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

Reunions and sleepovers~

Just a few years before grandma died, I had begun doing some genealogy research with her. These were the early days of the internet, when dial-up was the standard, and connections were as slow as molasses in January. I had come home to Logan one weekend and brought Phil’s new laptop with me so that grandma and I could try to do some searching on discussion boards for any information on the Gaff side of the family tree, Great-grandma Hazel Gaff Herron’s family. We hit the jackpot and found a board with a Gaff post. We emailed the contact, Dorothy Gaff, and she responded a few weeks later and we began exchanging family details and information.

After a few weeks of this kind of communication, I received this message on August 22, 2000:

Dear Patty, I thought maybe you and your grandmother would be interested in this>


Grandma with Great-aunt Jessie at a reunion at the carousel in June of 2001. They are either laughing with Phil or AT Phil- hard to know for sure!

Sunday, August 27, 2000

92nd Gaff Family Reunion

Christian Life Building

Churubusco Nazarene Church

Lunch at 1:00 pm

Drinks will be provided.

Hope to see you there!!

That was in just five days! There was nothing that grandma Conn loved more than a reunion- time together with her family – stories shared, memories shared, love shared. Grandma was always planning a reunion or planning to attend an upcoming reunion- family, high school or otherwise – grandma just loved any opportunity to visit and catch up with family and friends. For years, grandma wondered about this side of her family tree that she had lost all contact with since moving to Logansport at a very young age. So, even with such short notice, we all knew that there was nothing to stop us from going to that reunion.

I was living in the Chicago area. Margaret was 7 and Rachel was 3 but we loaded up the van and headed south to Logan. It had been almost two years since grandpa had died and Aunt Shirley was living with grandma at that time. All of us piled into mom’s van, grandma, mom, Aunt Shirley, I and my girls, and headed off to Churubusco for the reunion. Since I knew I would be driving, I had mapped out a route that I felt would be most expeditious on an Indiana August afternoon, four lanes most of the way, avoiding the hay bailers, tractors and plows that can slow down the narrow country highways. We were well on our way on Highway 24 East when grandma noticed the route I had chosen from the back seat and became greatly agitated. It was our very own Driving Miss Daisy moment. Regardless, I knew we would get there in good time and assured her of that in my best Morgan Freeman voice.

We arrived shortly after 1 p.m. and the moment we set foot in that fellowship hall, I knew for certain that my navigational transgression was forgiven. On the wall opposite us was a 30 foot long banner, about 4 feet wide, running the length of the hall. On the banner was the Gaff / Fleck family tree, tracing our family back to the first Fleck immigrants from England in the 1700’s. We were greeted and welcomed by several of the folks gathered there and then we made our way over to the banner. After just a little searching, we found our branch on this long, detailed tree. But our branch of family information had not been completed. It had ended just after my mom was born in 1940 and before Aunt Shirley was born in 1943. We laughed at that- here was Aunt Shirley, standing at the reunion at the age of 57, but it was as if she did not yet exist!

And the other fascinating thing to me was that I could see my features and the faces of my family in this room full of strangers. Truly, there was a woman standing there who could have been Great-aunt Jessie’s twin sister! Grandma had a wonderful afternoon, sharing information and gathering information from other family elders there. We exchanged some additional information with Dorothy and promised to keep in touch. After that day, grandma and I spent some lovely late evenings going through some old photos and family keepsakes.

During one of our late night visits, we came across this family reunion photo. It was rolled up and there is extensive damage and wear but can you spot grandma? She was just 3 years old when this photo was taken in 1916. I imagine that this reunion would have been a lot of fun on the farm in Churubusco, with lemonade and pies, pit-roasted pork and potatoes. And here’s another cool thing about this photo: either genetics is a pretty amazing thing or my cousin, Steve, is a Time Lord. According to all of the family tree data I have from grandma, Steve was born in the early 60s (and I am pretty certain this is accurate because he graduated one year after I did!). But when I look at this photograph, darned if I don’t see my cousin Steve, staring back at me from that barn door in 1916!

