Pittsburgh Years

Endings

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T

hese two confident, determined and quintessentially Midwestern young people, only a year or so after these pictures were taken, gave me quite a generous dosing of nature, and afterwards only a so-so Text Box:   
William Valentine (Bud) Goetsch & Anna Marshall
amount of nurture:  plenty of love, and abundant examples of level-headedness; certainly the best combination of these two qualities that might have been applied.  Though, as I age, I occasionally question whether or not a little more pressure might have improved the boy, I intuitively understand that it would not have.  In all the stresses and turmoil that a normal life involves, I can only think that I had a very good start, and that any lack of application on my part, was on my part.  I always had the feeling that I could do anything I put my mind to.  This freedom, it seems to me now, has become an increasingly scarce commodity.

 

M

y mother, Anna Marshall, of whom I’ve written little here, was the light of my early life.  She was a traditional housewife when I was growing up, but that tells only part of the story; she was an unusual woman for her time.  Born in 1903, thus a young woman in the Roaring Twenties, she graduated from Northwestern University, in its School of Nursing; and from what I can tell she managed to do a little roaring too.  She was an unusually modern woman, one of the first to test the strictures on women which had been in place for centuries.  I have written of her earlier here.

The reason she is largely absent from these pages is that as I grew older my father came more and more to the center of my life and the bright feelings that I still have for her have been encrusted over.  This seems to me normal.  I still recall these feelings strongly, though only in odd moments when I am somehow reminded of her, perhaps by a particular mannerism, look or gesture, of one of my daughter’s, or when occasionally I happen to notice their consistent competence.  Any of these little things, hardly noticeable to anyone else, might, for me, act as a trigger, an instantaneous index to my, by now, gargantuan cerebral database, and I will be transported back to those intense feelings for her in a nanosecond, but only for a moment.

Her memory has simply become more abstracted but, for all that, there is nothing approaching what a boy feels for his mother.  I once fought another boy, a friend, for saying something I didn’t like about my mother.  If you had known me well then, you would understand that I rarely or never fought, in large part because, a little wimpy, I was consistently beaten-up in such encounters, but this time, arms flailing, rage surging uncontrollably, I went at him.

In California my parents had moved to a small apartment after they had become too decrepit to live any longer on the Bugeye—they couldn’t afford docking fees so they’d had to anchor-out and fetch their groceries to the boat in a dinghy.  It seems to me that the boat was at that time anchored somewhere in the estuary at Alameda.  But eventually, in spite of the boat’s amenities, just getting-by there became increasingly difficult for them.  My mother developed diabetes and then one small thing after another.  She told me once that she didn’t want a live too much longer; these little things were, little by little, breaking her down; she also mentioned to me once that life was just too different now, she no longer felt “at home” in the world.

At that point my father was no longer able to cope with her condition.  She entered a nursing facility, my father visiting her regularly in their beat-up but still functioning—and very aptly named Plymouth Valiant which had given a great deal of service since 1959 when it had been bought shiny-new; it now showed the same age signs that they did.

The nursing home, if that’s what it could be called, was subsidized by the State.  She told me once that she had become addicted to the drugs they gave her and no longer felt much like living.  My dad said that they didn’t treat her with much respect and he encouraged me to come out to visit, thinking that might buck her up a little (his words exactly).  When I got there it seemed a perfectly normal facility; one can’t see much as a short-term outsider.  But she seemed cheerful—no doubt she would have, for me, no matter how she felt.

Being in bed so long, she had lost the use of her legs.  A sympathetic doctor convinced her to get herself together and undergo a rigorous physical-therapy program to learn how to function in a wheelchair and get out on her own.  Somehow she got up the grit to do it and seemed to get some of her old punch back.  Eventually they moved to a State-subsidized apartment that had been set up for wheelchair living.  It was to be her last domicile.

