Heirlooms

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

of storms~

So a few weeks ago, tornados tore through the Midwest again and struck close to home. Kokomo is a mere 30 minute drive from my Logan and this wasn’t the first time it was struck by a tornado. Likely that it will not be the last time either, as tornados are just a normal part of those Midwestern springs. As I scanned the news of the storms and their damage, I am looking carefully at the storm paths and determining where my own extended family is in all this mess and destruction. As best I can tell, my aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings are all out of harms way . . . this time. That wasn’t the case in 1965, however.

On Palm Sunday of 1965, my Uncle Dick and Aunt Jeanette were racing to their home from church in Russiaville, Indiana with their newly adopted baby boy. They got home just as the storm was bearing down on their house. Grandma told me that just as they were running to the basement for shelter, the tornado ripped the roof of of the house and tore baby Ricky from Aunt Jeanette’s arms. Ricky was slammed against the wall and bounced back into Jeanette’s arms. Jeanette ran down the steps, followed closely by my Uncle Dick. They found the safety of their basement as the house collapsed above them. The storm was classified later as an F4 tornado but speculation today states that it at have been an F5. F4 — F5 — call it what you want. It was a monster wave of tornados ripping through Indiana that day.

In Logansport, the storms were also threatening. The entire northern part of Indiana was under siege from these storms. As reports came in, with a confirmed touch down in Russiaville, grandma and grandpa feared the worst. Grandpa left their home as soon as he could to head into the heart of the Russiaville path of destruction. As grandma told it to me, he was delayed by debris on roadways and an unrecognizable landscape. When he finally found what had once been Dick’s house, he dug through rubble with his bare hands, searching desperately for his son, his daughter-in-law and his new grandson. Grandma said that when grandpa arrived back in Logansport with our Russiaville refugees in tow, he was a bloody mess. Covered in abrasions from his hasty rescue of his family however, his heart was at peace. His family was safe now. Rest and time would heal this destruction and families would come together to rebuild homes and rebuild lives.

Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Dick probably have their own harrowing account of that day, that storm and that recovery. But this is what I remember from grandma.

1965 Elkhart, Indiana double tornado on Palm S...

1965 Elkhart, Indiana double tornado on Palm Sunday (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our family was lucky that day. Those Palm Sunday storms were among the most deadly tornadoes to ever hit Indiana. 25 people died in Russiaville alone and 90% of the structures in Russiaville were destroyed. Total death toll in Indiana was 138 people. Many families did not find peace that night.

It seems to me that in my own life, I putter along most days in calm waters, in a loving home, surrounded by my loving family, and an occasional tempest will blow through- scattering debris, knocking me off of my foundation, tearing down the structures I have built around me. I may find myself confused by the way life seems to wear me down, wear me out – a constant but gradual erosion of the walls of control and order with which I surround myself. I think about my grandparents every single day. I miss them tremendously. When my life seems to overwhelm me, I think of them, the storms they weathered, the love they relied on to rebuild their lives daily. I am grateful.

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9/11/2001~

It has been twelve years since terrorists attacked America. That was an awful day for Americans. For an entire generation, we thought we were the greatest nation on the planet. Suddenly, we were no longer untouchable. Suddenly, swiftly, we were understood just how vulnerable we really were.

Grandma already knew that. She had already lived through two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq & Kuwait. She watched as brothers, nephews, grandsons and neighbors went into war zones and prayed and watched and waited.

So, when terrorists attacked the U.S. on 9/11, she understood the ripple effect of such an attack. She had seen this sort of thing before- too many times, in fact.

My mom and my aunts and uncles spent much of 9/11 with my grandma in the hospital emergency room, waiting for test results that were inconclusive. After several anxious hours, watching the endless news reports on television in the hospital waiting rooms, they were all sent home.

Grandma died early the next morning. Natural causes.

At a time when our nation was in a state of shock and mourning, our family was gathered together in love for our mother, our grandma, our aunt, our friend. And I think this was her last gift to us all, really. Grandma knew we needed each other at that time. She knew that the only thing that could see us through times like those, times like these, times like every day, was the love of family.

Evelyn, Jesse Conn, Gene, Dick, Don Norma, Shirley, Nancy 1945

Evelyn, Jesse Conn, Gene,
Dick, Don
Norma, Shirley, Nancy
1945

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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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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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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.

Brandt.Conn1959

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.

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