Heirlooms

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

of loss~

Most of my life, I knew that grandma and grandpa would never buy gas at a Shell gas station. The mere mention of Shell gasoline would set them off. They would become highly agitated and fume about how Shell stations would mix water in their gas and it would freeze in the gas lines. Something had happened to them a long time ago, to be certain, but I never really understood this irrational anger until very late one night in 2000. Sometimes, often, enlightenment can be painful.

One weekend, I came home from Chicago for a visit and set aside time to go through some things with grandma that she kept in her bedroom. We sat in her bedroom while we went through this old trunk. And, as my family all knows, there was very little space in that tiny bedroom– just enough room for a person to squeeze around the edges of the bed with furniture packed against every inch of the surrounding walls. The trunk was too heavy to move on my own so we pulled in a small chair for grandma and a footstool for me. I spent that evening at my grandma’s knee, looking up into her beautiful face. I would reach into the trunk and hand the next item to grandma. She would pause for a moment and then begin talking, softly most of the time, because it was late in evening and it was an emotional intimacy that we were experiencing there, a sacred pause of remembrance.

Filled with artifacts of lives lived in more rugged and uncertain times, we found treasures that grandma had forgotten she had. She gasped audibly when we unfurled her parents’ marriage certificate. We found her high school diploma and an album full of photos from the roaring 20’s. We found a panoramic family reunion from 1916, in which grandma was just 4 years old. We found memories, and loved ones, and time.

And then–

We came across a tiny news article, an obituary, a small slip of paper that could have been easily lost in the piles of papers still to be sorted through.

Patricia Ann Conn's obituary, dated January 3, 1937.

Patricia Ann Conn’s obituary, dated January 3, 1937, in grandma’s hand.

The story that spilled gently from grandma’s heart nearly broke mine on the spot. Her voice became softer still as she pressed the obituary against a book in her lap. I sat at her feet as she opened her heartache to me, in a voice so quiet and so calm, a voice that must have taken her decades to find to share such pain.

I always knew there had been a little baby girl named Patty. She was the third child following two boys, my Uncle Donnie and Uncle Dick. Patty was not a strong baby, however. She was not thriving and healthy and solid. She was a weak and frail baby but she was loved and treasured.

Grandma and grandpa had been visiting some family in Churubusco or Blue Lake at the holidays with the kids. As they headed home to Logansport, they gassed up their car at a station along the way. It was late December and there was water mixed in with the gas and it kept freezing in the lines. The car would stall and sputter along. It was a bitterly cold winter night. Patty fell ill. By the time they finally made their way to Logansport, many, many hours longer than it should have taken them to travel that distance, they took Patty straight to the hospital. For the next several days, grandma and grandpa watched and prayed and waited.

Patty had contracted influenza and at the delicate age of 7 months, the illness easily morphed into a fatal spinal meningitis. Grandma told me that she would watch Patty during the day and grandpa would take the night shift. Patty was running a dangerously high fever the entire time and, on the night of January 2nd, when grandma left the hospital, Patty was suffering horribly. They could not hold her. They could not comfort her.

The meningitis had already seized and damaged Patty’s brain stem. Of course, grandma and grandpa did not know this at that time. They could only watch helplessly as their baby girl, with her back arched and tiny legs rigid, would spin in small circles of agony in the hospital crib. She had not eaten for days. Grandpa held a desperate vigil that night.

In the morning, just moments before grandma arrived with great-grandma Herron to relieve grandpa, Patty’s fever broke. She relaxed and was limp and severely weakened from her battle. As soon as grandma arrived, grandpa told her that the fever had broken and, convinced that the worst was behind them, he ran out to the store to get some bottles for his baby girl. She must be so hungry.

What they did not know, what they could not understand, was that it was too late. The disease had defeated her tiny body and the damage was irreparable. The nurse came in and explained this to grandma and told her that there was little time left. There was a hasty baptism, performed by grandma and great-grandma Herron, there in the hospital room. By the time grandpa had returned, Patty was gone.

Grandma had never told me that story before that night. And now I understood why grandma and grandpa would never again buy Shell gasoline.

I knew there was a baby girl named Patty. I knew that grandma and great-grandma Herron baptized her together at the hospital. I knew that grandma worried for decades about whether or not her baby was saved in that desperate, improvised baptism without an ordained pastor there to perform the rite. This was one of the first questions she asked Phil as he completed seminary. His response affirmed all that she learned about a God of grace, love and compassion, but a mother’s heart can carry worry in a way that it becomes a persistent, nagging prayer.

I found this poem, written in grandma’s hand, in a box of with other photos and clippings:

"Prayer", found among grandma's things

“Prayer”, found among grandma’s things

Prayer

Please, Father, take her by the hand

And lead her safely thru –

Until she gets acquainted

Please let her stay with You.

And when she goes to Golden Park

Where Baby Angels play

Please choose an Angel Mother

to be with her day by day.

It’s so lonely here without her

Please help us understand and see

That Baby came from Heaven

and God needs her more than we.

I don’t have any photos of baby Patty. I don’t know if any ever existed. But I do know that she was carried in love in their hearts forever.

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The hall tree

Standing in my foyer when you come into my home is a hall tree. It is a beautiful antique and I suspect that many of our visitors think we bought it at an antique store or antique fair. But most of our visitors barely notice it, I think. And that’s okay. For my entire childhood, I barely noted its existence beyond its utility.

