Growing up an immigrant’s son in mid-20th-century New York

Andrew A. Lawn aka Pop and his wife, my grandmother Ermine Lawn aka Mom-Mom.

I remember riding in the back seat of the family Studebaker past the old train station at the bottom of Main Street in my hometown of Buffalo, lustily booing every sleek, silver-nosed diesel locomotive sitting and shining in that already ramshackle old railroad station. It was a sort of kids’ game, like counting cows on a long trip through the countryside.

Diesels were bad, I understood, because my grandfather had all but lost his job in the Pennsylvania yards because of these gleaming behemoths. Being six years old, I didn’t know how that could be, how a machine could take a man’s job. But I’d been given parental permission, actually encouraged, to bray freely at the things, so I knew the feelings behind my booing were something important and auspicious, like what went on in church. 

My maternal grandfather, Andrew A. Lawn, spent all his working days making and inspecting the great boilers that powered the belching, black locomotives of the Baltimore & Ohio line that passed in and out of DuBois, Pa. for most of the twentieth century. Diesels didn’t need my grandfather’s boilers, and he didn’t need diesels. “Damn things” is all I remember him saying on the subject. He was a man of very few words.

Pop’s father, who neither he nor I ever knew, was probably an immigrant. Pop was an orphan, abandoned like many millions of children over the years. If newcomers from overseas had to struggle incessantly just to stay alive, life could be even tougher for the “bastards” born in the heartless, teeming Eastern cities, homeless kids without families, names or love. This is why I think of him as an immigrant in his own country: He was one of the Orphan Train children.

Pop was born in the spring of 1892, and Lawn was not his real name. The child who became Andrew A. Lawn spent his earliest years at the New York Foundling Home, a rescue home for abandoned children founded by three nuns in 1869.

Near the turn of the century, Pop and thousands of other orphans were hustled onto trains and sent West out of the fetid, unforgiving city and given over like livestock to any family along the route who wanted or needed them. Pop was one of 200,000 children whose lives became entangled, for good or ill, in what became known as the Orphan Train.

The wisdom of the day was that these homeless, abandoned boys and girls could benefit from the fresh air and hard work the countryside offered. Those children’s stories are a mixture of triumph and bitter defeat, of sometimes savage indenture, sexual abuse and sometimes redemptive love.

My grandfather’s first ride aboard a train took him a few hundred miles from New York to DuBois, where Andrew and Elizabeth Lawn gave him a home and their name.

Over the years, one or another of my grandfather’s five children would each in their turn try to pry the story of Pop’s childhood out of him. But Pop was pry-proof. No one who tried could be sure if his silence was a product of stubbornness, of memories he no longer possessed, or ones he wanted to forget. The puzzle of his true parentage was one that he seemed intent on never solving.

The closest his children or grandchildren ever got to discovering the key to that puzzle came with his willingness to part with a single shard of memory. He remembered being readied for a mysterious train trip and that “a beautiful young woman” had held him in her arms on the passenger platform. “Always remember,” she told him, “your name is Marlborough.” 

Pop told this story willingly, sometimes without prompting. In telling it, he appeared to be keeping faith with the beautiful young woman’s request.

The revelation of his real name sent his children to the Foundling Home, where they discovered the records from Pop’s time there had long before been destroyed in a fire. My grandfather didn’t seem as disappointed by this news as his children were.

I learned later some of what lay behind my grandfather’s apparent disinterest in his roots. 

My son Grady was born in 1973, without benefit of our marriage. We were young and believed we knew most if not all the answers to the world’s problems. The institution of marriage, we knew, was a prime example of these problems, a warper of the human spirit and co-creator of a heartless consumerist society that fed on and helped to create false and artificial values. 

And so, even after our son was born, in the name of what we thought was our idealism, we refused to marry and thereby participate in such a destructive charade.

I knew Pop wanted us to get married, as did all the other extremely tolerant grownups in our lives back in the early Seventies. But his reason had nothing to do with ordinary convention or with Catholic doctrine, the two most common considerations invoked by our forbearing families.

