The Man I Knew as Grandpa

I never got the chance to meet my biological grandfather, Arbrie Emil Mills. He was killed when a coal car cut off both his legs when he was working in the mines of West Virginia in 1942. It was the definition of a tragedy. My Grandma Jimmie was pregnant with my Mom at the time and it took my Grandmother many, many years to recover from her loss and move forward. Eventually, Grandma Jimmie did remarry — my mother was married herself and had a family of her own by then. My brother was 7 and I was 5 the year we met the big hulking bear of a man we knew as Grandpa Walker. Everyone called him Clark but his name was Champ. And he was as big as a mountain. He must have really loved my grandmother to plunge headfirst into the craziness that was my family. That, or he was already crazy to begin with.

I can’t say what kind of man Arbrie was since he had passed long before I ever existed, but I can say with certainty that Clark Walker seemed tailor-made for my Grandma Jimmie. My only wish is that they had found each other sooner so my grandmother wouldn’t have been alone for so long. She was a firecracker who loved to argue and instigate and thanks to her sharp mind and quick wit, she was good at it. Clark put up with all her quirks and shenanigans — in fact, he seemed to enjoy it. The household walked on eggshells — make that quilt-covered eggshells — all morning until she woke up, which was usually around noon. (I tell you what though — looking back on it now as an adult with kids, my Grandma Jimmie spent the better part of her life busting her ass to put food on her family’s table, shoes on her kids’ feet, and did everything she needed to do to keep her family together in the mountains of West Virginia, so if she wanted to sleep till noon later in life, I say, more power to her.)  But, my Grandpa never questioned her need for sleep, never tried to change her routine. He just accepted it as the way things were and put up with it because he knew it made her happy. The sun rose and set around my grandmother as far as Grandpa was concerned.

Need an example? How about this… ever heard of a Jimmy truck? It was a kind of pickup truck with a cap on the back. They don’t make them anymore, but they did back in the day. Grandpa bought one of these trucks (in cash!) just because it had my Grandma’s name emblazoned on the back. Well, slightly misspelled, but still. His heart was in it.

Perhaps the clincher that proved just how much he adored my grandmother was the fact that on top of living with her and her persnickety ways, he also lived with my great-grandmother, Grandma Mooney. I’m sure you remember her. Yup, Grandma Mooney of the Vinegar Valentines and the Spooky Charades was in the house as well and as we all know, she had quite the attitude. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say, so my grandfather was a little outnumbered. In spite of all this, my grandfather took damn good care of Grandma Mooney when she got sick later on. All because he loved my Grandma Jimmie with a love that was fierce.

Grandma Jimmie and Grandpa Walker looking cool

Growing up, I thought Grandpa Walker was IT.  As an adult, there are some stories I’ve heard that tarnish my memory of him which, sadly, happens all too often with our childhood memories.  But, I also remember he gave me a kitten when I was little that I wasn’t supposed to have. (He gave my brother one too, but my brother was deathly allergic — which made shoving the kittens in his face really, really fun, but I digress.)  We couldn’t take them home of course… thanks bro, for that. But we enjoyed them each summer.

While I was small, most summers found me by his side, when I wasn’t chasing lizards or looking for crawdads or swinging from grape vines. When I was still a little girl, it might’ve been the first summer I met my grandfather even — so maybe 5 — I remember trying to cut my fried eggs with a fork and knife just like my dad. My dad was amazing with a knife and fork — he could cut anything and everything slick as butter while being quiet as a mouse. It was truly impressive, and I always wanted to be like him. But, I could never come close to being as fast and neat as he was and most of the time I just ended up making a big racket. It was certainly annoying for everyone in the kitchen. So anyway, here I am cutting my fried eggs like a maniac and my father ummm…chastised me, yeah, we’ll go with that, chastised me for making so much noise. And sitting in “my spot” next to my grandfather as I was, he yanked my chair closer to him and told my dad in no uncertain terms to “leave her be and let her cut her eggs however she wants” — which was awe-inspiring really because I was little and my dad was…well DAD. You simply didn’t talk back to him.  Clearly Grandpa didn’t get THAT memo. Or if he did, he didn’t care one bit.

As I’ve written about before, for a part of his life my grandfather drank beer like some people drink soda, or coffee. He basically just drank the stuff all day long. It took an enormous amount (about the size of a silo) to give him a buzz, but eventually he would start feeling the effects, and when he did, he’d get on a musical bent. When this creative urge came across him, out came the banjo which he was really quite good at playing. The tunes he chose? Yeah, well, those started out pretty good too, more on the bluegrass side but that was okay, and then it would slide into gospel, getting faster and zanier the more he drank. Verses would eventually repeat themselves, words would slur or get mixed up. Sometimes it was an outright free-for-all of different songs thrown together as one. What verses he couldn’t remember, he made up on the fly.

