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The gap it left in our lives

Robert Stanger Contributing writer

As the coronavirus descends upon our nation, even striking close to home, and as the national death toll mounts and I advance in years and acquire a few health problems of my own, death somehow seems closer at hand rather than just out there in the infinite.

The recent death of Jim Lehrer, who very capably moderated so many presidential debates and whom I watched so many early evenings as he and Robert MacNeil presided over the News Hour on PBS certainly hasn’t helped. His obituary simply said that Lehrer had died in his sleep at age 85. (Or younger than I.)

I have lost so many relatives, including my parents, siblings, and work associates over the years, but one stands out for the cruelty of her demise and the gap it left in my life as well as in the lives of many others.

My half-sister Marie was only 35 when she died of metastatic breast cancer. I was just 14 at the time, and she had been a strong presence throughout my life, stronger in some ways than my own mother.

Marie was almost striking in her appearance. Her brown hair and brown eyes and sharp features reflected her Irish and Swedish heritage.

After a year or two at Edinboro State, she married a truck driver from Buffalo, Walter Good (whom we called “Goodie”), who could have passed for a Native American although he was of English descent. The fact that Marie was said to have eloped was perhaps a sign of the chagrin her father (a somewhat haughty Swede) felt over the union.

Goodie and Marie settled into a small rented home located on West 32nd Street, just five short city blocks above our home in Erie, and Goodie became a long-haul driver for Fruehauf and later drove a dump truck in Erie. They had a daughter, Sylvia, who although close to me in age was my niece.

Theirs was a household of only three until, when close to the end of her life, Marie took in Irene, the daughter of her brother, Burke, who had become disabled because of the tuberculosis he had acquired on Guam while stationed there as a Navy chief pharmacist’s mate.

Because of her husband’s illness, Burke’s wife, Lou, gave up her three children to relatives in Erie. Two aunts took in the other two children, Burkie and Bill.

Marie’s home became a second one for me. She had a dog, a terrier mix called “Smokey” that I doted on. And, at that time, 32nd Street was the southern boundary of Erie as just open fields lay between it and the established city boundary.

I wandered the fields at will, and with friends from the area even skied or sledded there in the winter on a large hill.

One year I tried to trap rabbits in the fields in a hare-brained (pun intended) program managed by the Boy Scouts (I was a member of an Erie church’s troop) that aimed to reduce what was believed to be an over-population of the critters in the area. I managed to trap exactly one rabbit, a very feisty individual, as I recall. I took the burlap-sacked animal to the scoutmaster’s house. I don’t know what he did with it.

Residents along West 32nd Street also planted “Victory Gardens” in the fields behind their homes during World War II. Marie and Sylvia did quite well with theirs, but I neglected my adjacent one until it was little more than a plot of weeds. (I didn’t like raising vegetables any more than eating them.) My unhappy father had to hoe out the garden for me.

One spring, someone gave Sylvia a couple of yellow ducklings as an Easter present. Marie kept them and raised them in a pen behind the garage until they were large white fowl. Their antics amused her, an she was dismayed when predators, probably dogs or foxes, killed them.

I also spent part of each summer with Marie and Sylvia (and Goodie as well until he was drafted during the war) at our family cottage on Forest Park Beach, west of Erie. We were joined there by other members of our clan, including my sister Ruth.

We did a lot of swimming, had nightly campfires, and occasionally took long canoe rides along the shore early in the morning before that day’s breeze picked up.

Our constant companion on these outings in his kayak was Francis, one of the four children of the Fleckenstein family who owned the cottage next to ours and who were the summer companions of Sylvia and me for years. The Fleckensteins owned a bakery in the Dormont section of Pittsburgh. (Their youngest daughter, Lois, married into the family that owns the Seven Springs resort east of Pittsburgh. I believe that she became an influential person at the resort.)

Marie was never really into fishing, but I recall that one morning on one of our canoe trips she tied a length of fishing line with a lure attached to a long stick and trolled for bass as we paddled along the lake’s shore.

To my amazement (and hers) she did manage to hook a bass which leaped out of the water several times behind the canoe before shaking the hook.

Goodie was drafted into the Army in the early 1940’s and since Marie never worked, she and Sylvia must have had to live on just what Goodie could send home. She was very good at canning fruits and vegetables in the fall.

As I noted in a previous article, Walter Good sent home extremely shocking photos of Holocaust victims as he, as a truck driver, was one of the first American soldiers to arrive at one of the Nazi concentration camps. I wonder what the paper would have done had Marie (or another family member) had submitted the photos. What the Nazis had done to the Jews was hardly common knowledge at the time Marie got the photos.

It wasn’t long after Goodie was drafted that Marie was stricken with breast cancer.

I recall that she stopped by our home one day after visiting her physician, who had an office nearby. My mother asked her if the trip to the doctor’s was due to “the same problem” that she had apparently mentioned previously… the symptoms of breast cancer. Marie replied in the affirmative.

It wasn’t long thereafter that Marie had a mastectomy and when Goodie came home at the end of the war he said that his wife resembled one of the wounded he had seen in Europe.

Despite its extent, the surgery wasn’t effective in stopping Marie’s cancer as it had metastasized into other parts of her body.

Faced with the seemingly unsurmountable odds against her survival, Frank, Marie’s older brother (by just two years) — a salesman who was usually his own boss, took over her diet.

The theory was that under something which I recall as being called the Koch Treatment, Marie’s cancer could be starved into remission by depriving it of the fats and sugar it needed to survive.

I recall that when I would stop by the home which I had visited so often over the years, Frank would be laboring in the kitchen, cooking vegetable-based meals in pressure cookers.

Marie grew quite gaunt and lamented that she was very tired of subsisting on steamed vegetables. “The pork roast they had last night smelled so good,” she told me at one point.

The diet didn’t work, of course, and I recall that one day when I was just hanging out in the backyard behind her home someone in the home called out through a window, “Bobby, Marie wants to see you.”

I went up to her upstairs room and stood rather self-consciously next to her bed, not knowing quite what to say. She sensed my unease, and just gazed at me and held my hand for a few moments before I left.

It was about three o’clock on a following morning when the phone in our living room rang. It was Frank, telling my father that Marie had passed on,

I well recall the huge bank of flowers sent by Marie’s many friends in Erie that lay above her casket at the funeral home.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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