Henry Thomas Sweet was my grandfather. Born in 1893 and raised near Scranton, Pennsylvania, he was a bulky, muscular son of the English, brother to seven, a real baseball pitcher, a crane builder. And, he was a scholar of the Old Testament.
Down there in Eastern PA, evangelist Billy Sunday had been his early inspiration; Henry’d met his future wife at one of Sunday’s tent meetings. Traveling together across the Commonwealth to Erie, preaching the Gospel like no other, he did so first on the street corners, then at the Erie City Mission, and finally, at the encouragement of one of the brethren he’d met at the Mission, to the Gospel Assembly Hall, where he took his young family. But, only a few years in, due to having stood in public defiance of the Assembly’s treatment of a defenseless couple over the behavior of their adult daughter, he had been formally excommunicated for “railing.” His life thereafter as Bible scholar and Gospel preacher would move to a Harvest Gold, wing-backed LazyBoy recliner, the disgraced throne from which he would enter the arena of: daytime talk radio.
There, between Bible study and perusal of that month’s “National Geograph”, he would call in to the local talk show, “Viewpoint” – offering up innumerable gems of elucidation to an unknown audience, sometimes prompted, at others merely driven. His calls becoming so frequent, and protracted, the inevitable happened; the host of the program invited him to be a live guest on the show.
When the day came, our whole family was engaged; I remember watching him stride to the front door in that grey tweed top coat and fedora, with his teeth in – something we grandkids rarely saw anymore. We all called him “Pappy”, but this man was a stunning, handsome sight, the quintessential distinguished English gentleman. He spent an entire afternoon, live across the radio waves, taking question after question, always leading listeners to a reverence for the Word of God. Whether he needed a pulpit or not, he certainly had found one.
In the years following that day, Pappy would continue to contribute daily in whatever tangential manner he could enter the fray. But, he never “broke bread” again, anywhere, with any fellowship, or church…….and, we, his descendants, were forever marked by his absence at the Table.
His wife, Mae, was the saint. She was our “Mammy”, and she was humble, industrious, loving, and faithful. Mammy walked across the street and around the corner, every Sunday for meeting and Sunday School, every Tuesday for Prayer Meeting, and every Friday for Bible Study, until she could no longer do so, her daughter Martha picking her up on the way thereafter. She spent her days up at dawn to first work – in the flower and vegetable garden, or at the sewing machine, or at the kitchen stove – then, to sit in her rocker writing letters or praying for those “as they came to mind”. These daily prayers included the needs of her husband, as he sat across the room brooding to the hum of live radio conversation, with the telephone, and his Bible, ready and waiting beside him on the lamp table.
My mother was much like Mammy. Born Lydia Elisabeth, second in a line of four daughters, she was completely self-sacrificing. Betty, as she was called by all who knew her, kept a clean, orderly house and spent most of her time either at the sewing machine making every stitch of clothing for our family (and, a long list of local socialites), or tapping and threading nuts and bolts on a semi-automatic at Csencsis Manufacturing. But, the day she deigned to openly question a regional Brother known to the family for decades, the entire Erie assembly cited her for impropriety, drew up a letter calling her under discipline, and asked my father to sign it against his own wife. Dad, because he was loyal to the end, refused.
Two years after this atrocity, Mom developed brain cancer and I made my final, reluctant attempt to return to the Assembly after a 27 year absence. Three weeks and three Morning Worships in, I sat beside my mother and physically shook my head. A lifetime of ostracizing suppression was enough, for the child who had grown up under the shadow of an older brother’s genius, and who clamored for attention with questions nobody could answer. This really was the end. It would be the end of my mother’s life on earth, the end of my marriage, and the beginning of the final stage of my metamorphosis.
To this day, I am not sure what emerged from that chrysalis. A slightly-bent physical specimen, a furtive, staring, rapidly-blinking, wary, and emboldened creature bearing the occasional curse of her gender and the radiance of all her parents would have realized, immensely grateful for life, good health, and the sustaining power of truth and beauty.
Here’s hoping Henry Thomas Sweet, from his recliner in the grave, might gruffly approve.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo 11/15/14
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