I remember my mother made a recording of one of his more off the rails lively sessions and took it to my Aunt Bunny for her to listen to — back when cassette recordings were still the rage. I got so angry because by the end of the impromptu concert they were in tears laughing at his madcap musical antics. I snapped at them over it and ended up paying the price. And of course, looking back on it, it WAS funny… hilarious even. But this was my grandfather they were laughing at! No-one was supposed to be laughing at him!

Hey, he had my back – I had his.

my favorite picture


There’s No Crying in the Dollar Store

So. Do you ever look at something that in and of itself is completely benign and straight forward, but taken into context with the memories that item brings to mind can leave you awash with forgotten emotions? At best you feel a twinge of heartbreak or perhaps a smile from some long ago happy day or at worst you’re left blubbering in the seasonal candy aisle in the Dollar General Store in town.  Which is exactly where I found myself a few days ago.

Now I’ve never bought candy at the Dollar General Store in my town as I’m something of a candy aficionado and I prefer the “good stuff.” Quite often you’ll find me at the Cracker Barrel for the old-fashioned candy they sell (Peanut Chews, Maple Leaves, and a good brand of old-style Almond Brittle are among my favorites) or I scour the internet for the chocolates I can’t find elsewhere (Ice Cubes come to mind) and of course the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in the outlets near me see my face quite frequently because I admittedly covet their chocolate covered strawberries and other decadent goodies.  But I digress. Deliberately so.

Anyway.  While at the dollar store, I stumbled across two types of candy that I would often purchase this time of year for my Great-Aunt Bunny while she was in a nursing home.  You guys may remember Aunt Bunny, I’ve talked about her before. She’s from the West Virginia crew of Mooney girls who tried the patience of their mother and are now undoubtedly livening up the realms of Heaven.

Well, for Christmas, I would send her this huge care package of goodies that included the best kinds of her favorite candy but other treats as well that she wasn’t supposed to have…but no one could take away from her since it was in the form of a present.  This tickled her to no end.  We’re talking a huge box full of stuff, it looked like I was preparing her for a trip through the Serengeti. If it was a trip to be sustained on sugar and junk food that is.  I took my self-imposed obligation seriously and my search for the perfect candies and snacks to include each holiday started early, probably right around this time of year. Which is why seeing the candies at the Dollar General Store hit me so hard I guess.

Aunt Bunny was never crazy about chocolate although I always sent her a bit…one year it was Chocolate Peppermint Penguins and one year it was Buckeyes, always something different.  Mostly her stash was filled with things like Claeys’ Hard Candies of all sorts (licorice, lemon, horehound, rootbeer), old-fashioned Ribbon Candy, a type of old-style hard candy as shown in the photo below, peppermint sticks, Divinity, Maple Leaves, and, because it couldn’t be all sweet-stuff, I’d include pork rinds and the like as an extra tasty treat.  Bless her heart, Aunt Bunny always tried to eat everything immediately, but eventually she had to hoard it and ration it out piece-meal so as to enjoy it longer. Although I don’t think it ever lasted much past the New Year.

I think I enjoyed finding the items to include in her goodie box as much as Aunt Bunny enjoyed eating them.   I won’t be doing it again this year.

And that’s how I ended up a teary-eyed fool at my local dollar store. I’m sure I was a sight.

Strangely enough, I had a dream about Aunt Bunny the next night. She was giving away all of her things. Something she routinely did in life – we couldn’t leave her house on a Sunday afternoon without being burdened down with food, drinks, some knick-knack or another. She never wanted someone to leave empty-handed. At least not us. It became a running joke in my family. I miss that joke. I miss searching for Claeys’ Hard Candies.  And I guess for a while, I’ll be avoiding the Dollar General Store.


hard candy

Dollar Store Trigger


Bunny & Family 1968

Bunny & Family 1968

Ode to a Mischief Maker

This entry is for my Aunt Bunny.  She passed away a couple of weeks ago.  Her “real” name was Blanche but no one ever called her that.  As a matter of fact I remember as a kid when my mother bought Aunt Bunny a washing machine and was giving the salesman the name and address for delivery, I didn’t quite believe her when she said yes, that’s really Aunt Bunny’s name. I still had my doubts.  She was actually my Great-Aunt.  In more ways than one. This month would have marked her 90th birthday.

Aunt Bunny was like a second Mom to my mother.  And as I hear the stories of when my Mom and Dad first moved up here as tender young newlyweds, I realize just how instrumental my Great-Aunt was in keeping my family afloat.  But then I think she did that for a lot of people.  Every Sunday from when I was a little girl to high school we would go visit Aunt Bunny like clockwork and a number of times, I spent the night.

