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John Mahaney, R.I.P.


"John Mahaney is the best swearer in Yates County", I asserted, thrusting out my chin and squinching up my little beady brown eyes. He was also my closest adult companion during my single digit years, and my grandma's second husband.

I found out much later when I was approaching those teen years of superior folk knowledge that he really wasn't that great at cursing. He might have been in the county's bottom twenty, not counting ministers. A comfortable, sturdy middle age man, he was a really important person, for he was all mine (except of course for Maggie, my grandmother, who unobtrusively took care of us both).

John Mahaney was of Irish descent. He had two brothers, Dan and Jim, and a sister, Jule. Julia, James and Daniel all had their pet names, but John Mahaney was affectionately and respectfully always called John Mahaney. I never though to call him Grandpa, though that was his job title.

I tagged him everywhere. He taught me everything I was willing to learn. He also taught me to learn what I didn't want to, then or ever. That helps me 65 years later.

He taught me how to ride free-standing in the shaking bed of a low-sided farm wagon behind a trotting plowhorse. I've used that courage many times in shaky situations.

He taught me to weed a big garden and, gradually, how to weed, what to weed and when to weed... in that order, I learned the physical aspects the first season. The metaphysical side of this is still growing in my soul garden.

John Mahaney introduced me to the stone boat out in his large field next to our barn. Pulled slowly along by his big horse, this battered timber sledge rode the waves of freshly-turned earth as John Mahaney and I trudged along picking out all big stones and rocks of pickable size which had surfaced during the plowing.

He taught me then to pace myself, to pick up my own rocks and pile them on the stone boat, and to depend on bigger people to lift what I still couldn't handle. I learned that hard physical work over hours of time is not fun, lames body and mind alike, and is necessary for growth. Of course, the same is true also of mental and emotional improvement. John Mahaney did not lecture me about that. I am still picking out those rocks of heart and soul.

By the time that I remember, Maggie and John Mahaney had reached a tolerant and healthy living arrangement. She would ask him to do something around her house (jobs now referred to as a honey-do) and he would quietly reply "Yes, Maggie, I'll get to it." Eventually she would do that job herself, becoming quite skilled at many activities normally outside woman's scope in those days. There was never a harsh word.

With three or four boarders at every meal, Maggie's kitchen was busy all day. She was a good cook, adept with salt, pepper, herbs and spices. Here John Mahaney volunteered some help. He would taste the peas or yellow beans as they simmered on the coal range, quietly say "Not enough pepper..." and add more, and more. He did not stir or otherwise interfere.

At midday dinner, when I ate my way down toward the bottom of each saucedish of vegetable, the lowest layers would be resting on a black sand beach of crushed pepper, lightly covered by waves of buttery warm milk. Maggie must have loved John Mahaney, for she never made him stop helping.

John Mahaney was a farmer and a handyman. He owned a small farm about three miles north on Flat Street. Flat Street became Hamilton Street at the village limit. I lived at the first corner, four houses from the real farm country. The horse and milk cow lived in our barn, in a bay that later garaged a small truck. The frequent trip to the farm was long enough to be my adventure alone with John Mahaney.

After a satisfying trot along the straight dirt road, we swung the wagon into a short, unimproved farm drive leading to a small, slant-roofed pole barn. There were no other buildings, not even an outhouse. The low barn had its east side open to shelter the wagon, some tools, hay and feed. The western part was a roomy horse stall.

All round was John Mahaney's personal domain, his farm of about 25 acres or so. He had one each of pasture, cornfield, wheatfield, and hayfield, plus an old gnarly apple orchard with trees missing. Below the pasture lay a small woodlot with a swampy end kept damp by the spring.

This swamp became my favorite place on the farm. I suppose it was safe, but at the time it was wild for me. I chased frogs and smelled skunk cabbage. I fingered minnows in the tiny clear stream and muddied my knees along its pools. John Mahaney let me alone. How did he know to? Child psychology had not yet come to Penn Yan.

As I grew I spent less time with John Mahaney, more in school and with young friends. When Maggie died in '34 our times ended. We moved out of the house and to our lake place. He moved in with his sister Jule down the street, and then finished out his working years as the handyman of a home for "colony girls" on Head Street.

Finally, when I was in my mid-teens, John Mahaney gave me a lake front lot. The gift was unexpected. I don't know where he got the property but I sense why he gave it to me in the middle of the Great Depression.

I sold that lot cheap to help myself go to college. The $500 it produced in 1940 made the first couple of years schooling possible at a time when a ten-dollar meal ticket punched out twenty meals a week. Relatives told me I had done a foolish thing again, but John Mahaney never said anything. We did not need to talk about it.

He is long gone now, this dear friend who never had to say he loved me. I smile because he lives on, and I wonder if he would chuckle over this small eulogy. John Mahaney, R.I.P.


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