I last saw her when she and Nola’s mother, Hildegard, had stayed with Nola and me in our house in Mount Lebanon, a southern suburb of Pittsburgh, to witness my daughter Lynne’s impending wedding.  They played cards (mom holding her’s sitting in her wheelchair), helped arrange the wedding details, and chatted for a week or more, building up to the finale, the wedding.  But, as well, wordlessly, she was saying her final goodbyes to us.

She returned to California.  Within a year she was dead—a heart attack.  My father had accompanied her to the hospital in the ambulance; she died enroute.  She was 78.

When he called to tell me that she had died, he said not to come out to California; there was no point.  I didn’t.  We are not a sentimental family in that way; the formalities of death seem gratuitous; it is the head-connection that counts and you don’t lose that with finality.  It remains there in your head, distilling and distilling until it is a bright few pinpricks of light that you no longer precisely understand but are glad to have up there anyway.

 

M

y father, who was born in 1907, stayed in my apartment in Southside for a few weeks toward the end of his life.  He was 78 then, and had full, white, wavy hair, many creases, and a wattled neck.  He was in bad shape.  Tricia and I, our liaison now extended indefinitely, were by this time living in her house in Squirrel Hill, another neighborhood of Pittsburgh a few miles east of downtown.  Every few days my dad would walk from my apartment with his cane, slowly, to the Giant Eagle supermarket a few blocks away—he, forgetfully, always called it The Great Eagle—to get the peculiar foods that he now had to eat. 

Ten years back or so he had undergone a liver bypass operation.  As a result, he could no longer metabolize protein.  That meant no meat, no milk no protein of any sort; he survived on artificial this, and fake that, with a particular fondness for desserts covered in artificial whipping cream that foamed out of a pressurized can.  I seem to recall extravagant chocolate brownies decorated in this fashion.  Years of drinking had taken their toll and his liver had shrunk to a tough little ball that blood would no longer adequately pass through.  It is an unusual operation; I do not think they performed liver transplants in those days.  Of course he’d had to quit drinking too.  And on top of that his legs seemed to be bad as well.  It was never quite clear just what was wrong with them, but he was obsessed by them, wrapping them tightly in a transparent plastic strip a couple inches wide that spiraled down from thigh to ankle.  With this crinkly bandaging he made a peculiar sound as he walked, plastic creaking.

I took him to my doctor who didn’t know what to make of it all.  Dad knew that something was wrong; perhaps he had simply focused his attention onto his legs because he thought that was something he might be able to do something about by himself.  He never quit trying something because the notion might seem odd to others.  One of the few benefits of old age is that you then don’t care much about what anyone thinks of such matters; attention focuses increasingly inward.

This was to be his last visit to Pittsburgh; he would die in several months though that was not obvious to either of us then.

After my mother had died, my father had stayed on by himself in the small apartment in Alameda, California for some time, but eventually living this way became too much for him.  I think his California sisters convinced him to think about an alternative.  Another sister, Mary Jane, who, with her husband and children, lived in some strangely named Mississippi town (Pascagoula?), offered to take him in.  Many years back, when I had been about 17, she’d had serious mental problems and her husband had driven up, frantic, from Mississippi with the whole family—they then had two young children.  They came up north to Naperville and near there, she underwent shock therapy and other treatments for some time.  Her children, my young cousins stayed with us then at The Quarry for a number of months.  Eventually she recovered sufficiently and they all went back down south where, as far as I know, the family lived a successful and productive life.  Both my aunt, Mary Jane, and her husband, Ed, were speech therapists at a university there.

Now, with my father needing care, I think this sister, Mary Jane, felt she would return the favor, so to speak.  I’m sure my father was a difficult patient; he didn’t like being dependent.  After some months of this care—and no doubt a certain amount of unwanted attention—he decided to collect himself together and come up north to visit his eldest son, me.  So here he was, in my otherwise vacant apartment in Southside.

I didn’t know quite what to do with him.  At that time I was still in the frenzy-phase of starting a new business.  I would take him to visit Nola in Mount Lebanon—we were now separated—and to my daughter Lynne’s family out in Bethel Park, another suburb, for dinner and a chat.  And he came to Tricia’s with me sometimes for dinner.

