We arrived at my sister's house in a frenzy of noise with car doors slamming, loud helloing, and raucous laughter. When I decided to make the trip to Bertie’s home in New Wilmington in the fall of 2012, I called my granddaughters, Sam (20) and Hannah (16), and Hannah’s best friend, Margot, to travel north on a Saturday morning. Margot is my “almost”-granddaughter because she goes with us on most of our adventures––even family vacations, and is related by love and blood, as her great-great-great grandfather, Dan, and Hannah’s great-great grandmother, Elsie, were brother and sister.
We generally travel as a tribe, and we are definitely not a soft-spoken clan. Though I have to admit that Hannah and Sam are fairly quiet and Margot is only slightly louder, so the majority of the noise probably comes from me.
My sister says that she and I inherited our loud voices from our great grandfather, Sam, because just as his family brought us Margot, they also passed down the loudness gene––a gene that doesn’t come with a volume control.
Sam had a farm to the northeast of where Hulton Road bears off and travels through East Oakmont, right around where the Oakmont East Golf Course was later developed and then eventually bought by the Oakmont Country Club. It’s been said that when Sam spoke in his bellowing voice, his daughter Elsie could hear him on the her farm that extended from about a quarter mile to a mile away. The barn sat where Arby’s is now, and from that vantage point it overlooked the fields that spread out clear to Hulton Road on the north and on the east.
I’m not just loud when I’m around my sister. Years ago when Jim and I were in a store in South Hills Village on the other side of Pittsburgh from where I live, he made me laugh. I’m long past remembering what was funny, but in the midst of my loud and long laughter, suddenly a woman ran up the aisle, grabbed my arm tightly, and breathlessly announced. “I knew it was you! I was clear on the other side of the store when I heard that laugh! I came running just to see if I was right!” It took me a second to realize I had worked with her at Contraves. I had left that workforce several years before, but the memory of my laughter––and I laughed often in that job––lived on for Mary Ann.
I decided to bring some of that noise and laughter to my sister’s life on the fall day of our visit. She and her husband Dave began their move from Wheeling, West Virginia to their new home in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania that same fall, and her life was filled with change and stress. Dave’s father, Jackson, needed help remaining in his four-bedroom brick home on Waugh Avenue. It was from that house he made his daily four-block walk or drive to visit his wife at the Shenango Presbyterian Senior Care home.
Bertie was traveling between her house in Wheeling and the new-to-her-home in the Amish country, and her sense of order and continuity was sorely tested. The place on Waugh Avenue was being deep-cleaned, repaired, and redecorated, while in the Wheeling house, her oldest daughter Carrie, after separating from her husband in August, had moved in with her ten-month old son and almost four-year old daughter.
It is sad when a marriage fails, but when Carrie was pregnant with her first, she called me once to talk about the problems. She asked then, “Aunt Carol, do you think I should leave?”
“Carrie, when you are ready to leave, you will,” was the only answer I could give her. I had no doubt that the marriage would end, as I have become an unwilling expert at failed marriages. I was concerned for the seriousness of her situation, yet I had learned from two disastrous marriages of my own that it takes a long time and repeated emotional insults to reach the decision to leave.
It took four years and the birth of her second child, before Carrie called her father from Springfield, Ohio, and said, “Dad, I need to get a divorce; come and get me and the kids.” In spite of our best wishes and fervent prayers, sometimes a man cannot step up to be the father and husband a family deserves.
My organized and orderly 64-year old sister was now dealing with one home that held a young mother with two babies and a new life to figure out, and two hours north, another home that held an elderly man who had begun his lonely and one-way walk into dementia.
As the girls and I planned our fall trip to cheer Bertie up, I knew I wanted to have lunch at “The Tavern,” a restaurant on Market Street. My son had been a student at Westminster College, and even though he is now 50 years old, I remembered that this little place served Pecan Nut Balls, my favorite dessert.
After the girls and I arrived and toured Bertie’s new home, our group walked up street for lunch. As we strolled along the tree-lined sidewalks of New Wilmington, charm wafted through the air like the leaves that dropped from the trees. The varied architecture of the homes and the clip clop of the horse-drawn Amish buggies as they traveled along Market and Neshannock, the streets that form the main intersection in this town of 2,500 folks, enhanced the appeal. The only thing that would make the town more idyllic would be if Aunt Bee, who used to live in Mayberry on my black and white TV, would step out onto a porch to shake the dust out of a rag rug.
