“Well Julia, my Mother was not right to begin with. Boy, was she a tough woman though. She was born in New York City during the Industrial Revolution. Her mother died giving birth to her younger sister when she was just three-years-old. Soon after that her father was killed in a factory explosion. Orphaned at about four-years-old she was taken in by an Aunt. Those were hard times and the Aunt could not keep her and her baby sister. My mother was taken to an orphanage where she lived until she was sixteen-years-old. When she was sixteen she was hired as a domestic maid for the VonIngram family. You see, the VonIngram family used to summer out in Amagansett and that is how my mother found her way to Long Island. Amagansett is where she met my father who grew up in East Hampton. They married in about 1922. Julia Powers, my mothers name and Stanley King my fathers. Things might have turned out differently for my mother had her life been normal, but it wasn’t. She had four boys, we were dirt poor, and it was the depression.”
He says his last line with genuine sincerity; his old soft blue eyes stare off as if right then he is reliving the moments of his tumultuous life. As always there is an almost undetectable sarcasm towards the events of his life. A joker to the core, he turns around and says, “I was a little shit growing up,” then breaks into his raspy pneumonic laughter, feet barely touching the floor, leaning back in his chair while his shoulders bounce towards his ears with every jovial exhale.
My Grandfather Tate whom I speak of stood no more than five feet tall in his prime and has become a local legend here on the East End of Long Island. We are sitting together one summer afternoon as he tells me the stories that characterize his life. Where it all began, the ups and the downs, the joy and the pain that most people in my generation could not fathom. Anyone I have talked to who knows my Grandfather Tate will tell you that he is a rich man. Not in the literal sense of the term rich, assuming he accomplished something that earned him a lot of money. No, his richness runs far deeper and penetrates the hearts of anyone who knows him. I have been told all my life that real wealth is not measured by how much capital you leave behind but by how many people will think of you and smile. Better yet, think of you and laugh because of the joy your memory leaves behind. Achieving this kind of wealth is about knowing how to use both hands equally, one for helping yourself and the other for helping others. It is keeping one foot in front of the other and your head held high regardless of your situation.
All my life my Grandfather has told me to keep putting one foot in front of the other and I will be just fine. As I sit and listen to the stories he tells me of how his family had no more status than share-croppers starting out, then they were given the opportunity to buy their own land, they then set up a small farm stand, survived the rules and regulations placed on agriculture over the past sixty years, and still manage to keep the farm running and in the family, I know now for sure I should tattoo this advice on my soul because it may just be the most beneficial I ever receive. “I also had a good woman by my side Julia. Without your Grandmother,” he says as his sly grin creeps onto his face, “I’d be dead!” We both laugh; as I shake my head wondering just how wild was he?
“She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” My Grandfather tells me every time he mentions my Grandmother Millie. Millie was a nurse at Southampton Hospital back when they were still running a nursing school there. Quite a prankster herself, Millie and Tate immediately hit it off when they met. “It was like lightening struck me when I met her” my Grandfather tells me of that encounter. Their story is truly one of those great American love stories. When I ask where it was they met he tells me the local bar. Ah, the historic landmark where most East Enders meet one another. After hearing this I remember vividly my Grandfather Tate telling me that you never meet any winners at the bar. I note this conflict of interest.
Around the time my grandparents met and married there was one great turning point in my Grandfathers life around which he still pivots today. He had gone off to fight in WWII at age nineteen, leaving his family behind who lived and worked on Mr. Schwenk’s dairy farm off of Noyac Road in Southampton. One day he received a letter from his father Stanley telling of the opportunity to purchase the farm from Mr. Schwenk. “We had nothing to loose so I said what the hell!” My Grandfather exclaims. He and his father used some savings and the money he got upon returning from the war to put a down payment on the farm. He began working the farm, milking the cows, and planting a few crops. Then he met my Grandmother. Shortly after, when he was about twenty-two, his father died suddenly leaving him in charge of a schizophrenic mother, manic older brother named Sam, a brand new farm, and debt. He was newly married to my Grandmother with a baby on the way and the four of them plus his ten-year-old brother Calvin all lived together in the same simple farmhouse. After the passing of his father his mother went down hill. “My mother and Sam together was a nightmare,” he says in the most somber of tones, “Something had to give.”
My Grandmothers good graces with the doctors made it as easy as possible to move his Mother to the hospital. All the doctors loved my Grandmother my Grandfather tells me and that she could have married any one of them. “Those doctors wouldn’t have made her happy though because she is too smart and cannot be controlled, so she chose me!” and lets out a wheeze of laughter, “The dirt poor farmer! And, she knew what she was getting herself into! She is a saint.” Seriousness settles his laughter as he says, “She never put up a fight about it,” explaining the arrival of the car one morning to pick up his Mother. “And you know, in the end she actually thanked me.” He tells himself that they made the right decision even though people talked bad about them. “Life ain’t easy sweetie,” He says to me. “And, you will have to make hard choices sometimes. But, just keep putting one foot in front of the other and do the best you can with what you’ve got.”
He pauses for a moment and tells me to look around at all this that he has at eighty-six years old. Thinking of the struggles he and my father have gone through to keep this place alive I look around the small living room where we are sitting. I hear the cars zooming by on Noyac Road. I hear the roosters crowing in the distance as customers pull in and out of the driveway of our still thriving farm stand that he built and my father carries on. Tears begin to well up in my eyes. Not tears of sadness necessarily but tears of how thankful I am that he never gave up. He fought hard and fair for the life I have today and for that I will be forever grateful. He puts his well worked hands up motioning to the same simple farmhouse in which he and my Grandmother Millie still live. Simple, yet overflowing with an endless wealth of memories of hardships and of love contained in sixty plus years of marriage, four caring children, seven grandchildren, and endless friends that would sacrifice anything to show him the respect, care, and appreciation he deserves. He looks me in the eyes adoringly as he smiles and says, “I’m a rich man.”