July 8, 1916, The Russell 50th Anniversary Reunion

July 8, 1916, The Russell 50th Anniversary Reunion

Great-grandma Hazel (Gaff) Herron with my great uncle Joe, age 2 years, on her lap, and (grandma) Evelyn, age 4 years, next to Uncle Joe. Seated next to Hazel is her mother-in-law, Almeda (Russell) Herron and her father-in-law, Anderson Herron (my great-great grandparents on the Herron side).

Great-grandma Hazel (Gaff) Herron with my great uncle Joe, age 2 years, on her lap, and (grandma) Evelyn, age 4 years, next to Uncle Joe. Seated next to Hazel is her mother-in-law, Almeda (Russell) Herron and her father-in-law, Anderson Herron (my great-great grandparents on the Herron side).


The handsome gentleman standing in the shirt and tie is Merle Herron, my great-grandfather. Seated in front of him are James Russell, Jr. and Elener (Hawks) Russell, my great-great-great grandparents.


My Time Lord cousin, Steve!

Grandma named many of the faces for me but, in my thoughtlessness, none were written down. It did not occur to me that we had so little time left to take care of those things.

I remember coming back to Chicago after one of my late night grandma visits and going to see my cousin, Cathy in Naperville. I shared a story with her that grandma had told me. Neither of us had ever heard this story from grandma before. Cathy shared that story with her sister, Janie, the next time they talked on the phone and together they hatched a plan.

Cathy called me and said that she and Janie wanted us to have a granddaughter sleepover at grandma’s on her next birthday (February 1st). Truly an inspired idea, I knew that grandma would LOVE it! We knew we could get her to talk and share and we could pull out the old slide projector and laugh. Grandma was a notorious night owl and would probably put us all to bed.

And so it was. We gathered at grandma’s on the Saturday night of her birthday week and spent the night with her: Janie, Cathy, me, Terri, and Nicole and Emily (great-granddaughters). We pulled out some old photos and trunks and heard some really great stories. Some that we had already heard before, and some that we never thought we would ever hear. What happens at grandma’s, stays at grandma’s! It was a very special night for all of us and the best present we ever could have given her, although we all knew that this gift was really for ourselves.

On Sunday morning, we arose. Janie cooked a pound of bacon on the stove and Aunt Shirley whipped up some pancakes. We all ate and dressed and accompanied grandma to church. Grandma was so proud and so elated to have us all there together, she stood up during the announcements to tell everyone why her pew was full that day, why her heart was full that day.

A few weeks later, I picked up the roll of film I had developed from that month. I had only one photo of that night but I am certain there are others out there. I remember taking this picture– it was just before we started the slide show in her living room. Immediately, my first thought flew out of my mouth, “ugh! I look awful!” Phil looked over my shoulder and said to me softly, “Look at your grandma.”

Yes, look at my grandma. She is radiant. Surrounded by those she loved and who loved her back, she is radiant. This was grandma’s last birthday in 2001, her 88th birthday, and the following summer, the picture of her with great-aunt Jessie and Phil above, was her last reunion. But I so look forward to seeing her again someday.

Back: Terri, Grandma, Emily Front: Janie, Me, Nicole and Cathy

Back: Terri, Grandma, Emily
Front: Janie, Me, Nicole and Cathy


Of flights and fallacies~

When I think about grandma and grandpa, I often find myself astounded at the arc of their lives, what they heard, what they did, and what they witnessed. Grandpa was born on a farm in 1908, before most homes had electric lighting and indoor plumbing. By the time he died in 1998, families were purchasing home computers and the internet was rapidly expanding. Man had not only landed on the moon, but had travelled back and forth through space on reusable shuttle craft. The technological advances in his lifetime alone are mind boggling. So today, we find ourselves back in time with Grandpa and the early days of aviation.