He was exploring his options here.  He thought I might help him somehow, or he help me in business.  He hinted that we might be able to go into some business or another together, or at least that’s an impression I got.  He still had spunk left, if not much.

Neither of us had ever learned how to talk together.  As we had lived through our lives day-to-day, year after year, communication, though intimate, had usually been unspoken, inferred, but not unclear because of that.  But here in Southside, to my great surprise, one day he started talking: 

He told me that he felt that he had been a failure.  I was nonplused!  He had always been my model of what a successful man ought to be.  I asked him, without thinking much first, “How can you think that?  You built The Quarry.  You built The Bugeye.”  And I went on to name a few other endeavors, while thinking all the time that these were just the highlights of what I felt had been an extraordinarily admirable life, and certainly an adventurous one.  And what more can one hope for?  But he was down, and down bad.

Thinking back on it only a little later, I wondered if the reason for this angst may have been because he had ended up with no money and he felt powerless now, on his own for the first time.  But that didn’t seem likely; we had been raised—without it ever explicitly having been said—to think that money, while nice, isn’t the be-all and end-all of life.  As to ideal goals, my impression had always been, and remains, that the aim of life is to work hard and be as nice as possible.  He had certainly accomplished both of these, perhaps with slight emphasis on the first.  But even on the second he was no slouch; he was one of the nicest men I’ve ever known, though perhaps passively so.

I also think that he had wanted to give me the Bugeye, as an inheritance, a final gift.  So his recent troubles with the boat competed inside his head with the problem he felt in his legs:  Before he left California he had sold it to a young acquaintance, I seem to recall that the price was $30,000 but I’m not sure.  But the man didn’t have much money.  Yet he had a job and seemed pretty solid to my dad.  He agreed to send my dad a check every month as a time-payment for the boat.  Dad didn’t have much opportunity to hunt around for buyers; he felt he had to get on to Mississippi, and so he did the deal.  The payments stopped coming only a few months after he left.

Dad had registered the Bugeye in some official national registry maintained by the Coast Guard.  He thought they might now help an old man recover his lost boat, but he didn’t have the oomph any more to follow through on it.  His sister had tried to help with correspondence to the department, but to no avail; the Commander wrote, and sympathized sincerely, but didn’t seem to think there was much the Service could do about it.  Dad wanted me to help him in this matter; perhaps we could go together to California, contact a young friend he had there, look around the waterways for the boat, or to do something…

I told him I just couldn’t take the time off just then.  I was on my own now, and nervous, with an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach most of the time.  I felt I had to tend to business.  He was disappointed, perhaps he thought I had spurned his gift.  I felt that was the least of my problems just then, though I didn’t express it that way.

We talked a while but had nothing much else to say.  And I didn’t give him any hope on us starting to work together.  I told him that his sister cared for him, and that I wouldn’t be able to help him much right now.  He had fallen once in my apartment, and had just been able to crawl to the telephone to call me as I was at work doing consulting at Patterson.  I knew that, living alone, it could easily happen to him again, and then where would we be?

I later came to put his sense of failure down to old age, something that just happens to men of some years, and I resolved to remember this incident when my time came.  I generalized it, thinking that it must be a condition similar to that of his legs, but one that expresses itself primarily in the head.  And finally I classed the whole episode as one might a preventive inoculation, as though for measles; having once seen this phenomenon that apparently happens to many old men, I resolved not to repeat it later.  Now, approaching that time myself, I can sometimes just feel that shadowy thought nibbling at me, but it can’t get a good bite on me now that I’m inoculated.

He returned to his sister, glum, hope exhausted.  Several months later, he died.  They said pneumonia.

Now, gradually, began another encrustation of vivid memories as this new empty spot in my life slowly turned, as it had in my mother’s case, to small pinpricks of light, accessed only occasionally.  Life continues.