The House That Built ME!

I sat last night and watched the recording industry’s Grammy Awards. I have always been a sucker for award shows and had turned into a couch potato way back when I was still living in Duquesne. Things are a bit different these days whenever I watch any of the award shows. When I was a mere lad, I knew every song and artist that was nominated for a Grammy, every TV Show nominated for an Emmy and virtually every movie and movie star that was up for an Oscar. Things were simpler back when I was young; there were only three networks vs. the 100’s available today; singers had pronounceable names like Johnny Mathis as opposed to Ke$ha; and movies were being released at a normal rate as opposed to the hundreds that are being churned out of Hollywood and countless other areas of the country.

Back to last night’s Grammys….

Marinda Lambert performed a song that she had recorded in 2010 and during the ceremony won the Grammy for best female country vocal performance for that same song, “The House That Built Me.”  The words are poignant and really aim for your heart. They made me think about 206 Thomas Street and the home that built this Duquesne Hunky.

The purpose of this post today is to acknowledge how much my childhood home means to me, and at the same time, convey how heart breaking it is to see it as it stands today. I am certain that my frustration is, or would be, shared by virtually every former resident of Duquesne if they were to come face to face with their childhood home.

As I wrote in one of my earlier posts, I grew up on Thomas Street, directly across from what used to be Kopriver’s Greenhouse and Nursery and later, Kroger’s Supermarket. Thomas Street was also the access road into St. Joseph’s Cemetery which was at the end of my street.

My parents purchased the home in 1951 from and Mr. and Mrs. Stoner. When it was purchased, it was known as 8 Thomas Street, but during a remapping effort by the Post Office, the address evolved into 206 Thomas Street. To this day, I never could figure the need for the change. They moved into what was to become the only home I would ever know as a child on October 31st, 1951. The move must have been a bit strenuous for my mother for I was born the very next day, November 1, 1951, in McKeesport Hospital. I never found out if my mom spent the first night they owned their new home in her own bed or in a hospital bed. I had discovered some photos of the home at the time they purchased it and it was obvious that by the time I began remembering its details, my dad had made some upgrades.

My house had an empty lot next to it that was part of the purchase. It remains that way to this day. It was great for the neighborhood kids, since it provided a great place to play games, run, roll down the hill, catch lightening bugs, play tag, play statue and all of those games that kids played before video games and skateboards. Although the yard was tame by comparison to the cemetery hill, it also made the perfect training ground for fledging sled riders. I remember my dad keeping an eye on me from the sidewalk in front of the house when I was first learning how to handle my Flexible Flyer!

My dad planted a sycamore tree in the backyard when we first moved into the house. I think I even have pictures of me as a baby sitting in front of that tree at about 18 months of age. Throughout the years, the trunk of that tree kept on getting larger and larger and soon, the tree towered over our house and yard by the time I was in my teens. The branches of the tree stretched across the vacant lot to our neighbors to the left and well into the neighbor’s yard on the right. I think it was 1981 when my dad finally decided the tree had to be removed. The root system had begun to cause problems with our home’s foundation and it had become disproportionately large for the area as well. It took several days, many men and a huge crane and cherry picker to wrestle the behemoth sycamore to the ground. I wasn’t there for its demise. I don’t think I could have watched.

 In 1965, my mother died in that house. She was only 42. She suffered a massive heart attack as she and my dad were lying in bed one evening. She had rheumatic fever as a adolescent which caused a weakened heart. In the 1930s and 1940s rheumatic fever was a serious medical problem for adolescents. Hospitals often had waiting lists for children who needed treatment.

On the night that my mom died, I lay in my bedroom. I had just begun using a very small bedroom at the end of the upstairs hall as my room. I was 12 and ready to have my own space, so Mom and Dad set up the bedroom for me. That night in August, I remember hearing my mom call my dad’s name in the middle of the night. She called it only once. It woke me up. I remember listening as my dad began to call out to her, frantically trying to wake her. I don’t know if my brother heard the events that night. We have never talked about it. For some time, I lay in my bed that evening counting every breath that I took. My mind was swirling, perhaps with denial. I would swear that I heard each beat of my heart as I laid there in denial, trying to convince myself that it was a dream. I recall my dad running down the steps and soon after, the horrible series of events began to unfold.

My Aunt Mary was the first on the scene. She lived one street down from us on Martin Street. Her husband, my Uncle Lou, was working night turn that evening, and at work when all of this occurred. Shortly after Aunt Mary came, Dr Fletcher arrived and immediately ran up the steps to my parent’s bedroom. I will never forget the look on his face as he descended the steps after pronouncing my mother dead. Aunt Mary took my brother and I to the back porch. I recall her holding us very close as we all listened for the sound of other family members arriving. We all stared out toward the corner of Mellon Street and Texas Ave. in the hopes that somehow their arrival would change everything. It didn’t. Millie, my mom, was gone.

I remember so many happy events that we celebrated in that house. I remember Christmases, First Communions, never ending euchre games with my uncles, the multitude of “pets” that I’d drag into the house much to my mom’s chagrin and countless other precious moments in my life. I recall having to try on my brother’s hand-me-down clothes each August in preparation for returning to school. They smelled like mothballs.

I remember peering out on snowy nights wondering if there would be too much snow to go to school. Usually, the storm windows had frosted up and I had to use my breath to melt a spot to look out of.

