Thursday, September 06, 2012

A Simple Man

A little family history today. Mostly a character sketch.

A Simple Man

Lydia Glunger's Grandpa Jones was good at math. In junior high, his
teacher had said he "showed promise" but like many young men of his
time, he quit work to support his mother and seven younger siblings
after his daddy died. His parents were Indians, "darkies," and
between his skin color and his limited education, Grandpa began his
working career as a manual laborer trying to get by in an Irish-
Italian-Polish community. He sweated through sweltering fourteen-
hour days in a bakery. Laid bricks. Developed a taste for brown
liquor. He supported his alcohol intake with winnings earned as a
ham-fisted street fighter.

Grandpa's mother, widowed at such an early age – her marital
prospects limited by both her color and her gaggle of young mouths
to feed – took to the bottle, as they put it back then. She drank to
forget her dead husband, to forget the eight children who cried with
hunger and shivered with cold during West Virginia's bitter winters.
She was still young, not yet thirty years old, and she yearned for a
man's touch. There was no shortage of men hankering to make love to
this black-haired, bourbon-eyed sliver of a female who took to
hanging out in honkey tonks.

Lydia's grandpa came to view life in concrete terms: A person was
good or bad. All things unfamiliar were potentially dangerous until
proven otherwise. There was no turning back once Grandpa labeled
something bad. No forgiveness possible, no redemption achievable. He
treated his loved ones with watchfulness knowing that at any time
they might turn bad and break his heart. Grandpa loved with
intensity. And fear.

After he saw to it that his siblings were raised and his mother
remarried to the first in a series of hard-drinking husbands, he met
and wooed a woman with a bachelor's degree in nursing. She admired
his work ethic and half her DNA came from Indian stock. In a time
when dark skinned "white" people were rejected by "decent society,"
the two young lovers clung to one another and made a bond
unbreakable by anything but Death itself.

The simple man and his well-educated woman married in 1929. After a
heart-rending series of miscarriages and stillbirths, Grandpa's wife
gave birth to Lydia's mother by caesarian section. The doctors said
she could never bear another child.

Grandpa and Grandma Jones rejoiced at Lila's birth. They jealously
protected her. Lila wasn't allowed to play with other children for
fear she'd contract polio or tuberculosis, or some other dreaded
disease for which there was no cure. Grandpa and Grandma couldn't
bear to lose Lila.

They also couldn't bear for Lila to become "bad." She was never
allowed to walk anywhere alone. Her reputation was above reproach,
her purity and chastity unquestionable.

Lila was only allowed to date once she turned sixteen. A young man
who wanted to court her had to first pass a grueling interview with
Grandpa and Grandma. One young man passed the initial interview. He
must have thought himself clever when he drove Lila to an isolated
area and tried to force himself on her. She escaped, hymen intact –
physically unsullied, yet her innocence was lost.

She arrived home shocked and terrified and told Grandma what the man
had done. Grandma sent Lila to bed. Through the thin wall of their
tiny rented house, Lila heard agitated murmurs exchanged between her
parents. Then Grandpa left the house.

Grandpa found the young man and invited him for a man-to-man talk.
The story goes that Grandpa used his pocketknife and slit the boy's
scrotum – just a little. As the boy blubbered and begged to go to
the hospital, Grandpa evenly explained Lila's value to Grandpa. How
she could never be replaced. How important it was to him that she
remain a virgin until she married. How his wife's heart would break
if anything bad happened to Martha. How Grandpa wouldn't allow it
to. If the sobbing young man uttered a negative word about Lila to
anyone or even tried to speak to her again, he'd receive a final
visit from Grandpa. No one would ever see or hear from the young man
again. His body would never be found.

Grandpa wrung a devil's pact from the youth, the stipulations
unambiguous: If you don't agree to these terms, I won't leave you to
die alone because that wouldn't be human. I'll stay till you draw
your last breath. If you do agree, I'll drive you to the hospital
and take care of your bill. No one need ever know.

The sixteen-year-old chose to live. Grandpa drove him to the same
hospital where Grandma worked. One of the doctors stitched him up.
In a day and time when justice often came at a father's hands, no
questions were asked and no was bill presented. The simple man
returned home, satisfied his family was intact.

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