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Granny, Me & a Tombstone Makes Three: Thoughts on Turning 55

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turn fifty-five today. That is 55, or as it is sometimes known as double nickels. Now I try not to look and I certainly don’t act my age. Despite this I am now officially eligible for my AARP card and discounts, I’ll probably get carded when I try to use them.

Since I think I am now what they call “middle-aged” this means that I should live to be about 110. I actually think that would be cool because I would certainly be around for the Civil War Bicentennial, hopefully still leading Staff Rides at Gettysburg for officers not yet born. 

It really is hard to believe how views on age and aging have changed over the years. When I was about seven years old my paternal grandmother, Verdie, who insisted on being called “Granny” informed me that she wasn’t going to be around much longer. At the time she was fifty-five. But back then people did act old, especially once they entered their forties. I remember one of my Algebra teachers from junior high school back in 1973-74. The man looked, dressed and acted like he was in his sixties. He wore a gray woolen suit, a white button down shirt, a nondescript thin black tie, black oxfords, and when he was outside, a gray fedora.

I thought he had he had passed away years ago and I was surprised as hell to see his obituary a year or two back. He was only about eighty, which would have meant that when he was my teacher he would have been in his early forties, and looking like he was sixty. But that wasn’t unusual back then, just watch some movies from the era and see what the 40-50 year olds looked and dressed like.

Well anyway, back to Granny. Granny was from Putnam County West Virginia and she left home at age eighteen because she did not like the repressive atmosphere and wanted to make a life for herself away from the farm. As the oldest daughter she was having to take responsibility for raising her younger siblings, and she could not abide such a life in the holler with no freedom or opportunity. Granny talked with an old Appalachian dialect that has almost died out. But she was very progressive for her day, raising two sons as a widowed single-mother.  She worked until she was forced to retire and then volunteered at the local hospital gift shop for another decade or so. She could talk baseball, but sadly she was a Dodgers’ fan and lived and died with he team. She travelled the country bus Greyhound bus until she was in her early eighties. She was a fascinating person.

She was active in her church and into her eighties she would take meals to ome-bound church members who she called “those poor old people.”  Of course most of them were younger than her. Now as far as cooking was concerned, her’s was infamous around the family and in the church, something that we all strove to avoid eating if possible. My wife Judy who probably spent the most time with her was subjected to her fare more than anyone. To this day she tells me, that me, my brother that the rest of my cousins and me owe her big for that, but I digress….

But the one thing about her was that no-matter when we would meet she would say that she “didn’t have long to live” or “wouldn’t be around much longer.”  To make sure that we understood that she purchased a plot a a cemetery which had just opened during the early 1970s and even had her headstone planted there. Occasionally if we were in town it would be among the graves that she would have us visit. She had this morbid obsession with death. Maybe it is because she was twice widowed and grew up in difficult times, World War One, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. But for whatever reason she talked like she was old and soon to die, even as she travelled the country on Greyhound.

Then in 1995 I took my first post seminary  job as a contract emergency department chaplain in the city that she lived. It was fascinating to get to know her again as well as my maternal grandmother who was also still alive and living in the town. I worked nights and weekends so Judy got to know them better than anyone, she took them both shopping and to doctors appointments, all the while attempting to ensure that Granny did not feed her. Once I angered Granny when she told me that she wasn’t going to be around much longer and I asked if she was moving. She popped a cork and informed me that I knew what she was talking about. I replied, “Yes, I know you have been telling me this since I was a child and you are still alive.”  She didn’t talk to me for a week, but got over it.

My maternal grandmother, Christine died unexpectedly when I was deployed for the Bosnia mission in 1996 and between that and another active reserve tour I missed seeing Granny a lot until we returned in October of 1998.

