Under the Mulberry Tree

Some of the happiest, most carefree days of my boyhood were the summer days when my dad, Nippy, dropped me off for a few days of vacation at Grandma and Grand Pap’s home at 715 Worthington Avenue in Versailles Borough. I loved to spend time with my grandparents, and Grandma’s freckled arms wrapped me in rose-scented hugs when I arrived. Aunt Donna, who still lived at home in her late teens and early 20’s until her marriage in 1959, seemed more like my big sister since she was only nine-and-a-half years older than me. I thought of her with a bit of awe—like the cool teenagers I watched on TV every day after school, fast dancing and assigning 1-10 numerical ratings to new records on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Still in the elementary grades, I wondered if I might ever achieve the status of a cool teenager.

From what I could gather, listening to tidbits from my dad and Aunt Jo, my grandparents had a fairly tough life, raising three kids during the Great Depression and through the World War II years. They lived in many houses in the McKeesport area and relocated for a few years to Corona, New York. Grand Pap Joe relocated where he had to in order to find work. Consequently, they were lifelong renters rather than homeowners. On Worthington Avenue they finally settled into a friendly and peaceful neighborhood, just a block away from the woods where my grandfather loved to walk.

He took Cousin Bobby Campbell and me for many walks into those woods where we could hear the music of birds and smell the aura of nature. Grand Pap’s woods were too close to a residential neighborhood to carry his .22 caliber rifle on our walks. Bobby and I made him promise to take us hunting during small game season in the fall. I recall a time when I accompanied Grand Pap for a day of small game hunting. I had no desire to hunt or shoot a rifle, but I loved crunching over the fallen leaves with him. I must have been looking around, taking my eyes off Grand Pap, when he saw an opportunity to pull a stunt. He had hidden himself behind a large tree trunk where I could not see him. I began to call out, “Grand Pap . . . Grand Pap . . . Grand Pap, voice quavering more each time I called for him. Finally, he stepped out into my line of sight as I was on the verge of tears . . .

. . .

The house on Worthington was an older frame duplex, covered with white aluminum siding, with a large covered, ground-level front porch. They were fortunate to have a couple their age—mid 50’s or a bit older, living in the other half of the structure. There was no garage for Grand Pap Joe’s ’54 Chevy, but they enjoyed maintaining a beautiful yard—a small plot in front of the porch, trailing alongside of the house and extending beyond the side porch another 40 feet in back. Perhaps the best feature of the yard was the canvas hammock in a steel framework that provided a perfect spot for counting stars in the evening sky.

Grandma loved working outside with the soil, planting and maintaining assorted perennials—hostas, buttercups, azaleas, and rose bushes, to name a few—along the length of the side yard. By the mid-1960’s, my high school years, her coronary artery disease made it difficult for Grandma to do as much, but the perennial garden had matured by then and survived with a little watering and weeding.

In addition to my vacation days there, I can recall family picnics in that lovely yard where we ate barbecued chicken, burgers, and hot dogs from the charcoal grill, along with pickled beets and eggs, homemade potato and macaroni salads, topped off with Grandma’s homemade apple and peach pies. Grand Pap and my dad helped Cousin Bobby and me to set up a badminton net so that picnickers could swat the birdie around to work up an appetite.

In addition to the Bowmans next door, my grandparents became close friends with Andy and Mary Mayernik. Andy worked as an engineer at the Christy Park Works of U.S. Steel, where Grand Pap was a foreman. The Mayerniks’ beautiful large white and green house, just three doors up the street, sported a stylish, wrap-around front porch and a yard the size of an orchard. At that time a new Catholic parish was being established in Versailles Borough, serving parishioners there and from the Christy Park section of McKeesport. A school was built first and Masses were conducted in the basement of the school, which served as the church for as long as I can remember. My grandparents loved the younger priest who served them, Father Meenan, and they, along with the Mayerniks, were active members of the new congregation. Both Andy and Grand Pap Joe served as ushers; Mary and Grandma served on the women’s guild.

Grandma Ann was more enthusiastic about her Catholic faith than my mother, who had dutifully converted from a broader Christian background to Catholicism when she married. In those times the Catholic Mass was far less participatory than it is today, and most of the music was sung in Latin by a choir. My mother missed singing the traditional Protestant hymns, like “The Old Rugged Cross,” that her Aunt Jewel had played on the piano during her childhood.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed going to St. Denis parish on Sunday morning with my grandparents during my vacations with them. (Even today, while I have a home parish, I tend to church hop to experience a variety of priests and settings.)

The Mayerniks had two boys, so I was blessed with playmates during my vacations in Versailles. Paul was my age and David a few years younger. Their yard was large enough to hit baseballs and throw a football around. They always made me feel welcome. Sometimes Cousin Bobby and I vacationed at Grandma and Grand Pap’s at the same time. We always looked forward to taking a drive with Grand Pap Joe up the Yough (Youghiogheny) River for a bit of evening fishing near Sutersville or for daytime fishing out at Barnes Lake in North Huntingdon. Bobby’s dad, Uncle Don, and my dad mainly fished when the clan went to Erie on vacation.

