My maternal grandfather hailed from a rural community in the northern part of Androscoggin County, Maine. His name was Charlie, and God help anyone who assumed it that was just a diminutive of “Charles.”
His family migrated between Maine and Somerville, Massachusetts where Charlie’s father worked seasonally as a trolley conductor. They’d sock away enough money to get by for half a year, then head back up to the homestead before (and sometimes slightly after) the temptations of city life proved too much for the old man.
Charlie dropped out of school in the eight grade to work in the mills around Lewiston. When World War Two broke out, he wanted to enlist but was underage and my great-gran refused to sign the waiver. He never forgave her for that.
He eventually did sign-up in 1943, and ended up in a glider infantry division. The unit was supposed to join the fray after the Normandy breakout, but high command decided it was more practical to use it as a replacement pool for the battered 82nd and 101st Divisions. By the time Charlie set foot in Germany, the war was over and the remnants of his unit were folded into the 82nd and put on occupation duty.
While Charlie was overseas, his family kept up their usual routine, part of which involved taking vacations in the Shawsheen Valley. The idea of the region being resort material seems laughable to anyone visiting the towns of Wilmington, Billerica, or Tewksbury today, but this was before interstate highways existed, when travelling thirty miles out from the city was a major endeavor. (You can still see some scattered remnants of those days in the neighborhoods surround Silver Lake, where some of the bungalows survive as the addition-buffed cores of current single family homes.)
My maternal grandma’s folks owned a tavern out that way which Charlie’s family would frequent. Charlie’s ma mentioned to my grandmother that she had sons in the service, and so she and Charlie began corresponding by mail. After the war, they got married. They moved around quite a bit, as Charlie alternated various civilian jobs with additional stints in the army. (That’s why my mother was born in Germany, during one of Charlie’s enlistments with the army of occupation, and why she had unplaceable accent that was equal parts Texas, Massachusetts, the Deep South, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.)
On the side, Charlie enrolled in correspondence courses covering everything from engineering to art, and managed to land a permanent job as a engineer at one of the defense contractors that set up shop along Route 128. They settled in my grandmother’s home town of Woburn, in a duplex on a cul de sac outside the city center.
For all his technical know-how and suburban respectability, Charlie remained a country boy at heart. He was hands-on and practical in a way that produced crude but effective results when it came to building a workbench or putting up a fence in the yard. There was little glamour in his handiwork, just a rock-solid durability seeming at odds with its “good enough” ad hoc genesis.
Charlie harbored a dream of returning to Maine one day, though it was difficult to tell how much of it was wishful thinking or a serious plan. He bought a tract of land down the road from his family’s old homestead. Every summer he’d drag the family up there to spend a weekend picking blueberries and fending off swarms of blackflies as we hiked through its boggy muck. “Those damn beavers are to blame,” he’d rant to no one in particular before reciting what he’d do to the critters if the pinko bureaucrats hadn’t passed laws against it.
Afterward we’d visit our kinfolk in the region, some of whom still maintained working outhouses and had hand-pumps in place of kitchen faucets. Charlie was never a sociable person, but always seemed most at ease around his people. Granted, idle conversation among his folk amounted to flat declarative sentences and grunts, but it was still worlds apart from the self-seclusion he’d retreat to whenever non-kin company visited his home.
Back at the duplex (which he bought when it came up for sale), Charlie dabbled in poultry-raising. It was more of a hobby than a serious business for him, where he’d buy a half dozen chicks (or quail eggs or — in one horribly misguided case — turkeys) and raise them up to adulthood before passing them on to someone with the space to keep them. I remember him letting me stay over with him to maintain a vigil over the incubator where he was hatching quail and how excited he got when one viable chick emerged. (He kept him for years on a cage by the attic stairs, and I used to converse with him with the call Charlie taught me.)
Charlie would hold back a couple of the hens when the brood reached maturity. He housed them in a little wooden coop he built in the back corner of the yard. Every morning he’d go out to check for any fresh “googies” and every week he’d scatter their shit around to fertilize his rose garden. The first batch were a pair of Rhode Island Reds. When they passed on, he brough home a batch of game hen chicks with fancy plumage and feathered “slippers” over their claws.
On one memorable occasion, a ferocious racket rose up out of the little brooding house Charlie had set up by the kitchen window. The chicks were peeping in utter terror and Charlie rushed to see what on earth was causing it. It ended up being a Grizzlor action figure that Lil Bro had put in with the chicks to “keep them company” and thus triggered the poor peep’s weasel-fear switch. Charlie was not amused.
Charlie kept a pair of the game hens for his backyard coop. He had a massive stroke not long afterward, which stripped him of his speech and mobility and a sizable portion of his skull. His spent the last few year of his life art a hospice in Brighton, fighting off an endless series of infections until one finally did him in.
He was survived by one of the hens, which somehow ended up with the name “Charlie Chick-Chick.” I can’t remember who came up with it or why. I moved in with my grandmother after my mother died, and used to spend time outside the coop watching Charlie go about her business. In the summer months, I’d feed her blueberries and grapes from the garden and marvel at how she’d eagerly swallow them whole.
She was still around when I first started dating Maura, and I recall the thrill of asking if she wanted to see my family’s pet chicken. I dunno, at the time it seemed like something that distinguished me from all the other slobs who tried courting her.
I was gutted when Charlie Chick-Chick finally went to that great henhouse in the sky. It was the end of an era, the last tangible legacy of my grandfather’s to go. My grandmother dutifully looked after the hen after Charlie took ill, but she wasn’t inclined to continue the tradition after he and his avian namesake passed on.
Whenever I discuss my grandmother with Lil Bro or father these days, the conversation always turns to how much she adores me and how lax I tend to be about keeping in touch with her.
“I don’t get it. Why am I her favorite?”
“Because you remind her of Charlie,” which is the most double-sided compliment ever laid upon me.