One day, it was in November or December of that year, I got a panicked call from Granny. Evidently a salesman from the cemetery had called her and asked if she wanted to pay the opening and closing fee on her plot in advance. Evidently this brought the matter of her mortality to the fore, in a much more tangible way than she had imagined. She told me that she had a nephew who had connections to cemetery where her parents and some siblings were buried and wanted me to move her tombstone to it.

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I told her that we would probably have to go to the cemetery office because one could not simply appear at the cemetery and start digging up tombstones without permission. I imagined being like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein when he went to dig up the corpse in which to implant Abby’s brain. Abby who? Abby someone… Abby, Abby Normal, that’s who I think it was… again I digress…

So I set up an appointment for her and me to make the arrangements. The people were nice, we filled out the necessary forms and two workmen dug up the stone and placed in the truck of my 1984 Volvo 240 GL.

We had to wait a week until her nephew could make time to meet us at the family cemetery and for two weeks I had to drive around town with Granny’s tombstone in my trunk. I just knew that someone was going to rear-end the car, pop the trunk and that I would have to answer some questions  rather pointed questions from the police. Questions that I might add, could prove distressing, as how many people drive around with tombstones in their trunk? I could hear the conversation:

Police officer: What is that? 

Me: A tombstone officer. 

Police officer: What kind of ghoul are you?

Me: How many kinds are there?

Thankfully however, no one hit me, I did not have to explain the tombstone in the trunk to the police and the next Saturday we drove up to her nephew’s house and then to the cemetery. Of course the weather was perfect for placing a tombstone, cold, cloudy, dreary and rainy; just like any horror movie. Not even birds were chirping. Her nephew and I emplaced the monument with great care. We ensured that it was in the correct plot and carefully measured and the appropriate distance to the neighboring graves of her parents, for even in death people need their space. As we worked, Granny supervised, much happier now that if she was going to die that she had a home so to speak. Once we had it set I grabbed a bottle of Windex, a rag and cleaned the mud off of the top of the monument. Granny was pleased, and I was glad to have the tombstone out of my trunk.

Two months later I transferred from the Army Reserve to the Navy and we moved away. Soon after the 9-11-2001 attacks we visited, Granny had reached the point that she was in a nursing home. I drove her around the town to places she used to visit and took her her for a hot dog at the local original Stewart’s Root Beer and hot dog stand. Since she couldn’t go to church she had Judy sing a couple of hymns for her before we went back to North Carolina. A couple of weeks later she passed away and we gathered for her funeral.

My dad and uncle were there as were many other relatives. The service was at the church where she had attended for decades and where I had been baptized as an infant. The cemetery was about thirty miles away a bit up I-64. Since there was a home football game for the local college, Marshall University, the funeral home employees ensured that we had the fasted motorcade I have ever been a part, we were chasing the hearse which was doing about eighty with the little purple funeral flags furiously flapping in the wind. After a quick graveside service it was done. I don’t think that anyone missed the opening kick off that day and I’m sure that Granny wouldn’t have minded. My dad and Judy both agreed in hindsight that old time sake and for safety reasons we should have hired a Greyhound bus for the funeral party with Granny’s coffin in the luggage compartment.

So anyway, from the time she was fifty-five until she was almost ninety, Granny never ceased to let me know that she didn’t have long to live. I hope as a minimum I live as long as she did and I do promise that you won’t be hearing me tell you that I haven’t long left, unless they are dragging me away to the funeral home as my fingers type out one last article.

Here’s to health and long life!

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Just for fun, Loose thoughts and musings

My Home World Visit: Some things Change and some don’t….and the Terror of the Undead Tooth

The last time that I visited the Home World, aka West Virginia was before I left for Iraq.  While this is my family’s Home World it is only mine by default having worked there briefly after my residency.   Now because I was a West Virginia resident when I entered active duty in 1999 it is our home of record for all of my military administrative and pay purposes.  This means that we maintain our West Virginia driver’s licenses, vote in West Virginia elections and since we are out of state have no state income tax liability.

West Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia is an interesting place.  It was became a state in 1863 when the western counties of Virginia, which had seceded from the Union, seceded from Virginia and were recognized by the Federal Government.  My family goes back on both sides to the late 1700s in the state where they were early pioneers having moved west from Pennsylvania.  The Dundas side of the family had emigrated from Scotland in the late 1740s settling initially in Philadelphia where the early settlers served as suppliers of the Continental Congress and Army in the War for Independence and are buried in Christ Church cemetery near Independence Hall, the same cemetery where Benjamin Franklin and other notables from the early history of the United States are buried.  The family which settled in Cabell County owned a great deal of property along the Mud River and the James River Turnpike where they prospered by not necessarily being nice.   They built a plantation and owned slaves, the exact number I do not know.  They also sort of acted as highwaymen charging travelers along the turnpike to go through their land, in a sense they were the progenitors of the toll booths on the West Virginia Turnpike.  Their prosperity last through the Civil War in which they sided with the Virginians who seceded from the Union and not those that seceded from Virginia.  When the war ended the family patriarch decided that he didn’t like the results and as a Lieutenant in the 8th Virginia Cavalry Regiment refused to sign the loyalty oath when the Confederacy surrendered.  Of course Officers like Robert E. Lee did so, so the refusal was kind of stupid.  As a result the Federal Government seized almost all of the family land save for the homestead and a parcel donated to Mud River Baptist Church and the Blue Sulfur cemetery where as my cousin by marriage Betty says “all the good Dundas’s are buried.”  Thus my family became just another working family.  My parents were born in Huntington in the 1930s.  At that time Huntington was a booming city.  It was a rail hub as well as the site of many heavy industries including the manufacture of railroad cars, steel, nickel, glassware, chemicals and automotive parts.  It was also the home of Marshall University.   This boom lasted until the 1960s and early 1970s as industries moved out or shut down, the population which once numbered about 100,000 dwindled to barely 50,000 in 2008.  The city did nothing to help itself when it refused to let the Interstate Highway go down through the waterfront. The diversion of I-64 helped destroy the downtown and contributed to the move of many people to the outlying areas of the county.  As a result the areas along the Mud River gained both business and population leaving the city with fewer business, people and tax revenue.  Of course had my ancestor decided to sign the loyalty oath all of this would have been on our family land and the family would be wealthy.  The sins and stupidity of the previous generations do truly affect their descendants.  What a Dumb-Ass.

So my dad joined the Navy and I was the first one of my family born out of West Virginia.  Now we would go back often to visit my grandparents as well as other relatives and I have some fond memories of visits to Huntington in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Back then Huntington was still fairly affluent by West Virginia standards.  When I moved back after my residency in late December 1994 Huntington was a different town.  The city was smaller and areas that had once been nice were run down.  Gangs and drug lords from Detroit and Columbus made Huntington, which once had a very low crime rate a pretty sporty place.  Instead of industry service industries like telemarketing became major employers joining Marshall University, Cabell-Huntington Hospital and Saint Mary’s hospitals as the economic base of the city. The few remaining heavy industries were much smaller than they had been even a decade before.  Since I left to join the Navy in 1999 the city has continued its decline.  In spite of major expansions of the University, both Hospitals the opening of a new campus and University medical center a revitalized downtown much of the city is in disrepair and once nice neighborhoods are blighted.  There are signs of hope as the city and state are making concerted efforts to fight the drugs and gangs, while corrupt officials who allowed the infrastructure to collapse leaving the city in violation of EPA and other federal agency regulations.

The decline has affected everything, even churches.  The church that I was baptized at as a infant, Southside Methodist is shut down, the congregation merged with several others at another location.  Other formerly influential congregations of various denominations have shut down and in some cases the buildings demolished.   The city lost its Minor League baseball franchise in 1994 and it has not been replaced.  The population is now significantly older and poorer.  One only has to visit stores like Wal-Mart and see how poor people look and how bad their state of health is to understand how the city has fallen.

