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Posts Tagged ‘Father’

Pair and singletree wagon. Photo credit: www.usgennet.org/usa/ny/county/jefferson/hounsfield

Pair and singletree wagon. Photo credit: http://www.usgennet.org/usa/ny/county/jefferson/hounsfield

Just Conversation, Really

Sometimes you get to talking and it happens. You don’t know why but you find yourself talking about your family, I mean your “big, way back” family, like your Dad’s childhood family. Then things come out that you never heard before, either because you weren’t listening the first time or because the time never was right to let the ghosts out of the attic. Conversations sometimes simply go that way, twisting and meandering about, without an agenda, without a goal or an intentional moderator. They seem to have a life of their own, and at other times they seem like patches rubbed clear in dirty front-room windows of long-abandoned houses that let you peek in and read the headlines of a forgotten newspaper lying on the floor inside, or you see there an old doll that has eyes that never shut any more, and you think you begin to sense what it was like to live there. It is then you think you feel ghosts rising. And, too, you can read a snatch of the history of a man in a few, painful glimpses into his heart.

A Revelation

“You are not named after your grandfather, Sam,” my father, Lewis Edward Matteson, insisted, slightly raising his voice.

“But my first and last name are identical to his,” I thought silently.

“I would never name a son of mine for him. You were named for you mother’s grandfather, Samuel Holland . . . and for me,” Dad continued. “My father doesn’t deserve to have a son of mine named for him.”

“He was a big man, your Grandpa Sam—over six feet tall . . . and hard . . . he was a hard man.” Lew swayed to his left, then right, ducking unconsciously. He went on, “He used to wear me out. But time came that he couldn’t get the best of me any more. Once he wore out a leather razor strop on me, but it didn’t do ’em any good.” Dad chuckled. “He broke it clean in two.”

“I did somethin’ . . . forget what . . . and one of the girls—probably Edna—ratted on me. Well, Grandpa got the razor strop that hung on a nail by the door, and he grabbed me by the arm and went to whalin’ the tar out of me. But because it was cold and just as likely ‘cause I suspected he was after me, I was wearing two pair of gabardine trousers. My old man could not make me cry because he couldn’t hurt me enough. Those two heavy layers were enough to take the sting out of his strokes. So when he saw he couldn’t get the best ‘o me, he got madder and madder and beat me harder and harder. He kept flailin’ at my legs until the strop came apart and flew in every direction. Then he stopped and went into the house. He just left me alone behind the shed without another word.”

I looked at my wife and then my daughter who sat at the dinner table. I wondered if they felt as shocked and saddened as I. It was a sick feeling and at the same time, a feeling of frustration and mingled pain. I had—in my fifty years as a son—never heard Dad speak of his father as he just had. I remembered my paternal grandfather, Grandpa Sam, only from a few mental snapshots and fewer actual photographs. I recalled vaguely a tall, gaunt figure that only approximately resembled my own father. Grandpa Sam’s face was hard, with hard lines that did not come from smiles.

A Peek at My Grandfather’s Life

Once during a brief visit to his apartment when he was in his seventies, I got a peek at my grandfather’s life. I was ten. We Matteson kids sat uncomfortably on his narrow bed in his one room apartment dimly lit by a single bare bulb that swung overhead. On the wall over the bed a calendar hung, one that flaunted a buxom girl who wore only a pair of short blue striped bib overalls. She leaned forward seductively above the words, “Ohio Implement.” Grandpa Sam was telling about his years in the foundry and how he had been “one tough cookie.”

“You don’t haveta worry ‘bout me. I ken take care of myself. Just the other day, a Mexican tried to ‘roll’ me. But I beat the tar outta ‘em. Ran ‘em off. He won’t be messin’ with me again. No Sirree.”

I looked at those big fists that, Popeye-like, swelled at the end of sinewy arms. I imagined, too, a whirlwind of flailing and pummeling limbs. I wondered at that moment if he had always been as violent with would-be attackers in Marion, Ohio. I wondered when I heard Dad’s story, if he had always been as tough and violent with his sons, also.

Astride the Singletree

My reveries were interrupted by agitated sounds emanating from the man sitting next to me, from my father’s direction. His breathing deepened and increased in its tempo as he leaned forward in his chair. There was more he had to say. “I remember the last time my old man, he hit me.” It was as if my father was transported back to the fields of Ohio and the 1930’s, reliving the events sixty years earlier.

“When you cut corn in those days—Don’t ya see?—you cut it with a big knife at an angle. “ Dad made a slicing motion with his hands. “The dried stalks are left in the field for a while, until they are like so many spears, sharp on one end. Then ya come along with a wagon and haul the stalks off, and you burn ‘em.”

