Sunday, April 1, 2012


Atop my mother’s pine hutch sits an old flow blue fruit bowl, the one Hannah McGrew handed her on an autumn day years ago.
Hannah McGrew was one of them Mormons.  She hunkered deep in a holler somewhere in the winding woods in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.  Though I was a Mormon living in that portion of paradise, I never knew her; never saw her in our little chapel in Pleasant Hills.  But she was on the record of membership and so on Sunday afternoon between Sunday School and Sacrament meeting Chuck Iams drove up to our house and called in through the front screen. 

“Hello?” he bellowed, his bass voice belying the long lanky Danny Kay body with the faded orange sherbet crop of hair on top.

My brother John’s rubber band legs scooted down the stairs and without a word the two of them were off to do their Priesthood duties.  Home Teaching and Visiting Teaching in our neck of the woods meant a good long bumpy ride into places no one knew anyone lived.  Long lists of stewardship that included people who had not set foot in a church for fifty years.  When I grew up and became a Visiting Teacher my list was 10 ladies long.  Finding them was my foray into treasure hunting.  Maybe that’s why my favorite thrift stores and bargain shopping haunts feel so right to me.
I imagine my 14 year old brother walking beside Chuck Iams, lifting his long skinny legs up the front porch steps, giving, unawares, a sacred three taps to the wooden screen door.

“Mrs. McGrew?  It’s your Home Teachers calling this afternoon.”

John says he does not remember much about those days, except for the front porch and Chuck Iams and his priesthood duty.  Nowadays my brother’s latent priesthood lies in wait. But there was a time it was alive and beating.  It was there in his raised right hand when he was 16 and I was 8 and he laid me down in the waters of baptism.  It was in his words and his bowed his head, and in the motion of his strong arms as he dipped me under in the font of the Pleasant Hills Branch. He doesn’t know it worked, and if he does he probably doesn’t know how it worked, but the Holy Spirit has lived in me ever since so it must have.
I suppose it was my brother who told my mom that old Hannah McGrew was one of them old time Mormons, one of those that saw the light before the last century turned, when saints were reading first editions of the Book of Mormon and some of them left to join the rest in Ohio, then Missouri, then Illinois and then Utah. I suppose it was my dead grandfather who told my mother to find Hannah.  Reading her father’s old tiny leather bound nission journals, Mom found reference to her father before he was her father traveling without purse of scrip through the woody hillsides of Pennsylvania preaching the restored gospel.  There are old names buried somewhere in my brain, names like Coal Valley Road, except I don’t remember them now and I remember that one.  But they sound like that.  There was an old train station with one of those names, and that was the borough where Hannah McGrew’s family lived, and that was one of the stations where young George Parrish set his bag to the side of the tracks.  He wrote of taking a meal at the old white house with the raised front porch.  He wrote of sacrament being passed and an old pump organ in the living room.  Church was home in those places, in those days. I imagine my young grandfather’s long thick legs taking the steps up to the porch like his grandson would.
Mom found Hannah McGrew before she died.  Sought her out in the capacity of Stake Relief Society, and spoke to her about the long past days when there was just the Eastern States mission and my grandfather was a missionary.  “If your kinfolk was a missionary in the late 1800’s, then he was sure to have been in this house.  And if he was in this house then my mother was sure to have fed him some fruit from this bowl, as she was inclined to have a tender spot for them boys so far from home.”

Hannah raised in her withered hands this old fruit bowl from the kitchen counter.  Its creamy white skin patterned with flowing cobalt blue, the blue seeping softly into the white like my mother’s memories mix with her imagination now. 

“Here, you take this, and remember your father.”  Hannah handed my mother the bowl, like Mary standing before Jesus with her perfumed oil.   
“No, I can’t.” 
“Ah, go on, it’ll mean more to you than to my children.”

And so my mother, at the end of her afternoon with Hannah McGrew, set this old flow blue fruit bowl on the passenger seat of the car, brought it home and placed it on the china hutch of my childhood.  Written on the bottom with a black marker, in my mother’s handwriting, is the name John.
Years later, when I had grown and married and had two little ones of my own, Mom and I made a few last visits before we moved from Pittsburgh to Utah.  We drove over to Westmoreland, to the old Milkglass Factory that was closing its doors forever.  I bought myself my own set of Westmoreland Milkglass China, and Mom overdid her overdone set even more.  And we made a trip to that unnamed holler to see if Hannah McGrew’s place was still there.  It was.  Hannah was not.  A niece or a nephew, I can’t even recall, now lived there.  The front porch was newly painted white, and the house was a grand old place that came to be before the stacked houses of the steel mill boom took over the hillsides.  They welcomed us in, and I recall the sunlight streaming through the long, long kitchen windows.  And I recall the kitchen counter, where Mom said the fruit bowl sat.  And I imagined the suncracked hands of my grandfather before he was my grandfather, white cuffed wrists turning an apple against his pantleg, laughing that George-like laugh, which vibrations must be captured somewhere in the flow of blue against white of my mother’s old fruit bowl.    
George Washington Parrish as a young
missionary in Pennsylvania

1 comment:

  1. Hannah was right, you know. If I had something that rang with significance in that same way, I'd know it would live in your hands and never die. That my history would be safe forever - hallowed and loved. What a story this is. And how odd life is, that small things can connect us to people we love but hardly really knew.