“It’s your turn,” Roy whispered. His brother, Wayne, just two years older, was lying on their bed not far from the floorboards Roy rested his back against.
“My legs are tired,” Wayne moaned, bleary-eyed, “And anyhow, the babies are fast asleep.” Their parents, Penny and Rose, had recently bought a 48-acre farm north of Pittsburgh and the whole family, including any number of babies they were currently fostering, would travel north from their home in Glassport for the weekends. Their sisters, Kathie and Rosie, were still little, so it was Wayne and Roy’s duty to lull the babies to sleep every night.
Roy rocked the bottom of the crib with his feet a few more times for good measure, then rolled out from underneath its metal frame. He peered into the crib, the pink flesh of three sleeping baby boys barely visible. Sound asleep.
Roy slid between the cool bed linens next to his brother.
"Hey, Wayne?” Wayne didn’t answer. “Hey, Wayne!” Roy urged, and he begrudgingly stirred.
“What do you wanna be when you grow up?”
“I dunno. I’m 10-years-old.” Wayne rolled over with a humph.
“I wanna work with horses,” Roy continued. “And I wanna travel. And I wanna play guitar like Hank Williams and ski down mountainsides and I wanna…”
“Slow down, Roy. Go to sleep. You’re gonna wake the babies,” Wayne yawned. But Roy couldn’t slow down once he got started and dizzied himself to sleep that night with dreams that leapt from his lips like grasshoppers.
“Slow down?” he laughed. “I’m just getting started.”
Roy was full of wild ideas, and the new farm on Butternut Road held plenty of acres for his larger than life personality to unfold like a giant fern. In those early years, there was no running water; it was pumped from the springhouse and heated in pails on the coal stove. There was no television or telephone either. Nothing but family, faith, and the farm.
And that was everything to Roy...until he met Goldie.
Roy and Wayne through the years...
It was early 1950-something when Roy first laid eyes on her. He was in Glassport with Cousin Dickie. She was light brown with a white mane and dark eyes that seemed to stare right into his soul.
“This is the one,” Roy smiled, patting Goldie’s back. “This is my horse.”
Dickie agreed, but they both knew they couldn’t keep her at the house in Glassport; they’d have to get her up to the farm somehow. Problem was they didn’t have a trailer and they sure couldn’t ride her that long distance. There was a guy Dickie knew in town who owned a flatbed truck, so he suggested they pay him a visit.
“Maybe he’ll let us borrow it,” Dickie said. It was worth a shot.
Sure enough, Dickie drove the truck all the way to the farm that day, a 100-mile trip, with Goldie in the bed and Roy standing beside her, holding tight to her reins. Occasionally, they’d hit a bump in the road and Roy would fight for footing, but he never lost his grip on Goldie, and she never lost her grip on him.
Roy & Goldie
“He’s not good enough for you, Kathie,” Roy shrugged. “He just isn’t.”
Roy stood in the hot summer sun washing his dad’s Buick with a bucket of soapy water and a garden hose. Penny was home from Glassport for the weekend and Roy finally had a car to take his girlfriend to the Karns City drive-in.
“Well I’m still coming with you,” Kathie frowned, “with or without him.”
Roy didn’t like the boy Kathie was going with, but he disliked the idea of a third wheel even more. He hadn’t seen his girlfriend in over a week and he was set to impress. His kid sister in the backseat asking questions and singing along with the radio would be unromantic to say the least.
Water flushed down the windshield from the garden hose, as Roy stood deep in thought.
“You’ll go with Frank,” he finally said, smiling at his brilliant idea. Frank was two years older than Kathie and about two inches shorter than her. Roy knew Kathie wouldn’t be thrilled, but before she could protest, Roy aimed the hose at his sister and pulled the trigger. She screamed and ran toward the house.
“Ya better get all dolled up now, ya hear?” he hollered after her and lit her path to the front porch with his laughter.
Frank arrived at the farm that evening in the passenger’s seat of his uncle’s truck, hair slicked back, his father’s cheap cologne on his collar like a boutonniere, and all smiles. Roy shook his hand, delighted, but made sure they had one thing very clear.
“No necking, ya hear?” Roy demanded, tightening his grip on the handshake.
“Of course not,” Frank nodded and ducked into the backseat of the old Buick with Kathie in curls beside him. When they parked at the drive-in, Roy got them all snacks and soda pop from concessions and promptly kicked Frank and Kathie out of the backseat.
“Up front you two,” he said, and they obeyed. Sure, Roy wanted to be alone with his girlfriend in the backseat, but more importantly, it gave him a better view of Frank’s wandering hands. If he felt the boy got too close, he’d knee the back of the driver’s seat and send Frank’s forehead to the steering wheel. Scout’s honor.
Neither relationship lasted longer than that evening. They never did in those teenage days. Roy dropped their dates off, and Kathie crawled into the front seat. She adjusted the dial on the radio, which screamed mostly static out in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania. A moment passed, but then crystal clear from thin air, Willie and the Handjive broke free. Kathie began to snap her fingers to the beat and tap her feet like she was doing the jitterbug, just as they had practiced last winter in their basement in Glassport.
