I was named after my father’s father, my paternal grandfather, Nicholas Angelo Mele. He died when I was 5. I have a few hazy memories of him – but mostly I have the stories that everyone in the family told (and still tell!) about him. I love him intensely – most from these stories – and he is a powerful figure for me. I share his name, I carry on his legacy, and I feel a deep intimate connection with him, even though I hardly knew him. I am proud to be named after him.
Morra and I decided to give Asa the middle name “Archibald” in a large part because of the stories I remember my grandmother telling me about her grandfather, Archibald Joseph McPhee. He was my maternal grandmother’s grandfather. I think that makes him my great-great-grandfather and Asa’s great-great-great-grandfather. I wanted to collect some family stories about Archibald before they faded off into distant memory. My mother helped me – putting down the stories she remembers, and getting stories directly from my great-aunt Gina and my great-uncle John.
The full stories are below, but he sounds like a warm, generous wonderful man who was truly loved. I remember the way my grandmother told stories about him, I could tell she loved him. He had a handlebar mustache and was quite “dapper” even in his old age. He loved corned beef hash, dried codfish, and snuff. He was from Bear River, Prince Edward Island, and seems to have missed it after he moved to California. He clearly loved teaching – a passion that has persisted in our family through the generations. The stories recorded here conjure up a lost era – it makes me wonder what Asa will remember about his grandparents when he is in his 80s.
From my great-aunt Gina, February, 2009
I know that Archie and Grandma were married on Prince Edward Island. About 15 years ago Aunt Anne, Glenn Anne and I think Maureen went back there. The little church they were married in had burned, but they found the book of wedding records. When they [Archie and Annie McPhee] moved to NY I am not sure, but they were living in Brooklyn at the time their three young little boys died within about a week of each other. Dad [Wallace McPhee] was the youngest and they had shipped him out of the city to relatives in upper state NY. Can you imagine how Grandpa and Grandma must have suffered? Archie worked for Metropolitan Life Insurance…not sure what he did. After Dad and Mom [Wallace and Anna] got married they all lived together in an apartment over Dad\’s shoe store in Brooklyn. Dad was afraid of germs and always washing his hands with that awful smelling red soap and I think that must have come from Archie. I remember him as saying; did you wash your hands? I don’t know when Dad moved Archie and Grandma to California, but they were here quite a while before Mom died in 1939, they lived in an upstairs apartment near town. I would go over there quite often with Mom for tea. Tea was very important. Archie boiled the water, but not to a full boil and poured it in a warm tea pot. Real tea leaves not a tea bag…ever. Then milk and sugar in the tea in a pretty cup, I loved it. After Mom died Dad moved them to our house on Denton Way. Mary and Joey took care of them. Archie had a handlebar mustache, but was clean shaven. During the summer of, I think, 1940 Wally and John and a carpenter friend built a little four room house in our backyard. Grandma died before the house was completed, but Grandpa [Archie] moved into one room. They built a porch and a door outside his bedroom and a ramp that he could get a little exercise. Dad got a young fireman and his wife to move into the other bedroom. I think they kinda looked out for him. He was independent and really didn’t need much help. He loved to listen to the radio. By this time he was completely blind, and the radio was his lifeline. His favorite program was a daytime serial Stella Dallas. He also told me that he had a date with Mae West. I hadn’t a clue who Mae West was, but I thought it must be something wonderful, because Archie would sure laugh about it. Now the curious thing is I don’t remember him every coming into the house for dinner or meals. Joey or Mary would take a tray out to him. Lunch he loved canned corned beef hash. I remember it, because I thought it was so evil looking. He also loved dried codfish. I remember my mother getting it in a long tan wooden box. She would soak it in cold water then mix it with mashed potatoes, egg and fry it. He loved it. Joey and Mary continued to fix it for him, and I thought it was pretty good too. Every Sunday Dad would clean his room, help him shower, and probably change his sheets. I don\’t know who did the laundry, but we had a cleaning lady, and she probably did his laundry too. He loved to dance, and even in his 90s he was pretty darn agile. He could tap. He was so cheerful. I loved to sit on his lap and read to him. I couldn’t read until I was in 2nd grade, but I memorized the picture books and would read to him. Every month he got a check for $50. That was quite a sum. He gave me fifty cents…movies were a dime and all the candy you could rot you teeth was a nickel so that fifty cents was quite a fortune. Now this is strange…I never remember him going to church. Dad never took him. And I don’t remember any priests coming to visit him. Our house was loaded with priests visiting all the time…Mary making vegetable soup for Fr. Tappe, but not a priest around Archie. I don’t remember any statues in his room, but our house looked like the inside of a church. Dad had friends who had a chicken farm in Cotati. They were originally from PEI..they would visit with Archie and he loved it. He loved to snuff tobacco. I think he probably gave Dad his $50 for his care. Don’t really know. He was immaculate…never old man spots on his clothes, and his room was clean. At his funeral his friends from PEI said he would love to have gotten up and had a toast and a good shot of bourbon. It is funny the little things i remember. I think he must have loved to read before he lost his sight, because he sure wanted me to learn to read. That is about all I remember, but if I think of anything else I’ll write to you.
