To commemorate the passing of Harry Patch, the last fighting Tommy, I am posting another chapter form my as-yet-unpublished memoir, Memorial Day, the only about my mother\’s father, Denny. He has little in common with Mr. Patch with the exception that they both fought in The Great War, were wounded and returned to their civilian lives to get on with it as best they could.
Memorial Day 1967
Shortly after my parents moved into the house on Rabbit Lane, my father decided a hedge was in order. After carefully surveying his property, he planted a row of lilacs a full thirty feet inside of our western boundary. Not content with that (or, perhaps, in possession of an abundance of lilac bushes), he planted yet another row which cut our still-ample back yard in half, then finished off the masterpiece by lining the southern boundary with a mixture of lilacs and pine trees.
This arrangement led to our referring to the property in terms such as \”the back yard,\”the back back yard,\” and \”the back back back yard,\” the latter being an area which, until reclaimed in my later teenage years, remained a mysterious, unexplored and impenetrable wilderness.
I often wondered if my father\’s erratic boundaries were the result of an honest mistake or a ploy to keep him from having to mow so much yard. None of us minded. It did, after all, also keep us from having to mow so much yard and, as everything west of our bucolic boundary remained fair game for Ray Meyers and his tractors, we were able to glean that portion of the potato/corn field which was planted on our land without injury to conscience.
What my father had counted on was for these trees and bushes to grow into a full, leafy hedge. What he had not counted on was for them to continue growing once they had reached optimum size. By the time I reached my teens, these tiny lilac bushes had climbed twenty feet or more into the sky before sagging under their own weight and spawning rapidly growing shoots which encroached further and further onto our property until the back yard (and the back back yard) began to look like a low-budget remake of The Day of the Triffids.
During my childhood, these large (but not yet enormous) bushes were a constant and integral part of our lives. They provided ample shade during the hot summers, and served as an excellent hiding place during games of tag, hide-and-seek. In the fall they became a barrier against the poisonous clouds, which Ray Meyers sprayed over his potato fields to kill the vines and ready the roots for harvest. in the winter they helped break the wind which blew across the barren fields, and in the spring, they bloomed.
For the entire month of May the air in and around our house was thick with the scent of lilac. The bushes practically exploded with blossoms. We brought them to school, decorated our home with them and on Memorial Day, just before they began to fade, my mother would cut a huge bouquet to bring to the graveyard.
I would bend the taller boughs to within her reach and she would snip the flower-laden branches with her green-handled garden shears. When she had gathered a fair amount, she would wrap the cut ends in sodden paper towels, mold aluminum foil around the base and stick the entire, unwieldy creation into an empty mayonnaise jar.
The actual cemetery visits remained a relatively small segment of a day filled with parades, cookouts and the ritual first swim of the summer season, but they were pervaded with a sense of solemnity, a feeling that this act was one of the few things my mother did that she cared deeply about.
I know my father drove us there and that my brothers and sisters would have had to have come with us, but I only remember my mother and myself walking across the expansive graveyard, lilacs in hand, toward the far corner where her father lay under an unassuming headstone–a flat marker which noted his rank and participation in The Great War. I welcomed the walks, for during them she would talk of her father, his origins and adventures and where his wanderings had taken him and his family. No single trip stands out in my mind–for the only variations from one year to the next were my age, the details of the narrative. I am left, therefore, with a collage of stories, molded haphazardly together into an incomplete whole, as if looking into my mother\’s past through a shattered window.
My grandfather, she told me, was born in northern Vermont on November 11, 1895, and christened Benjamin Franklin Denison, the namesake–so the legend goes–of his great-great-uncle, Benjamin Franklin. Nobody ever called him Benjamin; to his family he was Frank, while all his friends called him \’Denny.\’
Denny was an affable, intelligent character with many diverse abilities but a short attention span. He never held on to one job for very long and appeared to make a career out of drifting. He was fond of drink, and of his uncertain origins: \”I\’m Scotch-Irish, French-Canadian, Dutch and English,\” he would say whenever asked about his ancestry.
It is rumored that, prior to 1916, he was in the Canadian Army and that he had also spent some time with General \”Black Jack\” Pershing chasing Poncho Villa around Mexico. At the age of 22 he married 17-year-old Ava Stafford and went off with a machine-gun battalion to fight in World War I.
I know very little about Denny\’s adventures on the battlefields of France, but I assume they were as morbid and mundane as anyone else\’s. I do know that he was overcome by mustard gas and had to be returned to the sates for a time to recover. He was given a purple heart and sent back to the front where, on his 23rd birthday (November 11, 1918) word spread through the trenches that the armistice had been signed. A friend of Denny\’s, upon hearing the news, leaped up for joy, and was shot dead by a German sniper who was not as well-informed on current events.
Denny went back to Vermont, fathered a son and managed to stay married until 1928, when John Stafford–Blacksmith for the village of Lyndonville, Vermont, and father of Denny\’s bride, Ava–decided that his little girl had had enough of her hard-drinking, ne\’er-do-well husband. What he did for a living during those years in unclear and ultimately unimportant for, whatever he was doing, he supplemented his income through moonlighting (literally) as a rum-runner–a quaint, prohibition-era custom in which one would drive a specially designed car across the Canadian boarder, fill its secret tanks with whiskey and then drive it back. The trick was not getting caught, an ability which Denny seemed to have mastered.
After his divorce, he wound up in New York City where, on September 7, 1931, he married my grandmother, Jeannette Wacker.
My mother was born in Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx but, soon after that, her family moved to Jamaica in Queens. They were still in New York City when the world went to war a second time. My mother had a vivid memory of being in a theater on December 7, 1941, with her sister when the lights went up and the theater manager announced the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
\”He told us that all service men were to report to their bases immediately,\” my mother, who would have been eight at the time, recollected, \”and about two thirds of the theater stood up and left.\”
Men were scarce during the war, which made jobs easy to come by. This was the only period of relative prosperity my mother could recall. By 1944, Denny had gotten a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and was earning good money. Then suddenly, and unaccountably, they left.
After living the first eleven years of her life in the sprawling city of New York, my mother found herself in the wilds of Upstate New York. Denny, through the recommendation of some friends, had gotten a job in a textile mill in the village of Valatie. The job was short-lived, for he developed an allergic reaction to the dye used in the wool, and the family wound up living in a shack on a farm in Nassau where Denny had gotten a job as a handy-man.
The following year, Jeannette died at the age of 46. The family took her body back to New Jersey for burial, then returned to the farm in Nassau. Later, Denny moved them into a summer cottage on the eastern side of Kinderhook Lake where they lived for two years. My mother told stories of dire poverty, of no running water, of waking up in the winter time and having to break ice off the top of the pitcher to get water to wash with, of outhouses and hand-pumps, of never having money and always being cold, and of Denny, who through it all, retained his eccentric ways and somehow won the adoration of my mother while she condemned everything he did.
But none of those stories ever came out in the graveyard; they were reserved for those times when, lost in reverie, she caught herself comparing the conditions she was living in to those awful years she had thought were behind her. Only then did she hint at the bitterness she felt for the life her father had provided. In the graveyard, however, he was a hero, and a poet, and an artist, and a loving parent–the only one she had ever really known.
And so, each year on Memorial Day, she brought to this man who had raised her in poverty and bequeathed her to poverty, the only things she had in abundance–a bunch of handpicked lilacs and her silent devotion.