But images of the Andy Griffith Show were overshadowed by the noise that trailed along behind my sister and me as we walked along. The girls followed on our short and lovely stroll to the restaurant, and the talking and laughter continued while we sat at the large round table in the big front window and enjoyed our generously-sized sandwiches. I ordered my favorite tuna salad on white toast with loads of lettuce, as I salivate a little when I see that choice on a menu. My second favorite is a BLT without the T, since I don’t like the texture or taste of tomatoes.
We were groaning as we finished our lunch, and when our waitress asked, “Would you like to order dessert,” everyone said they were too full. All but me. But then none of them knew about Pecan Nut Balls.
I had seen a good-sized nut ball delivered to another table, so I ordered one, plus extra plates for the group. When the waitress brought it out, I divvied it up, and that pecan-covered delicacy was devoured by the five of us. They fell in love. When I asked if anyone wanted more, there were longing looks, so I ordered up another. When that one vanished just as quickly, I suggested a third. The dismissive groans drowned out my desire, so we packed up and headed back down Market Street and turned right on Waugh, with our laughter trailing behind.
I learned laughter from my family, but I learned about Pecan Nut Balls from a waitress at Horne’s Tea Room in downtown Pittsburgh. When my son was a boy, each week I drove him down to the Fulton Building for his trumpet lessons with Anthony Pasquarelli. I parked in the indoor garage at the corner of Sixth Street and Fort Duquesne Boulevard, deposited Mack at his destination, and then my daughter Joy and I walked to Horne’s Department Store at the corner of Penn and Stanwix.
That is where I discovered the Tea Room; a small restaurant that I thought was elegant. The crystal chandeliers set off the Naugahyde banquette that surrounded the perimeter of the room, while the wall sconces created a soft glow. It was there that I first learned to love a nicely-done tuna salad sandwich.
At some point a waitress suggested I try the Pecan Nut Ball and described it as a scoop of vanilla ice cream rolled in toasted pecans and covered with hot fudge sauce. Because of her rave review, I dropped my “no nuts” theory of living and fell deeply in love. I sometimes ordered two nut balls in the same dish, as at $1.40 for a single they were really quite small. Joy had never been fond of chocolate or nuts, and ordered a small scoop of ice cream that always arrived in a metal dish.
That’s how I learned about Pecan Nut Balls, but now I longingly thought about our fall trip to New Wilmington and our dessert at “The Tavern.” Hannah thought about it, too. Joy’s family and I were eating lunch at Ichiban’s in the Waterworks, when Hannah turned to me and said, “We need to visit Aunt Bert and get another Pecan Nut Ball.”
Margot chimed in, “Yay!”
I excitedly said, “I’ve been thinking the same thing myself. Let’s do it.” We picked the following Saturday for the trip, as the next week the girls would be in Band Camp. The boys didn’t want to go, the twins were too little, and my granddaughters Sam and Amanda were at work. When I called to invite them for Saturday, they couldn’t make it because of their mother’s recent serious illness, so I called Bertie, and our plans were set.
It was one of my first excursions with my new hearing aids. There had been signs that something was wrong with my ears. One of the clues occurred when Jim and I were outside working in the yard. We walked out front to discuss what needed to be done with our path. We went across the street so that we could have a better vantage point, and as we stood on the hot asphalt of Maryland Avenue, we talked about the possibilities of extending the path out through the front yard to join up with the cement walk. After several minutes of deliberation and quiet conversation, Jim said, “I’ll go get the landscape rabbit.”
I was puzzled as I turned to him and said curiously and emphatically, “What in the God’s name is a landscape rabbit?”
He patiently looked back at me, peered over the top of his glasses, and said, “That would be landscape FABRIC.”
And I started to laugh. That big braying laugh that Jim loves and most others would prefer not to hear ever again. That laugh that I laughed when I was the temporary bartender at my niece’s outdoor reception when someone said something funny, and I laughed so hard that the other guests came to see the flock of geese that must have landed. That laugh that can’t be stopped. That laugh that tested my bladder out there on the street. The bladder that failed the test, as I felt the water soak my white pants and run down my leg. I watched as the liquid puddled and narrowed and started to roll down the hill that begins right out in front of our house. And as I watched the stream roll over the hot pavement and down that slope, I laughed even harder.
