As even a casual reader of this blog must realize, UJ and I don’t agree on many (if any) political issues, but I do think we would agree on this proposition: Gramma Neal was an influential person in our lives, and a lot of fun to be around, besides.
Maude Brown was born on August 5, 1899, somewhere in Canada. At an early age she moved to Akron, Ohio with her family, which included her brother David and sisters Elizabeth and Catherine. In the 1920s she was working at the “Auto Club” when she met Gilbert Neal, an enterprising, up-and-coming officer of the Firestone Bank. They married, had two children — my mother Agnes and my uncle Gilbert — and were happily married for 60 years, until Gramma had a stroke and died in 1988, at the ripe age of 89. Those are the objective facts but, as is so often the case, they really don’t say much that is meaningful about a person or why they were significant to other people’s lives.
I love the picture of Gramma that I have posted with this entry, because it captures her precisely as I remember her — wearing a “suit” with a jacket and the ever-present brooch, her hair dyed an improbably deep black, wearing glasses and an impish grin, with a twinkle in her eyes. The grin and the twinkle were crucial characteristics, because Gramma was someone who liked have a good laugh — although in her case is was more of a snorted, high-pitched “Hinh!” Whether it was the old women we overheard referring to themselves as “girls,” or a kidding comment she made about Grampa’s ever-present saggy, baggy grey pants, she was eager to find something funny in everyday life. And she was willing to have a laugh at her own expense, too. A stout woman, one of her favorite stories was about a trip to Ireland that she and Grampa took after his retirement, when an Irish hansom driver, struggling to hoist Gramma into a horse-drawn carriage, said she was “beef to the heels like a Mullingar heifer.”
She liked to eat lunch at restaurants. She never learned to drive. She carried enormous amounts of cash in her purse, which she would often distribute to whichever grandchildren happened to be in the vicinity. She let my sisters roughly comb her hair for hours. She loved to play cards, but never learned to shuffle, and would approximate that process by splitting the deck, placing one half atop the other, and then forcing the top half into the bottom and repeating that process once or twice. She took a nap every day. She enjoyed a stiff drink of bourbon on the rocks now and then. She liked golf — although she never broke 100 — and played with a wooden shafted “driving iron” that never hit a ball more than 4 feet off the ground and a wooden shafted putter. She had an encyclopedic memory for poetry and could recite for hours, whether it was the verse that began “At 17 he meets a girl” or a poem she wrote as a girl about Akron, home of the “famous Silvertown tread.” When UJ and I were kids we frequently stayed at Gramma and Grampa’s house, went to ball games and dinners with them, and traveled with them to Niagara Falls, Ocean City, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and places throughout Ohio, and we always had a wonderful time, even though she insisted that we wear suits and sport coats and, in some instance, fedoras and black raincoats like junior G-men.
Like anyone else, Gramma had her negative qualities. She could be judgmental and was capable of bearing a grudge like no one else — among others, she had a mysterious feud with a woman named Mrs. Laughlin that always seemed ready to erupt into open warfare at any moment — and she had a tendency to remember and then recount chilling stories at inopportune moments. When UJ and I were little, she and Grampa would take us to a place near Akron called “Kiddieland”, where she would ride on the rides with UJ and I would ride with Grampa. While Grampa and I would be admiring the view from the top of the Ferris Wheel, she would be clutching UJ close and telling him about the unlucky youngster who stood on a ride at the wrong moment and had his head chopped off. With that deep-seated memory lurking in the unconscious, UJ probably has never really been fully comfortable at amusement parks since.
What else can I say? She was our grandmother, we felt safe, warm, happy, and loved when we were with her, and we loved her back, fiercely and unconditionally. She was a fine woman who was wonderful fun to be around and even now, 21 years after her death, I remember her distinctly and with great fondness. Happy 110th birthday, Gramma!