Grand Pap Joe did some small game hunting—rabbits and squirrels mostly—but he never hunted deer, at least not that I know of. One time Grandma made a rabbit stew. I remember the thickened tomato broth with carrots, celery, and potatoes, along with some nice chunks of pink meat that reminded me of tender chicken thigh meat or breast. Grandma’s kitchen was not rich, but always full of flavor.

Much to Grand Pap Joe’s displeasure, Grandma always kept a cat around the house. These were cats that strayed into the neighborhood and worked their way into her heart. My grandmother’s diminutive 5’ frame, crowned with auburn hair, held a big heart for stray cats. I often think of her Tom and Tibby when I play with my own two black and whites.

Once in a while I got into some devilment at my grandparents’ house. On one of those occasions, Aunt Donna had been showing me some of her make-up tricks that transformed her into a cool teenager when she went out on a date or just to hang out with those other cool teenagers I so admired. Later that same afternoon, I discovered her napping in her bedroom. Spotting an eyebrow pencil on the dresser, I reached for it carefully and began drawing dark brown Picasso lines all over her face with a touch light enough that she did not fully awaken. After I was well into my artistic creation, a surprised Aunt Donna did wake, took one look in the mirror, and screamed, “What did you do, David Knoepfle?! Wait ‘til I catch you, you little brat!” Seeing how upset she was, I high-tailed it out of that room and down the steps into the kitchen, my clown-faced aunt hot on my tail. We were both screaming until Grandma came to my rescue and, to my delight, scolded Aunt Donna for chasing and picking on “poor little David.”

I believe I did offer to help clean the handiwork off my aunt’s face, but she soon realized that she could get it done faster and better without the help of Brat-Boy. In those days Aunt Donna probably raised the roof in applause when Nippy showed up to take me home. (I think she enjoys my visits to her home in West Homestead a lot more today, almost six decades later.)

. . .

One image sparkles from my vacation days on Worthington Avenue. On picture-perfect mornings, when the mulberries were ripe, Grandma liked to treat me to a breakfast in her side yard at a little metal table positioned under the mulberry tree. On a July morning we could reach up to low hanging branches and pull off the reddish-purple berries that tasted like nuggets of nectar. I wish I could remember everything that we talked about during those mulberry tree breakfasts. I remember my grandmother as loving and nurturing. She always inquired about my school days and if I had managed to make straight A’s on my last report card. As the matriarch of our extended family, she shared family news with me as she did with other family members . . .

. . .

[Summer, 1958]

While Grandma makes another trip inside for our glasses of tomato juice, I notice sunlight sparkling over droplets of dew that still moistens the morning grass. A robin rustles through the tree branches above us. Always anxious to share family news, when she returns with the juice, Grandma tells me about relatives from Florida who will be visiting Pennsylvania in a few weeks.

This is great news. I mentally scan the family tree as she talks. Grand Pap Joe’s sister, Mary, and her husband, Jack Hamill, and the families of their two daughters, cousins of my dad, have all lived in the same Orlando, Florida, neighborhood since they migrated from New York to the Sunshine State two decades earlier. Julette is a stay-at-home mom, and Eddie Maynard, who works for NASA at Cape Canaveral, is her husband. Artie Fearn is Anna Margaret’s husband. She is a hospital nurse and homemaker.

“Wow, Grandma,” I say. “Where will they stay?”

“They’ll stay in a motel. Julette’s working on that now. They want to spend some time at the Finger Lakes in New York State, too. They’ll be in this area for maybe four or five days.

“Will we get to go to Kennywood?”

“Maybe.  Julette’s and Anna Margaret’s kids would love that.”

“Oh, I hope so. I didn’t get to ride the Rotor at the school picnic ‘cause of the thunder storm.”

“We’ll have a picnic here in the yard on that first Sunday in August. I’ll have to let your mother and your Aunt Jo know about that real soon . . . It’s hard to know just when to call your mother. I know she’s still very upset with your daddy.”

“Yeah, when she’s in one of her moods . . .”

“I’d like to think that I can be the mother that she never had, but I know it’s hard for her to accept that . . . But I am so happy that your daddy got the job with Menzie Dairy. That should help.”

“Yeah, Grandma. And Daddy promised to take me out on his milk route with him sometime this summer. I can hardly wait! Oh, will we have some of your homemade potato salad at the picnic? Yum, yum!”

“Yes, I suppose. And don’t forget my peach pie, David. I’ll put the lattice crust on top the way you like it.”

After breakfast we picked the sweet purple berries for Grandma’s mulberry jam . . .

. . .

This was surely my home away from home. And I remember the cool, moist morning air and the chirping birds at those summer breakfasts under the mulberry tree.

By | 2017-05-17T15:51:22+00:00 April 11th, 2017|Memoir Musings|Comments Off on Under the Mulberry Tree