Wednesday, December 26

Holding on to photographs and fairy tales

Grandma Marge shows off her modern coffee percolator while Deb (left)
and I hold the dolls we got for Christmas.

When it’s time for the holidays, a tinge of sadness creeps into my joy of family time.  I think back to glimpses of Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa’s big farmhouse in the grove.
Although I can only remember little bits and pieces of those days, I have a clear picture of the surroundings. Separated by round solid wood pillars and handsome woodwork, the living room and dining room held large family dinners, Saturday night family radio shows and-eventually, family television time on a small black and white TV. The Ed Sullivan Show with its Geritol commercials and harmony from the Lennon Sisters was a Sunday night tradition. Even after nearly 55 years have passed, I still feel the warmth of that home where I spent my first seven years.
I remember many adventures with my best friend, Deb. She was just 14 months older than me.
One Christmas Sunday morning Deb and I tore open our single present. Gushing over our new dolls, we crawled up on the arms of Grandpa Bill’s easy chair. Tugging on his arm to show him my dolly, he chuckled and said, "What good is a silly doll? It's not real you know."
But, he pulled me in close to read us the Sunday funny pages. With Deb and me sitting on either side, he'd read Blondie to us before sharing some of his own tall tales. We heard about barn dances and shivarees and shucking corn by hand. He painted a picture of the way things used to be. At the same time he let us in to a place in his heart most people never got to see.
Sissies, Songs, and  Smokeless Tobacco
Just like Grandpa Roy and my dad,  my great grandfather Grandpa Bill gave us a hard time. He liked to tease us.  He was quite a character. Ornery as hell to some. I never thought of him as an authority figure. More like an old fart who loved us, laughed with us and let us break the rules.  From sneaking candy to getting  out of doing chores, he was always on our side. So was Grandpa Roy. But, that was different. Most of the time he had to come clean with Grandma.  It's not that she was strict. Not at all.  She seemed to be burdened more with the past.

Grandpa Roy and Grandpa Bill shared some haunting memories from long ago.  When we asked Grandpa Roy about his mom or his sister, the loss was still raw.  He'd looked down, say a few words and move on to something else.  I remember a few things.  Dad hired doctors. He moved her to Colorado Springs to a sanitarium. They said the air was better for tuberculosis patients. Dry. Clean. He talked about an iron long. How Dad got desperate when he found Ruth coughing up blood and get weaker and sicker. He called it the Consumption.

One time he looked away like he was back on the farm when he was a boy and still had his mom and sister.  It seemed like a long silence for me. . . . for Grandpa not long enough holding on to memories of Ma's hugs or his sister's smile. Too long when he relived the worst days.   He would have given every penny, all the land-anything to have them back. So when Grandpa Roy was barely a teenager, the father and son watching a wife/mother and daughter/sister die cemented a solid bond between father and son. No one else heard the coughing, choking. Saw the weak smiles. The blood. So a boy and his father, worked on chores, grief . . .  getting up every morning.
We often heard Grandpa Bill singing in the barn where he spent much of his time. Looking back I think the barn connected him to younger days when he pitched hay, scooped up dung to clean animal stalls and labored from dawn until dusk on farm chores. It was also a place to escape - mostly from Grandma Marge. They seemed to resent each other at times.  When Grandpa Bill lived with them, there was some friction but they both held the family above all else. Toward the end, when Grandpa Bill's health got worse. They converted the cubbyhole (storage for boots, gloves, coats) into a bathroom and the dining room became his bedroom until Grandma and Grandpa couldn't serve all his needs. To the very end, Grandpa Roy had his own private path to Grandpa Bill's heart. They talked tough, they bickered; they weren't the hugging/kissing kinds of guys, but the mutual love and respect was so obvious.

When Deb and I were little, sometimes in the afternoon we watched him whittle wood. When he didn't think we were around, he'd sing parts of his favorite songs. His favorite?  The old man died with a cob up his ass . . .  something about how he died because he wiped too fast. While Deb and I giggled to think of that image and hear those 'naughty' words, we knew exactly what he meant. Grandpa Bill still frequented the old outhouse down by the old chicken coop. Back then common materials for wiping included corncobs stacked in the corner or the pages of an old Montgomery Ward catalog. We often heard him sing from the comfort of his one-hole 'can'.