I was glued to that wet spot by my laughter and leaking bladder, until Jim grabbed my hand like I was a small child and led me back across the street, up our driveway, and through the garage. I gained more composure as we walked down the basement steps, through the back basement and over to the washing machine. I finally stopped laughing, and then Jim said something else. Something that he meant to be funny. I don’t remember what it was, but I started to laugh—again. Damn him! I would have sworn that my bladder was empty. It had to be. But it wasn’t. It really wasn’t.
The landscape rabbit was one of the many reasons that led me to know I needed to have hearing aids. My father never got them, even though when he and my sister were going on a car trip, she said something he didn’t hear, and my sister said, “You can’t hear yourself fart,” and their day trip and the fight were on. As I looked through my ancestors, I realized there were others on that family tree that suffered from the same problem, and that the tendrils on those branches had meandered down the trunk and stuffed those leaves right into my own ears—ears that now didn’t hear well.
So on August 17, 2013, at Hannah’s prompting, the girls and I made our second trek to New Wilmington. Along with my excessive jewelry, I was wearing my new hearing aids. It was a lovely day in the lovely town, and we walked again to “The Tavern.” We were clear in our purpose, and we had no need for the pretense of sandwiches for lunch. We all ordered Pecan Nut Balls--one for each of us. As we knew, chocolate, diary, and nuts make for a perfectly balanced meal on the food pyramid.
When we were sated and left the restaurant, Bertie had us stop at her favorite coffee shop so we could meet the people who worked there. We chatted for a while and after we left the cafe, as we walked along Market Street, she asked, “How are your new hearing aids working?”
“Oh, they’re fine. I got them at Sam’s.”
“Yep, it was $1,400 cheaper than getting them at a hearing aid store, and they’re nothing but amplifiers. I figured why not Sam’s. How hard can it be to fit hearing aids?”
We turned down Waugh Avenue and passed the nursing home, when a gray car stopped in the middle of the road. Bertie said, “Oh, that’s my friend Charlene,” as she left the sidewalk and approached the car in the street. The girls and I joined her, and we stood at the passenger window as Bertie introduced us.
Charlene and the girls made conversation, but I was confused by what she was saying. When she asked me what was wrong, I wasn’t sure how to answer, but I finally responded, “I think I look attractive, but I don’t think I look trashy.”
My sister studied on me, squinted her eyes, and said, “What are you talking about?”
“She said she’s looking for that.”
My sister reared back, gave me a stern and disgusted look, and said, “You fool! She said she’s looking for Bodacious Corn!”
And we started to laugh. Yes, that braying laugh that sounds like a donkey or a flock of geese. My sister’s laugh might not be quite as loud, but neither of us is quiet. After minutes of our being unable to talk or respond in a civilized manner, Charlene pleasantly realized that there would be no more conversation and drove off in the midst of it all.
As we laughed, I looked towards Hannah and Margot who had sidled over past the sidewalk and were sitting huddled together on the stone wall that bordered the nursing home parking lot. I think it must have been sometime during the mention of whores, that the girls disassociated themselves from Charlene’s car window and me.
Bertie and I gathered ourselves together and joined the girls for the rest of our walk home. As we got to the next corner, I turned to my sister and said, “Maybe my Sam’s Club hearing aids aren’t working that well after all.” We continued on down the road, roaring with laughter.
I’m sure all of New Wilmington could hear us a mile away. Sam Farren would have been proud.
This poem was written in 1991 when I was laid off from Contraves as the Supervisor of Employee Relations. I had conducted hundreds of layoffs in Pittsburgh and Massachusetts, until it was eventually my turn. On my last day, I posted this poem outside the entrance to the Human Resources offices.
The Last Word
Known for her legs and her laughter and also for walking so fast
when news of her layoff went public – her memories always will last –
of the love and support freely given and feelings so honestly shared.
It made the time less painful to be shown how much others cared.
Told she was fair and trusted – she soon made sense of this mess
and figured her goal was finally met and she was a true success.
No more will she boom ‘round the “compound” and sterile walls of this place.
No more can you tease her and tell her your jokes and see a smile on her face.
As she goes on to life’s next adventure – encrusted with baubles and rings,
she’ll miss all of you and think kindly, but she’ll learn a lot of new things.
And she’ll just hike her skirt slightly higher as she saunters along life’s path –
but she’ll always get in the very last word – not to mention the very last laugh.
As she tells you quite calmly and frankly and speaking straight from the gut,
It should be inscribed on her severance checks – “She never kissed anyone’s butt!”
So she leaves you with love and best wishes and now that we must be apart,
Know that she cares sincerely – and holds you all in her heart.