In an earlier post, I wrote about how growing up in Duquesne was proof that it took a village to raise a child. All of our neighbors on Thomas Street became a part of my life as I was growing up. Mrs. Mentzler, Anna and Frank Yasko, Mrs. Davies, Joanie and Ed Shedlock, Adam and Eve Oravick, Mike and Mary Kovach, Mr. and Mrs. Rudy Gregory, Mr. and Mrs. Ray Hanks, and Mr. and Mrs. Ray Snyder all helped to set the moral compass I now live by. Each family had their own trials, their own set of problems, but collectively, this group of neighbors were banned together in friendship, love and harmony. All were friends and all collectively shared in each other’s joys as well as well as sorrows.

Both Steve, my father, who died in 1999, and Millie, my mom were buried in St. Joesph’s Cemetery. Both of their graves lie in plain sight of the home that built me. Whenever I visit my parents gravesite, I turn toward Thomas Street and wonder what they would be thinking if they saw what had become of their home. I always wish that I somehow had the means to save it, to take it back and once again feel the comfort it provided for so many years. Perhaps this is the same feeling that would be felt by each of you as you looked at the home in Duquesne that held your special memories. I wish they could be saved.

The House That Built Me

By Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas

I know they say you can’t go home again
I just had to come back one last time
Ma’am I know you don’t know me from Adam
But these handprints on the front steps are mine

Up those stairs in that little back bedroom
Is where I did my homework and I learned to play guitar
I bet you didn’t know under that live oak
My favorite dog is buried in the yard

I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
This brokenness inside me might start healing
Out here it’s like I’m someone else
I thought that maybe I could find myself

If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave
Won’t take nothing but a memory
From the house that built me

Mama cut out pictures of houses for years
From Better Homes and Gardens magazine
Plans were drawn and concrete poured
Nail by nail and board by board
Daddy gave life to mama’s dream

I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
This brokenness inside me might start healing
Out here it’s like I’m someone else
I thought that maybe I could find myself

If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave
Won’t take nothing but a memory
From the house that built me

You leave home and you move on and you do the best you can
I got lost in this old world and forgot who I am

I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
This brokenness inside me might start healing
Out here it’s like I’m someone else
I thought that maybe I could find myself

If I could walk around I swear I’ll leave
Won’t take nothing but a memory
From the house that built me

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8 Responses to The House That Built ME!

  1. Colleen Byrne Travis says:

    I remember you mother and father. My dad always got our car repaired at Steve Volk’s. There was a heavy set man who worked for your dad. We used to park our car there when we went to mass at HN. I remember your mother volunteering in the HN cafeteria.

    • Jim says:

      Colleen, the man you refered to was Stan Yokimcus. I think he lived in Wilmerding.

      • Colleen Byrne Travis says:

        Yes, I checked with my older brother. That was his name. They were good mechanics. My brother, Pat has a kind story about your father. I’ll let him respond to the blog.

  2. Barry Long says:

    There were some kids that their parents would tell you they couldn’t play ball because they had rheumatic fever [circa 1940’s & 50’s].18 years ago, I asked a flight surgeon why we didn’t hear of it or Scarlet fever anymore & he said they didn’t know?Diseases come & go. I’ve friends who had bad EKGs after having a FLU & were grounded.Several years later they passed their EKGs & got back on flight status. I guess we are just human “test-tubes” & we have to keep the correct minerals,vitamins & fluids in us & hope we don,t catch something new like EBOLA. REF:” the house that built you”, I was born 26 Oct 1935 on the 3rd Floor of the house 2 doors up Kennedy Av; from 1010 Kennedy Av. Dr.Fletcher was there of course. We moved to the first house on the left going up Dell St. A tiny red brick,& we lived on the 2nd floor & Shirley Rathi’s family lived down-stairs.We moved to 1045 W.Grant Av. the summer before my 5th birthday. I remember the move because I rode in the back of my Uncle Red’s dump truck. We moved to 6th St; 3 houses from the JR.High when I was in 5th grade[the brick home is gone now]& i went to Libengood Elementary across the street[it too is gone]. I did 1st & 2nd grade at St. Joseph’s & all I remember is DISCIPLINE & CATECHISM from those 2 years When I was 14 we moved to 1010 KENNEDY Av. 2 doors down from where I was born. It was across the street from the “Swedish Church”. After that Duquesne Odyssey ,I graduated [DHS53] & we moved to Old Lebanon Church Rd. near the bridge. I still saw my buddies from Duquesne. Romald [Rome] Sikora, Daryl[WIZ] Wizbar, Stanley[ NIP]Skeweres & Elmer[MOLE] Barna. The “DUKE “was the dance hall of choice & the Nationality Clubs were all joined so that you could walk into those wonderful Hunky Weddings. [thats another story]

  3. Megan says:

    Dad, I really enjoyed reading this entry. I did not choose the best time to do so, however. 🙂 I love you very much and the house that built you did a marvelous job!

  4. Tom Lane says:

    I am sure that the night your Mom died is etched in your memory. A very moving description of a tough time for a young boy. My only death experience at a young age was going to see my aunt’s body at Malloy’s funeral home. She was only in her early 30’s and my cousin (her son) was only about 6. I can still remember him taking me to the coffin and showing me something he had put there. I sensed that he did not really know what had happened. I guess funeral homes are the one business we have not looked at.

  5. Beth Amber says:

    I think we all share a collective heartbreak when we see what’s happened to Duquesne and the surrounding areas but the houses in those areas built us (3924 Inland Ave., West Mifflin) and for that I’m very grateful.

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