“One day,” he continued, “when I was about seventeen, I was up on the wagon stackin’ the stalks while my Pa was down on the ground forking ‘em upta me. He used the three-pronged hay fork. I used my hands. He would stick two or three stalks and then throw ‘em up on the wagon where I was astandin’. Well, he kept turnin’ the pointed ends towards me, so as they would stick me every time he forked over a bunch. I said, ‘Stop stickin’ me with the sharp ends of them stalks.’”

“Pa glared up at me and said, ‘Stop whinin’ and get to work.’”

“Then I says, ‘I am workin’ and as hard as you. But just stop stickin’ me with them sharp stalks.’ That just made ‘em mad. So he grabs me by my lame foot and drags me off the wagon. I fall down a-tween the horses. I got on my feet straddlin’ the singletree between those chestnut draft horses we had. They stood up to my shoulders on both sides.” Dad made a gesture to his shoulder as we stared at him blankly.

“The singletree is that wooden hitch that we connect the horses to the wagon with. . . . Well, still and all . . .” he went on, “my Pa came after me. He drew back his fist to slug me. . . .” Lew leaned to one side in his chair—as if the fist were about to fall—then ducked a little to receive the blow again. “I looked up at him. . . . He was a full four inches taller than me . . . and I said, ‘You’re goin’ to have to beat me to death. And even if you do, it still won’t make you right! . . . You’ll haveta kill me. And them what?’ . . .  For a minute I thought that he might actually go ahead and do it. But I had had enough. I wasn’t goin’ ta take his beatin’ me any more.”

In my own mind I saw the fist poised in mid air, like a black and awful presence with a life of its own. I drew in my breath and held it for a moment, thinking of the anger of a teenager chafing under such a tyrant. I had known that feeling, only attenuated. For a long and awkward second we all sat silently. I heard the clock ticking on the wall.

“Did he hit you, Dad?” I asked at last.

“Naw. . . . not really. That time he just cuffed me one. But he never beat me any more. But if he hadda come after me, there between the horses, we woulda really mixed it up. And those draft animals weighed over a thousand pounds a piece. They woulda stomped us both to death without a doubt.”

“Did you leave home soon after that, Grandpa?” My daughter Carrie asked with the hint of a tear in her left eye that she daubed with the corner of her napkin.

“No, I never really left home. . . . I mean, I never ran away from home . . . if that’s what you mean. No, I stayed on the farm and hired out to other farmers as a day hand until I came South in ’42 when I was twenty-three. But that was the last time Grandpa Sam ever laid a hand on me.”

You Never Really Leave Home

Some say that you can’t go home again, but I believe, that you really never leave home; I say that because you always take home, where you grew up, with you. There, in the recesses of your mind, in the corners of your heart, is every joy or agony that you have ever experienced, like a trunk in the attic or a cardboard box in the cellar. It is your home, even if it was not a happy one. That day, at the dinner table with my widowed father, I grabbed a glimpse into a boarded up house that sits in the back pasture. Dusty, smelling of age, ignored for the most part, but there . . . always there.   The memories that haunt the houses we think that we are well shed of and that we have left behind, find us even in the daylight.

Because my father shared his painful memory, because he rubbed a peek hole on the window of his heart and let me peer in, I will never be the same. I understand better now why he left the punishment of the children to his wife, my mother, when I was growing up in his house. I understand better the congenital, stubborn and angry insistence Dad showed at times. I understand better what he means when he says, “Grandpa Sam was a hard man.”

My paternal grandfather had a rod of iron in his hand; my father had a rod of iron in his spine that often shows up in photographic portraits as a  slightly too erect posture. My grandfather decreed and punished. My father stood stiff with a will that would not bend. I am thankful that my Dad resolved to do differently with me than his father had done with him. I thank my father that he chose to be kind and tolerant of my teenage declarations of independence. I am glad that from somewhere I learned to respect and obey my father—not for his edicts—but for his character. And I thank God that I was thus spared the hard life of standing astride my own singletree.

Lew with Audrey and children (L to R) Sammy Gene, Baby Dale and Cindy Lou. Flamingo Drive, Mobile, AL ca. 1953 Family Photo

Lew at 33 with Audrey and children (L to R) Sammy Gene, Baby Dale and Cindy Lou. Flamingo Drive, Mobile, AL ca. 1952. Family Photo

Lew at 79. San Antonio, TX. Photo credit: S. Matteson

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