Confessions Of A Working Director
By Eric Stanze
November 2, 2009
Yesterday, my grandmother passed away quietly in her sleep. Grandma Ruth was my last remaining grandparent. I am now in a world with no grandparents for the first time in my life.
My grandfather - Grandma Ruth's husband - died of cancer just a few weeks before I was born in 1971. And on the other side of the family, my other grandma died in a car accident over a decade ago, and my grandpa committed suicide in 2006 (because his health was starting to fail and he did not want to be a burden on anyone). All of my grandparents had long, full, very good lives. But Grandma Ruth is the only one of my grandparents to die of old age.
Grandma Ruth had been in poor, and slowly declining health for many years. Her death brings a mix of emotions familiar to anyone who's lost someone elderly or otherwise in declining health - it is bittersweet..... her quality of life had declined to a point where death was a positive thing. But still, it is difficult to see her go, knowing she will never come back.
I had great, close relationships with all of my grandparents. They were wonderful people who I looked up to and enjoyed spending time with. When I was a kid, I'd usually spend a week each summer with my Grandma Ruth. Even when my family was living in Pittsburgh, when the weather turned warm, I would make the trek back to St. Louis for this week of hanging out with Grandma.
Until he died in 1971, my grandfather owned and operated the family business, a St. Louis monument company that custom-cut grave stones. When he passed away, Grandma took over the business. Neither of their sons, my dad or my uncle, had an interest in the business, so Grandma Ruth ran it expertly by herself until she sold it in the mid-1980's.
As a kid, when I'd spend a week each summer with Grandma, it meant breakfast each morning at the restaurant attached to the Schnucks supermarket on the corner of Gravois and Hampton. After breakfast, we'd drive to the monument shop, which was just up the road on Gravois. The building is still there, and it is still a monument shop today, but they no longer custom-cut the grave stones on the premises, and more obviously, the name "STANZE" is no longer looming over the street in three-foot-high, etched-in-glass letters (something, as a kid, I always thought was very, very cool).
Check out the image of the store front. This is a photo from an old Stanze Monument Co. promotional pamphlet. The pamphlet must be pretty ancient because the shop is very much in the city, boxed in by other buildings. I have no memory of the trees and open fields you see in this photo. But other than that difference, this is what the building looked like right up until my grandma sold the business. This image of the Stanze Monument storefront will forever be burned into my memory as one of the most cherished images of my youth.
After breakfast, Grandma and I would open the shop for the day's business, and that's where I would spend my day. It sounds like it would be very boring to a kid, but I loved every minute I was there. I would sit and draw in the main office, which overlooked the showroom of display grave stones. If I got tired of that, I'd wander around the building. In the back, there was the familiar smell of the masking glue that was used in sand blasting names and designs onto the grave stones. Today, gravestones are not cut by hand anymore. Some kind of computerized process is used. The Stanze Monument Company was one of the last companies in the U.S. to cut grave stones the old fashioned way by hand.
Exploring other areas of the building would bring me to the sales office, or out back where the delivery truck waited to haul finished stones to grave sites, or into the showroom, where I would play on the hoists used to move the heavy granite stones around.
The employees of the Stanze Monument Co. were all very nice - apparently very happy to be working there. Half of them had huge arms, built exceptionally muscular from hoisting and maneuvering large blocks of granite every day. There was virtually no turnover at the shop. I believe another old fashioned aspect of the company was that it took responsibility for its employees. It was a priority of the Stanze Monument Co. to take care of its workers, to give them a good life and lead them to a comfortable retirement. (This almost sounds like gibberish today, as the typical American work environment grows more heartless and more vicious every year.) Because my Grandma's employees had been there so long, they remembered my dad growing up around the shop too, so I was erroneously called "Artie" from time to time. I didn't mind.
After a day at work with Grandma, we would often go play mini-golf at a place on Watson Road, near River des Peres. The mini-golf course was right next to a smaller monument company's showroom. Grandma Ruth would often shake her fist in the direction of her competitor and pretend to be angry at them. She was just joking around. I think.
When my grandmother finally sold the family business, she seemed dissatisfied with the direction the monument industry had taken. She thought the standards were slipping - that a lower-quality product, sold by a less scrupulous salesperson, was becoming the industry norm. I heard her say on many occasion: "I got out at the right time."
With the sale of the Stanze monument shop came the end of an era in my childhood. I remember the last time I was in the shop. I knew my days of hanging out there with my grandmother had come to an end, so I spent a lot of time just looking in every direction, all around the shop, trying to absorb and memorize the place. It was a very sad day.
To be honest, as I type up this blog, I am only now wondering about something that has probably already crossed your mind. I did not think to ask my dad where Grandma's headstone was going to be ordered from. I wonder if it will be ordered through the company that now works out of the old Stanze monument shop.
One thing that always stood out when I was in the showroom of the shop was a granite sample hanging on the wall by a couple of heavy bolts. The sample was the size of a small grave stone, but much thinner (yet it still took two people to move this heavy slab). It was sent to the shop at some point by the E.A. Chase Granite Company, I'm assuming to prod gravestone buyers into requesting their loved one's headstone be made of E.A. Chase Granite. It had the name STANZE cut into the stone, which as a kid seemed kinda spooky and cool to me.
Two decades after she sold the business, when we were moving my grandmother out of her house and into a nursing home, this E.A. Chase Granite sample was found in her basement. Because it was such a vivid part of my childhood, I asked if I could have it. For years, this heavy slab of granite has stood at the top of the stairs leading to the Wicked Pixel Cinema offices. It greets me every day when I come to work. Today more than ever, it warmed my heart and stirred pleasant childhood memories of spending summers with Grandma Ruth at our monument shop.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze