My Irish Eyes are Smiling and Crying, too: A Reflection on the Grandfather I Never Knew

In the wake of the Republic of Ireland voting more than 3 to 5 to legalize same-sex marriage, I have been thinking a lot about the Irish grandfather I never knew: Franklin Marion Sullivan. Actually, Frank was only half Irish. His dad, Frank David Sullivan, worked sporadically on the riverboats of the Ohio. He managed to sire five children by Carolina Buertel in his occasional stays with her on Pleasant Ridge in Washington County. After their fifth child, Frank D went off and did not return. Carolina was sick with cancer, and died when my grandfather was five. It is only in the last year or two that I have discovered that Frank D very likely had a second wife in Cincinnati, Ohio, and left Carolina for her.

Carolina’s half sister, Elisabetha Buertel had married Jacob Zimmer, a German farmer on Pleasant Ridge, and they took young Frankie into their stern home and raised him as one of their own sons. Further tragedy was to haunt his life. The Zimmers had a natural son just about Frank’s age, and he was nicknamed “Jakey.” Frank and Jakey were buddies, but being the oldest children, they worked hard for Papa Zimmer. One hot summer evening when they were about 12 years old, the two boys were driving home the team of oxen that they had been out plowing the fields with. A violent thunderstorm blew up, lightning crashed in a field nearby, and the oxen bolted. Young Jakey was dragged to his death, but Frank was thrown free of the rig.

Grossvater Zimmer, according to my mother, sometimes blamed Frankie for Jakey’s death, but the need for a strong, hardworking man to help on the farm persisted, and gradually Frank remained there working as part of the family (with Jakey’s two younger sibs, a sister and a brother) through his twenties. She was almost ten years his junior, but Frank started courting my grandmother, Clara Noe, when she was in her late teens, and they married in a couple of years. It was not to be the happiest of marriages, based on the stories of Ella Lorene Sullivan Andris, my mom. After Clara and Frank married, Lorene was soon born, and they lived there on the farm with the Jacob and Elizabetha Zimmer family. Clara was not happy with that life, and she complained.

The final rupture occurred one day when my mother was a young child. They were all at table. Grossvater had diabetes and digestive problems, and Elizabetha had baked him a special bread that she thought was easier to digest. As children will do, Lorene asked for a slice of Grossvater’s special bread and was denied it. Clara exploded and had a fit about this (and I have been witness to some of her fits). Shortly therefter, the small family moved from Pleasant Ridge to Marietta, Ohio, and Frank set about to make a living from his own labor.

Frank worked for a while as a teamster, and later for a paint company in Marietta. He never made a lot of money, and they had to also raise their own produce to get by. My mother remembers Frank as a happy, musical fellow. Mom often told the story of how one Christmas Eve when she was about five, Frank arranged to don a Santa costume, complete with padded midrif and a full, white beard. He had brought along his fiddle and he played and sang to Clara and Lorene. His shoes were old and worn, and he had arranged rags hanging out of his shoes to disguise this fact. My mom was in that spirit of make-believe that children so easily manage, but she did conclude this story thus: “I wanted to believe it was Santa, but I could recognize my daddy’s old shoes under the rags, and so I really knew it was him.”

Frank liked to gamble, but unfortunately he lost more than he made. He had a lucky gambling ring, rose gold with a ruby set in it, and they always knew when he was going out to play cards, because he put that ring on.

Clara continued not to be a happy camper, and Lorene remembered her discipline as stern, even bordering on abusive on occasion. Meanwhile, Frank had developed a drinking problem and spent a lot of his off time with another Irish buddy of his who lived nearby, “Uncle” Tom Hawkins. Tom’s wife, Rose, and Clara tried to figure out how they could stop their men from drinking so much. Mom says that Rose Hawkins gave Tom a tonic that was supposed to cure alcoholism, and it made him blind. As for Frank, he began to get weaker and sicker as the years rolled by. Maybe he was poisoned in the paint factory that he worked in. Maybe he drank himself to death in trying to escape from his difficult and miserable existence. Maybe Clara gave Frank some of that tonic, too.

Whatever the reason, Frank left this earthly plane when Lorene was only seven. Frank was 39 years old. My mother had such vivid memories of this death. One afternoon, he had had an apparent massive heart attack and died at the house where they were living off Pike Street. Lorene had just come home from school and as she entered the house, a woman friend of the family had stopped her from going into the front room. “You don’t want to go in there, honey.” But my mom started to scream, “Oh, my daddy’s dead. I know he’s dead.”

They had the funeral right there in the front room of that house, that’s how poor they were. Frank had a brother, Bill, and Bill showed up at the visitation before the funeral. He asked Clara if he could have Frank’s gold ring, to remember him by. But Clara refused him, saying, “No, you’re never going to get that ring.”

The years rolled by. Clara, her mother, Eva, and my mom became a three-woman household. They made it through the depression. Mom had to quit school in the 11th grade to work at Braun’s Bakery 10 hours a day for a pittance. Clara worked rolling cigars in a cigar factory and Eva took in washing and did canning. They lived down on South Fourth street for years, in the Marietta flood plane, and suffered for it.

Mom met Fernand, son of a grocer, they got married, I and my sibs arrived, and things got somewhat better for mom. My dad let Clara run the rooming house he owned at 103 North Fourth, and Eva stayed there with her. Meanwhile, we lived in a house whose back yard abutted Clara’s and Eva’s yard. When Eva died, Clara came to live with us. I was 11 at the time. Clara was 60 years old then, and she lived with Lorene and Fernand, my dad, for another 30 years.

When my grandmother died in 1981, mom set about to dispose of Clara’s few possessions. Grandmother Clara had an old-fashioned jewelry box that I had been fascinated with as a child. I asked for and got that jewelry box. It still sits on my night stand. In that jewelry box, among many treasures, was my grandfather Frank’s rose gold lucky gambling ring set with a now-chipped ruby.

Sometimes when I am feeling good or lucky, I wear that ring. I wore it today at Trinity Episcopal Church for our celebration of Pentecost. I know it’s a stretch, but it seemed totally fitting. The Republic of Ireland did something two days ago that a descendant of one of her sons is extremely grateful for. I remember today my Irish roots, and I pray for the soul and bless the memory of Franklin Marion Sullivan, the grandfather that I never knew.


Author: Jym Andris

Retired gay married early adopter. Cooking, cleaning, fixing. Makes good music occasionally; U name it. Churchy dude. Likes to think about things, too much, sometimes. Dump Trump. Trying not to do too much harm. Revisiting blogging. Looking for a new handle on things. Exploring genderqueer.