I found this story in a transcript dated December 4, 1992 from Frank Hand to grandma and grandpa. Frank was grandpa’s cousin from Royal Center and a bit of a family historian. Frank writes, “I have finally gotten around to transcribing my tape (recording) made at our family reunion . . . History has a way of getting away from us if we don’t put it down on paper and then find someone to read it . . .” Some of the stories in the transcript contain stories of early transportation in Logansport but none was as intriguing as grandpa’s aviation tale.
According to this transcript, there was an early airfield, the old Burkhart Field on the west side of Logansport. Grandpa said that one day, “a young girl approached the manager of the field and said she would make a parachute jump and for him to advertise it to create interest in his business.” She did not actually have a parachute but the manager of the airfield “flew down to Flora and got a parachute from Lee Eikenberry and brought it back to Logansport. The manager asked the girl, again, if she really would jump and she said she would.”

“So, a parade was arranged down Broadway Street including a roadster with the top down containing the young girl and Mary Kay Reed seated on the back of the car and with Gene (grandpa) and his old Ford full of his friends following immediately behind. There were numerous signs announcing that a parachute jump was going to be made at the Burkhart air field: come one, come all.”

“The parachute jump was made successfully by the young girl that afternoon and then she left for California and joined forces with Howard Hughes. Her name was Amelia Earhart.”


Amelia Earhart

I remember reading this transcript and being stunned. Grandpa and Amelia Earhart? Seriously? We were living in Glen Ellyn at the time I read this and when Phil came home from work that evening, I could hardly wait to tell him what I had found. Ever the cynic when it came to grandpa’s tales, Phil gently reminded me that we all know what a great storyteller your grandpa was and how he could really spin a yarn and how gullible and naive I could be when it came to my grandpa’s stories (admittedly, I did believe the giant catfish story he used to tell me well into my tweens~ so, yeah, Phil was absolutely right about my grandpa blinders!). So okay, this story is just dangling out there in grandpa’s fantasyland but, you have to admit, it is a great story, isn’t it?

But it does just beg to be known. Is this really possible? Did grandpa really drive behind Amelia Earhart in a parade and watch her parachute into Logansport? So, ever the librarian, I have done a little research to try to corroborate grandpa’s tale. And, so far, this is what I know:

I know that I am hopelessly gullible when it comes to my grandpa’s stories.

I know that most of grandpa’s really tall tales involved enormous fish.

I know that grandma was audience to this story on at least one occasion and, to my knowledge, did not contradict his story. Anyone who knows my grandma knows that she definitely would speak up if grandpa were telling a boldfaced lie. Grandma enjoyed grandpa’s stories and tales as much as the next person, but when something is being recorded for posterity, she would not have kept quiet if grandpa got it wrong. Interrupting to correct grandpa was a habit that grandma had finely cultivated over the course of 60+ years! I did not ever hear this story myself while grandpa was living and did not discover Frank’s transcript until after grandma had died. This is a story I would have loved to get more facts from grandma about- grandma was my Wikipedia of grandpa stories.

And here is something else I know: Amelia Earhart took her first airplane ride shortly following the end of World War I and that she spent the next several years seeking out many opportunities to fly and perform daredevil stunts, crossing back and forth across the United States several times during those years.

And in the interest of full disclosure, in Frank’s transcript, Frank quotes grandpa as saying, “she was 14 years old.” Well, simple mathematics tells me that he could not have been referring to Amelia Earhart because Earhart was born in 1897 and that would have made grandpa just one year old when he drove his truck in that parade. Grandpa was driving pretty young, at the age of 12 I have been told, but clearly he could not have meant Earhart was 14 years old. Since he was telling this story at a family reunion, I don’t think it would be a stretch to guess that he was indicating someone standing there at the reunion listening to him tell this story. If this person had been grandma, and she was 14 years old, then grandpa would have been 18 years old, and Amelia Earhart would have been 29 years old. The year would have been 1926. This was the year that Amelia Earhart was inspired to become the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic.

I know that Amelia Earhart lived and worked at Purdue University during the 1930’s. If you got in a car and clocked it, from Purdue to my grandpa’s doorstep, it’s a 60 minute drive on country highways. That’s pretty dang close as Amelia flies ~

I know that Purdue University purchased and presented to Earhart the Lockheed Electra aircraft in which she would fly her final, fateful mission and that Purdue’s Earhart Hall is named in her honor and the university holds one of the largest and most respected Earhart archives. Earhart’s ties to Purdue University run deep.

