Dad’s father, Owen, retired early from Utah Oil Company. He lived in his parents’ home, an old, run down, small shack of a shelter. He paid rent to his siblings. The house had few amenities. It had no water heater, so he bathed in cold water. The stove did not work, so he cooked on a hot plate. Only the top oven element worked, so he baked under the broiler. The toilet water tank was broken, so he flushed by pouring water from a bucket into the bowl. He had no clothes washer or dryer. The heat for the house came from a coal boiler, which worked only after building a fire hot enough to burn the coal—often, the house had no heat. Owen lived alone. He made all his own meals, which included no fresh vegetables or fruits. He washed his underclothing and socks in a bucket of cold sudsy water agitated with a toilet plunger; his shirts he took to the dry cleaner. In his early 20s, Dad visited his father one afternoon, and Owen asked if Dad had any money with him. Yes, Dad said, some. Father asked son to go to Safeway, please, and buy him a can of stew, confessing he had not eaten for three days, for he had no money. He had eaten only oatmeal for days before that, until the oats ran out, and he had not eaten anything since. When he did have money for food, his staple diet consisted of bacon and eggs and canned goods. (Where were Owen’s well-to-do brothers? I wondered with a trace of anger.) As a result of these privations and habits, Owen’s health deteriorated. One afternoon, he called Dad to take him to the hospital—he felt very poorly—where the doctor ordered a chest x-ray. “Take a deep breath and hold,” the radiology nurse instructed. Owen growled back, “What the hell do you think I’m here for?!” He was at the hospital because he could not do exactly what the nurse wanted him to do: breathe deeply. He felt he could hardly breathe at all. Dad got his father settled in the hospital that night, and told him he would be back the next morning to check on him. Ten minutes after arriving at home, the hospital called: his father, Owen, was dead. Owen was only 59. Owen’s father, Nelson, died at age 62, also of heart disease. Dad and his brother Bill sat in the hospital room with their father’s body, late into the evening. They both felt a spirit presence in the room, and commented softly to each other about it—somehow, they knew their father had stayed with them in that room in their grief. In a moment, they sensed that Owen had left to go where the spirits of all good, humble, broken men and women go. After graduate school, Dad took up jogging, and ate nutritious foods, so he would not have to die at age 60 of heart disease. Now, at age 86, he remarked to me sadly, “I feel sorry for my father.” I shudder to remember that I am the same age as Owen when he died. How grateful and fortunate I am to have my father still alive, still a pillar of strength and love for the family.
Pictured above: My grandfather Owen with Dad (b. 1935; this photo c. 1939)
My grandfather Owen Nelson Baker, Sr. (1901-1960)