Mt. Savage Stoker
Issue # 6
By Rich Wilhelm
April 26, 2000

I am sitting here drinking Fresca out of a pastel orange plastic cup with a white rim. I'm hoping to find some inspiration to write about my grandmother, Frances "Patsy" Wilhelm, who died two years ago last week. The chances are likely that I will be inspired, since the plastic cup belonged to her and Fresca was, if I remember correctly, her favorite brand of soda (or, as she called it, "tonic").

Grandma lived in Mt. Savage, Maryland, about 5-1/2 hours away from us by car. The same month that my son Jimmy was born, November 1997, Grandma was diagnosed with lung cancer. The prognosis was not good. Donna and I weren't sure how a newborn would travel, so it wasn't until January that the three of us made the trip, along with my parents and sister, Lisa, to visit Grandma in the nursing home where she was living in Frostburg, Maryland.

As we drove out to Frostburg, I thought about the last time we visited Grandma in her home. It was September 1996 and Donna and I were headed to my friend Ed's wedding in Pittsburgh. We drove through Maryland and surprised Grandma with a visit around 4:00 on a Friday afternoon. Actually, we thought we were surprising her, but as we walked into the house she said, "Well, I dropped a knife earlier so I knew a man was coming to visit." I guess she wasn't entirely surprised.

We spent about two hours at Grandma's house that night. She talked about how she was feeling and about how much she enjoyed watching the Baltimore Orioles on TV. She let us in on an ongoing bit of family intrigue and even gave us some family history (my grandmother was one of 17 children), particularly about my grandfather's parents. Apparently they were not pleased when their 22-year-old son married someone who was seven years his senior. Grandma was in great spirits during our brief visit, and I'm sure that when we left for Pittsburgh that evening I told her we'd be back to visit again soon.

Our two visits to the nursing home that January weekend in '98 were the only times Jimmy spent with his Great-Grandma Wilhelm. The Saturday of that weekend was on Grandma's 88th and last birthday. We introduced Jimmy to his great-grandmother and laid him down on the bed next to her. She touched him gently and simply repeated a few times, "Oh he's beautiful." I will never forget how she said it. It was obvious that my grandmother was very sick, but I think that Jimmy managed to bring some small measure of happiness to her life that weekend. And the truth of the matter is, Jimmy’s presence was the only thing that kept any of us from falling apart during that sad weekend. A picture that my sister took, looking over my shoulder at Jimmy on the bed with Grandma sitting next to him is now one of my most treasured possessions.

I had just brought Jimmy in from a walk late one afternoon in April when my mom called to tell me that Grandma Wilhelm had died a few hours earlier. It was now time to head back to Mt. Savage to say goodbye.

After the funeral, a bunch of us sat in the front room of Grandma's house. Although the house was filled with relatives, it seemed a little empty now that the woman who had lived there for 50 years was gone. We told stories and laughed and cried the way people do after funerals. Eventually, I think it was my cousin Dianne who said, "Well, let's go to the brickyard."

Oddly enough, this made perfect sense.

It made sense because, first of all, if Grandma had been around the house that beautiful spring day she probably would have told us to go outside and get some fresh air. Aside from that, it made sense because it gave us all a little opportunity to capture a small piece of the world my grandmother had lived in, pretty much her entire life.

For years, Mt. Savage was home to a brick-making factory. It has been defunct for a long time, but the buildings and the large ovens where the bricks were baked still stand. Bricks made at this factory often had "Mt. Savage" stamped on them, so we thought it might be nice to have a brick or two as souvenirs of the town where our grandparents had lived and where our fathers had grown up.

And so it was that Dianne, her daughters Ashley and Sarah, our cousin Susan (Dianne's sister), Lisa, Donna, and I piled into two cars and drove down the hill to the brickworks. We parked just off the road and gathered at the end of a dusty trail that led into one section of the factory grounds. A "no trespassing" sign gave us momentary cause for concern, but then we walked right past it and headed up the trail.

