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More Stories - The Way We Were

Vanity and Rooster Tails

My mother, Alice Hine Williamson, passed recently in her sleep just after her 90th birthday celebration.   The family is now dividing up keepsakes and heirlooms according to Mom and Dad's instructions and family members' present wishes and circumstances.  I'm thankful that our family has avoided the greedy grabbing and squabbling that often occurs after a relative's death.  Some have given an item intended for us to someone else, usually younger, who wanted it more.   I wish all families would do this, and that all older people with families would make a complete list, stored with their will, of who gets what, as my parents did some years ago.

My daughter Cathy inherited a portrait of my dad's father, Rev. Linn R. Williamson.  I hadn't seen it in years and was surprised to see how much my brother Lloyd looks like him. 

Grandpa Williamson was born in 1866.  He married and had two sons, and at thirty years of age became a Methodist minister.  Widowed, he fell in love with my grandmother, Ellen Annis Church.  Grandma was, I believe, 20 years younger than he, and there were naturally jokes and comments about robbing the cradle. 

This was of course in an earlier time when women's main function was to keep house and bear children, and therefore successful men wed younger women for this purpose.  They married on Christmas Eve of 1907.  Grandma bore him three more sons.

On one of our travels, my dad located and showed us the first church of which Grandpa was pastor; I cannot recall if it was in Erie, Pa. or in Corning, NY or perhaps elsewhere.  (See Amy's comments.)  In any case, it was a high, upright structure, with clean lines, much like both Grandpa and Grandma themselves, mounted on a rise and pointing sternly skyward.  The parsonage where Dad was raised was no longer there.   

During the first year or so of Grandpa's pastorate he'd heard comments about the age difference, and was already sensitive about it.   Apparently he mentioned it to one of the ladies of the church, and it was suggested that he dye his prematurely graying hair.  This was something that Grandma, with her no-nonsense approach to life, would have poo-poo'd, to use one of her favorite expressions.

Never the less, the helpful parishioner got the dye, and when Grandma was away, dyed Grandpa's hair jet black.  When it dried, it was shiny black all right.... with a glaring green sheen like a black rooster tail in the sunlight.   Grandpa washed and washed but it wouldn't budge.   I have never been told what Grandma said to him,  but I'm sure it was a mouthful!

Grandpa was so mortified he pled illness that Sunday and I believe for the Wednesday prayer meeting as well, and refused to be seen by anyone.  He couldn't keep that up too long, however,  and eventually had to come out of hiding.   Naturally no one ever let him forget it.   Grandma termed it "the price of vanity" and pointed family references to "rooster tails" were quite clear in their meaning.

We were living in a multi-family household during the last of WWII, which included Grandfather Williamson, who was suffering from heart failure.  His hair was now completely white.  I had never been close to Grandpa as I was to Mother's father, my Grandpa Hine.  But I remember proudly giving him a large tube of Colgate toothpaste for Christmas of 1943, carefully but messily wrapped in recycled Christmas paper.

Grandpa died at home on June 5th of 1944.   In most of the last half of the 20th century, birth and death were "sterilized", accomplished in a hospital, safely locked away from most or all of the family and especially children.  I don't think this was healthy for the patient or the family, and especially the children.   This was not the case in the early 40's during WWII, when public resources were already strained.   One afternoon my father came to get me and told me it was time, and the whole family was going to stay with Grandpa until he went to Heaven.  He was already unconscious with a death rattle, and although I was only five years old, they answered any questions I had frankly. They also told me that he was sort of "sleeping" and not suffering any more.  I had of course been assured that he was passing to a better place with a new healthy body, which was a good thing!

I remember Grandma went out to the next room and brought back a diaper belonging to my new baby cousin Rick, using it to cry into, a mere handkerchief not large enough to contain all her tears.  

"Why is she crying if he's going to a better place?" I remember asking my Dad.

"She's not crying for him, she's crying for herself, because she will miss him," he answered.  "They've been together a long time."

The funeral was held on a drizzly, muddy late spring day.   Salmon gladiola were placed on the casket before it was lowered, and some blooms had fallen onto the ground.  The grave was being filled with wet soil, the broken gladiola trampled into the mud, and I scuffled them with my shoe, thinking about the meaning of death - that of people, pets, and flowers - and the perpetual cycle of life, as our family, blotting their tears, prepared to leave. 

The sight of salmon gladiola still brings a little wave of sadness and a memory of Grandpa Williamson and those difficult years.  

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