Some good friends, all met through blogging, are filling in for me while I take a two-week sabbatical from Time Goes By. Today’s guest blogger is 80-year-old Nancy Leitz, well-known to readers of The Elder Storytelling Place for her frequent contributions there.
“I love to write the stories that my children ask me about,” says Nancy. “It all started when they would say, ‘Mom, what happened that time Uncle Bob came here in the middle of the night?’ Then I would tell how my brother, Bob, (The former pope) was looking for his dog who had been missing etc, etc,. They would laugh at the story and say, ‘You should write these stories down, Mom, so the kids that are too little now can hear them later.’
“That's how it all began. As I commented to someone at The Elder Storytelling Place the other day, you should write down as many experiences as you can because if you don't, the stories will be lost forever. I said that when an old person dies, it is like the library burnt down.”
Nancy and her husband of 58 years, Roy, live near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 25 miles from Philadelphia. She has four children and eight grandchildren.
Roy's brother, Ernie, was a bachelor all of his life. When he was a young man his father, who was a baker, wanted Ernie to follow in his footsteps and also become a baker, but Ernie had other ideas. He was very mechanically inclined and wanted to be a welder.
He had been born in 1914 and by the time he was 18, it was the height of the Depression and there were not many opportunities for young men. But being a welder was something he felt he could turn into a business for himself.
Pop Leitz was furious and insisted he become a baker, but Mom saw the benefits of being a mechanic and having a good skill and slipped him the money to go to welding school. He became a very good welder.
In 1937, before the Second World War started, Ernie went to enlist in the Marine Corps, but was turned down by them because he had a deformed finger (He had caught it in a machine).
He then heard of a man named Rice who taught welding in the Philadelphia schools and also had a shop in southwest Philadelphia. Ernie went to work for Mr. Rice and learned even more about welding by doing so many jobs on oil tanks that were being installed in everyone's house to replace the old coal fired furnaces.
Eventually, Mr. Rice sold the business to Ernie and now he was the proud owner of Paschall Welding Co. which he ran for four successful years, both teaching and doing regular welding work.
At the time of the Second World War in 1941, he was called before the draft board and again turned down for service because, by this time ,he had a welding school and that skill was vital to the war effort.
He was ordered to report to Cramp's Shipyard on the Delaware River in North Philadelphia. His assignment was to teach welding so that the shipyard had a steady supply of skilled workers. He stayed at Cramp's for the duration of the war and when he was released from there, he joined Steamfitter's Local 420 in Philadelphia as a journeyman welder.
In 1949, he met a girl named Pat who was a dancer in various clubs in the city. Being a dancer did not endear her to Mom Leitz and so she discouraged Ernie from seeing Pat. They continued to date against Mom's wishes but Ernie never brought her to Mom's house again because he knew she disapproved.
Pat kept very late hours because of her career and it made Mom angry when Pat would call at 2AM to speak to Ernie. One of Ernie's friends owed him some money for work he had done and paid him by giving him a small cottage he owned in the woods by the Perkiomen Creek. Ernie began to fix the cottage up and that became a place where he and Pat could see each other without Mom's interference.
This went on for years and I always wondered if they would marry. But it was not to be. Then I heard that Pat had married someone else and had moved to California. I thought that was the last of her, but it was not over yet.
Over the succeeding years, Ernie remained the bachelor uncle who was very good to the kids. Once, he bought our Chris a red tractor that you sat on and rode down the sidewalk. It had a gear shift and horn. The kids loved it.
One day Ernie was coming down Greenway Avenue and there was Chris driving the tractor as fast as it would go with Steve running behind him crying for a turn. That was more than Ernie could stand. That evening after dinner, our front door opened and in came Uncle Ernie with another bright red tractor for Steve. It was such a nice thing to do.
Everybody remembers Uncle Ernie on Christmas. He would come in to his sister, Sue's, house and sit in a chair with a stack of 20-dollar bills and the kids would line up in front of him. He would ask, "And who are you?"
"I'm Andy Wurzbach."
"Whose kid are you?"
"Oh. you're Norman's daughter. OK here's your twenty. Next…”
"I'm Carol, Roy's daughter"
“Okay, here's your money, Merry Christmas...”
And on and on it went until all the kids had their gift. The kids still talk about those Christmas days and Uncle Ernie.
Sometime in the 1980s, Ernie told Roy that he was no longer answering the phone because Pat had been calling him from California. He set up a signal for Roy to use so he would know it was Roy and would answer.
It seems Pat's husband had died a few years before and although she and Ernie had never really lost contact, they had not seen each other since Pat had left. Now it seems she was calling.
We asked Ernie why he didn't want to talk to her. He told us that he DID want to talk to her, but that he wanted to make the call because he didn't want Pat to have to pay for a long distance call. In those days long distance was a big deal to Ernie. So, abiding by his wishes, we always rang once, hung up, and rang again.
On Christmas Day 1991, we were having Christmas dinner at Roy and Nancy's and were waiting for Ernie to come in. He was usually late for everything, but this time he was really late. Uncle Arthur had not come because Aunt Betty was not feeling well, so we called and asked him to take his key and go to Front Street and see if everything was all right with Ernie.
Unfortunately, he called to say that he had found Ernie dead at the bottom of the stairs in the dining room. Roy left immediately to take care of things and came back to sadly report that Ernie had apparently had a heart attack and had died.
The next day, we went to Ernie's house to see what had to be done and to carry out the arrangements he had said he wanted Roy to take care of for him. While we were there I noticed a letter addressed to Pat, all ready to go, sealed and stamped. I didn't know what to do with it.
Suppose it was written to tell her not to call him anymore. Maybe he was writing to say to stay out of his life now. Who knows what was in that letter? I took it home with me and said a prayer to St. Anthony to guide me on whether or not to mail it. What should I do?
I was really torn. I didn't want to send her anything that would hurt her, but having no idea what it said I hesitated. What I finally did was write Pat a letter explaining that Ernie had died and that I had found this letter to her and was sending it because Ernie wanted her to have it. In the envelope with my letter, I enclosed the unopened letter from Ernie.
About a week later, a letter came from California. I actually shook while I opened it. What would she say to me? What she said was, "Thank you, thank you for sending Ernie's letter to me. In the letter he told me that he had always loved me and that when he felt better he was going to come to California to see me."
I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was a letter in which he said all the things she had wanted to hear for years.
Pat and I kept in touch for a few years after that and then her daughter wrote to tell me that she, too, had died. I have always been happy that something told me to send her the letter.
[The story bin at The Elder Storytelling Place is empty so until some new ones arrive, let's revisit some from the archive. Today, Curiosity from Norm Jenson. All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]