Sometimes Grandpa Bill made up his own words or sang parts of church hymns. He sang a few other off-color songs like Jimmy Crack Corn and I Don’t Care—NOW I realize it was a reference to the days of slavery due to lyrics like, the master has gone away. Back then I thought it was just a silly song. Just like Ring Around the Rosey, the lyrics used in the middle of SD in the late 50s smacked of offensive racial remarks. Now it seems kinda hard to believe but it was just the way everyone talked and acted. It is often more obvious in the South but racism (Blacks and Native Americans) had deep roots in the Midwest as well.  Like most prejudice, it as mostly based on stereotypes and hearsay and not the truth. When you tend to stay in your own little pocket in the world, you have no real word experience to see the truth.  Both grandfathers used derogatory terms but neither had a hateful bone in their bodies. It was just the way things were.

Whenever I think of Grandpa Bill I see a wiry white-haired man wearing striped bib overalls and worn out lace-up work boots. Most of my memories show Grandpa Bill as good-hearted with flashes of stubbornness. Most of his bad side came out in his last months when my mom took care of him before he went to a care facility. An ornery streak surfaced. He’d holler for his pee can or his snus cup but half the time he spit his chew on the floor. I remember the disgusting brown tobacco juice dripping down his chin and the smell of urine stains he'd slopped over the container on to the sheet.
Grandpa Bill visiting the pink farm
when he lived in the nursing home.
Although it wasn't his wish, his level of care required a nursing home where he spent the end of his life. I can still see his hunched over shoulders and the white handkerchief always stuffed in his pocket. His body just shriveled up like an oyster. Hiked halfway up his torso, his pants draped from his fragile body leaving less than a foot of his shirt. Adding to the foul smells, brownish wet stains from his chew usually saturated part of his thin western shirt. A second handkerchief often covered his lap to aide in battling dripping tobacco juice.  Sometimes he enjoyed leaving the facility and visiting the farm. But, other times he just sat and stared. Grunting replies more than talking, it was like he awaited death.

The day he died he kept yelling about closing the pasture gate before the horses got out. Flailing his arms as his head turned from side to side he seemed to be herding the horses back into the pasture. Then he'd calm down and change scenes. I could make out some words he said to his mother. I heard him whisper to his dying wife. During his last minutes, he seemed to go back to a time when his body and mind reflected his inner strength.  Maybe he went back to Ruth and Agnes' deaths to let them know he was coming.  Who knows. But he seemed to know what was important. He had his dignity back. For a few minutes anyway.

Considering the wild look in his eyes, the grey color of his sunken in cheeks and his frail broken body, I felt  peace when he died. I was relieved  his suffering ended. It just seemed obvious he was ready to go.  I think I was more bothered by Grandpa Roy's tears than Grandpa Bill’s passing. It was the first time I saw Grandpa Roy cry.  Just a few tears sliding down the rugged cheeks.  No sobs.  But, this was the man I thought was invincible.  Obviously, Grandpa Bill played a special role in his life. Now his father was dead. I think Grandpa Roy was just down to empty when the last of his first family passed.
Dad traveled to Lexington, KY for Andy's senior 
day for UK Wildcats softball team. 

The Day I ALMOST Felt Sorry for a Snake
Grandpa Bill surfaces in many of my childhood memories.  I will never forget the image forged in my mind the day he killed a long fat bull snake. Deb and I lounged between neatly weeded rows eating baby carrots when we tore out of the garden to check on the commotion coming from the barn.
Feeling a little uneasy, my eyes bugged out in fear. Swinging a big bull snake against metal and wood, Grandpa Bill kept whacking it over and over again against the metal bars of the pasture gate. He held the end of the long snake like a whip and kept whapping it until the snake’s mushy head just dangled like a popped balloon.  I obsessed with hating snakes anyway, but witnessing Grandpa’s flash of anger scared me. Not so much the killing of the snake but the vicious tone of his cursing and yelling at the pathetic creature during the massacre grabbed my attention. It seemed so out of character. 
When he noticed us staring at him, he stopped the whipping, dropped what was left of the snake and looked as sheepish as a little kid in trouble.  “That damn thing’ll never bite no one now!” he tried to make himself smile. We found out later the hidden bull snake lashed out at him as he threw down bales from the haymow to feed the horses. The evil snake got disturbed. Although it wasn’t poisonous, it must have scared the crap out of Grandpa Bill! It struck his arm as he knocked it to the wooden slats, stomping and kicking at it.
After it dropped out of the haymow door onto the ground, Grandpa slammed out of the barn, picked up the demon and went to work beating its brains out—if snakes have any brains. Who knows? They don’t have legs.  I hate, hate any kind of snake but somehow I almost felt sorry for this guy who gave his life defending a stupid bale of hay. 
Grandpa Roy holds on to our Shetland pony, 
Bud, as I grab on tight to Deb.