From my mother, Mary Helene, February, 2009
This is what I remember from my mother about AJ (Archibald Joseph. My own theory was that was why my mother was named Josephine, to make up for not naming John Archibald. She said that wasn’t the case; she was named after Sister Illuminata, whose baptismal name was Josephine.) Anyway, I remember Mom telling me how he lived with his wife and “Aunt Annie” who was a maiden aunt from her mother’s side of the family (her mother, Anna Holmes, had no relatives on the Holmes side and her mother had been raised by Aunt Annie and a bachelor uncle and not by her mother, who seems to have been a bit …wayward, shall we say.) Anyway, Aunt Annie lived with them and they got along well, although Archie’s wife had dementia early. Aunt Annie and AJ would walk to church together every morning. I distinctly remember my mother saying this, but then it would have been before Gina was old enough to know. I remember that AJ was a school teacher and we have his teacher’s credential. He might have worked from Met Life as well, but he loved to teach and he taught my mother to read before she went to school, and to play Pinochle. He’d have play school for John and Josie and when he got tired he’d have them spell some impossible word which I forget…and which I regret forgetting. My mother said she was shocked in later years to discover it really was a word. They never could, and so then they had to go home.
She did say he was dapper. Jo would take him on walks around the neighborhood when he was blind (but Aunt Annie walked him to church.) While they were walking, and passed someone on the street or on their porch, Archie would ask “How do they look?” and she would describe them in detail for him.
He used to live in Bear River, Prince Edward Island, and for many years folks wrote him, but as his friends died off, my mother would pretend there was a letter and she’d read him the news from Prince Edward Island, making it up.
It’s funny how the memory of someone is so colored by who we are and at what point in our lives we experience someone and how selective our memories are. I have vivid memories of stories of AJ (and how my mother loved her grandfather) and her own father.
Dictation to Mary Helene from my great-uncle John, February 2009
Archibald Joseph was his name, known as AJ. Medium height and stayed the same weight until he died. Walking every day, he was blind the last 10 years of his life from cataracts.
AJ was a schoolteacher; taught at Bear River on Prince Edward Island, where he was born. St. Catherine’s of Scotland was the church. Graveyard has mostly McPhees there.
AJ taught Joey and John to read. He was very patient and a great man. Uncle Wally was another good teacher. AJ was just…couldn’t resist himself. He’d take a deck of cards and have us pick out all the 10s, things like that. As he got older and blind, I was so fond of him that I used to go 3 or 4 times a week on Washington St. In Santa Rosa and we’d go to certain bakery and he’d reach in his pocket and bring out a little purse to pay for the bread.
Annie McGowan and Annie McCoughlin and AJ — they all 3 lived together and made rugs out of old material which people saved for them. They’d have wooden stretchers to stretch them out to the right size. They all had their own bedroom. My mother was the #1 caretaker during her life; my dad or Mary later.
When he first arrived in California by train when I was 6 or 7…I went to Sacramento to meet AJ and Nana. I remember being on the platform as they pulled in. They lived next door in a rented house until they got the apartment on Washington St.
He had a little moustache that he was very proud of. He did snuff. That didn’t seem to bother anyone. My grandmother used a little bit of it herself. They didn’t smoke. We built that little house behind Denton Way. Rosemary lived back there with her girlfriend when I was overseas. Wally and I built that house. We did a pretty good job of it. I don’t think my grandmother lived there very long, but AJ lived there quite awhile. I’d take him out an ounce in a snifter. He’d drink it all at once. He’d grab his moustache and say, “OH! That’s good for a man.”
He and I’d be the first ones down at the shoe store. We’d start a fire in the little Franklin stove in that store on 4th str. By the time the customers came it was warm. Old shoe boxes we used to start it. I don’t know how we survived the depression. I was thinking about my dad the other day. We didn’t know there was a depression.
AJ would help anybody. Wally, Anne…he really wanted to be a teacher. A delightful part of our family. Almost every Sunday we went for a ride, with the jump seats, over to the ocean or to Sebastopol for ice-cream. We included Nana and AJ in everything.