(“Grampop” was exactly what we always called him. Not “Grandpop,” not “Granddad,” not the Japanese “O-Tosan.” When we are children, we apply childish names to the adults around us, and we continue to use those names even after we become adults ourselves. To one of my granddaughters, I will forever be “Meatball Poppy,” but how she came up with that name is a long story.)
My maternal grandfather was one of the early residents of East Lansdowne, moving from Philadelphia to the suburbs while he was still a young man, literally building his house with his own hands while he was also working at the Setson Hat factory in Philadelphia. The house was on Melrose Avenue, across the street and a few houses away from the grade school. Early photos show vacant lots surrounding his house. In the background of some of those old photos, you can see the original grade school on Emerson Avenue that later burned down and was replaced with a new school in 1944. Across the street you can see across the empty lots all the way to the support buildings of the Lutheran Church three blocks away on Lewis Avenue where his whole family received their religious education.
(I have always thought watching the first school’s fire from my parents’ bedroom window was my earliest memory, but in my memory, I am seeing myself at the window from the bedroom doorway. I have since learned this movie-like view proves that it is only a memory of a memory. A real memory would be of what I actually saw: the fire engines and the flashing lights (the fire was at night), and maybe someone running past the window. Somewhere along the way, I forgot the actual scene and made up the movie version of how it must have happened.) My real first memory is probably of Dotty Dreyer falling off her chair in Sunday School and laughing. It was my first day there, and she relieved the tension. At least, I could stay on my chair.)
The professionally hand-tinted photo above was taken from the street at the end of his driveway, which was only two gravel strips leading to the detached garage in back. The side-yard was the location for photos of all the family milestones: graduations, introduction of eventual spouses, weddings, and grandchildren. The steps were a convenient prop for arranging groups of people, but most were simply lined up along the side pavement leading to the backyard. The front yard, deep in shadow, was never used. (I still have the folding Kodak used to take many of the photos. The fastest shutter speed was 1/100 second, which is why everyone had to “Hold it!.” Wide open, the lens aperture was f/6.3.)
The trellis in front was only there for a few years, and is convenient for dating many old photos.
Grampop said he only hired one helper to build the house, and that was to lay the foundation. (I assume a steam shovel and truck were hired to dig the basement.) My grandmother said the living room was his workshop for a long time while the family lived in the rest of the house. He once told me he put gas pipes in the walls for lighting in case this new electricity thing didn’t work out. He was no electrician, and I remember the basement strung with a spider-web of extension cords plugged into each other. He buried the water pipes in the concrete basement floor to keep the water cold, against advice not to. He once proudly told me they never gave him any trouble over all of those years. He could tell me the exact bargain price he paid for the window with the diamond-shaped panes of frosted glass, mounted in the wall by the landing of the stairs to the second-floor bedrooms.
The basement had a toilet in a crude plywood cubicle no larger than a closet. The washing machine and laundry tubs were down there, and Grampop said he added the toilet later because the sound of the running water made Gramom need to go.
The building materials were delivered to the railroad spur behind Hirst Avenue, one block over. When I look at the photo of the house, I think of him carrying up a ladder every tile, every shingle, every 2 x 4, every piece of glass.
He later told me he made his house from the same plans as his next-door neighbor, Mr. Swigler. The houses had different details, and I had never noticed their similarity. These two young, second-generation German guys, Giebler and Swigler, had moved out to the suburbs together and built their homes side-by-side from one set of plans. This was possible because the Red Arrow bus line ran close by and took them to the 69th Street Terminal where the El continued their journey into Philadelphia and their day jobs.
Grampop raised four daughters and one son in that house. (The reason he moved from West Philadelphia, he said, was that a seaman’s home opened nearby. With four daughters, he thought that was too close.) After the children were grown, his wife’s spinster sister moved into a vacant bedroom and was a surrogate mother for all of his grandchildren. My own parents socialized with friends almost every Friday and Saturday night, and I knew no other baby-sitter.
Skip ahead some 50 years and he was living alone in the house. My grandmother and her sister had died, and, of course, his children had grown up and moved out. The Swiglers were gone, their house occupied by their adult daughter and her husband. Hannah Swigler was now Hannah Bowman, a fireman’s wife. But two of Grampop’s daughters, both now single, visited him each weekend and left meals for him to eat during the week.
Eventually, the house was sold and he was placed in a nursing home in Moorestown, NJ, to be closer to my aunts. When I visited him there, I found him sitting in the sun room, dressed in his usual suit and tie, all alone in a line of rocking chairs facing the windows. He showed me his tiny room with just a bed and a bureau. “That’s all we really need in the end,” he laughed with forced cheerfulness. At least, I think he laughed. He was deaf and had a barking, hysterical laugh that was hard to tell from a cry of despair.
(He would be glad to know I wrote this. Gramom, maybe not so much, especially about the toilet in the basement. But everyone said I was her favorite and could do no wrong in her eyes.)