One thing that surprised me was walking down 3rd Avenue after departing the Marshall Hall of Fame Café and seeing two young let’s say late teens, early twenties girls wrapped around each other at a bus stop French kissing and pawing all over each other.   For a second I thought someone had turned on Cinemax, this was definitely not the West Virginia that I remembered growing up.  Now I know that Huntington is a college town but I still was not expecting this.  Had my paternal grandmother, God rest her soul been there she would have probably taken her cane and forcibly separated them while giving them a piece of her mind.  Granny was not to be messed with and even long haired men drew her wrath as what she would have termed improperly clad women who showed more skin than she thought was proper.   I’m sure the display of the two young women would have sent her into orbit. Of course I make no judgment on the young women, save perhaps their choice of venue to express their affection for one another.  Heck if they had been a hetro-sxcual couple I would have had a similar reaction and Granny would have at least accosted the young man had it been that situation.

Huntington has changed in a lot of ways, but some things remain constant.  For me these have been the parks, such as Ritter Park as well as eateries such as Stewarts Hot Dogs and the Frost Top Root Beer stand both of which take one back in time to when things were better.  I still like to go back; the pace of life is relaxing if you aren’t in pain.  Our trip this time was marked by a nice visit with our friend Patty a couple of visits to Stewarts and a visit to the Marshall Hall of Fame Café.  At least the beer at least gave me a bit of relief from the constant pain in my mouth.

As far as the matter of the “undead” tooth goes beginning Sunday night the pain was unmanageable.   I could not sleep and no matter how many 800 mg Motrin and Ultram that I took I was still in pain. I might have gotten two hours of bad sleep Sunday night.  Monday morning I got up, ate breakfast, took more medicine and went to back to bed.  After I got up at noon I went to the Hall of Fame Café for a salad, chili and beer, after which I saw the aforementioned Cinemax girls.  Monday night was more of the same and I was wishing for my regular boring insomnia.  Tuesday morning I woke up gave up and called our hospital dental clinic.  They referred me to the office that approves visits to non-military providers.  It took me a while to reach them but when I did they gave me permission and I went to the dentist who took over the practice of our old and recently retired dentist in Huntington.  I was x-rayed and the dentist said that the tooth was infected.  He wrote a couple of prescriptions, one for amoxicillin and the other for Darvecet a pain reliever.  Unfortunately they had no effect on Tuesday night and by the time that we left today I was in worse pain than any time previously.  The tooth was making groaning and popping noises throbbing and shooting out sharp pain.  By the time we got to the western section of Virginia I knew I had to get some help so I called our dental department.  The person at the desk told me to report to sick call in the morning.  About an hour later the pain was even worse so I called again about 40 minutes before the clinic closed.  I got the automated answering system that told me “thank you for your patience, we value you and you are number one in the queue.” I waited in the “queue” or 40 minutes, my call dropping twice due to bad cell coverage but each time I was still “the first in the queue.” Finally, after the clinic was officially closed I called m ICU and Stacie one of our Critical Care RN’s paged the on-cal dentist.  He called me back and told me to come in as soon as I got back in town.  When we finally got home we went directly to the hospital where the young dentist waited.  He consulted the on-call Oral Surgeon and the two decided to open the tooth back up and grind it down as well as give me a long lasting anesthetic that will take me through the night as well as some good drugs, Vicodin to keep the pain down not the Darvocet which was crap and didn’t touch the pain.  So tomorrow I go in early and the dentists will fit me in and excavate the remains of the tooth from my mouth and do some site preservation so I can get the implant later.  Thus, my saga completed I will try to get some sleep, unfortunately I am so wired from all the caffeine I took on board today that sleep, even if I am not in pain will be problematic.  Thankfully I have been assured that they will send me home when this is done.

Pray for me a sinner,

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings, travel, west virginia