The Easter Sunday after Grady was born, we had Pop over to our apartment for a family breakfast. He buttonholed me without warning while standing in the middle of our drafty, sparsely furnished living room.

“Y’know, Jerry, when I was growing up, they called me a bastard.” He said that last word with a force that surprised me; even when cursing diesels, he had never sounded so intense. I reassured him of how times had changed and how Patty and I were going to continue living together, and Grady would have both our names, and so on and so glibly forth.

He looked at me with accepting eyes and never brought the topic up again. When Patty and I finally discarded our ideas long enough to get married two years later, I never thought I was saving Grady from being a bastard, but the urgency with which Pop had spoken still echoed in me, as it does today. I never told him the effect his words had on my decision, and he never inquired any further after our wedding.

Pop had been working at the B&O for three years before shipping out for France during World War I, where he had adventures that the family could only subsequently guess at. He married my grandmother, Ermine Carr, on Armistice Day, 1919. Together they settled in a small house on hilly East Washington Avenue and raised four sons and a daughter, Elizabeth, my mother.

The house was plain as an unsalted cracker. As more children were born in it, Pop built more rooms. By the time I began to visit, his children were grown; what had been a houseful of kids had turned into an echo chamber of empty rooms. I was always welcome in those rooms as a child, especially by my grandmother, whom we called Mom-Mom.  I always felt at home there.

I have some small memories of Pop coming home after work in those years. He was a short but very trim man with a handsome, thin face topped until the day he died by a thick thatch of wavy hair that never went completely white. I remember him peeling off his work shirt and sleeveless undershirt and washing  (“warshing”) up at the kitchen sink. I remember him sitting after dinner with my grandmother, both of them drinking Iroquois Beer out of long-neck 16-ounce bottles, not saying much, smoking Pall Malls, saying goodbye to the workday and hello to whatever simple dinner was simmering on the stove. 

Maybe later they’d take out the Canasta decks and I’d go find something better to do, which was never hard.

On one visit, I couldn’t have been more than seven years old, Pop took me and my younger brother Joe fishing. We went to a place called Parker Dam. He baited our hooks with worms and cast our lines for us. I knew even then there was no more Pop-like activity in the world than fishing.

Rule One for fishing with Pop was if you could see the fish, the fish could see you. That was easy enough to accept, though difficult to test, since even when he pointed one out to me, I could never see the fish he was pointing at.

Rule Two was you couldn’t talk or make noise because the fish could hear you and would flee the scene. This rule was a little harder to understand, since what little I’d seen of fish left me with the impression they had no ears. But I would no more question Pop than I would question the pope. Besides being a grownup, I’d seen him arrive home from other outings with strings full of fish as big as puppies.

When chatter began to bubble up between me and Joe, Pop’s forehead would furrow and he’d put his finger to his lips and whisper a wordless warning that sounded like “bup bup bup,” which made us shut up. For a while.

The record shows that neither Joe nor I ever caught anything bigger than bait-size sunnies. I fear Pop didn’t do that well, either, having to spend valuable fishing time teaching two little boys the fine art of silence. Neither Joe nor I ever got very good at being quiet or being fishermen.

Pop and Mom-Mom left DuBois and moved to Buffalo in 1960 so Mom-Mom could be closer to my mother. They settled on a house just two blocks from where me and my by-then six brothers and sisters lived. It was like having Mr. and Mrs. Claus join the neighborhood.

My grandmother allowed me to do things at her house I was never allowed to do at home, like stay up late on Friday night visits and watch the spooky-movie Late Show on Channel 7, accompanied by a towering pile of chocolate-sauced ice cream dosed with salted cocktail peanuts which for some reason was called a Mexican Sundae.

Mom-Mom was a wonderful baker and always allowed me to lick whatever pans she used to create her sticky buns or the sugary sauce she drenched them in. She was childlike herself, prone, I later learned, to serious bouts of depression and anxiety. Maybe it was that vulnerability that made her so easy to connect with. She didn’t seem like an adult, a grownup. When we were together, we were in league together, co-conspirators who sometimes fell from grace with the disapproving adults we lived among.

