On Marbles – By Melonie Magruder
My Dad, who is pushing 80, pretty much has all his marbles. Occasionally, he’ll forget the title of a movie he just saw yesterday, or someone’s name that he’s known for 30 years, and you can see the glimmer of panic in his eyes as he fleetingly questions if this is it – are his marbles finally slipping out of his brain like gumballs sliding down the spiral chute of one of those jumbo dispensers in the supermarket?
Then he’ll remember the name or thing and move on. And we all pretty much agree that this is simply the brief hiccup of an impatient mind that has stored up 80 years of memories.
Dad’s marbles are actually pretty rock solid when it comes to remembering, and giving context to, Houston of the 1930s, a city of around 295,000 souls at that time. He remembers lying in bed on the sun porch of his grandparents’ little brick home on Hazard Street, the mosquitoes softly thudding against the screens, while he listened to his grandfather and his buddies listen to the radio broadcast where Joe Louis knocked out Cinderella Man James J. Braddock for the World Heavyweight Championship.
“You mean we got a nigger for the heavyweight champ?” one of the men exclaimed bitterly. “What is this world coming to?”
At age five, it was Dad’s first instance of hearing the word nigger. The next day, he asked his grandmother what a “nigger” was.
“Don’t say that word,” she scolded him. “You say ‘nig-ra’.”
One year later, when Louis blistered German boxer Max Schmeling in one round to retain the heavyweight title, my great-grandfather’s buddies were even more disgusted. They would have preferred a Nazi become the heavyweight champ over a nigger. After all, the Klu Kluxxers might have seen their numbers dropping over the past 10 years, to the point where they had to broaden their targets to include New Deal politicians and labor organizers; but the idea of a virile young black man still made white, blue collar Texan blood boil.
These are some of the other things Dad remembers from a childhood in Houston: running after the ice wagon on hot summer days to grab shards that had been chipped off the canvas-covered blocks of ice on the wagon that restocked neighborhood iceboxes.
Laying in bed on that same sun porch several years later, watching the college girl across the alley, who left the window of her second-story bedroom open against the summer heat, undress for bed.
“What are you looking at?” his grandmother screeched, coming into the sun porch suddenly.
“Nothin’!” Dad swore. “Nothin’ at all!”
The bacon and egg sandwiches his grandmother would fry up for his grandfather in a mess of butter in the big, black cast-iron skillet. Served along hash browns fried with onions.
Sitting in the movie theatre with his nine-year-old friends watching “Sergeant York” when the film suddenly stopped, the lights came on and they announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
As the uniformed men in the audience got up to hurry back to Ellington Field, Dad turned to one of his friends. “What are Japanese?” he asked.
Going with his fifth-grade class to tour a local radio station. The children dutifully trooped through the editing bay and recording studio, marveling at the library of 78 RPM discs and shyly whispering their hellos into the bulky microphone.
The station manager introduced them to the team, saying of one man, “Now, this man, boys and girls, is our sound engineer, Mr. Ira Hahn.”
At the end of the tour, Dad went up to the man. “Excuse me, sir,” he said. “Did you ever know a lady named Marjorie Magruder?”
The man looked taken aback but allowed that he did.
“Were you ever married to her?” Dad persisted and, again, the man nodded.
“Well, I guess I’m your son, then,” Dad said.
Dad’s mother, who I called Granny, had “got into some trouble” with Ira Hahn when they were both in their mid-teens. They married quickly, produced my father about seven months later and, just as quickly, divorced. Since she was living with her parents, she took back her maiden name and they started to call Dad “Bobby.”
As soon as he could legally change his own name, he dropped the Ira Claude Hahn III moniker that was as stiff and unfamiliar as Ira Claude Hahn II had been to him, and became Robert Olin Magruder. Olin being the first name of the man who, with his wife Jo, took little Bobby in as a foster child during the bleak days of the Depression when Granny was the only working adult in a household of five.
