Margaret Armbruster Young (1892-1973); Adam Young (1888-1972)
Even when I was a little girl I thought Grandpa Young was a nice looking man. He had a nice nose and blue eyes, a mouth that always looked ready to smile. It was a kind face, a face I trusted. His heavy German accent felt like a barrier, and the barnyard odor that lingered in his work clothes made me reluctant to get close to him, but I liked being in the same house with him; I liked knowing he was close by. He felt sturdy and dependable, someone I could count on, one of the dependable adults who made my child-world safe. Like my mother, Grandpa was even tempered, intelligent, responsible. Both were quiet people who could be counted on to do well whatever task was given to them, and do it without fireworks.
Mom felt real affection for her father, I think, but she never talked much about him. When I later asked her about his relationship with his children when they were growing up, she said that he didn’t really talk much to the kids. He worked hard, and when he was in the house he liked to be left alone.
Grandpa, like my mother, was probably more than a bit of an introvert. Even as a child I had the impression of his being a thinker. On overnight visits to my grandparents’ house, I would see him reading his Bible or German language newspapers and the periodicals kept in the magazine rack by the couch in the living room. I knew from nosing around that most of what the rack contained was printed in spiky German script. He could read English, but German was his preferred language, the language he spoke to the other old people at the Mennonite Brethren Church. English was for business and non-German speakers like me.
Grandpa Young’s faith was an important part of his life. He was very active in the Lodi Mennonite Brethren Church and served as the Sunday School Superintendent for many years. He tried to live in accordance with what the church taught. Grandma Young also went to church and felt that church was important. I have my doubts, though, about how well she understood church doctrine. She went to church, wanted her children to go to church, but she pretty much went her own way. Life for her was very concrete. Her faith seemed to generate neither reflective thought, nor the intense inner life of the spirit that I sensed in my grandfather. She could neither read nor write, so for her there was no private daily Bible reading, no “searching the Scripture.” She heard sermons at church and attended the old ladies’ Sunday school class each week. I could tell that she enjoyed being around the people at church, but she never seemed to be listening when I sat with her in church. I think the abstract ideas just sailed over her head.
Grandpa, with his blue eyes and fair complexion reddened by years of working out in the weather looked northern European. Grandma, however, looked just like pictures I have seen of peasant women from southern Italy and Greece. She was round and short, four feet eleven inches tall, with dark brown hair and eyes, an olive complexion and hooked nose. She said she was born in Austria, a region conquered by Rome in its days of empire, and she looked like she might well have the blood of Italian soldiers running in her veins.
In her pictures, Grandma looks stern and hard, perhaps even mean. Her mouth is a straight line, the eyes dark and unsmiling. She wasn’t mean though. She was earthy and a bit coarse. Grandma Young could neither read nor write and seemed to have no desire to learn, but she was also warm hearted and affectionate. She would always greet me with a hug, and, if we were at her house, ask if I wanted something to eat. To her, skinny was unhealthy, and I was a very skinny little girl.
What I liked most about her, I think, is that she gave me almost complete freedom when I was at her house. She was a good gardener and seemed to spend most of her time in the yard, leaving me free to wander and explore the house. I would look at her collection of salt and pepper shakers, leaf through the scrapbook my Aunt Sylvia made when she was in high school, generally snoop around. I liked her house. It was clean, orderly, comfortable. I liked her yard, too. There were always cool, shady areas to sit on hot summer days, and interesting plants like elephant ears, a pomegranate tree, a large clump of calla lilies. I enjoyed visiting her, but I also sensed how different she was from my mom. I could understand my mother’s ambivalence about my grandmother.
I wouldn’t say Mom felt no love for her mother, but what I sensed most was irritation and annoyance, disapproval. Grandma was very talkative and said whatever she thought and felt. What she said was often unintentionally funny, but the laughter I heard when those words were later repeated among the family was not good natured. It was exasperated laughter, ridicule, because what Grandma Young said often embarrassed her children. I never heard any malice in her words, but she was highly curious about others’ lives. She had almost no sense of privacy and tended to barge through closed bedroom doors and ask questions that were highly personal.
One of the stories that made the family rounds took place during a Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ house. Her oldest grandson, Lloyd and his fiancée were there, and during the conversation at the table, Grandma asked them, “Have you ‘done it’ yet?” This was not an inquisition. She was just curious. As might be guessed, Grandma’s children did not appreciate her inquisitiveness, would protest, “Maw!” and make sure their private lives were well concealed. Grandma’s ‘openness’, I’m afraid, worked against her desire to know about and share in her children’s lives, made them guarded and cautious around her.
Exasperation, perhaps, is the best word to describe my mother’s feeling towards her mother, an attitude that I observed in the rest of the family. I remember complaints about Grandma’s nosiness, remember one of her daughters-in-law saying that someday she was going to get some fake dog shit and put it behind a door to really give Maw Young something to talk about.
Another incident was told by my mom’s sister Katy that occurred in the early years of the Depression. Katy and her husband, Ed Baumback, were struggling hard to recover from the loss of their savings in the bank collapse. They had both found jobs, but their son Lloyd was just a baby, and they couldn’t afford child care. Grandma agreed to take care of Lloyd, and one day when Katie came to pick him up after work, she found his shoes were gone. Grandma had given them to a family with a baby that had come by seeking help. When Katy protested that her mother had no right to give away Lloyd’s shoes, Grandma said, “But they were so poor. They had nothing.” “But Lloyd needs shoes, too!” Katy objected. Grandma wouldn’t listen. The other family was worse off that Ed, Katy and Lloyd, and that was that.