summer vacations, removed from the hustle of Mom and Dad’s working and social lives, not to mention their frequent shouting matches.
I learned so much during those days, things that stayed with me all my life. That surely must include how I discovered that reading could be terrific fun. In the living room, only used during the Christmas holiday, there was a cabinet with a treasure trove of old comic books, no doubt stored there by my older cousins. These truly were books no bigger than three inches by two inches with hard back covers. Through these little books, I would enter the another world, the world of Donald Duck and his nephews and Mickey Mouse, nurturing my always lively imagination.
When I was older, in junior high and still spending summers with Mom and Tom, I got hooked on their magazines of true detective stories, which took me into another world. My grandparents never moved to censure my reading, despite the lurid photographs.
We all ask sometime in our adult lives what and who influenced us to become the persons we are. I don’t think you can escape identifying first of all your parents, an influence that happens long before you remember. I look back on the good things in my life that I can attribute to my parents, from respect for elders, proper behavior and etiquette in restaurants to some aptitude for sports and love of music. Mom and Dad never failed to applaud my successes and champion my goals.
Dad died when my own children were little more than toddlers. But Mom couldn’t have been a more entertaining and challenging grandmother. She always enjoyed the status of favorite aunt for her nieces and nephews.
For this grandson, my debt indeed is also great to Mom and Tom. They shared their time, what little money they had, their knowledge in the practical matters of life and their values. They taught me to be engaged in the life of our society and with neighbors. Neither forgot their own origins and shared stories of those origins, building for this grandson a pride of those ancestors who struggled, raised decent children and contributed to their communities and, despite hardships, prevailed. My challenge is to do no less.