Remembering Grandma

Mary Jane O’Brien Lynch

Bob Gray, January 2017

My grandmother’s name was Mary Jane O’Brien Lynch but I just knew her as Grandma.  As my father’s mother died the year I was born, Grandma was all that was necessary, as I only knew one grandmother.  She was born on February 22, 1877 in Bay City, Michigan.  Grandma was very proud of the fact that she shared the same birthday as our first president, George Washington.  I can’t tell if it was the cake shown in the picture of Grandma cutting her birthday cake, but I distinctly remember one cake that had a cherry tree and an axe on it.

Her parents were Thomas O’Brien and Margaret O’Connell and they were both born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States in the mid-1800s.[1]  Although they met in Dunkirk, New York, and Grandma was born in Michigan, they soon moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, where Grandma lived for the rest of her life.  Grandma married Frank E. Lynch in 1911, and my mother, the third of four children, was born in 1917.[2] 

When I was young, we lived across the street from Grandma.  Her house was at 447 W 7th and ours was 420.  My mother told me the reason we lived so close to Grandma was that Grandma had put $100 down on the house at 420 W 7th and then told my mother that she had to buy the house or her mother would lose the $100 deposit. 

Her house had stairs in the front and the back.  The back stair was locked with a board between the wall and the door to first floor where the tenant lived.  The front door had a doorbell with a speaking tube so she could ask who was at the door.  It literally was a metal tube that ran through the wall to the second floor.  Her house was very different from our that was across the street.  For one thing, her house had an attic with multiple rooms and each room was filled with different stuff.  The attic had a register that opened into her kitchen below.  Sometimes I would sit up there and listen to Grandma talking with my mother.  I don’t remember anything I overheard but it was exciting to think they didn’t know I could hear them. 
            Grandma cutting her birthday cake in 1954                                                                                                                                                             Grandma’s house at 447 W 7th c. 2008.

Several of the rooms in the attic held old cloths in big zip up bags.  I opened one up and came face to face with an animal’s head.  It must have been part of a mink or maybe a fox stole.  That was the last time I opened one of the bags.  Another unusual thing about Grandma’s house was that it had a sleeping porch.  I loved to be on that porch because it was like being in a tree house.  I would sit on it and look down on the world outside.

Grandma’s house was on my way to grade school.  I went to Longfellow at the corner of Eighth and Walnut and we lived on Seventh between Chestnut and Walnut.  On at least one occasion, I went to her house instead of school and she let me stay.  Most likely there was a test at school that day and I hated tests.  I walked up Seventh and crossed the street at Walnut.  Part way up Walnut, there was a back way to Grandma’s house so I cut through there and went and rang Grandma’s bell.  I spent the day Grandma instead of school which was great.  One of things Grandma let us do when were little was ring the set of gongs she had in her dining room.  The gongs are visible in the background of the picture of her above.   Grandma would give us a yardstick and let us ring each gong.  I doubt we got to ring them more than once a visit and I know we didn’t do it when there were more than one of us at her house. 

Grandma’s signature dish was apple pie.  During visits to her house she would usually produce a small pie that was marked with a B on the top crust.  She told me it was specially marked for me.  I was out of school when I realized all of my family had the same initial for their nick names: Bob, Betty, Billy, Becky, Bobby, Brien, and Barry.

I guess knowing what time it was wasn’t very important to me when I was young, as I remember being in fourth or fifth grade when my teacher asked me to get the time from the clock in the hall.  I had to tell my teacher that I didn’t know how to tell time.  No long after that, I was at Grandma’s sitting in her living room with her.  She had an alarm clock and would change the hands and ask me what time it was.  I don’t know how long we did it, but I knew how to tell time when we finished.

Grandma’s living room had a window, the one on the left side of the second floor of the house, that looked out on Seventh Street.  One of her pastimes was sitting by the window and watching people on Seventh Street.  She kept a pair of binoculars by the window in case she needed a better look.  I remember being questioned by my mother about things I did when I was little and not knowing who told her.  Much later in life, I realized Grandma was keeping an eye on me and reporting my misdeeds to my mother.

When I was ten or eleven, I took over my brother Bill’s paper route.  That Christmas, I asked Grandma what she would like for Christmas and she replied tea towels.  I found a sale on tea towels in the basement of the Boston Store.  They were on a big table in the middle of an aisle.  Grandma and my mother laughed when Grandma opened her present.  Apparently, I had bought her a lifetime supply given that she was close to 80 when I gave her the tea towels.  In fact, Grandma always looked pretty much the same to me.  I never thought of her as getting older.  She looked much like the picture of her above for the whole time I knew her.

When I was in high school, my mother told me to go to the main post office and apply for a temporary position over the Christmas holiday.  When I did, they put me to work right away.  I later found out that Grandma rented a house to post master and she had arraigned for them to hire me.

The binoculars (and case) Grandma used to watch Seventh Street.

After graduating high school, I enrolled at Gannon College which was only about three blocks from Grandma’s house.  So, it was decided that I should stay at her house during my first year at college.  I stayed in a room at the top of stairs on the second floor.  The room had its own full bath.  The bedroom furniture was made of oak and was not at all modern.  I know now that this was the room my father had rented from Grandma when he started working in Erie in the late 1930s.[3]  I lived with Grandma and my Aunt Eileen for the first year of college.  During that time, I found that Grandma had a soap opera that she always watched.  It was on at Noon during the week and only ran for fifteen minutes.  It probably was Days of Our Lives.  She could be in the middle of doing something and she would stop and go to watch the show.  Another thing I remember from my time living at Grandma’s is that she always made toast for breakfast.  She would make multiple batches and wrap the toast in a tea towel to keep it warm until somebody was ready to eat it.  I never thought to ask if they were the ones I gave several years earlier.  Grandma must have helped pay for my college education as she gave me cash to pay for my second semester.  I have no idea what tuition cost at Gannon in 1965 but I do remember having one or more $500 bills. 

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I probably only stayed at Grandma’s house for the first year of college because she was dying of cancer.  She died about a year and half after my first year at Gannon.  Unfortunately, I was oblivious to her condition, as I was completely engrossed in school. 

My last story about Grandma came from my mother.  We had the mantel clock shown below on the right at our house for many years.  My mother told that Grandma rode home on the trolley with the clock on her lap.  She got it from the Larkin Soap Company.  As the ad on the right shows, Larkin included a Seth Thomas mantle clock when you bought soap from them.  The ad is from page 69 of the 1910 Larkin Soap Company catalog.  My brother is now in possession of the clock and I asked him to look for a printed number on the back of the clock.   The back of Grandma’s clock has 9091 D which translates to a manufacture date of April 1909.


Grandma’s Seth Thomas mantle clock (Left) in 2016 and a Larkin catalog from 1910 (Right) showing a similar clock.

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[1] For details of Thomas O’Brien and Margaret O’Connell in Ireland, go to “Researching My Mother’s Irish Roots” under the Gray-Lynch Family History category of this site.

[2] For details of my mother’s childhood, go to “Mary Elizabeth (Betty) Lynch” and “O’Brien Family History, Mary E. Lynch Gray, 1977” under the Gray-Lynch Family History category of this site.

[3] For details go to my mother and father’s wedding page and listen to “How I meet your father” under the Gray-Lynch Family History category of this site.