Bob and I checked out St. Luke’s cemetery on our way back from MA and Gerald’s house a couple of weeks ago. The St. Luke’s Catholic Church I remember was a small painted white church and on a back road near Loire, Texas. Since Loire is a ghost town, and has been for more than 50 years, you can’t find a city limit sign. You also can’t find the Catholic church that I remember since the Diocese demolished the old church and relocated the parish to a site next to IH 37. Bob and I bounced in and out of county roads until we found the cemetery which was right where I left it 35 years ago.
I wanted to see it again for a couple of reasons. I hadn’t visited our maternal grandparents’ graves for years. I’m ashamed to say that since we grew up visiting our grandfather’s grave. Living in George West, Texas, we were on a direct route to Grandma’s house in San Antonio. We made that drive at least once a month for as long as I lived at home. The usual trip involved leaving Grandma’s house after a weekend visit and a belt loosening Sunday dinner. We never took off without a big bouquet of flowers from Grandma’s garden to put on Papa’s grave.
Grandma, a farm girl, had a thumb as green as any master gardener. There were always flowers. Sometimes it was African or shasta daisies and snapdragons; other times it was poinsettias or crepe myrtle. She had lilies of the valley and roses. It was a huge bunch and it rode in a vase positioned between Mother’s feet. Daddy maneuvered the Dodge down the dirt road to the church, water sloshing out on Mother’s shoes and Mother admonishing him to “Be careful, David!”
It didn’t matter how hot it was outside, we all tumbled out of the car and walked to Papa’s grave. Daddy pulled a grubbing hoe out of the trunk and cleaned off the grave while Mother pulled out the vase we’d left the previous month and sent one of us girls to top off the water in the replacement vase. After she installed the vase with fresh flowers, rearranged them to her satisfaction, and gathered us around her, we knelt in the hard dirt and offered up a prayer for the repose of our grandfather and all the faithful departed as well as all the poor souls in purgatory.
Coming into the cemetery and leaving, Mother kept up a constant monologue about who was who.
- Great Aunt Jo who was “big and fat and dropped dead of a heart attack when she was only 36,” who said “Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The one who starts first eats the most” as grace before dinner.
- Great Uncle Sam who picked his nose
- Double Great grandfather Joseph who was both brother-in-law and father to his daughter owing to his marriage to her oldest sister.
We started coming to the cemetery when Papa died in 1958. He died too young from pneumonia. The consensus was that Grandma would die in the next year or so. He had been her one and only love, her heart. She was a wonderful and loving mother, but Arthur got the biggest slice of her love.
She fell in love with him when she was 3 and he was 7. The Palmers lived down the road from the Swindler family; her father sent Grandma and siblings to their house while her mother had a new baby. She told us about how Papa, who was 4 years older, had taken care of her and played chase with her. When her older brothers came for her, she hid under the Palmers’ front porch, coming out only when Papa promised to come see her.
Papa ended up leaving home when he was 17 and she was 13. He felt stifled and hated the prospect of farming which was the career path his family chose for him. He struck out on his own to make his fortune. When Grandma was at a courting age, and he came home to visit, they sat on the porch swing and she listened to his adventures. Building railroads and mining copper must have sounded like an exotic life to her. He sent her postcards, always addressing her as “Miss Swindler.” She waited for him to come for her.
At 18 and unmarried, she became a teacher. She taught in one room school houses, riding her horse to the little communities of Panna Maria, Cestohowa, and Kosciusko. She roomed with families who spoke their native languages at home. The sermon at Catholic Mass wasn’t preached in English and she adapted, learning prayers and songs in Polish so she could make a start in the classroom.
Arthur came home when she was 22, bought a farm and cattle, and asked her to marry him. She was 24, an old maid, but she didn’t care. Arthur had come for her. They got married at 5:30 Mass in San Fernando Cathedral. That’s 5:30 a.m. They left church and caught the train to Austin. Arthur’s brothers were glad to feed the cattle and chickens, but they had their own farms so the honeymoon only lasted one night.
Grandma told us about how Papa dropped her at the movie theater while he found a suitable and affordable place for them to stay the night. She said that she was so nervous about what was to come that she didn’t even remember the movie. She thinks it played 4 or 5 times before Papa came back, but she’s not even sure of that. She waited patiently for him to come for her.
They made a good life in San Antonio while Papa worked for City Public Service. Grandma wasn’t happy being in town. The traffic noises frightened her and Papa often worked late in the night. She would pick up our uncle and mother out of their beds and hold them on her lap as she sat on the porch and waited for him to come home. She felt safer outside than in the house.
My older sister and I got shifted to San Antonio while Mother had our little sister. Cuddling with them in bed, warm as we slept between the two of them, there was an amazing sense of safety. I remember how warm it was in the orbit of their love. I could see it when they worked in the yard together, Papa squirting Georgie and me with the garden hose and soaking Grandma when she protested about the mess we would make coming into the house. Even though I was only 3, I understood it was something incredibly rare and beautiful.
Papa’s death on July 18, 1958 devastated her. She suddenly looked old, distracted and crushed by life. That’s why there was such certainty that Grandma couldn’t keep going with him gone. They were wrong, though. She cried for the first year and then picked up the pieces. Anniversaries were hard; we drove up every July 18 to celebrate Mass in his memory.
She kept her chickens and the house, shrewdly selling off cattle and property when the market was right, taking care of her daughter until Edna’s death from lupus, being a rock to her family and the love of her grandchildren. She was fearless, going outside to investigate noises in the middle of the night armed only with Papa’s walking stick. “Papa’s with me,” she said calmly when Mother scolded her for going out alone.
She mowed her own yard until she was 89 and broke a hip. It was a quick slide downhill until her death. She had become so fragile that we had to put our ears within inches of her mouth to hear what she needed. She often just stared out the window, waiting. Mose made it a habit to sit with her every afternoon, grading papers and just being close to her mother. One afternoon she heard Grandma’s sharp intake of air and her exclamation, “Arthur! You came for me.”
She’d waited for him long enough. It was July 18, 1977.