15 April 2008

Beryl Nell Munday, b. 15 April 1905

Grandma Beryl would be 104 years old today, and was 93 at her death in 1998. She was a great woman, though I would not always have said that. As a child, I thought she was the meanest woman in the world. She could snap a wet washcloth at blinding speed across the mouth of a sassy 8-year old boy. And it didn't help that she would dress me in something orange when sending me off to school on St. Paddy's day. As my Uncle Jim liked to explain, "Dad never laid a hand on me. But Ma sure made up for it." However, Grandma Beryl went through a remarkable transformation after Gramps died, becoming a kind, patient, and mellow woman.

She was born Beryl Nell Fitzgibbons on High Street in the Fifth Ward of Bradford, Pennsylvania, to a Scot-Irish Presbyter family. As a child, her parents moved a few houses down to 37 High Street, and she lived in that house through 50 years of marriage and for several years after. She married Gramps (Eugene Patrick Munday) in 1925, as I recall. He died in 1979. Their marriage caused some tension among the in-laws, given Gramps' staunch Irish Catholic background.

Here a photo of young Beryl:

Grandma Beryl was a great naturalist and lover of animals. As Gramps liked to say, "She would make pets out of worms if that's all there was." I lived with my grandparents from about the age of three, after my folks split up. During those years, we had dogs (Gramps favored and hunted with hounds), cats, several rabbits, a duck or two, and hamsters. Then there were the numerous stray cats that always found a ready meal on our porch, as did the occasional half-tame skunk. Gram, half-asleep, went out on the porch one dark morning to give the cats a little milk. As she bent over to pour milk into the saucer, she scratched the stray behind the ears. Only as she was standing up did she realize it was a skunk. And there were the many birds, mice, and baby rabbits that the cats dragged in and that Gram nursed back to health.

While Gramps was alive, she arose early each morning and fixed him breakfast. This was invariably a cooked breakfast--eggs, pancakes or toast, and some kind of meat during the years he worked (he didn't fully retire until after age 70), and hot cereal in later years. She was not a morning person, and often stayed up late reading or watching horror movies or episodes of shows like the Twilight Zone. This business of staying up late and rising early made her cranky, I think, for after Gramps died she slept in until 10 or 11 or sometimes later. It sure improved her temper.

Gram was a great cook and excelled particularly at baking fruit pies. We picked a lot of blackberries and wild apples, and if you brought home huckleberries or raspberries or cherries (from Mary Girard's trees) they made a good pie too. We tended a big garden at Gramp's oil lease at Foster Brook, and Gram did a lot of canning. One year with a bumper crop of blackberries we picked pail after pail. We gave many quarts to relatives and neighbors, but 72 quarts made it into canning jars and we ate a lot of blackberry pie that winter.

During the years that Gramps managed the Cobb family oil lease in Nichols Run, New York, he employed a helper named Charlie Heinz who boarded with us. Charlie, though an ex-con that eventually ended up back in prison, was a gentle and caring man. He loved Gram, and appreciated her cooking. He was a big guy with a huge appetite. One of his first days at our table, Gram set out a pie and told Charlie that, as our guest, he could choose the first piece. He smiled wide and replied, "I'll just have that big round piece."

In Grandma Beryl's later years, she moved down to Rochester Street, across from Jan's mom Jean Giardini and next to Jan's Aunt Mary. She was also lucky to have another neighbor from High Street near by. Emil and Helen Larson had lived just a few doors up from us on High Street, where they raised three sons and two daughters. Gram had babysat and helped raise Helen.

Susan Larson, the youngest of Helen and Emil's daughters, had also moved to Rochester Street, where she raised a son and a daughter. Susan and her kids visited often with Gram, and the friendship brought her much joy. I'm not sure that neighbors and neighborhoods like that still exist in America. We're all too mobile and too busy.

Jan, Emily, and I visited Gram in Bradford each summer, but it was never enough time. Emily came to know Grandma Beryl well, though, and I think it made a mark on her. They certainly shared a deep love for and understanding of animals.

The year that Gram died, she wrote and told us to plan a good long visit because it would be the last one. She was in a nursing home and not very happy with life. Her eyes had failed to the point where she could no longer read large print books, work crossword puzzles, or see the television. Her hearing was long gone. The final straw, she said, was that she could no longer taste food. It was a good summer visit, with drives to the cemetary to tend graves, visits to favorite places she and Gramps had picnicked, and long reminiscences about favorite people and events. She held Emily while I pushed her wheelchair, and she fed young Roly-The-Dog french fries and bits of her hamburger from the Drive-In at Custer City. We laughed and cried every day. Gram decided to die that winter, refusing to eat after instructing the nurses that there would be no feeding tubes or other interventions. When our time comes, we should all embrace death so gracefully.