Granny’s shifts as a waitress at the Shamrock Hotel allowed her to bring home delectable scraps and an occasional meat bone for the soup pot, but left her little time for a toddler. Folks improvised back then when times were tough and Dad spent his childhood bouncing around homes of loving, but decidedly older, parental figures.
He got married way too young. Twenty-one years young. Though I’m glad he did, I often wonder how his life would have been different if my mother hadn’t insisted that they get married before she would fool around.
Shortly after an April wedding and a June graduation, Dad enlisted in the Navy and applied to Officers Candidate School, figuring that more book study, even about naval regulations, was better than The Draft and a chance to be shot at by Korean nationals.
He ended up writing daily radio programs for Armed Forces Radio in Hollywood, mustered out and spent twenty years in a suit, working in all things radio, from jocking to station ownership.
When he was in his forties, with a mortgage and three upcoming college tuitions to consider, he decided to quit the corporate world and work exclusively in freelance voice-over work. Over the years, he grew to be a pretty big fish in a smaller regional pond and has been heard in commercials, political ads, movie trailers, defense contracting industrial films and movies-of-the-week. He has taught workshops, advised a legion of young voice-acting aspirants, written a book and become a sort of elder statesman of the local airwaves.
Along the way, he has treated everyone he met, from the president of multinational corporations to the homeless guy holding the cardboard sign on the sidewalk outside his office with the same courtesy, respect and light humor.
He lives with a frugality born of Depression-era anxiety. When he showed up at some event a few years ago in a pair of turquoise, faux-leather hush puppies, I had to ask if he had lost his good shoes.
“These are good shoes,” he protested. “I got ‘em twenty years ago and only had to resole them once!”
Even with his thrifty tendencies, Dad lives a philosophy of generosity you rarely see in today’s acquisitive society. He is owed enough money to found a small country – all in debts he’ll probably never collect – from friends and family who hit a rough patch. He doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
While perennially young at heart, Dad has reached that age where he is being forced to acknowledge his own mortality. His eldest child hit the half-century mark. His wife of fifty-seven years lives in the twilight world of dementia. After three rotator cuff surgeries, quadruple-bypass horror and a femoral artery now so constricted that his leg tires walking from the parking lot to his office, he no longer plays tennis, though he’s game for a thrice-weekly workout on the stationary bicycle at the gym.
In the past year, Dad lost two of his very close friends in deaths that were far from pretty. When I imagine Dad thinking about Mike and Little Jerry Houston, I wonder if he sees them as they were in their recent, undignified conditions or when they were vital and quirky and acted as if they were all in on some little secret.
Dad is handling Mom’s decline with a grace I would not have expected, given his own parents’ proclivity to skip town when things got tough. He shares the latest Mom behavior with me and usually manages to find humor in the face of another nail in her coffin of lucidity.
When she’s trying to cough up a sentence and can’t think of the word she wants, he’ll offer helpful, diverse suggestions.
“Bob,” Mom will say, “You need to go out and take care of that… um…”
“Jack o’ lantern?”
“NO, Bob! That, that… what were you saying?”
He told me the story of a recent evening when my sister Cathleen was sitting with Mom and Dad, watching TV, and a commercial featuring little children came on. After enjoying the bright, innocent faces, Mom turned to Dad and said, “Now, I’m really sorry that I never had children like that.”
Cathleen froze momentarily and Dad plunged in. “Well, of course you did, Patsy. There’s your son who is a doctor, your daughter who lives out in California and your other daughter who lives down the street. Then there are the three kids who are in prison.”
My daughter was Dad’s first grandchild and I still have a photo of him walking with Tiffany, holding hands, her big, blue, three-year-old eyes gazing up at him. His seven grandkids call him ‘Moco,’ which means booger in Spanish – a term of endearment that would take too long to explain.
I am proud to point to Moco as an example of a life well lived. I hope my children emulate a fraction of the dignity, the responsibility, the creativity and the fun that is a part of their grandfather’s DNA.
Now if only I could say the same for those three siblings in prison.