Tag Archives: crane builders

The Autograph.

Mammy had an autographed photo of Billy Sunday’s wife.
She kept it in her Bible.
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But, why?
According to Wikipedia, William Ashley Sunday was an American athlete who, after being a popular outfielder in baseball’s National League during the 1880s, became the most celebrated and influential American Christian evangelist during the first two decades of the 20th century. Helen Amelia Thompson Sunday was his wife, an indefatigable organizer of his huge evangelistic campaigns during the first decades of the twentieth century, and eventually, an evangelistic speaker in her own right.
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Mammy was my grandmother. Born in 1890, she and Pappy moved to Erie from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre when Pappy was hired by BuCyrus-Erie to build cranes.
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She used to tell me of the tent meetings down state which she had attended, where she met Pappy. These were huge gatherings of people, who came together from all points rural to hear the Gospel preached by Billy Sunday. I believe Mammy recounted that she was led to the Lord by Helen Sunday, after one of these meetings. I also remember that, while she used to enjoy playing Solitaire alone in her bedroom, Mammy gave up the deck of cards once she got saved. I often wonder if thereafter she stopped playing the Key Game, which celebrated psychic skill and at which she excelled, as well.
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Mammy’s name was Mae Elisabeth Learn. She’d been second maid to a wealthy, Jewish brewer in the Poconos before meeting Henry. He courted her, to and from Sunday’s tent meetings, until the day he declared: “ You Mae Learn to be Sweet.”
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Pappy’s name was Henry Thomas Sweet, and his parents had hailed from Cornwall, England. When he and Mammy married and traveled to Erie, Pappy carried on Billy Sunday’s evangelism by preaching on the street corners. His was a hellfire and brimstone, Bible brandishing English orator’s style; with his booming, a-tonal baritone, he’d hand down God’s order to the vagrants: get up from the gutter! repent! and, get a job.
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When I look at images of Billy Sunday, I can’t help but note how much he resembled my grandfather. They shared cut features and a strong jaw and the same, resolute expression. Mammy did not resemble Helen Sunday; she had a softer countenance, and always bore a sweet smile.
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But, together, they had both responded to the call of evangelism proposed by Billy and Helen Sunday. They’d pulled up stakes and moved all the way across the Commonwealth to carry it forward. And, Mammy, who spent the rest of her days raising their four daughters, tending two flower and vegetable gardens and, together with Pappy baking hundreds of loaves of bread and both hooking and braiding rugs, sat in her rocking chair when day was done, Bible in hand, praying for everyone who came to mind, with Helen Sunday’s photograph just inside the cover of her Bible.
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I remember the year I met my husband. We’d been introduced through a mutual friend, whom we both respected greatly. Our friend, and his private teacher, was the principal oboeist of the Erie Philharmonic during the years when Maestro Eiji Oue held the baton.
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I had developed a deep respect for our maestro, which bordered on fixation. He had aroused every passion within me, from artistic to sensual to spiritual. He, however, had a strong preference for his principal oboeist, whose petite stature and feisty nature matched his own.
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My husband to be was enamored of her, as well; but, she was soundly married to the love of her own life, consumed by their mutual performing careers and and the raising of their four children.
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And so, each of us foundlings was brought together by stronger forces, upon the common ground of emotional commitment to another – he, to our mutual friend, and I to my Maestro. When my husband proposed marriage to me, the act was spurred by her very challenge; when I accepted, my anticipations extended to include the potential for an expanding realm of human connection which a bond with him would create. I would marry up, into a world which could include, by scant degrees, the object of my passions.
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Maestro Oue did not attend our wedding, though I believe we sent him an invitation, and both of us were sure to include our beloved oboeist in the musical ceremony. Our marriage lasted just over two and a half years (not counting the year of courtship), the second of which my husband spent living and working in Indiana, and it ended seven months after my mother’s death.
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I have two, framed companion photos of myself with our maestro. And, there is a Wheaties cereal box which features his image, nestled on the top shelf of my entertainment center in the music room of my home where I have practiced, rehearsed, and provided private lessons for 30 years.
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At the top of the box, just above the logo, in Japanese:
his autograph.
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© 9/18/19 Ruth Ann Scanzillo.   All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. No copying, in whole or in part, permitted without the author’s permission. Thank you for respecting original material.
littlebarefeetblog.com

Ebb and Flow.

[formerly titled “Mentality.”]

PhotoOfSouls

For many years, the shroud of mental illness draped our family.

Our father’s mother had been committed, by her brutal husband, to a Massachusetts sanitarium circa 1914. A Sicilian immigrant, she spoke no English and could not defend herself. And, she was pregnant.

Yes.

Dad was born there.

Because sanitariums in those days were not equipped to house young mothers, let alone those deemed unfit, she was not permitted to raise her third child. Along with his sister Dad was first sent to a foster home, where he was regularly beaten over the back of the head with the buckle end of a strap belt, and then to a state institution.

Marvelously, being of sound constitution, he survived – drifting, riding the freight cars, playing his harmonica and bones for loose change and, then, joining the Army – to meet his future wife, on a steam train bound for New York. Years later, as grateful husband and father, he would give God all the credit.