My memories of Pop are dimmer during this time. He never got in the way of Mom-Mom’s various indulgences, never questioned or challenged them, at least not in my presence. He hung back and didn’t seem to know what to do with me at the age of ten or eleven. Turned out, he had other fish to fry.

I realize now Pop was busy learning how to make a life that didn’t include the drudgery of the work he’d retired from when he and Mom-Mom moved down to Buffalo. He’d been working in the yards since Teddy Roosevelt was president.

But retirement seemed to suit him. After laboring all his life in the din and dark of the yards, he found pleasure in being a tinkerer, fixing everything from flickering lamps to balky doorknobs to broken radios. He stayed away from TVs and cars — everything else in his tiny white house and ours was his to fix.

It seems in memory he did most of his work with a penknife, a ripsaw, a folding wooden measure and a miter box. Of them all, the penknife was the most important, allowing him to dig out rotten pieces of molding, spin a screw out of its socket or strip the plastic sheath off electric wire. 

Being a handyman then had none of the high-tech, tool-crazy aura it has today. It was a matter of pride for Pop that he could find a solution to a problem and fix it the way he spoke — with a minimum of fuss, noise or bother. He wasn’t a pack-rat, didn’t have that stingy attitude toward materials or tools.

But somehow, he’d find whatever he needed to patch something up, even if it was something slightly experimental, like the way he fixed a broken hinge on a beloved Tensor lamp of mine. The trim little lamp would have died of embarrassment if it could have seen the pink knob of goop Pop had applied to its small metal hood, but what Pop’s solutions sometimes lacked in elegance they usually made up for in sturdiness — that little lamp lived another 20 years past its normal life span.

He and Mom-Mom found a tavern, Murphy’s, where they felt comfortable at the Friday-night fish fry. They never developed any new friendships; my grandmother especially preferring my mother’s company down the street. I know now there were painful issues regarding my grandmother’s emotional health, but they remained invisible to a twelve-year-old boy who loved being so near two grownups who dealt him into their evening Canasta games, giving him grown-up consideration but not  insisting he assume grown-up responsibilities.

But within two years of their arrival down the street, my father got his dream job in New York City as the publicist for the nascent American Football League. The family left Buffalo for an alien planet called Westchester County in 1963. It took us three subsequent years to find our way back home, and that was when I finally got good at Canasta. I was 16 by then, and though Mom-Mom would still ply me with sundaes and homemade bread and sticky buns, Pop brought a little something extra to table in the form of those long-neck bottles of beer, which he would share with me on Canasta nights.

A lifetime of coal dust and Pall Malls had by the late Sixties given Pop’s voice a soft, whispery quality. We’d be playing cards and he’d flatter me by asking me my 17-year-old opinion on issues of the day. I had zero understanding of whatever steel strike was looming or the significance of the body count from Vietnam, didn’t know a Republican from a Rosicrucian, which did nothing to stop me from spouting off for minutes at a time. Pop never argued with me. He’d just listen intently, nod his head at my stunning insights and whup me at Canasta.

Buffalo was a blue-collar, steel-making town, and the early Sixties had their share of strikes and talk thereof. Though I believe he belonged to a railroad workers’ union, Pop was no union man. 

The only time I heard him tell about what he did for a living was a story about a threatened strike in his earliest days at the yards. A union organizer came by and urged the men to walk out. A question was raised about the milk train; if all the men walked out, how would the women and families down the line get the milk they needed?

“Let ’em starve,” Pop growled in imitation of the organizer’s brutal response. “Let ’em starve.” The strike, Pop later explained, was over a one-cent-per-hour raise. Fifty years after he’d heard the organizer’s words, he was still aghast. He still couldn’t believe the cruelty that lay behind them.

