An Open Home

After we moved into our first house, I can recall few times when someone wasn’t staying with us. Sometimes they were kin, sometimes people I hardly knew. When Uncle Jim Bishop had polio in the 1950s Lorene and the kids stayed with us for weeks. I remember different charities delivering loads of toys or clothes for them. Mom loved having people around. We only had three bedrooms at that time, but we all slept somewhere.

Around 1957, Mom’s brother, Harold Westbrook, broke his leg and it became too difficult for my great-grandmother, Lula Ritter, to handle; so Mom invited him to come stay with us. He had three horses, and offered to bring one if my folks could find a place to keep it. Of course, Don and I thought it was a done-deal. Bring it on! We had visions of a corral in our back yard (probably about 70×50 feet at best). We were disappointed about the lost opportunity, but enthusiastically welcomed Uncle Harold to come live with us.

Most immediately, it meant expanding our tiny four-room house. Dad and Harold added a bedroom and an utility/TV room. Don & I continued to share our bunk bed, though he frequently ended up in Uncle Harold’s bed.

Shortly after Uncle Harold came to Ohio to live with us, he laid down on the floor and let Don and I shave him. We were using a regular safety razor and had nicked up his face pretty bad by the time were done. He didn’t complain a bit; in fact he seemed to rather enjoy the experience.

Uncle Harold and Dad bought a dump truck together. They hired a driver to haul stones, dirt and asphalt for small, contracted jobs. Whenever he was unemployed, Dad drove the truck. They split the income into thirds, with the driver getting a third, a third covering expenses, with Harold & Dad splitting the remainder. My first experience driving was in that dump truck out at the Bishop’s farm.

When Don or I were sitting in his chair, Harold would say, “Trade places with me, boy.” Of Harold Westbrook 1957course, he was standing, so it didn’t sound like a very attractive proposition. He also introduced us to pizza. When he brought our first one home, and Mom put a piece on my plate, I quickly shoved it across the table, spurting, “I don’t want any of those goose-gut goodies.” It looked pretty gross to me at the time.

Uncle Harold quickly found work at Fritchie Asphalt & Paving Co., and soon became a supervisor. We loved riding on graders or rollers with him. I can still smell the kerosene scent of his pick-up. Sometimes Don or I would make the evening rounds with him, as he had to light the lanterns at their construction sites. One job benefit was our street got plowed early after snowstorms.

Uncle Harold bought four baseball mitts, for himself, Dad, Don and me. That seemed really special at the time. New toys were pretty rare, usually only at Christmas and birthdays. Harold was a large man, approximately 6’ 5” and over 400 pounds. When he died they had to order a special oversize casket. Don and I shared may fond memories of the time Uncle Harold lived with us.

When tragedy happened, Mom was at her best, and not just for the short-haul. My cousins Bruce Partin & Penny Partin stayed with us for many months. Others regularly came and went. When Jan’s father was invited to spend nine months at Harvard on a sabbatical from Gulf Oil, his Mom, Cora Davis, went to live in a nursing home. A couple months later, on the way to the Outer Banks, we stopped to visit her. She was so miserable, alone with no one to visit her. I immediately called Mom and asked her if she would be interested in taking in grandma. I was not the least bit surprised when Mom said, “Sure, bring her.” We stopped on the way back to Ohio and picked up Grandma Davis.Cora Davis, Matt & Brett

Grandma Davis loved baseball, and Jan has many fond memories of watching the Pittsburgh Pirates with her grandmother on the television. Cora was frail and small, but mentally very sharp. The doctor suggested she would benefit from drinking one beer each day. My mother typically didn’t tolerate booze in the house, but grandma’s “medicinal” beer was an exception.

Cora Davis had worked as a seamstress in earlier years, as had my mother. When arthritis gnarled her hands, she covered many wire clothes hangers with yarn and gave them as gifts. We still have many of those hanging in our closets.

She lived with my parents for about a year, until Mom was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and Grandma Davis went to live with her sister Dolpha White in Kansas. (We did take the boys to Kansas to visit her the following summer.)

When I called Dr. Kidd to ask about Mom’s condition, he said it was pretty bad and there wasn’t much they could do. Maybe she had six months to live. I made some calls and we made an appointment at the Henry Ford Hospital in Ann Arbor. That doctor said, “We can operate.” They did, and she lost her voice for about six months, and could only whisper. She fully recovered and lived a couple more decades. A resilient woman, she was!

Mom’s open-house policy continued through the rest of her life. When Dad’s mother, Ida Extine, became extremely ill and had to have a leg amputated, she moved in with Mom & Dad. She stayed in a hospital bed in the dining room until she died many months later.