Roy looked over at his sister. She had the window down and her curls in the moon-lit breeze made her look like a kid again.
“Papa, don’t put me down,” she sang. “Been doin’ that hand jive all over town…”
When the chorus popped with, “Hand jive, hand jive,” Roy joined in, and together they belted,
“Hand jive, doin’ that crazy hand jive…” into the western Pennsylvania night before turning the radio dial all the way up.
Roy & Kathie
“How’s it going today, Roy?”
His face lit up like a Christmas tree. “Fantastic!”
Roy always responded with “Fantastic!” but there was something different about his face today, like he was holding onto some precious secret only he knew about.
He had been donating blood for what felt like years to save enough money, and today the ring was finally his. It was five years since he and his girlfriend, Janet, started dating, and she was about to go on a trip to Hawaii with her girlfriends, and who knows what would happen without him there if he didn’t propose soon. The ultimate ultimatum.
“I just don’t understand why we have to wait until you’ve finished vet school,” she’d argued. Roy was in graduate school at U. Penn in Philadelphia, and the distance nearly broke their hearts.
The time had come, and Roy enlisted the help of his soon-to-be father-in-law to pick out the perfect ring.
Roy and Janet were married one year after he proposed. For their honeymoon? They visited Erie and then the farm, of course. No major life event was complete in the Pensenstadler family without a visit to the farm or “the farm” at least being tossed about in conversation.
In Philadelphia, they started their life together. While Roy finished up his schooling, Janet got a job as a patent attorney secretary, and that’s how Roy paid his way through school. After being drafted to the Army and moving from San Antonio to Chicago, then St. Louis, then back to Pittsburgh, they had a boy and a girl, just one year apart after they were told they would never be able to have children. They named them Mike and Elaine.
Life was good.
The Roy Pensenstadler Family
Roy worked as a veterinarian at various clinics and was able to take his family on wonderful vacations to Disney, California, and Hawaii. He skied down mountainsides and dove to the depths of the ocean—everything he ever said he wanted to do and more.
“Fantastic” was on his lips in spades.
Eleven days before Janet’s 40th birthday, she and Roy were headed out for a rare date night without the kids. Roy was lit up with excitement, knowing that all plans for the surprise party he was to throw for his wife were almost finalized. He could relax tonight and enjoy the evening, just the two of them. Their children, Mike and Elaine, were also excited, filled with their own plans for a fun night with the babysitter. They’d play Paragon pinball downstairs in the gameroom, stay up late, and even enjoy an unexpected visit from Mr. Boyd, whom they affectionately called “Mr. B”.
“I’m getting tired of pinball,” Elaine yawned, “Let’s go upstairs.”
“Yeah!” Mike echoed. “Hey, Mr. B, let’s watch the news!”
Elaine laughed, knowing the only reason Mike suggested the news was because he wanted to sound cool in front of Mr. B.
Mr. B pondered for a moment, then said, “Let’s just play one more game.”
After several more than “just one more games", Elaine and Mike trudged on up the stairs for bed, the sounds of the pinball machine still rattling in their heads.
But sleep would not find them at the top of the stairs. They were met instead by their grandparents, Penny and Rose, who lived an hour away. What a fantastic surprise! Embraced in a warm hug from Rose, Mike realized Father John was there as well. What was the priest doing in their living room so late at night?
Then the news broke. There had been an accident and their father was hurt pretty bad. He’d be in the hospital for a bit, but he’d be okay. There was silence as this sunk in, then—
“What about mom?” Mike asked. At first the response was,
“She’s okay too.”
But then the truth.
“She won’t be coming home.”
Earlier when Mike had suggested they watch the news, Mr. B already knew what had happened. He feared footage of the accident would be shown and he didn’t want the kids to see it. “Just one more game” he had said, and watched as the pinball rattled the bumpers and the kids enjoyed their last moments of innocence.
Roy and Janet had been only a mile or two from home when a drunk driver hit them head on. Mike, only 12, and Elaine, just 11, sat on the sofa—perhaps they cried or screamed or gasped for air—it’s amazing how the mind blocks things traumatic. But from that moment on, life had shifted, altered into the unthinkable... a life without their mother.
There would be no balloons, no streamers nor gifts; the days leading up to Janet’s 40th birthday were instead a revolving door from the hospital to the funeral home and back again. Roy was in the hospital for nearly three months. He was given his last rites twice. But he survived, sustaining injuries that would hound him for the rest of his life.
He could live with those injuries. He could live with that pain.
But no injury would hound him quite like the death of his beloved Janet, who that night stepped toward a much larger, joyous gathering than Roy could’ve ever planned for her when she passed into the open arms of her heavenly father.
Roy & Janet
“I heard you play guitar.” Father Francis greeted Roy at the front steps of the church.
“I OWN a guitar,” Roy smiled, and that was good enough for Father Francis.
“Good,” he said, “I’d like you to start a folk choir.”
Roy was struck by the notion. But that afternoon, he unclipped the latches on his old case and rested the belly of his guitar in his lap. He strummed one note, then two, then three; it all came back so easily. The house swelled with clunky notes from beautiful hymns.
