Heirlooms

"2 : something of special value handed on from one generation to another " – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Room at the table~

Grandma & Grandpa Conn

Grandma & Grandpa Conn

I still can’t drive by 207 West Ottawa Street and not feel my heart ache.

I loved that house. I loved that home.

Most of my earliest memories are rooted there.

I laugh when I think about how many of us piled into that house on holidays and birthdays.

We would all get together to celebrate the birthdays for every month. Grandma knew every single birthday and anniversary by heart. Five children, all the spouses, fifteen grandchildren, their spouses, thirty-two great grandchildren, and I haven’t even counted up grandma’s siblings, spouses, nieces and nephews – every birthday, every anniversary.

When I first told grandma I was engaged to Phil, she asked me when his birthday was.

“March,” I said.

“Okay, good. You can marry him. We have too many September birthdays.” 😄

At Christmas, there was a present under the tree for every single person stuffed into that tiny house. If grandma knew you were bringing a guest for the day, she made sure they had a present under the tree. If you brought someone in at the last minute, she still made sure there was a present under the tree for them, too. And because grandma was an Avon representative for a long time, many of our gifts would be Avon items – chap sticks, talcum powders, soap on a rope, small perfumes or colognes, sometimes jewelry.

Grandpa was a Christmas baby (go big or go home!). I remember that we always celebrated the December birthdays before opening our Christmas presents. Great-Aunt Grace would have made an angel food cake with 7 minute frosting on top– sticky, gooey, marshmellowy heaven! She would often decorate the cake with some plastic poinsettias, presented with flourish and fanfare, candles and song!

There was always room at the table for everyone who walked through the door at 207 West Ottawa Street. Their hospitality knew no limits. Even when times were most lean, grandma would stretch the meal to make it work. Grandma and grandpa married during the Great Depression and, on more occasions than can be counted, grandpa would bring home someone who needed a hot meal, someone who was having a harder time of it than they were. And grandma would “put another potato in the pot” – this was not just a quaint colloquialism, but a way of living in grace and love.

That kitchen was the true heart of their home. I loved visiting grandma and grandpa for lunch whenever I came to Logan. You never knew exactly who might pop in, but you knew for certain that you would get to see several members of our large extended family, all of whom came for lunch regularly, but mostly, we came for the company.

When grandma retired from her job at the Combs’ Shoe Store, she would no longer have lunch with my mom every day at the little diner downtown. About the same time grandma retired, the diner closed its doors (I suppose we could speculate that grandma and mom kept the diner in business for years but I do think that would be a stretch!). Grandma asked my mom what she would do for lunch and mom said she would probably just start bringing in a bag lunch. Grandma suggested that mom just run over to their house and she would have something ready for her each day when she got there. And so, every day for lunch for around 20 years or so, my mom would have lunch with grandma and grandpa.

One day, while my mom was having lunch with grandma and grandpa, the front door opened and in walked my Uncle Donnie. Donnie usually ate lunch at a little diner just over the tracks but there was a train stuck there that day and he was running short on time. Donnie decided to just drop into “mom’s” and grab a peanut butter sandwich. What he found there was his little sister (my mom) and his parents all sitting down to a mid-day feast of pork chops, mashed potatoes, gravy and beans. I’m guessing there was also some fruit or dessert, too. From that day on, Donnie was a pretty regular customer at grandma’s diner.

Well, you know how it is when word gets out about good food and good company. Pretty soon, Aunt Nancy and Uncle Dave were coming a few times a week, too. And lunch at grandma’s just became a way of life.

Grandma's rolling pin used to have green handles. You can still see some of the paint in the grooves of the handles. It is beautifully seasoned and I continue to use it every time I need to roll out any kind of dough. I always think of grandma and grandpa and wonder: how many pies? how many noodles?

Grandma’s rolling pin used to have green handles. You can still see some of the paint in the grooves of the handles. I always think of grandma and grandpa when I use it and wonder: how many pies? how many noodles?

Out-of-town family could count on catching up with everyone all at once just by going to lunch at grandma’s while they were in town. If you got there at 10:30 am, you could visit with grandma and grandpa for a bit before the lunch crowd started coming through. My mom and Donnie usually arrived shortly after 11, Dave and Nancy at about 11:40. If grandma and grandpa knew what day you were coming from out of town, they would alert the media– Sharon, Donna Sue, Dick and Jeanette, Jeff and Julie, great-aunts Jessie and Patty might come by, too, and, well, you just never knew who else might show up! Sometimes, we would hear the front door open, and old high school friends visiting town would drop in because they knew they could catch us all there.

We never knew what would be on the menu, but it would likely be whatever was on sale at Marsh that week. Grandpa’s ever important role in this routine would include walks to the store with his basket cart and his ATM card. And his job as daily potato peeler and onion dicer were invaluable, too. Grandma was in charge of the main course and there was always a pie or a cobbler on the top of the clothes dryer in the corner of the kitchen. Grandpa made sure you had that dessert a la mode. And in between the comings and goings of the lunch crowd were those moments when grandpa would tell you a story- rarely based in reality but almost always ending in a good laugh.