I know that there are many archives to dig through that may just hold some tiny little evidence of this chance encounter and that I long ago surrendered my rights to their restricted archives when I rejected my Boilermaker pass for a Hoosier one (go Big Red!).

And I know that I now have my own little Amelia Earhart mystery to solve.

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My great cloud of witnesses

As I reflect on my life, many people have had an impact on my faith formation. They are my great cloud of witnesses. And while I cannot begin to detail all of those witnesses, a few highlights from my youth are included here:

My parents, obviously, who made sure we were in church every Sunday, in confirmation classes every Saturday: they graciously hosted large youth fellowship events regularly in our home on Sunday nights and sought out the closest Lutheran church to attend whenever we were on vacation, no matter where we were at that time, so we could carry back our bulletins and report our attendance for confirmation credit and attendance pins awarded each year. I remember that my mom was my Sunday School teacher for many years and she, along with my grandma, were the altar guild. We would go to the church on Saturdays to ready the altar for Sunday, prepare the communion trays, change the numbers on the hymn boards. My senses still recall the fruity aroma of the Mogen David wine as we poured it into the communion cup filler, the wheezing of the bulb on the cup filler as we would carefully pump the wine into the tiny glass cups, gently handling the delicate bread wafers, the beautifully organized numbers and headings for the hymn board in the sacristy cupboard, and the washing and drying of the cups on Sunday after church- I loved these rituals as much as I loved the reason for the rituals. They centered me. This was home for my soul.

My pastors- Pastor Hollingsworth, Pastor Rendleman, and Pastor Kerrick:

Pastor Hollingsworth presided at my wedding and insisted that we come to him for premarital counseling before the wedding. Truly the best investment in our marriage was the 4 or 5 hours we spent with Pastor Hollingsworth in his office at Trinity, getting down the the real business of the wedding details: not the flowers or the dress or the cake but the nitty, gritty of solid marriages: communication.

Pastor Rendleman was my confirmation pastor. I remember him as kind and loving, despite the fact that his departure from our church was less than ideal. Divorcing his wife and marrying another woman in our congregation, I remember observing that despite how he left our congregation, he was still loved and forgiven by the congregation. This forgiveness spoke volumes to me about the grace that is so central to my Lutheran identity.

Mom's and Dad's Wedding, Pastor Kerrick presiding. Aunt Nancy (matron of honor) and Uncle Larry (best man), Rodney (acolyte), Terri (flower girl), and me (ring bearer).

Mom’s and Dad’s Wedding, Pastor Kerrick presiding. Aunt Nancy (matron of honor) and Uncle Larry (best man), Rodney (acolyte), Terri (flower girl), and me (ring bearer).

Pastor Kerrick was my childhood pastor. In my innocence and naiveté, I thought that he was Jesus. I remember going up to the communion rail and that he would kneel down and look me in the eye and tell me that Jesus loved me. I remember that when I was 5 years old, Pastor Kerrick baptized mom’s fiancé and, soon after, presided at my mom’s wedding to my new dad. I remember that shortly after that, I was stunned to hear him read his letter of resignation from the lectern. I could hear the shocked and disappointed murmuring of the congregants seated behind us. I remember that later in the service, I laid my head on my mom’s lap and I began to cry. Mom led me out of church and into the women’s bathroom. We sat on the sofa there and she asked me why I was crying and I remember thinking, “If you don’t know that Jesus is leaving our church, I am not going to be the one to tell you!”

Coach Jim Ridenour, my middle school science teacher, who invited me to help start a middle school chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes when I was in 6th grade:

When I failed to make the cheerleading squad in 8th grade and the humiliation over the school announcements led me crying hopelessly into the girls’ bathroom, Mr. Ridenour sought me out, found me and reminded me that I was much more than a fallen cheerleader, cut from the squad: “You are a child of God and nothing is more important than that.” 

