Thursday, June 20, 2013

Precious memories of my cousin Billy …

One weekend in 1980 I traveled back to my childhood and played Army. This time I dressed as a Confederate soldier and war-gamed with Union re-enactors on military land in Indiana. Truly I had a great time; even a blustery cold night in a tent on a hilltop could not dim my happiness.

Then I returned home.

Billy with his mom Emmie and dad Bill in California.
My mom telephoned me. “Billy’s gone,” she told me.

“Gone? Where did he go?” I didn’t grasp the enormity of her words.

It took a few more moments before I understood.

“He and his wife burned up,” she said.

I was so angry at her for not just telling me straight out. My frustration traveled the telephone lines and burned her ear. Life – and death – shouldn’t be a soap-opera drama.

Now, 23 years later, I feel guilt for my anger at my mom. The terrible scourge of ALS battered her body and stopped her heart forever on Nov. 14, 2003. Life can be so unfair – to a 24-year-old man with a new wife and a new a house he’s restoring, and to a 73-year-old woman who wanted but didn’t get to see her youngest granddaughter graduate from high school.

Billy was my sister Jody’s age. They both graduated from high school in 1975. My cousin married a beautiful girl, Terry, and they were restoring a house in the Akron area when the furnace exploded on an October night in 1980.

Billy sits with my sister Jody at Santa Monica beach.
Billy spent his early years in LA. His mom Emmie and dad Bill moved west from Ohio in the mid ‘50s. We followed in the summer of ’57, settling in San Bernardino in a stucco housing development between Foothill Boulevard and Base Line Road. We’d take turns traveling the San Bernardino Freeway to visit each other. I always looked forward to the visits to their home nearer the ocean. It was amazing how much colder it was. We wore sweaters – in the summer in Southern California. Emmie cooked amazingly tasty meals. Even today she laughs when she recalls how I munched down on her rolls and mashed potatoes.

Billy and I would play typical kid games during our visits. My sister wanted to join in, but we’d say “no girls allowed.” Years later, Jody told me our behavior was hurtful. Boys can be so cruel and brainless.

We moved back to Ohio in October 1965 and moved back into our Wadsworth house that had been rented out during our time living in San Bernardino and later Corona. A year later Billy’s family also
An older Billy with his family.
returned to Northeastern Ohio. We’d all gather together on Christmas Eve at Uncle Jack and Aunt Gloria’s house in Granger, and open presents under the huge Christmas tree in their recreation room. A torrent of wrapping paper always filled the pine-scented air on Christmas Eve. The get-togethers included seven rambunctious kids – me, Jody, Billy, his sister Kim, his brother Ken (later Brian would be born), and our cousins Candy, Pat. And the most important kid of all, Steven, our uncle, born mentally retarded. Steven loved Christmas. The adults – mom and dad, Emmie and Bill, Gloria and Jack; the older generation of Grandma Nan, Aunt Hortense, Aunt Avis and Jack’s mom – would dutifully wait for the kids to open their presents before unwrapping their own gifts.

There always seemed to be a half foot of snow on the ground at the Granger house on Christmas Eve. You could bank on it. Cleveland’s snow belt extends just far enough south to encompass Medina County’s Granger Township. One year in the ‘60s a splendid full moon shone down on the snowy scene, turning the twilight night into a Christmas carol: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

Grandma Nan with the Eternal Boy, Stevie.
The last time I saw Billy was at one of the Christmas get-togethers at the Granger house. He brought his girlfriend – his future wife – to the family gathering. I thought, “Boy, Billy has great taste.”

Billy loved cars, and in his early 20s he test drove cars for Goodyear. It was while he was up in Wisconsin testing the Goodyear tires on iced-over lakes that he met his true love. Billy and Terry were married in the summer of 1980.

In California days, Billy’s dad raced stockcars. Bill gave me one of his trophies that I kept on top of my dresser. Later, back in Ohio, Billy, Kim, Ken and Brian all raced Soapbox Derby cars at Derby Down in Akron and more times than not they won.

Bill has turned the basement of their Doylestown house into a Soapbox Derby shrine. He’s built a dais where all the cars, trophies and other memorabilia are displayed prominently.

My sister Jody and me in Santa Monica wading pool.
Kim recently gave her mother a new IPad and Emmie has started hanging out on Facebook. She’s noticed some of the family photos I’ve posted and has copied them to her photo folder. They’re photos she has never seen, most snapped by my mom and dad back in California days. I’m glad I’ve been able to share these photos with her.

The ‘60s and ‘70s now live only inside our heads. So many who gathered around the tall Christmas tree each Christmas Eve are no longer with us – Aunt Hortense, Aunt Avis, Grandma Nan, Uncle Jack and his mom, my mom, Billy.

Seven holes in my heart.

Seven holes that will never heal.


  1. Mike
    What a sad post, but uplifting too. It's great that you can remember your cousin and I feel privileged that you are willing to share those memories with your readers.
    Life can be unfair, but then who ever said it was meant to be fair? It is what it is, and I often think that the sorrows we have to deal with always come with compensations too, a greater understanding of what a truly precious gift life is.

    1. Very true, Shirley. Thanks for the kind words.

  2. This is a beautiful post, Mike. It's good that family history is recorded. There's also a magic in old black and white photos. They conjure a world

    1. Yep, photos are like a song, they take us back to earlier times and tickle our memories. Thanks for the kind words.