In His Hand

April 3, 2008

(Offered today is a piece I wrote in 2001 for a family history project that has languished for a long time. The narrow column of this WordPress design is not as amenable to the large pictures as was the wide page size of the style I was publishing in then. But I like the piece, and the theme of NaBloPoMo April ’08 seems to demand that I get it out and make it available. If you’ve been reading me a long time, you’ve seen this before. Thank you all for reading so much, so often.)

Michael P. Dwyer, c. 1901July 11, 2001

My maternal grandfather, Michael Patrick Dwyer, is pictured at left probably at the time of his wedding in 1901. He was born in 1864, one of ten or so children of impoverished Irish immigrants. He left school at ten to become a slag picker in the coal fields of Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania. Bright and energetic, he educated himself, read widely, and in his mid-twenties passed the government examination that made him a mail carrier.  It was his labor that supported his widowed mother and his siblings, including the seminary training of his brother Will, who died of consumption two months short of ordination.  By the time he was in his thirties, Mike was secure by coal region standards, and he was able to marry and start his own family.

He married Margaret Waters, a woman nearly fourteen years younger than he. Their wedding took place in September of 1901, and part of their wedding trip was spent watching President McKinley’s funeral train pass through Niagara Falls. Despite having this as a central honeymoon memory, their union was happy, producing three children, of whom Rose, the youngest and second daughter, became my mother.

Michael P. Dwyer at about 75Rose adored her father, and anything I know of him I know from her. He is pictured here a few months before he died in 1940. Not long after that my mother had to leave a showing of the popular Academy Award winning movie Gone With the Wind because Scarlett O’Hara’s father reminded her too much of her own. I wasn’t born until 1947, and from the moment she knew she was pregnant, my mother was determined to name her child Michael, to honor him. When I turned out to be a girl, she called me Michael anyway, switching to her mother’s name only after friends implored her to think the matter through.

Thus my maternal grandfather is a shadowy figure, an idea rather than a person. Nevertheless, I have something in his hand, a postcard he sent my mother on September 4, 1940. The message, which is written in pencil, reads, “Dear Rose, We came home last night. Mother had got through with what She wanted to do for Mary and we brought Eddie up. John is down helping Jim on the lot, and Mary is in the store. Mother and Eddie is gone to the show this afternoon. Hoping you will have a nice week end I remain as ever, Your Dad.”

Some things I know for facts, others I can deduce. September 4 was a Wednesday that year. I suspect the picture was taken the previous weekend, which was the Labor Day weekend. I have another which shows my grandparents and other relatives along with my mother, gathered around her new car, a black 1939 Chrysler. My grandfather is wearing the same suit, quite an outfit for a sunny summer day. My mother remarked once that she had seen her father only once without his vest and his collar in place. Mary is their older daughter. She and her husband, Jim, live in Summit Hill, a small town about twenty miles east of Mahanoy City. They operate a small general store. I do not know who John is nor what “helping Jim on the lot” might entail. Eddie is Mary and Jim’s three-year-old son. The card is addressed to my mother in Harrisburg, the capital city where she has been living for four years.

Old PostcardThe postcard is an unremarkable document. It’s a standard post office issue, prestamped with one cent postage (a green engraving bearing a portrait of Thomas Jefferson). I found it among the cartons of unsorted memorabilia I acquired after my father died, and for a long time I wondered why my mother bothered to keep it. It was several years before it dawned on me — this was the last thing she had of her father.

Although I live by the written word, I have not had occasion to exchange many letters with members of my family. I attended college only forty miles from my home town, my sister a different school ninety miles away. By then, of course, there was the telephone, and more cars to travel over better roads, and we never spent long periods apart. I do have one letter from my father, sent in the summer of 1972 to Duke University, where I was studying Shakespeare. It’s a letter not unlike the postcard in that it doesn’t say very much, certainly nothing of lasting significance. It is remarkable only for the fact that he has spelled my name wrong, writing “Margie” for “Margy” (which, if you please, is pronounced with a hard g), an understandable mistake for one who had certainly never seen my nickname written down.

We have e-mail now, of course, and after I finish this piece I will compose such a note to my daughter, enjoying two weeks at camp. I’ve urged her father to write something as well. It won’t be in his hand, but I know she saves these missives, which the camp staff print out and distribute each morning, all the electronic routing headers intact. In this regard e-mails are even less aesthetically pleasing than a yellowed penny postcard. But what they represent is invaluable.

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