Monday, October 12, 2015

Cousin Clare: A House Husband Ahead of His Time

Cousin Clare was married to Aunt Minnie's oldest daughter.  He was an affable fellow -- the kind of guy who never met a stranger. He could talk to anyone about anything. He enjoyed every minute of being alive.  He notices the small details of nature, kept records of birds who visited his feeders, stopped to smell every rose, and was miserable only when he had to go to work in the local steel mill. So he was not particularly upset when the demand for steel fell during the Great Depression and the plant began laying off workers. Of course, he was in an enviable position, relative to most of his co-workers.  Not only did he have a school-teacher wife who brought in a steady paycheck. He also had built-in household help when  his wife's spinster sister moved in and took over the cooking, cleaning, and child-caring chores. Some men might have reacted to his situation with anger or resentment. Clare saw opportunity.

His house was level with one of the main roads, but on its south side, the ground fell away steeply down to a thick woods crossed by a small creek headed toward the Beaver River. The next lots were certainly large enough to hold a couple of houses, but they would have been far below the level of the road, so they had been allowed to grow wild. The owner had put up a "For Sale" sign once, but it, too, had fallen victim to neglect and harsh weather.  No one saw any use for that land except Clare. He looked at it one day and said, "A park! That's what we need round here! A park where children can play safely."

He bought the land for next to nothing, and soon he was happily engaged in clearing out the weeds and accumulated debris. He chopped down scrub trees and sowed rye grass to hold the newly uncovered dirt.  At the back of the lots he built a narrow access road, so that he could haul a wheelbarrow and lawnmower down there. And at the front, he constructed an easy walking path, paved with gravel and dotted with a few clusters of cement-block stair steps with low railings for children and their mothers. By the second summer, he had a grassy play area, located safely below the road level.  There wasn't much there, at first, just a couple of tire swings, a fire pit and a picnic table. But the creek was now accessible and full of frogs, and the bushes around the borders of the park brought forth a summer's supply of blackberries, elderberries, and small sour apples all free for the picking.

One of the highlights of my childhood was the chance to visit my cousins for a week or so every summer. Clare's daughter Jo was only a year older than I was, and her sister Elizabeth was a couple of years older still. Both inherited their father's welcoming charm and willingly took in their citified cousin, who had to be taught the pleasures of living outdoors from sunup to sunset. Thanks to them I got to witness that park as it developed -- one year a few more swings, the next some teeter-totters, and finally a whole climbing jungle-gym with a long sliding board at one end.  Benches and more picnic tables appeared, along with a real fireplace. As we grew older, Clare added a badminton court and a croquet lawn which we were allowed to use only if we carefully put away all the wickets and mallets every evening.

But the highlight of the park, as far as I was concerned, came when Cousin Clare turned their attached garage into a candy store for Geraldine to run. It contained shelves of glass jars filled with penny candies, a small freezer for restaurant-sized containers of ice cream, and a cooler that offered orange and grape Nehi in small glass bottles -- and one year, even strawberry soda.  A couple of little round tables and a short counter for a hand-operated cash register completed my idea of heaven on earth. Geraldine only opened it for a couple of hours in the afternoons and again after dinner during the longest, hottest days of summer, but it was the final touch that drew children and their families from all over that south side of Ellwood City.

The best part, of course, although I wouldn't realize it until later, was that the whole thing was free. Everyone was welcome to use the park and play on the equipment. The pennies that Geraldine collected in the candy store went only to replenish supplies. All of the equipment, all of the labor, all of the upkeep came from one lovely man who was fortunate enough to be out of work but never out of ideas about how to make life more fun.

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