The First of Many Shetland Pony Deception Tricks
Deb and I were great pals but she was a little older and maybe a little smarter. Definitely sneakier. Either that, or she liked to take advantage of me!  Maybe a little of both.  Like the time she guided Bud, our Shetland pony under a tree, shoved a low branch out of her path ducking as it swept back slapping me off the back of  the pony and onto the hard ground.
I still remember the dull throb of my butt as I stood on my stool by the stove 'helping' Grandma Marge cook. In my defense, Grandma scolded Deb not to pull a stunt like that again. But, Grandpa Roy chuckled about it, “You’ll get it figured out, Pattio.”  I supposed I did get smarter at some point but Deb set me up a time or two.

Turtles, Treats, Truth and Other Distractions
I took the fall one time when we decided to go against Grandma Marge’s instructions.  Getting ready for our monthly trip to town for groceries, she told us to change into our good clothes, not to get dirty and wait for her on the porch.  Usually we got to spend a quarter each to go to the movies and get popcorn and a Coke, so going to town was a big deal. 
On that especially hot Saturday Deb coaxed me from the house into the livestock tank to 'swim' with her. Disgusting by most standards, the tank was our own little pool of paradise.  Our pet turtle joined us that Saturday. I remember darting my eyes to stare at his slippery shell when I glimpsed Grandma marching out with hands on hips.  In a slow stern voice she reminded us of her directions. Then she did something I’d never ever experienced with Grandma Marge or Grandpa Roy. She turned her back and walked away! She headed to town without us. It didn’t matter what we said or how much we whined, we stayed home with Grandpa Roy that day. 

I remember when this picture was taken at our old one-room school house during the
fall bizarre. Hanging curtains separated the booths of  different craft items, baked
goods, quilts and all kinds of home-made or farm-grown items.
I was almost as tall as Deb (left). The dresses featured white skirts with red/white
striped square and tops were dark blue with blue belts tied in back. Grandma ordered
these "store-bought" dresses from Montgomery Ward catalog. She made some of our
clothes but most of our "Sunday" outfits were store-bought or made by a seamstress.
Even a teeny, tiny bit of tough love shocked us.  For Grandma and Grandpa, discipline meant getting sent upstairs to our room a few times but nothing too harsh.  Deb’s lot wasn’t as smooth as mine but nothing to make the headlines.  I didn’t understand it back then. I just knew I had it easier than she did. Grandma and Grandpa expected more of her but I always suspected age wasn’t the only reason.
At that time I thought of them as my parents calling them Mom and Dad, just like Deb.  Later, when I found out our biological relationship it all made sense.  They didn’t treat me the same because I wasn’t their daughter.  But, to a kid in second grade I felt desperate to stay in the place where I grew up with the adults I trusted.  I wished for the same treatment as my sister/aunt.  Even if it meant punishment.  It was not to be.  But, that’s another story.
Back to the day of the infamous turtle swim when Grandma made a stand and took charge. Yes, we got into trouble but it turned out to be a memorable day. Grandpa entertained, told jokes and took us with him to the pasture to fix fence.  We took turns trying to punch the post holes deeper.  Like trying to win the prize at a carnival game, we jumped on the puncher, pushed down and struggled to turn the thing.  Deb told me she was stronger than me. So, then I tattled telling Grandpa what she said. Grandpa scolded Deb for teasing me.  Well, not really a scolding. More like a quit making her whine comment, reminding her she was older so she should know better.
One of Grandpa Roy's favorite pictures of 
us taken in the grove. Deb was often my
caretaker and watched out for me.  She was the
leader while I (left) was the listener. I pretty
much believed whatever she said.

