Books are a uniquely portable magic. ~ Stephen King

Monday, April 19, 2010

Coal Miner's Granddaughter

Memoir Mondays

I was in my twenties before I knew my grandfather's name. It wasn't a case of the sweet naivete young children express when they say their mother's name is Mommy - I knew he had a name, I just wasn't sure what it was. His cronies called him Charlie and most of his nieces and nephews called him Uncle Charlie; but my grandmother, as well as most of his siblings, called him Harold. To confuse matters more, I heard my grandmother referred to as both Annabelle and Dean. Even their dog was sometimes ChaCha, sometimes Chopper, and sometimes Peanut Butter. Three souls resided in that house, with seven names between them.

I asked my mother - his daughter - what the heck the deal was. She said, "Well, you know your grandfather and my Uncle Bill are twins, right?"

I did. I loved the story of their birth: Back in those days, of course, there were no ultrasounds available to women who found themselves in a family way. (Pregnant was still a crass word which wasn't spoken in polite company.) My great-grandmother had no idea she was carrying twins. When she went into labor - or, you know, when her time came - on the afternoon of April 1, 1911, the doctor was summoned to their home where he delivered not one but - surprise! - two fine baby boys.

Now my great-grandfather finished up his day at work and headed to the beer garden for a cold one. Some one came in and said, "You have to go home right away! Your wife just had twins!"

"Right!" he said, taking a long pull on his draft, "My wife had twins! On April Fool's Day! And I should abandon a full beer to run to her side! I'm not your fool!" He finished his beer and ordered another before heading home to find his wife in bed holding his twin sons.

This time, though, my mother added a few details she'd never added before. Seems like I wasn't the only one curious about the Charlie/Harold thing - and the real story had come out recently in a family history. Apparently my great-grandmother was asked for names to put on the birth certificates. With her husband not there to consult, she wrote three names she liked on slips of paper: James, Harold, and Leonard. She pulled out all three names in a different order for each of her boys. Grandpa was Harold James Leonard. His brother was Harry Leonard James. This is how it was recorded officially on their birth certificates. When my great-grandfather finally made it home from work, she introduced the boys to him by name. He shook his head. "No. They're Charlie and Bill." So Charlie/Harold and Bill/Harry had dual names all their lives.

Now the bar where Grandpa spent most of his non-working hours when I was growing up was one of those places where he was known as Charlie. "Hey Charlie!" the bartender and proprietress, Helen, would call happily from behind the bar while the other patrons shaded their eyes from the uninvited sunshine the open door had allowed into their cave, "Whadaya know?"

"Not much," my grandfather would reply as he took his perch on a stool in the middle of the bar. She pulled a draft for him before he ordered one. My sister and I would sound out the labels on the bottles of amber liquid displayed behind the bar: Old Grandad, Johnnie Walker, Wild Turkey. Our parents were teetotalers and it all seemed very forbidden and exciting.

"Here," Grandpa would say, handing my sister and I a handful of quarters pulled from the pocket of his work pants, "You go and play the machines and Helen'll get you a bottle of pop." He'd nod at Helen and she'd rush off to get us a couple RC's in glass bottles. Grandpa had a way of making women rush off to fetch him things. He wasn't exactly charming, and he didn't exactly incite fear; it was just a clear expectation. Fetch me what I require, woman.

My sister and I loved playing the old wooden bowling machine. She was better at it than I was. She was better at anything that involved physical skills than I was. As long as she could refrain from shoving that in my face, I was comfortable with it. We were given different skill sets. She usually refrained.

There was an old pinball machine in the corner as well. She usually beat me at that, too, but sometimes I got lucky. Since my win column wasn't as crowded as hers, I did not always practice restraint in the face of a rare victory. She'd just redirect the course. "I'm tired of pinball. Let's bowl." Cocky from a win, I'd always agree. It was always a mistake.

When I got tired of losing bar games, I'd make my way to the juke box. Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Sr. and Johnny Cash - five songs for a quarter. It wasn't the music I loved, but it was exactly the right music for this dark beer and a shot bar. This bar was in a coal mining town where, if people had been inclined to tell their stories, they would have probably sounded a lot like a country song. People were not usually so inclined. They just sat at the bar in a companionable silence; a silence interrupted periodically by the melodious tone of a well-aimed stream of tobacco juice hitting a spittoon.

Every now and then the old guys at the bar would give Wendy and I quarters or buy us candy. We liked Grandpa's cronies just fine.

We'd leave after a while, carrying a couple white pizza boxes. The pizza was nothing particularly special, but we loved it. We'd take it back to the house my mother grew up in and Charlie would become Harold as we sat down to eat with my grandmother on TV trays while watching Lawrence Welk and Hee Haw.

What a brilliant bit of scheduling that was, no?

Bobby and a Sissy and a one and a two and Geritol - my wife, I think I'll keep her - and I'm a pickin' and I'm a grinnin'.

That's what Saturday night sounded like, when you were Charlie/Harold's granddaughter.

That bar is a day care center, now. I hope it's brighter. I hope the spittoons are gone. I hope the kids who go there every day grow up to have half as many happy memories of that place as my sister and I do.


  1. fascinating and hilarious. any comment I make in response to your great writing always seems lame. It was and is a great story.

    A day care center? bwahahaha. so funny.

  2. Great story! I can picture it all like a movie. My grandmother was born on April 1, 1912.