The meals continued after grandpa died in 1998, but grandma’s strength had diminished. So the kids stepped up with casseroles each morning that grandma could just bake in the oven for lunch. And the out-of-town kin all knew we could still go to grandma’s for lunch when we came to visit.

Grandma died in September of 2001.

The following summer, I attended my high school reunion. A friend who grew up on Ottawa Street came to me and expressed his sympathies. Pee Wee told me that when his mom, also an Ottawa Street native, saw grandma’s obituary in the paper, she said to him, “That’s the end of an era on Ottawa Street.” I was deeply touched when he shared that with me, that others recognized what beautiful people my grandparents had been, what kind of home they had provided there for decades.

We came for lunch but we stayed for the company because what grandma and grandpa were really serving up in that kitchen, in that home, every day was love.

And, so, when I drive by 207 West Ottawa Street, my heart still aches.

I miss that house.

I miss that home.

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Thank you, Al Capone~

Last night, I was sitting in a restaurant, listening to an elderly man I had just met tell some great stories about his youth. And, while his stories were very entertaining, I found myself missing my grandpa.

And, at the risk of killing your interest in this post, I admit up front that Al Capone was not my grandfather. However, Al Capone did play a role in my existence.

You see, my grandpa was this larger-than-life sort of guy. He was big in every way – big hands, big belly, big voice, big laugh. And big stories. If you have ever seen the movie Big Fish, then you might have some idea as to the character of my grandpa. He was a Big Fish. When I was living in Taiwan, my cousin, Cathy, sent that dvd to me with a note that said, “Must watch. This IS grandpa.”

As a young child, I listened to his stories with wonder. By the time I was a teen, the wonder wore off, replaced by the angst of indifference. As an adult, I tuned into his stories again but was often too distracted by the busy-ness of life to stop and really focus on the precious, fleeting moment. I want to put these memories down now. I wish I had done it sooner, when grandpa was still with me, grinning, laughing, loving. I miss him so much.

So, I remember that grandpa told me that he had been a beer runner in the late 1920s, during the reign of Prohibition, Speakeasies, flappers, jazz, bootlegging and Capone. I had heard him tell about working at the filling station as a mechanic in Logansport, nestled halfway between Indianapolis and Chicago, before the advent of interstates, when Capone’s guys would pull in for gas. He told us that he was startled as he lifted the hood to check the oil and found a tommy gun mounted in the engine block, pointing out the front of the car.

Once when grandpa was in the hospital, I was visiting him.

Grandpa Conn

I wanted to tap into his Capone lore, but he was not as forthcoming with the stories on that day. I asked him why he stopped running beer and he told me that, one day after running beer from Chicago, he picked up the paper and saw that a rival gang of Capone’s had been killed in Chicago. He said that after seeing that in the paper, he thought maybe running beer wasn’t such a great idea. I asked him when that happened– was it cold out?

“Yes,” he said, “it was winter.”

“Grandpa, was that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre?!”

“Well, I don’t know– mighta been. It was cold. I do remember that.”

Then his stories took a turn and we were off on another adventure somewhere in the mountains on our way to visit baby Donna and fixin’ broken-down cars on the side of the mountain road while Norma and Nancy peeled potatoes in the back seat and Dick and mom started settin’ up the portable grill . . . and Capone was no longer in the room with us.

Then, in 1997, one of my cousins was killed in a tragic car accident. My grandma had been visiting another cousin in South Carolina at the time. So, she flew back home for the funeral and I picked her up at Chicago’s Midway Airport. We were both very sad about my cousin’s death- a young life full of joy and promise cut horribly short. I decided to distract our minds by getting grandma to tell some of her own stories. And I cannot actually remember another time prior to that day that I was ever alone with my grandma. For the next three hours drive to Logansport, I had grandma all to myself and she had my undivided attention. So, I started with this one question: how did you and grandpa start dating?

Now, grandma was not known for her tall tales. Her feet were planted a little more solidly on the same earth we all walk on. So, I am always more inclined to believe grandma’s version of reality as truth and she confirmed many of grandpa’s assertions.

Grandma told me that she had known Grandpa for a long time before. They ran around together with a bunch of other kids from the neighborhood. They were friends and he was a nice guy. She really liked Gene. But she had heard that he was starting to get more involved in Capone’s beer running and she was worried for him. So grandma invited another girlfriend to help her distract Gene from the speakeasies and the beer-running. They decided that they would go over to the garage when they both got off of work. They would invite Gene to go to the movies or go for some ice cream or out for a drive. And, so, that’s what they did. And it worked. Except, at some point, the other girl just stopped coming along. Now, my grandma was a beautiful woman and I suspect that grandpa was not at all sorry to have grandma all to himself and I know he loved having all her attention.

I told you she was beautiful!

I told you she was beautiful!

They eloped in 1932 and spent 66 amazing, loving, big fish years together.

Thank you, grandma.

Thank you, Al Capone.

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