My dad and his siblings were orphans, for all practical purposes. For reasons I can’t know my grandmother married a man fifteen years older than herself, left home and lived with her in-laws while her husband travelled as a railroad man. In every other year there was another baby, the oldest my father, until in 1915 my grandmother packed up her four children and came home to Ohio from Pennsylvania for the birth of the fifth.
My grandmother sued my grandfather, probably for desertion, and he posted bond in Pennsylvania guaranteeing his appearance in court to answer the charge. Instead, he “jumped bond,” went west under an assumed name and died of consumption fifteen years later. Letters from his daughters begging him to return were found in his wallet, revealing his original identity.
Were these not real people the story could be maudlin. The family lived in the overcrowded childhood home of their mother, with her parents and those of her nine siblings still at home. In her journal my Aunt Laura mentioned the terrible overcrowding that sent them living in a succession of houses, moving when the rent came due. Eventually four of the children were taken to the Children’s Home and from there our Uncle Bill was committed to Orient State School for the Insane.
My dad occasionally lamented the wasted potential of each of his siblings. The absolute truth concerning my Uncle Bill, but the children, Bill included, played the hand dealt.
Memories of the children’s’ lives during those years are scant. My dad told one or two stories; Aunt Laura wrote about her brother Johnny as the director of the little band of children, feeding them bread soaked in coffee for their evening meal before bed, their mother absent.
Aunt Laura set her hand to poetry, and I have a little self-published booklet of poems she dated from 1927 through 1964. Most are love letters to her husband; she and Uncle Frank indeed were soul mates.
One of Aunt Laura’s poems, Their First Day Late, dated 1928, when she was seventeen, probably draws on a memory of her favorite brother and his favorite sister.
He with his wavy hair of brown,
She with her locks of gold;
They both stand at the schoolhouse door—
Each other’s hands they hold.
Her fresh white apron, her beauty displays,
But her face is bathed in tears.
The little fellow at her side
Cannot dispel her fears.
The big schoolbell had pealed its call,
The echo has died away.
The little maid and her brother
Are late, their first time, today.
They fear to enter the classroom
Where lessons have begun.
And they stand there on the threshold
Wishing the day were done.
Another poem Aunt Laura wrote in 1928 probably more accurately describes the schooling of her brother Johnny, and the uncles of the same age they grew up with. “Pa” was her maternal grandfather, and a mean drunk from whom the women of the family hid the Four Roses bottle.
Johnny was a little boy
Who wouldn’t go to school.
He wouldn’t mind the teacher
Nor obey the Golden Rule.
He wanted to play hooky,
Like most the big boys did.
And got a spanking every night
When he was just a kid!
He used to go a-fishing,
Instead of going to school.
And when the days were long and hot,
He played in the swimming pool.
He’d come home late in the evening,
Scared and shivering, too!
Don’t you s’pose that you’d be scared
If “Pa” was up waiting for you?
Although he was spanked most every night,
And “Pa” warned him o’er and o’er,
Johnny scarcely set his feet
Inside a schoolhouse door!
John Lytle, my father, was born in Coalmont, Pennsylvania, in 1907. His mother brought the little family back to Akron, Ohio in 1915. In 1924, days after his 17th birthday, he left Akron a member of the United States Army. He spent nine childhood years in Akron, from the age of eight through sixteen. They were rough and tumble years, deep in adventures with his uncles, his mother’s brothers his own age, and at the same time holding together the little family that was his brother and sisters.
Dad told of sled riding down Sherbondy Hill in the winters. The city was built on four hills, with many lesser hills joining the whole. Sherbondy Hill, very near his grandparent’s home, leads up to a park today. At the turn of the century it was paved in cobbles, the better for horses to navigate. In the winter the snow covered road was impassible, except to sleds. The hill has a grade of almost thirty percent, with several turns. In telling of their exciting rides down the hill Dad wondered that none of them were killed. Of course they weren’t.