The hall tree has a mirror with hooks for hats and coats on either side of the mirror. And there is a bench seat with a lid that lifts for storing gloves and mittens, scarves and hats. It is a very useful piece of furniture, really. Memories of family gatherings include trying to locate my coat under a massive pile of coats hanging on those hooks so I could go outside to play in the snow or to catch some fresh air and escape the heat of the masses and the cigarette smoke of the chain-smoking adults (it was the early 70s, after all!). Imagine being 8 years old and trying to lift up the weight of a dozen other heavy wool coats when you probably weighed less than the pile you were trying to lift!

My other memory of that hall tree includes many images of grandma, sitting on the bench with her coffee cup sitting on the arm, ashtray next to her on the bench and the small telephone stand next to her with the phone in her hand, held to her ear. Before cordless and cell, grandma was anchored to that spot if she wanted to talk to a neighbor, a friend, a loved one.

When I was three or four years old, grandma was standing in front of the mirror, fixing her hair and adjusting her hat. She was dressed beautifully and I think we are all getting ready for church. She told me to get my umbrella because it was raining and, as Terri and I begin wrestling over the favorite umbrella, Terri released her grip and the hooked handle of the umbrella made a beeline for my eye. In Halloween photos from that year, I have on a clown costume with an eye patch. Probably should’ve gone with the pirate motif.

Falling through my pensieve, I can see grandpa walk past grandma from the front living room, passing through their foyer into the kitchen. Grandpa is mad that grandma has been on the phone for so long, so he holds up his hand and motions like a quacking duck and says, in his most annoyed and nasally voice, “Yak, yak, yak!”

I asked grandma once where they got the hall tree. She told me that during the depression, she and grandpa barely had two nickels to rub together and nothing on the walls of their home. They did not even have a mirror in the house. One day while walking home from work, grandpa saw this hall tree for sale out in someone’s front yard. He bought the hall tree for a quarter, tied it to his back with a piece of rope and carried it the rest of the way home.

Grandma was pretty pleased when grandpa showed up from work that day. He set down the hall tree and untied the rope from around his waist. Grandma admired it and before she knew it, grandpa had returned with some tools in hand to remove the mirror to hang it on the wall. She told him, “oh, no, you won’t. You will leave it just as it is.” And the hall tree took its place just inside the foyer of their home.

And this hall tree stood in grandma’s and grandpa’s foyer for decades. Today, it stands in mine. It is just a piece of furniture but this hall tree tethers me to my grandparents, my memories and my sense of home.

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Bedtime stories~

My grandpa was a wonderful storyteller and, in his almost 90 years, he told some real doozies. Peppered throughout his stories, however, he would occasionally recite a poem; one in particular is burned in my memory. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me set the stage first.

Imagine that you are 4 years old and you live in the apartment upstairs, just above grandma and grandpa at 207 West Ottawa Street, but the boundary of this living arrangement is practically nonexistent. You really just sleep up there. The real living takes place downstairs, with grandma and grandpa, in their kitchen, in their living room.

Imagine that you adore your grandfather – this man, this father figure, this gentle giant- that your world lights up the moment he walks through that door at the end of a day. What might he bring home today? What tales might he tell you?

Imagine walking down the street holding only his pinky finger because your hands are much too tiny to grasp hold of his enormous hands. And when your little legs can no longer keep pace, imagine that thrill of flight when grandpa reaches down and grabs you just under the tender flesh of your little biceps and swings you high up in the air to land solidly on his broad shoulders.

Imagine that it is late in the evening, you are 4 years old and grandpa just gave you a ride around the living room on his massive back and you are on safari, riding on the back of your elephant. Life was so wonder-full at 4.

Imagine that you are 4 years old and you have just had your bath. Your hair is damp and combed and you smell of soap and fresh pajamas and it is time for bed.

English: Photograph shows a young girl with he...

English: Photograph shows a young girl with her hands clasped in front, staring intently forward. Photograph was an illustration for James Whitcomb Riley’s poem “Little Orphant Annie” printed in Brownell’s Dream children. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


So grandpa begins, reciting a poem by a Hoosier poet laureate, James Whitcomb Riley:

“Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers,

–An’ when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,

His Mammy heerd him holler, an’ his Daddy heerd him bawl,

An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wuzn’t there at all!

An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’ cubby-hole, an’ press,

An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever’-wheres, I guess;

But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an’ roundabout:–

An’ the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you

Ef you

Don’t

Watch

Out!”

Yep. Imagine that. Grandpa would recite that poem and set me down, pat my head and send me off to bed.

I saw this image recently and laughed to myself because I know this fear well:

BogeyMan

I can remember running across my room to leap into bed because I knew that if there were any gobble-uns in our house, they would definitely be under my bed, “away up-stairs”!

I said my prayers. I prayed a lot.

I was pretty jealous of Terri, who had the top bunk, safe from all harm. Sure, she was bigger and had a little more flesh on her bones. But I was small and weak and closer to the floor.

Easy prey. Easy kill.

Life was so unfair at 4.

The entire poem of Lil’ Orphant Annie can be read here but I would venture to guess that the kids and cousins who sat frequently on grandpa’s knee can recite most of it by heart anyway. Another link on that page will let you listen to an old phonograph recording from 1916 of James Whitcomb Riley reciting his poem, but it just isn’t the same.

Grandpa’s voice will forever be the voice I hear when I read those words, when I recite that poem. And I will always be 4 years old, just bathed. My hair is damp and combed and I smell of soap and fresh pajamas and it is time for bed.

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