My Virtual and Virtuous Grandfather

23 Jan

Grandpa Mapes

Picture of John P. Mapes, my paternal grandfather

Picture of John P. Mapes in a buggy. I don’t think this was a handsleigh.

Grandpa in a Buggy

Grandpa's work horses

Grandpa’s work horses

Christmas at the Old House

Christmas at the Old House. I’m next to my grandfather.

Barth and Kathy at the Old House

Barth and I at the Old House.

Late at night I sometimes find myself searching the Net for my grandfather. I also play Words with Friends on Facebook, check my two emails for new messages, and work on my writing–both my blog and my short story cycle. I tell you this in part so you understand that I am a “normal” user of technology, not some weird person who has an obsession with her grandfather. One time I inserted his name and I came up with the Agricultural Bulletin for December 1918 that included the official list for the Sullivan County Pomona Grange with him as secretary. The Grange was a farmers’ organization and operated something like a medieval guild. Just that quick sighting was enough to get me started searching for more material. It was as though traces of him were still left to track down.

Part of my curiosity about my grandfather derives from the fact that I never felt I knew him. After my Grandma Lela died and the farm house was demolished, he moved to the new ranch style house they had built on what was left of the rest of the property, next to my aunt and uncle. It was roomier and more impressive than my parents’ ranch style, although when I first saw the house it was raining heavily and was surrounded by a sea of red mud from the red shale in the area. He had had no time to plant grass. The older two-story house had been prettier, but no one was building old farm houses anymore. And so here he was alone, in the house that he and Grandma had planned, on one level.

The kitchen, with its Lazy Susan–all the rage at the time, was stocked with several main items: bread, strawberry jam, Special K, and milk. There were usually sundry other items. He was a single man now and he often ate out. I became a confirmed connoisseur of strawberry jam. On the new kitchen table with its formica top lay The New York Daily News with its lurid stories and sports reporting, a pipe, a pack of cigarettes, and an ashtray–all the requirements needed for a lonely widower to pass the day.

When he sat down at the table with my father it was as though the floodgates had burst–he talked and talked and talked and talked–to my Dad. I would lean in for the welcome kiss and then head for the living room where my brother and I watched TV and took apart the bookcase, trying on the stereoptic glasses and sifting through the old games in the drawers below the bookcase, including the large bag of marbles with its shooter that my father later identified as his. We came to know our grandfather by sifting through the things in his house and by listening, but we seldom had long conversations with him. I sometimes snuck Sucrets from his bedroom, partly because they belonged to him.

In our family’s verbal history, he was an only child who was closer to his mother, but both parents were very focussed on him. The comments that are often made about only children being high achievers were true of him. He was a very accomplished person and taught my father to do all the kinds of tasks that were associated then with a dairy farm, including building fences, cutting rake, taking care of the work horses, milking the cows, chopping ice, and so on. Grandpa kept a ledger, a practice that my father carried into his own adulthood. He also worked on the side as an insurance man. Dad said that both his parents were intelligent, but his father was “unusual,” and knew how to do many things. He also took the Short Course at Cornell in 1914. The fact that he did well in school, was said to be partly due to his mother’s genetics. It is my great-grandmother’s copy of Jane Eyre that I treasure with its four-leaf clover tucked inside. His mother had been educated at a normal school (a normal school was the name for a school that trained high school students to be teachers), whereas his father hadn’t made it through high school. That difference in education may have made a bigger difference in how the two parents came across than their natural abilities.

When I was trolling through the Internet, the earliest entry where I encountered him in a narrative was in a report of the time he fell off a handsleigh. The February 6, 1914 edition of the Republican Watchman carries an article entitled “Head Cut While Coasting” with the subheading: “John Mapes Thrown from Handsleigh on Sunday.” From my calculations of the newspaper date and his birth and death dates, I figure that he was twenty at the time of the accident. The five boys had planned to coast down the slippery road from Monticello, New York to Middletown but my grandfather was unlucky: “The hill is very steep and when half way down the sleigh was traveling at more than 40 miles an hour. Mapes was pitched head first down the hill, his face and head scraping against the crust for a distance of 50 feet. Several pieces of skin were gouged from the face and a large gash cut over the eyes.” For some reason I never heard this story and my connecting with his younger self makes me feel in a small way that he is still alive there, bleeding on that slope. He was said to be with four companions, including Ralph Carpenter. Ralph was a first cousin, but it was Ralph’s sister, Clara, that Grandpa was said to be the closest to of his cousins. Probably the racing they were doing was considered too dangerous for her. After he died, we found pictures of him with his girlfriends, which would have been from the same part of his life, but didn’t keep most of them because we didn’t know who they were. We also have a picture of him when he was in the army, but this one accident tells me more about him than those pictures do.

In his next adventure, “John Mapes Stunned by Lightning Under Tree,” he has survived being struck by lightning. He is thirty-three or thirty-four in my calculations. I can’t be exact because the copied microfiche that I found online identifies the years represented as being the 1927-1928 issues of the Republican Watchman. He is married and the father of two boys. My father would have been two or three at this point and his brother would have been five years older. Grandpa is working on a nearby farm to his parents’ place called the Decker farm, when a storm comes up and he runs for cover under the nearest tree, which as we all know is exactly the wrong thing to do. At this point I’m starting to wonder how he survived to meet his grandchildren. The story is told as follows: “Mapes who lives on a farm about a mile from here, was reaping oats on the Decker Farm on the Sackett Lake Road, when it started to rain. The tree offered a good place of protection from the storm. He stepped under the tree and was about to light his pipe when he was knocked to the ground. That was all he could remember until he awoke sometime later.” I can see him lighting his pipe because I watched him do it many times. Like Christ he succumbed at thirty-three, only to rise again. My brother remembers being told of an incident where Grandpa was struck by lightning and several cows died, and he thought maybe it was a separate event, but that is unlikely. One couldn’t possibly survive being struck by lightning twice.

His mother’s death is the occasion of the obituary entitled “Mrs. Mapes Dies in Hospital Tuesday.” According to the write-up which appeared three days after her death, a death that took place September 15, 1931, Grandpa came to her aid during the night: “Saturday night her son, John, was awakened by her moanings and upon entering her bedroom found her suffering from a severe pain in the region of her heart.” After several days in the hospital, “The pain returned Tuesday morning and she gradually passed out, claiming her reward for good citizenship and right living.” The obituary is much more intimate than those we have become accustomed to and indicates the closeness in the relationship of mother and son.

A favorite personal memory of being with my grandfather is the time he and I drove to the hunting shack where all the men went during hunting season. It was very unusual for me to be alone with him, which is probably why I considered the experience to be so significant. He was very quiet but that didn’t matter to me. My father said that his father never really cared much for hunting, but he did enjoy the company of the other men. But on that day I was his special companion. The moment I remember the most is when he gave me a stick of his Juicy Fruit gum. I really savored it. A stick of gum has never tasted better to me than that one did.

3 Responses to “My Virtual and Virtuous Grandfather”

  1. Reblogged this on ithacalansing and commented:

    I found some technical errors, which is part of the reason I am sending my post out once more.

  2. Martha Wallen January 25, 2014 at 5:36 pm #

    It’s a nice picture of him. I can relate to wanting to know any tiny detail about a grandfather, especially one who was so accomplished and mysterious. You’re lucky he lived in a small town and can be found via a search.

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