I spent 6 years of my youth committed to participating and leading FCA activities with Mr. Ridenour and the other adult sponsors and members of FCA, from Bible studies to Ridiculous, Idiotic, Outrageous Times (aka RIOTs!), to bus trips to Florida and back. The many hours we spent together in these events were always devoted to strengthening my confidence to stand true to my faith when confronted with peer pressure and tough choices. When Mr. Ridenour died just before Christmas of 1997, I felt I had lost a faith father. He was a great man of infinite love and compassion for the countless youth he coached and taught for decades in Logansport. His impact on all of those lives may never be fully realized.

Grandpa Conn was always in church on Sunday mornings, seated at the far end of the third pew from the front on the left side. When I was very young, he would let me have all of the pennies from his coin purse to drop into the wooden offering plates as they were passed down the aisle. In later years, grandpa began doling out dumdums to all of the children in church. After I had outgrown the pennies and the dumdums, grandpa’s presence in church was noted each week by the barely perceptible snip and click of his pocket nail clippers during the sermon. Occasionally, he would doze off and grandma would elbow his ribs. At some point in high school, I began to think that grandpa really only came to church because there would be hell to pay with grandma if he didn’t come to church. But I was wrong about that.
After grandpa lost his eyesight to macular degeneration and doctors and specialists could do nothing to save his eyesight, it was decided that we should gather as a family and pray around grandpa to have his sight restored. Now, we can argue and debate the theology of faith-healing all day, but what I do know for certain is this: as a lifelong Lutheran, we prayed for folks all the time but I had never attended to a faith healing prayer meeting. This just wasn’t a part of my Lutheran church culture. So I was, admittedly, a little uncomfortable in this scenario. If it didn’t work, would it be my fault? Was my faith too shallow? I did not want to bear the burden of failure to heal my grandpa. But in that prayer circle that day, for the first time in my life, I heard my grandpa’s faith expressed in words so plain, yet so sincere, “Lord, I don’t know why this has happened to me. I just pray that You give me the strength to deal with it.” I knew then that he wasn’t just sitting at the end of that pew to keep the peace with grandma, that his faith ran deeper than spare change and lollipops.

And finally there is grandma, with whom, perhaps, my faith journey truly begins: grandma who, at the age of 11, decided one day to go church shopping.


Grandpa, Grandma, Aunt Nancy, Uncle Dave, and Grandma Maddie Brandt, 1959.

She had been raised in a loving home but not a church-going one. So for whatever reason, at 11 years old, grandma felt compelled to go find herself a church home. She told me that she visited many of the local churches.  St. Luke’s Lutheran Church felt right and the Lutheran theology was one that resonated the most with her own personal beliefs. She met with the pastor and attended new member lessons. The pastor met with great-grandma Herron for assurance that grandma’s very determined actions as a girl of such young years were supported or, at least, acceptable with her parents. Grandma deeply loved her choice and her church. She brought grandpa into her church, as well as her mother, brothers and sisters. She raised all of her children in the church and was delighted to know that they all continued in their faith journeys after leaving home and marrying. She could debate theology with the best of us, and often did, around her kitchen table but she was accepting of other expressions of faith, of Aunt Nancy’s conversion to Catholicism when she married Uncle Dave, at a time when conversions were not taken lightly, even before our country had mustered enough religious tolerance to elect a Catholic president. It grieved her if ever she thought that a member of her family turned away from the church and she would rejoice in the return of a prodigal.

Grandma's Lutheran Book of Prayer

Grandma’s Lutheran Book of Prayer

Grandma loved her church and for more than 70 years, she sat in the third pew from the front on the left side. Countless are the communion cups she filled, washed and dried, the potlucks she attended or organized, the many lives she touched through a decision she made when she was just 11 years old.

The summer before grandma died, I felt an ache in my chest when I came home for a visit, sat in that family pew without grandma there and heard her name lifted up as one of the sick and homebound in the prayers of the people. It took a lot to keep grandma home on a Sunday morning but she was just worn out that day. This is still our family pew and my parents continue to stake out that claim every Sunday.

