Monday, January 15, 2007

Up in smoke

My parents’ families are both from a line of central Pennsylvania coal miners.
At different times in my life both of my parents have told me that they heard their fathers saying to them or their brothers to “do anything they wanted in life but to never go into the mines.” To the last one, they all listened.

Many of them enlisted in the military, others just up and moved away, two to Florida, one all the way to California. No coal mines in either of those places. In fact, only 3 stayed in central Pennsylvania, one became a teacher, one a housewife, and one opened a gas station in a tiny little town called Ebensburg.

My grandmother died in her early fifties, long before I was born, of emphysema. Mom tells me she remembers lying in bed listening to her cough and then when the fit passed, she’d light a cigarette. Mom still shakes her head when she tells that story.

The uncle that opened the gas station was Ditter, well Richard, but he was somehow, always, Uncle Ditter. The gas station was an Arco, I remember the baseball caps my other Uncle used to wear “Ditter’s Arco” red, white and blue. Ditter died just after I graduated from high school, lung cancer. I can still remember her face as she climbed out of the car after returning from his funeral. It was the first time I understood what devastated looked like.

Now, her oldest brother, Bob is dying of emphysema. He’s down to 25% of his lung capacity. It is truly, just a matter of time. He’s one of the ones that moved to Florida - some 65 years ago, started selling cars, and eventually bought the dealership. It’s always been a novelty for me to go to Florida and see my Uncle’s name on the back of a car.

Bob is the brother that convinced the youngest brother that if he jumped off the roof of their 3-story home holding an umbrella he’d float to the ground. (When I hear this story I always picture Jack Nicholson as the joker floating to the ground from the roof of a Gotham City building). My Uncle Butch did not float and will happily rattle of the list of broken bones he acquired from trusting Bob on this one.

I remember seeing the ocean for the first time at his house in Merritt Island. I remember that at Uncle Bob’s you have hamburgers on Mondays, and only after you have your salad. I know that he’s such a fixture at this golf/country club that when he comes to dinner they only put 14 french fries on his plate. Apparently he once complained about there just being too many fries and someone made note of it. I know how he’s taken care of his family, what a good brother, husband and father he’s been.

I am unspeakably sad to see my mom steeling herself for what will be another, large, and much too soon assault on her emotions.

Tonight, I find myself wishing that when my grandfathers were giving out their life advice, it had been “stay out of the mines and don’t ever pick up a cigarette.” They listened so well to the first part, would they have listened to the second?


Anonymous said...

I was thinking, what a well-written piece, but more than that, I'm sorry about your uncle Bob. Smoking always seemed so harmless, back then.


tiff said...

EVERYONE smoked back in the day. I'm sure they wouldn't have listened.

Also, this isn't depressing. It's cautionary. I'm just sayin'.

Sending whatever good thoughts are possible to you and your family.

Biff Spiffy said...

JC, thanks for writing about that. I can feel your heartache and wish it weren't so.

I miss them too, now that you've told me about them.

There are plenty of ways to die. It's not as though we need more options. You've made me extra happy to be a quitter.

Anonymous said...

You have the family gift for infusing a sense of beauty into the most difficult situations. My prayers for you and your family--always.


Lace said...

I'm sorry too honey, about your uncle and for your mom.

I'm always amazed at the undergrads and the people in their doctor's coats smoking in the rain outside the health sciences library.

Your memories really shine through. I love the way you write.