His fingertips grew callused and the tunes clearer with time, and it wouldn’t be long before he found another guitarist, then two, then three, and a chorus of tenors, sopranos, altos, and basses. When Father Francis imagined a choir, he knew that if Roy Pensenstadler were to lead it, it would multiply and thrive.
From that moment on, if anyone were to meet him outside the church—say at work or at the farm or anywhere in between—and say,
“I heard you play guitar,”
Roy would smile with pride and say, “Forty-five years,” and gush about his folk choir at Our Lady of Peace.
“Time to get up in the M-O-R-N-I-N-G…..Today is a brand new day,” Roy sang, bursting into Mike and Elaine’s bedrooms. It had been a year since Janet’s passing, and he’d picked up the pieces because he had to. He had two young children (ages 11 and 12) to care for, love, and protect after all, and so he kept on singing.
"It’s never been here before,” he continued, “and it will never be here again. God made it special and just for us, so we can share it with Him and with one another.” His children wiped their tired eyes. Roy didn’t care if he was out of key or carrying a perfect melody. And it showed.
He’d since started his own vet practice. He worked 25 hours each week, a fraction of what most parents did, but he made that work so that he could be there when his kids woke up and left for school, and home again when they returned.
And every morning, he sang his song for them. He sang it over and over again until he himself believed it. And he did. He believed it with his whole heart. And it showed.
Elaine, Roy & Mike
“Well, I was swimming in the Atlantic…,” the tale began. “And out of nowhere, this great white shark starts circling me.” A captive audience of college kids drew closer in Mike’s dorm room.
“Were you scared?” one asked. Mike rolled his eyes. He had heard this story a thousand times.
“Of course I was scared!” Roy exclaimed. He lifted his shirt, exposing the scars that marked his torso like a road map. The boys all gasped and stared at his wounds, mesmerized; two looked away in disgust. But only one asked,
“Does it hurt?”
“Nothing hurts more than a great white shark sinking its teeth into your skin,” Roy assured, but the boy looked him dead in the eyes and clarified.
“Not the attack, Mr. Pensenstadler, the wounds.”
Roy was taken aback. He had always entertained with theatrics and tall tales that masked his pain or numbed the heartache of others. Roy took a giant breath, like a gulp of ocean water, and jolted with its salty taste. He looked down at his body, since healed from the car wreck six years ago, since healed from an aortic aneurysm as well, and felt his heart beating in his chest like a giant fist against a door.
“Everyday,” he said. “Everyday.”
The phone rang and it was not good news. Elaine said, “Dad your blood work results are back and the doctor wants to admit you in the hospital again.” Roy turned his head with eyes wide open and said with much clarity, “I’m never going back there."
“Do you know what that means, Dad?” He said “Yes, I’m ready. I’m not afraid to die anymore.”
Elaine inhaled one deep, cool breath. She took her father’s hand in hers and exhaled with warmth. Her father’s hand that once gripped a golf club, strummed a guitar, held tightly to the reins of a horse and ski poles, cared for animals, and comforted grieving pet owners, was now relaxed. No less powerful, but relaxed.
Throughout his 79 years, Roy had survived a lot. On top of the injuries sustained during the car accident in 1981, he developed Hepatitis C from a tainted blood transfusion resulting in a liver transplant, aortic aneurysm, broken back, prostate cancer, bladder cancer, countless radiation and chemotherapy treatments, kidney failure, and a liver abscess. And through it all, he remained joyful and faithful.
“It’s good,” he’d say. “I am offering my pain up to help the souls in Purgatory.”
He passed peacefully and comfortably at home on January 13th, 2020 at 5:35pm with his children by his side.
In his final moments, Roy was alive with seemingly random outbursts from another era. He was young again, wandering along an earlier timeline, carefree in grass-stained jeans perhaps. His whole life ahead of him. And in the close distance, he heard a voice call him home.
Roy, Janet, Mike and Elaine knelt by their bedside at the Pensenstadler farm, the very room that Roy and Wayne slept in that first summer in 1948. The metal-framed crib was long gone, the walls a brighter coat of cream, but there they knelt and prayed. If one were to pass their open door, they’d think Norman Rockwell was tucked away painting in the corner. That is, if Roy could even be contained to canvas.
“Amen,” Mike finished, and the room grew quiet but for the sound of a grasshopper that had snuck its way in through a cracked window.
“It’s your turn,” Roy gently nudged Elaine, and she softly began, “Dear Lord…”
When they were each done praying, Roy and Janet tucked their children in, and just before turning off the light, Roy asked,
“What do you wanna be when you grow up?” They were bleary-eyed and tired from a day spent exploring with their cousins.
“I dunno,” they said. But then, like rockets, suddenly burst forth with a dozen different things, like “teacher” and “astronaut” and “baker” and “fireman”. His kids were overcome with wild ideas, and Roy laughed.
“They’re just getting started,” he thought, and he knew the farm on Butternut Road held plenty of acres for their dreams to unfold like giant ferns.
Family, faith, and the farm. And that was everything to Roy.