Hazel and Ralph E. Couey, with my Dad, Duane
Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 23, 2011
as "Family Treasures Discovered"
When our father died in 2004, my sister and I had the sad duty of going through his belongings. He had been a minister who traveled the world and amongst his things were reminders of his missions to all seven continents and a host of Pacific islands. He was an avid reader, very much a self-taught man, and had acquired a prodigious collection of books. They were mostly theology and philosophy, but included some history, and the collected poems of Wordsworth. What we didn’t donate went into a storage unit, and eventually into my sister’s garage.
We think we know everything that’s in those boxes, but occasionally we get surprised. Once, she found a box of letters that our grandfather had written to Dad while he was in the Navy in World War II. Neither of us ever knew our Grandfather, even though I bear his first name, so this was a priceless opportunity to peer into the life, mind, and heart of a man we wish we had known.
And it was amazing. He was a man of strong opinions, and was not at all shy about sharing them. He wrote at length about his life and the times in which he lived. And those things that all parents fret about, namely the welfare and behavior of their children. His words opened a window on a life we had never known.
Our grandmother died at age 32, of what cause we’ve been unable to determine. So, since both passed before we were born, we’ve always been hungry for knowledge and insight about the kind of people who raised our Father. We even lacked photographs of them.
Then, in late July, my brother-in-law made an amazing discovery. He was going through a box of what he thought were canceled checks, when suddenly he came upon a small manila envelope. Inside, he found a treasure trove of pictures.
For the first time, we were able to see our grandparents.
The pictures dated mainly from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, but the images were surprisingly clear and sharp. My Grandmother Hazel always looked young. Even those pictures with two or three children about, she never looked older than a teenager. In her face, I could see those familiar features that decorated all of my aunts and uncles. She had a gentle, yet mischievous smile. In those pictures, she looked happy, vivacious, even at times frivolous. You could tell she was in love with life.
My Grandfather Ralph, though, was a real revelation.
Even with a limited knowledge of body language, I could immediately see a lot. He was a strong man; even the shapeless clothes of that day couldn’t hide a muscular barrel chest. His legs were thick, his arms chiseled. And in nearly every picture, he stood with his legs apart, hands on hips, chest out, head held high. Here, I realized, was a man to be reckoned with; proud, tough, and resolute. His bearing communicated challenge to the world; a dare, if you will. I realized that the steel I knew to be in my Father had been milled in the heart and cast in the hands of this man.
There were other things that we could see. In the midst of the Great Depression, they dressed well and lived in houses that, while not mansions, were large and well-built nonetheless. They had cars and apparently took vacations, mainly around the Great Lakes.
The more I looked at the pictures, the more I realized that the Depression hadn’t defeated my Grandfather. He looked hard times squarely in the eye and had beaten them.
I looked at that face from across the decades and yearned for just a few minutes to hear his voice and gage his personality; to shake those huge hands, or even perhaps to feel his embrace. I wanted to hear his stories about life and receive the wisdom of his experiences. I wanted to look him in the eye and find the warmth of his love.
And I wondered; what would he say to me? What advice or counsel would he offer? And would he find favor with his grandson?
In those pictures are people I will never know; a past I can never share.
And on this cool, rainy night, eleven years into the 21st century with all its wonders and tragedies, I find myself yearning for what time has stolen from me.
The privilege of knowing my Grandfather.
"A man of adamant."