My boyhood ended in 1968 when I went off to college. Mom-Mom died the next year. I became embroiled in the anti-war movement, dropped out of school in 1970. There were no more rounds of Canasta, no more shared bottles of beer.

At the age of 88 or so, Pop quit smoking. Quitting made him so miserable his sons and daughter urged him to bring back the Pall Malls. He did, and if his voice became even more feathery, his disposition improved markedly.

I suppose the cigarettes finally killed him, but he lived another couple of years before they claimed him. I didn’t see him much during those last years, having by then moved my family out of Buffalo in pursuit of my own dream job to New Paltz, where, as a newspaperman, I wrote a remembrance of Pop in the local weekly that was published just before he died. I lionized him in that piece, as I suppose I’m doing now. I can think of no better way to think about him.

I suspect the quietness I’m extolling here permeated my mother’s life in sometimes painful ways. He worked nights at the B&O for many years, so that his children had to endure an enforced daytime silence. He was not an ingratiating figure in their early lives. I suspect for them as well as for me, Pop was more fun when his children and grandchildren were able to hold a Canasta hand.

Each time I saw him on visits home he’d become even quieter than before, a condition that went hand-in-hand with the gradual loss of his hearing. His body was pulling up the drawbridge, shutting the windows, but slowly. 

Talking in his last years had become something as difficult for him as walking uphill. More and more, he didn’t want to waste his breath. He conserved what he didn’t have to spend and everyone in the family came to understand his widening silences in that way.

He died at home in 1985 at the age of 94. All his children survived him. I’m as glad as he was that he never had to face the terminal indignities of a hospital bed, plugged into beeping, tube-spouting machines. His only real brush with hospitals was in 1918 during the flu epidemic, and the experience had been sufficient to keep him from their gloomy halls the rest of his days.

On my last visit to his tiny house, he had gotten out of his day bed in the living room and was standing, unsteadily, in the kitchen doorway. He wore a long, buttoned-up-the-back hospital gown that made him look like a child. He saw me standing in the hallway door, only a few feet away from him. He turned my way and in a voice full of dismay asked me “Can you believe this, Jerry?” 

He dropped his gaze to his scrawny legs. He’d always stood straight, his lean, narrow face always pointing into the future as sharply and surely as a compass needle points north. Now his back had betrayed him and left him clutching at the kitchen counter. When he looked at me, it was with eyes made larger and whiter by flesh that had melted away from his eye sockets and settled into thin puddles atop his cheekbones.

His question — Can you believe this? — let me know he’d tolerate no visitor’s foolishness about how well he looked or how soon he’d soon be back in the saddle. He may have stood up to his fate that night, but we both knew it wouldn’t be for long. He wasn’t the man he used to be, he wasn’t happy about it and no one was going to tell him differently. He was past consolation.

I didn’t try. I didn’t have the words. I shook my head at his question and mumbled words meant to sound offhand and cheerful, as if I hadn’t witnessed what was perfectly obvious to the both of us.

His eyes hung on me for another moment, asking me to listen, to take him seriously. But before I could say anything, a nurse’s aide whom I hadn’t noticed before waddled into view from behind him and stood between us, announcing in a schoolmarm’s scolding voice that he wasn’t to get out of bed like that again. “It isn’t good for you, Mr. Lawn.”

To my shame, I used her words as an excuse to keep my distance from my grandfather. The aide took him by the elbow and turned him around, leading him to the daybed in the living room.

That was the last I saw of Pop. I left his house that night without much more than a quick and jolly-sounding promise to come back at some better time.

It had only taken a second, and it was only a second in a life full of seconds, but I let you down that night, Pop, and I knew it. I had no appreciation then of your struggles, your efforts or your silences.

I was younger then. I’m older now. Less steady on my feet. More easily tired by walking hilly streets that never seemed hilly before. Not hearing as well as I used to. 

But I still hear your voice. And your silence — the silence, it now seems, like that of the west-bound locomotive that brought you, a little boy, to a small Pennsylvania town and the family and the life that I love.