True. She was older. Fourteen months older.  She got to go to school and I was too young yet.  We must have been maybe five and six at the time.   Grandpa knew I looked up to Deb; most of the time we were best friends. But this was one of those frustrating days. Looking back, I suppose her anger was more about her poor choice of getting in the tank and less about picking on me. She told me she was sorry.  As soon as Grandpa turned around to work on the fence, Deb stuck out her tongue and put her thumbs in her ears waving her fingers at me. So much for being sorry.
A Woman’s Place before We Knew Better
One Thanksgiving when I was probably five or six, I helped set the kid’s table while Grandma Marge cut up potatoes to boil.  I remember tugging on her apron asking if I could set at the grownup’s table.  I can still see her happy eyes as she laughed and shook her head. 
Our extended family was so large there wasn’t enough room to seat everyone.  The traditional seating order included separate tables for kids.  The kid’s tables were often card tables, coffee tables or TV trays but kids got to eat in the first shift.  The men all gathered around the table for the first shift while the women served them.   When all the kids and the men finished their feasts, it was the women’s turn to sit and eat. They served themselves. Then they did the dishes, cleaning up the entire mess. Most likely eating during the last shift meant cold food with most of the popular side dishes gone. Grandma joked saying eating last was best because you didn’t have to hurry so someone else could eat. Pretty sure none of the men rushed through the meal so the women could have their turn.  When I asked Grandma about it she said that it was just the way it was and always had been. 

Many of those backwards traditions disappeared along with the beloved tradition of our large families gathering as one.  Aunts, uncles, cousins—the whole clan always got together for Christmas.  These days, despite more convenient transportation and faster ways to communicate, my granddaughter wouldn’t even recognize her cousins or great aunts and uncles, let alone enjoy a meaningful relationship with any of them. A sad reflection of our shifting priorities. Somehow the focus on family faded along with so many of our traditions.
Joined by two of grandma's three sisters, Velma Sievers
(front) and Evelyn (Tude) Phillips (back right), Grandma
Marge and Grandpa Roy celebrate their wedding anniversary
at an open house reception in Wessington.
Recognizing the Role of My Grandparents
I guess I never thought about it back then, but most folks—including my family, did the traditional gender role thing granting males superiority.  I don’t remember Grandma Marge and Grandpa Roy ever acting that way; if anything Grandma was the one who wore the bossy pants.  That’s why Deb and I got in on some of Grandpa Roy’s secrets—things like not telling Grandma about the whiskey bottle hiding in the stock tank or under the pickup seat or how he always broke the rules spoiling us with an extra nickel for candy when we went to town of Saturdays.  Maybe he was flawed in some ways, but to me he was the epitome of a truly good-hearted person.  A classy trustworthy man, he knew how to treat people. 
Obviously, he had a few minor issues. We all do.  But, for me Grandpa Roy was like the perfect authority figure.

No one could love kids more, have a better sense of humor or be as patient as Grandpa Roy.  He and Grandma Marge provided the foundation of my philosophy in life. Modeling tolerance, fairness, compassion, loyalty and respect, my grandparents were about as perfect as grandparents could be.  I’ve never met anyone as special as Grandma Marge and Grandpa Roy and I doubt I ever will.  I always appreciated them but for many years I did not realize the extent of their influence on me and my siblings.  My only regret is not telling them often enough how much I loved and appreciated them.
As I got older, Grandpa Roy’s stories about his past got a little more serious.  He talked about how his sister, Ruth, got sick, coughing up blood.  She died of TB about a year after his mother died of the same disease.  In an effort to save them, Grandpa Bill moved the family to Colorado where the air was supposed to be better for those suffering with tuberculosis.  There was a famous sanitarium there known for their work with the disease. But, it didn’t help.  When he was in his early teens, both his mom and his sister were buried back in South Dakota. While he and Grandpa Bill helplessly watched the two people closest to them die from  an ugly disease, it's hard to imagine what they experienced or how they felt. It must have been hell for both of them. That’s when I understood why Grandpa Bill lived with us. He and his only son went through unbelievable hardships together. I think their grief melded a special kind of life-time bond.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Pink House Christmas Memories