Sleepovers at her house were always weird and exciting at the same time.  She lived in the city in a row-house on the waterfront – before waterfront became cool – and across from a diner where all manner of people could be found…so it was always fascinating for me to hang out of her window at night and listen to the fights, the sirens, the drunk trying to make his way home who happened to be quite musically inclined, and the general flurry of activity in her neighborhood.  Let me tell you, I saw things I would definitely never see in my nice suburban home.

I’m not sure why, but the metal cabinet in her kitchen aka dining room aka sitting room always held a fascination for me.  I loved going through it and seeing what I could find….tins full of buttons, years old political pins (Vote for Wallace!), and gosh knows what all.  I loved that cabinet. When Aunt Bunny moved into a nursing home, she gave me that cabinet and when I looked at it in my own house it just didn’t hold that same fascination….it was as if it were a different cabinet altogether. Taking it out of her home, away from childhood memories, and into the light of day changed it somehow. It made me sad.

She lived smack in the middle of the city, so her backyard was actually just a small swath of concrete.  She did have a raised garden in the corner that had a rose bush in it.  And a turtle.  She had a box turtle that she fed hamburger meat and tomatoes.  I’m not sure how long that turtle lived in that tiny bit of flora, but he was spoiled, I know that.  And how exactly does a turtle even find his way into a place like that?  I never found the answer to that one.

It’s odd when I think of this woman flourishing in a cityscape considering the fact that she was born and bred in the hills of West Virginia.  Coal country.  Mountains, streams, lots of green. The surroundings in which she found herself as a grown woman couldn’t have been a larger contrast to her childhood home.  I often wondered if she was happy surrounded by brick and concrete or if she spent her life missing the open space, the green.  She never said.  At least not to me.

Bunny & Family

Bunny & Family 1968 – City Life

I was raised in the suburbs.  Not exactly the hills of West Virginia but definitely a far cry from the city life.  So any time I stayed at Aunt Bunny’s house, it was thrilling.  I badgered her constantly to give me some freedom and let me wander around.  Okay, now as an aside…this is the same Great-Aunt who came to stay with me when I was caught out in the horseback riding lie.  She wasn’t exactly the kind of person who would let her niece go gallivanting around the city on her own.   Until the day she did.  Finally!  I was allowed to walk to the corner store on my own!  Yay me!!  If memory serves (and there’s no promise there), I might’ve been 10.  And she let me walk to the corner store all by myself. It was only a few blocks away but it was also around the corner which meant I would be out of sight from anyone in the world who knew who I was. Big deal, right? Hell, knowing what I know now as an adult, I don’t think I’d let my own daughter do that if she were the same age. Aunt Bunny was really going out on a limb.

Or so I thought.

Now I truly thought I was old enough to handle the voyage on my lonesome (what ten-year old doesn’t, right??). On top of that, I thought I was getting away with something my Mother would’ve blown her top about.  Even better, right!?  And Aunt Bunny let me keep that illusion, bless her heart. In reality she had enlisted a whole network of spies (she called them neighbors. yeah, right.) who watched me every step of the way from their living room windows. Every invisible check-point I would pass would call in and tell Aunt Bunny that all was quiet on the Western front. Wendy still hasn’t messed up the act of walking down the sidewalk. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had the damn store owner call her up and let her know I was okay.  Another aside…little did I know at the time that while it was the “big, bad city,” Aunt Bunny’s little section of it was really quite tight and the neighbors looked out for each other.

There are a lot of memories wrapped up in that Montford Avenue row-house.  Amazing homemade crab cakes eaten on crackers, and polish sausage wrapped up in a slice of bread with mustard, hyacinths bought at Easter time, and ice tea made out of a powder mix.  My deep, deep regret, as I carry with me regarding several family members, is that I did not spend enough time with her after I grew up.  I should’ve been there more than I was.  Especially at the end.

Aunt Bunny had four sisters including my Grandma Jimmie.  Sadly, they have all passed as well.  Oh and their mother?  None other than Grandma Mooney of the Vinegar Valentines…so the sisters’ personalities were earned honestly.  Eccentric mischief makers come to mind, but that description really does not do them any justice at all.  Suffice it to say that each and every one of those Mooney girls was a real hoot.  Bunny’s departure from this life means she’s back with her four sisters and mother, and I can only imagine how crazy Heaven must’ve been that day with their reunion.  But if anyone can take it, I bet the Lord Almighty can. Still, I hope he has earplugs…and a good sense of humor.

Eternal rest with familiar views of home.