Monday, May 28, 2007

The Artist -- Lawrence C. Lemmon

My grandfather was the 20th Century man. Born in 1904 in Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania, he was the eldest of five children. He was somewhat sickly, took a little longer to get through school than was normal, lost his mother at age 16 and was required to help raise his younger siblings. His father worked long hours at the mill. Larry, my granddad, took over as the other parent.

Larry did graduate and went on to attend and graduate from the Pennsylvania State College (Penn State) in the mid 1920’s. His degree was in landscape architecture. Jobs were scarce but Larry found work in Washington, D.C… He met my grandmother there, where she was also working. He fell in love with this lovely southern lady, transplanted from her home in Sumpter, SC.

Married some time later, and with a young child, Larry found himself out of work. It was the depression and he had to do something. He wrote a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright asking about the possibility of coming to apprentice with him. Larry had a great deal of admiration for Mr. Wright’s work. He was accepted and the family moved to Arizona where Larry worked with the other apprentices on Taliesin West. Ruth (my grandmother) worked as a cook on the project, and Ruthie (my mother) played amongst the construction, carefree, as only a two-year old can be.

Through the years, Larry had interesting jobs, and then the jobs dried up, and he had to find a new way to support his small family. When my mother was in her early teens, Larry decided to start an earthworm farm. He was the original. Articles were written about his earthworm farm, and made magazines and newspapers all over the world. Headlines such as, “Turn Dirt to Gold” brought letters from people far and near, hoping to get a “hand-out” from this wealthiest of men! Of course, he was barely squeaking by, and, though his concept was unique at the time, it was so readily duplicated with the purchase of just a few buckets of worms, his income from this enterprise died as quickly as it had begun.

During these years the family had returned to northern VA, and Larry eventually landed a job with the federal government, one that he would keep until he retired at age 71. He was one of the architects who planned the Pentagon. In his later years, he served as the director of the Parks in the District of Columbia.

In the early 60’s, at age 55, when many have stopped taking on new challenges, Larry decided he wanted to learn to draw and paint. He took classes and the teacher immediately saw his potential. He was a wonderful artist. He drew and painted everything. My grandmother, Ruth, was his favorite model. But, sitting those long hours was hard for her. So Larry took photos of her, intending to paint from the photos. When the photos were developed, he looked at his wife’s image in shock. She was so thin. He had not realized until he looked at her photograph.

It turned out that she had cancer and lived less than a year after he took those photos. He never painted again, after she died. He became somewhat of a recluse, going to work, but nothing else, For one year he kept quietly to himself, writing a book of their life together. He titled his book, “The Golden Years.”

Once completed, he was able to take on the world again. Before long he met and married my grandmother Evy. Together, they moved to Maryland to be closer to Ruthie and our family. At age 71, Larry retired and turned his focus on “hobbies.” He built a dark room and took up photography. He worked alongside my brothers and me as he directed our transformation of a quarter acre, very steep hill into a terraced series of good sized vegetable gardens, with earthen stairs down the center. And he took up Geneology.

At age 80, my grandfather decided he wanted to learn how to use the computer. He went to classes at the local college and purchased a Kaypro. It was on this computer that he wrote his book of the Lemmon family. He traveled to Scotland to research the family tree. At age 90, he decided to write another book about his life. He titled it, “A 20th Century Sojourn.”

His second wife passed away at age 82, when Larry was nearly 94. He was devastated. They had moved some years earlier into a retirement home, where he was the “Social Director.” In much the same way he had mourned the loss of Ruth, so did he Evy. Unable to see very well, due to advancing macular degeneration, he put his focus on creating a lovely, finished room in the penthouse of the retirement home. This room was now suitable for movies, lectures, crafters, or anything. He dedicated the work to Evy.

Every day Larry sat in front of his computer, writing letters to congressmen, presidents, senators, and local politicians. His large magnifying screen worked acceptably to allow him to continue, almost until his death.

When Larry was 95, his accountant sat down with him and said, “Larry, you’re a millionaire.” My grandfather looked him right in the eye and said, “No, I’m a poor man, I’ve always been a poor man.” His accountant showed him the proof. My grandfather's practice to which he had adhered no matter how little income he had, had resulted in a wealth beyond his comprehension. I will always remember Granddad telling me, “The first 10 percent of your earnings are to be given to help others, either the church or charity. The second ten percent must go directly into savings. And you must learn to budget the rest of your earnings and live within those means.”

And so it was, that at age 95, the man who had always lived as if the dollar in his pocket was his last, found out he was a millionaire!

One month before his 97th birthday, in fact, on my birthday, my granddad passed away. I was with him his last waking moment, and he went peacefully in his sleep. As I watched this tiny man, bent quite badly from osteoporosis, who had spent so much of his life toiling out in the beating sun, I was impressed with the smooth, beautiful skin of his face.

My granddad lived a full life, and saw beauty everywhere he looked. He was an avid horticulturalist, ecologist, and believed completely in giving back to the earth everything he had been given.

I am the richest of all, for having known this man. Some of his art work hangs on my walls today. Every room of my house holds one of his paintings. It is the same for my brothers and sister, and of course, my mother’s house. The paintings serve a dual purpose. They remind me of where I’ve been, and they remind me that Granddad is still living through them.

I share with you some of Granddad’s Gallery.

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