Bill Roper (billroper) wrote,
Bill Roper


I remember just a few brief meetings with my one surviving-at-the-time great-grandparent, Grandma Hankins. I don't remember much about her, except that she spent most of her time in a rocking chair. Given how old she must have been at the time -- I'm not sure exactly, but easily in her seventies -- I can't say I blame her. She was my Grandma Roper's mother. And I remember her funeral, which was the first funeral I ever attended.

My Grandpa Houston was a very bright man with a sense of humor. He had a benign lump on his forehead which he said was the first of his devil's horns getting ready to sprout. He was a teacher and a shopkeeper. I was just getting old enough to appreciate him when we left for Guam the first time. By the time we returned two years later, he was senile and in a nursing home. (It might have been Alzheimer's -- they didn't have that diagnosis at the time.) When he died, my mother and I rode a bus from Illinois down to Parsons, Tennessee for the funeral. Given his condition, it was a blessing, I think, but it didn't make my mom feel a lot better about it.

I think I would have really liked him if I'd had more of a chance to get to know him.

My Grandma Houston lived a fair number of years longer. If memory serves, she visited us in the house in Belleville, which would have been 1972 or 1973 at least. She was the poster child for osteoporosis, with a severe dowager's hump in her later years. She was from the last generation in the South when a reasonably well-off (not rich!) woman would have a cook -- black, of course. I remember a large, friendly black woman from my visits, although I've lost her name now. And I'm not sure that Southern cooking was ever really my thing.

We didn't see as much of Grandma and Grandpa Houston as we did of my paternal grandparents -- partly because we usually lived further away from them. In the days before the Interstate highways, it took a very long time to drive from Belleville, Illinois down to Parsons, even when we were living relatively near by. Now, you'd just hop on I-55, cross the river on the spur into Tennessee, and make your way across to I-40, and south from there. (Or some similar route. Any of which would have been faster than the miserable collection of highways that we took south from Paducah.)

Grandma Houston's kitchen was the site of the infamous "pickle incident". But that's another story, for another time.

We did see more of Grandma and Grandpa Roper, since you could do that as a weekend trip fairly easily from Belleville -- more so, once I-64 and I-57 were completed. They lived on a farm, officially in Carrier Mills, although the nearest "large" town was Harrisburg.

You couldn't make a living by farming around there, so my Grandpa Roper worked in the coal mines until a bit of rock kicked up by the continuous miner cost him the sight in one eye. Thanks to the UMW, he retired on full disability, which kept them comfortably well-off.

The farm was a fascinating place, with chickens, and feeder cattle, and dogs among the animals. And the usual collection of feral farm cats that my grandma fed to keep the mice under control. There was an ancient tractor, which I got to drive a few times and which gave me my first experience with a clutch. We would ride around in the back of the pickup truck, going out fishing at some hidden location off the many gravel roads in the area. We never caught anything worth eating, but that wasn't the point.

When I was older, I remember walking out one cold fall night away from the lights and seeing the most incredible sky full of stars.

Grandpa Roper was a religious man, Methodist and quite puritanical as nearly as I could tell. He took great comfort in reading his Bible. I was his oldest grandchild, born fifty years to the day after he was. I remember that was always something special for him.

We were called down to Harrisburg one night, because Grandpa had had a massive heart attack. The doctors didn't expect him to survive the night, but he did. And he lived for a good ten years after that and had a good life. The doctors had never seen anyone with that amount of damage survive. I think he was just tough.

When Grandpa Roper did die, the family came for the funeral from all over the country. His old church (Spring Grove Methodist) had been torn down years before, but the cemetery was still there. I don't think that the pastor who led the service knew him well. I can't imagine someone who knew him well giving the eulogy that he did. Here was a man who had led a good life, who had beaten a heart attack that would have taken him a decade earlier, who had died in the fullness of his years, surrounded by family and friends. And the sermon spoke of how "we all go down alone to the river of death". What a horror.

Grandma Roper didn't live for long on the farm after Grandpa died. When she fell and broke her hip, it was clear that she couldn't stay there by herself, and before long, she went to the nursing home to stay. Grandma could -- and would! -- talk your ear off, but that was ok. She cared about everything and remembered everything. And she cooked meals that were fit for folks who spent a hard day working in the fields and the mines, with a probably horrifying amount of bacon grease included in everything.

I remember the day when we showed up shortly after Christmas with a new microwave oven for her to use. "Oh, Lord," she said. "You just take that thing away. Where am I going to put that?"

On the new microwave cart that we bought to put it on.

"I'm never going to use that. One of you kids should take that."

We persevered, set up the microwave, and showed her how to use it. A week later, we got a phone call from her. "I just don't know how I got along without this thing. I can heat up some beans for Ross for dinner and I don't have to heat up the whole kitchen..."

Well, yes. We knew that. :)

Grandma Roper was another tough old bird. She got to bury my mother; then her oldest son, Mitch; then my father. Parents shouldn't have to bury their children, but life isn't always fair.

My Uncle Roger, her youngest son (by a substantial margin, since he's only about 10 years older than I am), and Aunt Darlene took care of Grandma Roper while she was in the nursing home. I'm glad they were able to be nearby, because the rest of us couldn't be.

As I said, I was born 50 years to the day after my Grandpa Roper. When my Grandma Roper died, she was 94, exactly twice my age. There's an interesting numerical synchronicity in that, signifying nothing.

I miss them all.
Tags: musings, relative

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