THE FLANNEL SHIRTS (written for Ryan and Blake)
Your Grandfather was born Robert Gerard Prud’homme on February 10, 1939. His parents were living in a small upstairs apartment of a house shared with another older couple, Antoine and Eva, who had also migrated from Canada to take residence and find work in the numerous mills in Cohoes, New York. He was born in the small bedroom on the second floor. It was only blocks away from the long row of mills that lined the edge of the river where the Cohoes Falls are located which supplied those mills with power. Cohoes had a nickname of Frog’s Hollow because of the large settlement of French Canadian people that came to America to make a living and provide for their families.
He was called Gerard, not Robert, and when his name was pronounced out loud, heavy with a thick French accent, it phonetically sounded something like “Gi-rowed.” To all but family it sounded like “Jitto.” That later was shorten to “Jit.” Actually, Jit never knew that his first name was Robert until he had to obtain a copy of his birth certificate for our trip to Alaska in 1974. Apparently, that was a French-Canadian custom to call their children by their official middle name.
Jit and his family eventually moved to their own house that his parents purchased on a street among other Canadian transplants. The whole neighborhood was French speaking. Four sisters were soon added to the family unit. When Jit attended kindergarten, school was taught in French, however, part of the day the students were taught English. By the time Jit reached the age of 12, they were finally allowed to speak English in the house and from that his parents picked up more of the language. When Jit turned 16 and 18 respectively, his family grew with the addition of two brothers. When I met Jit, he was 34 years old and the Catholic mass at St. Jean’s in his hometown, was still said in French. However, the neighborhood had become more integrated by then and English was the main language used.
It was obvious that Jit was destined to work with his hands, rather than following his parent’s footsteps of working in the mills. His original trade was installing sheetrock and taping. He worked for successful companies, working as a foreman on larger assignments, such as two of the first shopping malls in the capital district. He eventually joined the Carpenter’s Union. His reputation as a hard worker and an excellent craftsman allowed him to be hired by a prominent company, L.A. Swyer Co. This company worked on almost all the high-rise buildings in Albany and surrounding areas. Jit was immediately made a foreman. Jit was even given the position of superintendent in charge on a couple of projects.
As well as working on very important projects, Jit’s reputation allowed him to work 100% of the year. Many of the trades people would get laid off during the winter months. Jit always had work.
When I envision Jit leaving for work every day, the image I have is of a man who was excited about going to work. He loved the challenge of each and every job. I recall him always dressed in blue jeans and flannel shirts. During the very hot summer days, his flannel shirt may be abandoned partway through the day and he would work in his white t-shirt. In the winter months, you may only see the top of the flannel shirt because he may be wearing a Carhartt jacket or a full length Carhartt coverall when temps were below freezing. Nevertheless, always a flannel shirt.
I remember thinking just how manly Jit looked in his multi-colored flannel shirts. Jit always had a rosy glow to his cheeks and the flannel shirts would always accent his happy face. Whenever we might be going out, Jit’s idea of dressing up was to wear “clean” jeans and a “clean” flannel shirt. It was a standing joke with us. Luckily, we did not go to too many places that required more fussy clothing. Jit was someone that gave me lots of hugs. I recall so many times being held in his arms, with me pressed up against his chest snuggled in the soft flannel material. It was a very warm and wonderful experience.
Over time, the type of work that Jit did sometimes would cause a shirt to have a tear; the collar might get warn; buttons might be missing; there might be dabs of different colored paint, pipe putty, or taping compound that would render a shirt beyond it’s useful life. A thought came to me early on in our life together that the softness of the flannel and vibrancy of the various colors might do well turned into a comfortable quilt for our bed. So, rather than throwing away the flannel shirts, I started saving them in boxes that would get stored in the attic for a later time. No, I did not know how to make a quilt, but later, maybe in my retirement, I would learn how.
Jit was a very intelligent man. He knew how to work with tools. He built our beautiful home in Clifton Park. He updated our lake cottage. He built a waterbed for us and one for Eric. He built a 16’x16’ two-story barn in our back yard for his workshop. And within two years he added another 16’x16’ addition because it was not big enough. He built a hutch for my computer and a beautiful octagon shaped picnic table for our summer cottage. We would also joke that Jit was in competition with Norm Abram who was the host of the New Yankee Workshop TV program. Jit wanted to have at least as many tools. I know he came very close.
Jit was also a strong man. He was short but had lots of muscle for his size. However, much like his flannel shirts, Jit had a soft side. He was a very loving, compassionate guy. He loved his family so very much. His daughter was his life when she was growing up. When she married and started her family, Jit wanted to make a couple of family heirlooms to leave his mark in this world. He wanted his grandchildren to know him for the craftsman that he was. He wanted them to feel the love he had for them. He spent many quality hours making a beautiful cradle and a gorgeous rocking horse. Both items were made of strong wood, smooth surfaces, beautiful shiny finishes and they showcased his talent. They showcased his love for his family.
Jit can be remembered as being a jovial guy. His laughter was infectious. He had a great sense of humor. At his retirement party, where 96 of his family and friends gathered, Jit was the one that “roasted” his co-workers with stories of the fun they had while working together.
Even in retirement, Jit would be dressed in his jeans and flannel shirts. They became the “uniform” of fishing, hunting, and camping.
There is a saying “Clothes make the man.” The flannel shirts sure told you a lot about this man. Bright. Cheerful. Made specifically for hard work. Soft. Comfortable. Durable. Well, these adjectives describe flannel shirts. They also certainly describe your grandfather.
Even though long ago I envisioned a flannel shirt quilt for my bed, I, instead, decided to have a quilt made for each of you composed of this collection of your grandfather’s flannel shirts. I love you both. I hope that when you snuggle under them, that some of the warmth you feel comes from the memories you have of this man that loved you so very much. I know that he watches over you from his Heavenly home. I hope these “flannel shirt” quilts help you always remember his love for you! 00