Thelma Kennan is a Bay Brat, which means she grew up in Bay Village and lived there her whole life until her dad died. When she was a girl, she picked up every lost bird and squirrel, every lost cat and dog, and every injured anything she found and brought it home to protect it.
She was an animal lover from the get-go. She got it partly when she was born, in the blood, partly from her dad, but not from her mom. Alma never liked any of the animals they had in the house basement garage backyard.
Her parents met at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a few hours west of Philadelphia. Her grandparents on her dad’s side had moved from Ohio to Philadelphia a few years earlier and he enrolled there after high school. Alma was working in the town library, which is how they met. He fell head over heels for her, swept her off her feet, or at least he thought so, and they got married.
“We’re out of here,” is what Fred said the minute they got married. They moved right back to Cleveland. Even though they were married for more than forty years it might have been the worst thing either of them ever did.
Telly had a mom who didn’t love her dad, and a dad who was frustrated about it, and the way he tried to make his wife happy was to beat their kids. So, it was a tough childhood. Either you were being totally ignored or you were being hit.
There were four of them. First, there was Sarah, and then two years later Betsy, and then Thelma five years after that, and last, five years later, Brad. Alma always said Fred tricked her four times. Fred kept his thoughts to himself.
He was from Cleveland, from the west side, where he grew up almost rich for his time. Alma was from Jersey Shore, just a few miles from Williamsport, where she grew up poor. Jersey Shore isn’t anywhere near New Jersey, the Jersey shoreline, or any big water shoreline of any kind. There used to be silk mills and cigar factories in Jersey Shore. Later on factories made steel rails for train tracks there.
During the Depression Telly’s grandfather was the only teenager in his high school who had a car. He used to follow her grandmother down the street trying to get her to come in his car with him, saying he wanted to help carry her books, so along the way what happened was they got married.
Her other grandfather in Jersey Shore had three jobs the minute he stopped being a teenager. He was a coal miner, a school bus driver, and a milkman, but they were still poor. Even though they were always short on everything they built their own house on the Susquehanna River. Telly honestly didn’t know how they ever got it built since they were so strapped for hard cash most of the time.
The river was their front yard. Susquehanna means Oyster River and it was on the Susquehanna where the Mormons say they got their priesthood delivered from heavenly beings. It was a huge beautiful comfortable house. It’s still standing, although it’s not been taken care of lately, so it’s falling apart.
Her grandmother lived in the house into her 80s, but then sold it and moved into a trailer, in a trailer park in the mountains above Jersey Shore. She started believing people in the other trailers were trying to shoot her with laser guns. She slept wrapped up in foam rubber holding an umbrella over her head for protection. Alma never wanted to talk about her mom because she thought she was crazy, and a Jesus freak, too.
Telly never knew her grandfather. He died young. He had arthritis terrible bad, and it finished him off. It didn’t help him working in the damp underground. She knew her grandmother well. Whenever her sisters and she visited her in their big house she taught them how to pull taffy and fudge. They played with her paper dolls. She didn’t have any real dolls for them. They sat on the front porch in the afternoon and waited for the bean truck.
“Sometime before dinnertime she sent my older sisters to the side of the road. When the bean truck, or sometimes the vegetable truck, went by on the bumpy road beans would bounce off of the back of it and they would run and gather them up. My grandmother cooked them for dinner. If no beans fell off the truck, then there was no dinner, although she usually had a little something else in the house.”
Most of the time it was something cold she had canned months earlier.
Fred went to Upper Darby High School just outside Philadelphia, starting when he was a sophomore. His parents moved him to Philadelphia from Cleveland, and he never stopped saying he hated it. He was a Cleveland Browns fan and wore their colors, so he got into fights every day with the other kids who were Philadelphia Eagles fans.
“He liked telling us stories when we were growing up, like the one about how one day he and his friends went to the second story of their high school and jumped up and down all at once all together until the second floor fell in on the first floor.”
The school’s mascot is a lion now, but when Fred was there it was a court jester.
Fred’s parents were from Akron, and lived in Lakewood for a long time, but had to move when the new I-90 was being built. It was called the “Main Street of Northern Ohio” back then. When they were growing up Fred would drive them to a bridge over the highway and show them the exact spot below the bridge where their house used to be.
It was when they had to sell the house to the state that they moved to Philadelphia. After Fred and Alma came back, they lived in Lakewood in a rented house for a few years. Telly’s older sisters were born there, but by the time she came along they were living in Bay Village.
The family lived on Jefferson Court her whole life. It is a short cul-de-sac street, five blocks south of Lake Erie. Her dad designed the house, and it was built just the way he wanted it. Telly lived there until the day he died when she was thirty-three years old.
They all had our own rooms, although Brad and Telly shared a room when they were tots because the house was a room short. Her older sisters had separate bedrooms down the half-story stairway from them, and her parents were at the other end of the hallway. They lived in the crow’s nest until Sarah moved out and got married, when she was nineteen, and Brad was seven.
The next year he brought home a drum set somebody had thrown out on their tree lawn and set it up in the basement. He taught himself how to play. He called himself Ginger Boom after Ginger Baker, his favorite drummer. No animal would go down to the basement after that.
It was in the crow’s nest where Telly grew close to Brad, who looked just like Bamm Bamm in the Flintstones cartoons. They even called him Bamm Bamm. Telly became his number one protector like she did with all the neighborhood’s lost cats and dogs.
But she could never protect him from Coco, their poodle, who bit and tore off his diapers when he was little. Brad could never crawl away fast enough, no matter how fast he scurried. Coco was quick as the devil.
There were times Telly didn’t even try to stop Coco. She had some of her mom’s tough love in her. Other times Brad had done something she didn’t like, and it was just his tough luck that Coco was on the rampage.
Excerpted from “Dogs Never Bite Me” at http://www.dogsneverbiteme.com.