But, our unknown grandmother wasn’t the only figure in the shadowbox.

Mum’s father was a scholar of the Old Testament, a crane builder, and a brooder. We’d never know what mood we’d find, entrenched on the recliner in the corner by the radio. Sometimes a wide, toothless grin, a wisecrack or a belly laugh. Other times, a deep, distant scowl, and scrap envelopes, scattered near the Bible or the stack of National Geographics, emblazoned repeatedly with the bold signature of his name in broad, flat, penknife-sharpened pencil.

Mum inherited a bit of that mercury. She had two faces, so distinct that, had anyone met the one, the other would be unrecognizable.

I learned early on that observing human behavior was not only fascinating, but prudent. I became all too aware that, by watching others, information would come to me continuously, most of it in very great need of being sorted out.

What we called our family was a cinematic display, its camera’s filter missing, of the most transparent aspects of humanity. Beyond dysfunctionality, each member was its cautious and dreaded subject. We never knew when the ball would drop; we only knew that it would.

And, as if to deny the reality, explosive events were often followed by years of avoidance. Being English, Mum’s side of the family called this “holding a grudge.” I remember a Christmas so volatile, so reverberant with screaming and weeping, that the cozy kitchen and grand oak table in the diningroom could hardly contain the scene. That would be the last year, truly, that the whole family would ever convene again. And, I was only eleven years old.

With the stigma of mental illness weighing heavily on the conscience of our society, I now guardedly approach what moves me to disclose. There is a very great need amongst us to identify, primarily because, most of the time, victims cannot do so themselves. Even as physicians are ultimately required to confirm diseases of the body, those who bear up under afflictions of the mind are in even greater need of being found. There are none more lost among us.

The following is a list of traits, hallmarks if you will, that suggest the presence of mental disease. Some are easily recognized, but others may not be. Included are short references to loved ones, by example.

1.) Reaction to Stress.

Those with mental conditions have weaker coping mechanisms than their healthier counterparts. What merely annoys most will sometimes derail the other.  The mentally ill person has a far longer list of stress inducers than the rest of us and, most importantly, is often ready to react to each of them with apparently little power of restraint. My mother spent much of my adolescence alternately sobbing or shrieking; only in the late evening, well after midnight when the house was quiet, would she find solace  – seated alone, at her sewing machine.

2.) Sensory Load.

While some extreme mental states produce catatonia, or an apparent absence of reaction, those with mental disease can often be more easily stimulated, and more ready to respond to stimuli. To them, the world is a maelstrom of desirable and undesirable feelings, and these can often collide over a single incident; sorting through the pleasure and the pain which simultaneously ensues is a task, and may often confound normal counterparts experiencing the same event. Our grandfather would open a family gathering with joyful and exuberant laughter, but a disagreement at the dinner table could send him into a rage that dispersed the family in all directions – to say nothing of the effect on our collective digestion.

3.) Lucidity.

So much is said about the character of a good citizen in various social environments that the trait of honesty, or veracity, seems almost mundane. But, to one who is afflicted, even the best intentions can go awry. Mental disease can cause one to both speak and write things that cannot later be defended; sometimes the language itself is ambiguous, or the content vague, the tone unmistakably that of either anger, bitterness, or undying devotion. One can set out to be the most upstanding and compassionate towards others, but be left with chaff in the wake of a verbal outburst which, long since forgotten, cannot even be recognized or acknowledged. I can recall lengthy, if earnest, handwritten letters from my mother, so convoluted that I hardly had the emotional energy to read them – and, repeated denials:  “I didn’t say that!”

4.) Immediate Gratification.

Everybody likes to get answers to important questions, or receive something nourishing. But, those with mental disease depend on a degree of satisfaction in closure which others find demanding. Furthermore, they become inordinately convinced of the reality of their needs, and wear these convictions as blinders. The unknowns which populate normal, daily landscape can be sources of fixation to one who is burdened, and obtaining what, to others, can easily wait becomes a mission. Dad, especially in his later years, was the most popular member of his neighborhood when it came to solving household problems which, to the rest of the world, were incidental; repeatedly dialing the man up the street, because he couldn’t get the wrapper off of the slice of American cheese, was the story nobody could forget.

Like all syndromes of the human frame, such burdens can have a range of expression. At moments of intense duress or demand, an otherwise healthy person might exhibit traits which could be attributed to one who has a form of disease. This likelihood is intensified if one has been closely exposed to the illness and its manifestations. But, those who are marked by such affliction will fight, on a daily basis, a chronic, inner battle.

There are likely other points which can be made about illnesses of the mind. But, for now, maybe making a mental note to save these in a secure corner of awareness for future reference would be wise. And, most of all, having a quiet conversation with self might help remind us all that we each occupy bodies which are random in their assignment. Only our souls matter, in the end.

Best that we all move through life with a mentality of acceptance, linking our virtual arms with determined commitment to bearing with each other. We are all both strong, and weak, in every way, and it is the convergence of these that both encourages and sustains the ebb and flow of life.

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

9/25/15  All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line. Sharing by permission to ReBlog, exclusively. Thank you.

littlebarefeetblog.com