My grandmother was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a coal miner. Which coal miner was a matter of speculation; her mother ran a “boarding house for gentlemen” – undoubtedly a polite euphemism for a bordello. It was the turn of the century, and times were tough in hardscrabble mining country. My grandmother’s father designate was a miner by the name of Will Dorning. Will was a drinking man. One night, he was on his way home from the pub when an irresistible urge to sleep seized him. He lay down in his tracks, which by tragic coincidence were the same tracks traversed every two hours by the Norfolk Southern freight train on its run to Pittsburgh, and that, to quote my grandmother, was that.
As a young woman, my grandmother was wildly beautiful. She was tall- five foot eight, which was Amazonian by turn of the century standards- with strawberry blond hair and a rakish cleft in her chin. Her beauty is a matter of record; the details of her young life, however, were sketchy. My grandmother’s history was subject to her own interpretation. Growing up poor, fatherless, and disenfranchised, she traveled light, or with baggage she’d rather not claim. Her life was not relayed in facts and details, but lore.
One story took place when she was still a child. My grandmother was at the window, watching as her neighbor stood outside in her yard, hanging clothes. The neighbor suddenly turned and started to run. “Like in slow-motion,” my grandmother said. “Then, POP, POP, POP, she fell into the grass, just like she was taking a nap.” She paused here, for dramatic effect. “She was shot dead by her lover.”
Then, there was the night my grandmother was driving down a mountain. It had rained, and she made a detour because the bridge had washed out. The road was treacherous and the fog was thick. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” she said. Suddenly, a man appeared in the middle of the road. She stopped- she had no choice, unless she aimed to run him down- and the man climbed in. “Take me down the mountain,” he demanded, pulling a hunting knife out of his pocket. He began cleaning his fingernails. Glancing over, my grandmother saw the iron shackle around the man’s ankle. “I knew he had escaped from a chain gang,” she said. When they reached the base of the mountain, he told her to stop. She was about to beg for her life when the man opened the door. “Lady, a word to the wise. You ought to never stop your car for nobody.” And he was gone.
For all of us, the human experience is an amalgamation of the significant and the prosaic. In life, we often dwell on the prosaic, but is that how we choose to be remembered? For me, my grandmother is immortalized in the drama, grace, and mystery of the stories she told.
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