We had to double up sleeping-wise at my grandparents’ home. I guess because I was the oldest brother, I got to sleep with my grandfather, Homer Wilbur Robertson — my grandmother bumped off to another bedroom with one of my aunts.
I went to bed tonight barefooted, nearly 60 years later, with the season warming. I remembered Pa, as we called him, would have approved. He worked for 40 years in an oil refinery and he scrubbed with Lava soap to get the black out of the creases in his calloused hands. He had dark skin and I always wondered whether it was because he went to work in the coal mines after the sixth grade, which was as far he got in school. His blue work clothes hung on the landing at the top of the root cellar stairs, where he changed every night after work. And he told me only farmers wore socks to bed.
He loved pie, especially raspberry pie, and after eating it would have purple streaks in the corners of his mouth. The women around the house tried to take good care of him and I think he usually had a piece of pie in his gray steel lunch box.
He was good to me, although he complained that I squirmed in bed. When I had growing pains and couldn’t sleep, he would take me to the old linoleum-floored bathroom down the hall and rub pungent green liniment into my knees. Lengthening legs soothed with the treatment, I would stare for a while at the portrait of FDR on the wall at the foot of the bed, comforted more if a train would roll by, wheels clicking on the track joints in perfect rhythm, then fall asleep.
I was always the first to report that he worked on the “cracker.” The refinery job, and company housing in the 1930s, kept the family on solid ground through the Depression and World War II – my grandmother, two disabled daughters and my father, who escaped infirmity and fortunately wasn’t old enough to enlist in the Marines until two years after the war.
Pa kept his black Dodge spotless. It had pushbuttons on the dash for changing the gears, although in Ohio they were called “pooshbuttons.” The garage always smelled like oil and grass — not because he worked in a refinery but because he kept the lawnmower, car, tools and everything else in it well oiled. There was an equally well-maintained strawberry patch just outside.
He owned one white shirt. It was kept starched and “pressed” in the bottom drawer of his dresser. It was called his FO Shirt. FO stood for Funerals Only.
When he died at 92, he got up from his crossword puzzle in the living room and said he was going to his bedroom to listen to a ballgame on the radio. He had been a top semi-pro pitcher for his employer, Pure Oil, when he was young. I heard he had a heck of temper back then, and I know I inherited it. This day, though, he laid back on the bed, fully dressed, feet on the floor, and moved on without a sound.
The Pure Oil plant for many years had annual summer picnics for retired workers, Old Timers Day. My grandfather took me once. I was awfully proud.