After walking about a quarter of a mile, we found an area that was filled with a variety of bricks that had been lying there for years. We spread out and tried to find a few distinctive examples of Mt. Savage brick making. I found one that was in pretty bad shape, but the words "Mt. Savage" could still be read. I liked the deterioration of that one, but I also wanted an intact brick. I soon found one that had the words "Mt. Savage Stoker" imprinted on it. I decided to keep these two.

Once we were satisfied with our finds, we gathered up the bricks we wanted and made our slow way (remember, bricks are heavy) back to the cars. We knew that if Grandma had been back at the house when we arrived she would have asked, "Well Jiminy Christmas, what are you going to do with all those bricks anyway?" We didn't know what we'd do with them; we just knew we wanted them.

Later that night, Donna, Jimmy and I headed home and I have not been back to Mt. Savage since. I certainly do want to go back, especially when Jimmy is a little older. This small town in Maryland has played a role in his family history and I want him to see it.

I didn't know what to do with the bricks for a long time after I had brought them home. In fact, I didn't even take them out of the car for a long time. After arriving at work one day, I decided to keep them in my cubicle, so I hauled them upstairs where a co-worker might occasionally ask about them. Although the bricks did make a nice conversation piece at work, ultimately I knew the bricks didn't belong in such a corporate, somewhat antiseptic, environment. They belonged at home.

When we first saw the house that we wound up buying last year, its most prominent feature was a four-foot-high lighthouse that sat in the front yard, with a real light that blinked on and off at night. The house was known in the area as "the lighthouse house." Of course, when we bought the house, the owners took the lighthouse with them, leaving a small square of dirt in our front yard. One day I realized that this is where the "Mt. Savage Stoker" brick needed to be, so I planted it in the ground. Eventually, I would like to plant some flowers around it, though I have not gotten that far yet. For now it doesn't matter. The point is that a tiny part of that Mt. Savage world has found a home in our front yard.

Last summer, Dad, Mom and Lisa drove back to Mt. Savage for a few days. They returned with a box of some of Grandma's things that they thought I'd like to keep. Some of these things, like the place card from our wedding reception with Grandma's name on it, made me cry. However, when I reached into the box and pulled out the orange plastic cup, I laughed. And then I cried.

So what's the deal with the cup, you ask? The cup was part of a set of six (Bolero Therm-O-Ware, according to the bottom of the cup) that had been sitting on top of Grandma's refrigerator for as long as anyone can remember. (For those of you who watched a lot of MTV in the early '80s, you can see the exact same style of cup in Corey Hart's classic "Sunglasses at Night" video--I probably jumped out of my seat and screamed "Grandma's cup!" the first time I saw the video.)

The cup was part of everyday life at Grandma's house. Both she and my grandfather, who died back in 1974, used the cup. When we'd visit Grandma at New Year's, Easter and in the summertime, my cousins and Lisa and I would sit around in the front room drinking "tonic" from the cups and playing charades. Ask Lisa or any of my cousins about their memories of Grandma's house and I promise you, the plastic cups will be mentioned.

A plastic cup...Fresca...a brick. I guess you could question whether these are proper ways to remember Frances Wilhelm, my grandmother, but I feel like they're perfectly appropriate. These things remind me of my Grandma's everyday life—what she ate and drank, how she talked and laughed, the town in which she lived. When I drink from the cup and when I look at the brick in our yard, I feel the strong connection I still have to Grandma and to my father's family. And, feeling that connection reinforces the connections I feel toward my other grandmother, Josephine French, my mom's mother, and her family; and also now to Kathryn West, Donna's grandmother, who passed away last year, and Donna's family.

Finally, the cup and the brick remind me how much I owe it to my children to give them the memories of family that Grandma Wilhelm and the rest of my family have given me. Which is exactly what I intend to do.

Thank you Grandma Wilhelm. For the Fresca, the plastic cup, and the brick. But mostly for the memories. And the inspiration.

(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2000 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing, please let me know so I can sue you or something.)