Mom waits for Grandma Marge to
open her present. 
Grandma and Grandpa's old pink house perched at the top of a hill with a driveway wrapping around the weathered house.  Looking like a solid fence line, lilac bushes framed in two sides of the yard. Between the barn and house, a narrow bridge covered the crick.  If you could stop in time or thread the toboggan through the middle, the slope down to the bridge was perfect for sledding.

Depending on the weather, too much rain or snow made the bridge impassable. That hardly ever stopped our extended family from piling into the pink house for Christmas Eve. Trudging through snow, riding on the old John Deere tractor or plowing a new route-nothing seemed too drastic to make it  to Grandpa Roy and Grandma Marge's farm for Christmas.

A few of the old traditions still survive.  Sadly, as kids grew up and families moved away many family traditions disappeared.

On most of those Christmas Eve's their 4 children and their families, adults and kids filled up that house but it never seemed crowded.  Room to sit didn't matter.  What mattered was we were together.  Babies laughing and crying, toddlers tossing old toys out of the old toy box and older kids playing jacks or Pick Up Sticks on the floor blocking traffic-all the sounds swirled around conversation and jokes. 
My parents, Donna and Bud
Before oyster stew, adults gathered in the kitchen for Tom and Jerry's-a type of batter served warm with alcohol. Can't remember if it was brandy, rum or whiskey mixed with hot water, cinnamon and nutmeg but I definitely remember the warm spicy smell.  Later, I discovered the smell was way better than the taste.

Homemade fudge, caramel, divinity, popcorn balls and sugar cookies filled the top of the buffet. Every year Aunt Sally cookies. It was the kind of spread you'd see in a  bakery window.
All the kids got gifts on Christmas Eve and the adults usually did a gift exchange.  Nothing like the stacks of presents under the tree these days, gifts were sparse with my kids usually opening one or two.  But, they squealed and grinned just as much or more back then compared to their reactions later when I could afford a few more toys. 

There's something to be said for growing up without all the extras. No name-brand clothes.  Hand-me-downs and thrift store finds filled in with the nice clothes Grandma Donna selected.  As a single parent and full-time student, working full-time didn't cover all the bills. Sometimes there was no money for a movie with friends. But, when there was extra or when they earned their own money, they didn't take it for granted.  
Grandpa Roy and Grandma Marge strike a pose in front of the 
infamous fireplace where Grandpa burned paper and gift wrap.
Photographs of that fireplace always reminds me think of happy Christmases . During family Christmas Eves at the farm we always threw all the wrapping paper on the floor.  Grandpa Roy shoved all the gift wrap into the fireplace.  A few adults weren't too keen on the idea. Extra smoke and smells filled the air after a few tubs of paper.  Grandma Marge nagged a little, "Roy!  Those sparks could snap out and burn. Be careful." Or, "Roy! Roy! You know better than that!"

One Christmas Eve he proved Grandma was right to be suspicious.  After stuffing in bag after bag of paper Grandpa Roy squinted his eyes trying to look through the screen.

"I don't think this damn thing is workin' right." About the same time Dad wiped his eyes commenting on the smoke drifting into the kitchen.  Grandpa got chewed out that night.  He forgot to open the flue on the fireplace.  Instead of floating up through the chimney, the smoke filled the rooms downstairs.  Some kids thought it was great.  They held their arms out trying to find people in the fog.  The whole fiasco turned out to be harmless.  After that night, I doubt Grandpa Roy ever forgot to open the flue.

Sunday, December 16

Cassadee Pope: "Over You" - The Voice

Cassadee Pope delivers an emotional rendition of Blake and Miranda's Over You.
Going into the finals she's had the most songs on the  iTunes Top Ten.

Featured Post

Holding on to photographs and fairy tales

Grandma Marge shows off her modern coffee percolator while Deb (left) and I hold the dolls we got for Christmas. When it’s time ...