After grandma died, I found among her things, her Lutheran Book of Prayer. I’ll treasure it always for what it is and for what it represents, a decision by a young girl to follow, love and live in the light of Christ.


Grandpa’s Barbecue

This recipe was grandpa’s culinary masterpiece. He made it for large family reunions or events. I remember that I requested this for my high school graduation open house. It was always delicious! At the risk of immediate deportation from North Carolina, Carolina barbecue ain’t got nothing on my grandpa’s barbecue. Carolina barbecue pales in comparison and sours my stomach (but I will keep your hush puppies and sweet tea, thank you very much!).

Grandpa loved to cook and he loved to eat. One day, while I was visiting at lunch time, I watched as grandpa finished his mashed potatoes and gravy, scraped his plate, then in a moment of unguarded zeal, picked up his plate and licked it clean. I still giggle when I see that image in my mind’s eye. Grandma must have had her back turned for a moment because she would have scolded him for sure but I remember thinking that it must be nice to be in your 80’s and still live with that kind of passion.

One of my favorite food stories grandpa would tell on me took place when I was about four years old. Grandma and mom were hosting the women’s church circle so grandpa was given the duty of getting out of the house with the kids for the evening. He took Rod, Terri and me out for steak dinners. I think the restaurant was called Amber’s at that time. When the waitress took our order, she was discouraging grandpa from ordering a full steak for me- I was a just little squirt, after all. But grandpa assured her that I was up to the task. When the steak came, he recalled that it was as big as my dinner plate. Grandpa said that I did, in fact, to the astonishment of our waitress and all the other gals working that night, finish my steak. So apparently I was being groomed for eating contests and food marathons from a very young age.

Grandpa also loved to tell of the time when we went to visit “Shirley Banana” in Florida. I can’t recall if it was just too hot to have the oven on in Florida or if her oven had broken but grandpa was astonished and proud that she had masterfully cooked a turkey on the grill with a pumpkin pie balanced over the turkey on forks. I do not doubt at all that the turkey and the pie were delicious!

Grandpa could talk about food all day long. He could tell you what was on sale at Marsh that week and how to cook it. He would brag on grandma’s latest dish and tell you how she made it. He could recall the finest steak, the juiciest turkey and the best hamburger he ever ate. He would tell you about cooking segments he saw on TV, how they got it all wrong and how it could’ve been better. He would give you some specific cooking instructions and end every recipe recitation the same way, “then call me and I’ll show you what to do with it.” It must be said however, that as much as he loved to cook and loved to eat, his real joy came from sharing the table with those he loved. Nothing gave him more joy than to have his family gathered in and around a meal.

In the manner of truly gifted chefs, grandpa’s barbecue recipe had never been written down. After grandpa lost his eyesight to macular degeneration, I spent a weekend with him in Logan at my mom’s house, making his barbecue to his specifications and writing it all down as we went along. Mom helped in the final quality control analysis with a hint of this and a pinch of that. This is as close as we got to his culinary perfection but I confess that I still feel it is lacking something whenever I attempt it on my own.

Perhaps I just really miss my grandpa.

Grandpa Conn’s Beef Barbecue

Shredded Beef Barbecue Recipe photo by Taste of Home, http://www.tasteofhome.com/recipes/shredded-beef-barbecue

Shredded Beef Barbecue Recipe photo by Taste of Home, http://bit.ly/12YkKcd

6 to 8 lbs beef with bones
1/2 cup vinegar
4 to 5 onions
1 quart tomato juice
1/2 cup mustard
3 to 4 carrots
3 to 4 stalks of celery

[add later]
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice

Cook down meat for several hours over medium to low heat. Remove any bones. Break up large pieces of meat. Cool. Skim off any fat from top.
Heat over low to medium heat. Add salt, pepper, sugar and lemon juice.
If barbecue is too soupy, can add 1/2 cup oatmeal to it to thicken. This is better if allowed to simmer on very low heat for hours to fully develop the sauce and it is always better the next day. Then call me and I’ll show you what to do with it.

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