Heirlooms

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

of presents~

I must have been about 12 years old when I began babysitting for our neighbors and using my small income to buy gifts for my family. And so I remember setting out with a small purse to find a gift for grandpa one Christmas. I had gotten a ride to the shopping mall in Logansport, back when kids could safely walk through a mall on their own, and spend the better part of a day or evening completely unchaperoned in the shops without any cause for concern.
I remember walking the shops and picking out presents for members of my family. I bought my mom a bottle of perfume that smelled like spearmint. It seemed like a great idea at the time. Spearmint was my favorite of the Wrigley gum flavors in its perfectly clean and gleaming white packaging. And I always preferred spearmint flavored Certs mints over the peppermint, which always seemed much too strong and overpowering a flavor. Years later, I saw that bottle of perfume, unused but undiscarded, sitting in her bathroom, a small reminder of an innocent heart that wanted to give instead of receive. I remember pooling my funds together with my sister to buy our dad a mechanic creeper, so that he could work on our decrepit cars with a bit more ease. We hid it in our closet but I suspect that dad saw it before the big reveal while inspecting our room with his marine-like precision of our a holiday cleaning (Why clean it when you can stuff it all in this convenient and spacious closet?! Ain’t nobody got time for that!).
But when it came to grandpa’s gift that year, I was stumped. I spent hours wandering that shopping mall, looking for the perfect gift for him. I did not have much money left but I really wanted to get him something good, something useful, practical but also of value.

At some point, I was standing just outside of a shoe store and noticed a shoe shine kit in the window. It was the 70s and men still would take the time to shine their shoes and make the old look like new. The kit was $5 and I knew I had found my gift for him. I was excited to give him this kit and proud of myself for finding it for him. He was a blue collar working man, but he had some good shoes for church on Sundays. He would not be the kind of man to spend extra cash on a new pair of shoes when a good spit and polish would make the old new again. Extra cash had so many other uses for working class families. And grandma worked as a shoe saleswoman for years. She would appreciate this gift to grandpa as much as he would. I remember wrapping up his gift and putting a bow on it. I think it was truly the first gift I ever bought for him with my own money.

And so, as I reflect on that Christmas, I also reflect on the presents I have received over the years from my own beautiful girls. Phil always made a point of taking the girls out shopping for a gift for mommy just before Christmas. When Peggy was 3 years old, she gave me a scrub brush and a set of Lisa Frank pencils. The scrub brush was blue and white. The Lisa Frank pencils, like all other Lisa Frank products for those of you who have not raised girls in the 90s, are bright pink with patterns of unicorns and rainbows all over them. Lovely! I remember opening the gifts from Peggy, the look of love and excitement on her sweet little face and the love in my heart for her at that moment. Phil assured me that these gifts were of her choosing, not a hint about my housekeeping skills. Phil told me that he walked up and down the aisles of Walmart with Peggy and these are the items she selected for me. Because my most precocious Peggy always paid attention to everything going on in her little toddler world,  I can imagine that, at some point, I must have been walking around the house saying aloud to myself, “I need a pencil.”

When we moved to Taiwan in 2002, I had a favorite pair of earrings that were my “everyday-go-to” earrings. They were silver hearts that went with everything I could possibly wear. I loved those earrings. At some point early in our move, I lost one of them – so frustrating and annoying! I tore through every room in our tiny Asian apartment trying to find the lost earring . . . sigh . . . gone. Then, at Christmas, our first Christmas abroad, Rachel gave me a pair of earrings- absolutely identical to the ones I loved and had lost. Phil had taken the girls out shopping for me. That Rachel could find a pair of earrings identical to the other lost pair was tremendous if they had been shopping in the U.S. — the fact that she found these while out shopping in Taiwan was  nothing short of miraculous. I still have them. I still love them. Bless her little heart!

My girls have given me so many precious gifts over the years. Most of them cannot be wrapped or perceived with the human eye, but only with a parent’s heart. Priceless to me, my girls. So, I reflect on that shoe shine kit Christmas and remember with some sadness that I never actually gave my gift to Grandpa. Call it what you will– coincidence, fate, dumb luck — but that was the year that grandma had the brilliant idea to give all the men in our family shoe shine kits for Christmas. I sat with my mouth wide open like a bass and watched in dismay as uncles, cousins, father, brother – all opened one after another – shoe shine kits – identical to the one I had bought for grandpa that year. My heart sank. In the mayhem of bodies and bows, gifts and grownups, I made my way to grandma’s tree, retrieved my present for grandpa and pushed through the throng of relatives crowded in grandma’s living room. I made my way to the hall tree, found my coat in the massive pile and stuffed the kit into my coat sleeve. I felt embarrassed and humiliated. I went into the bathroom and cried. My child’s heart was sad and confused and hurt. Oh, grandma! How could you?! How could you think of the perfect gift, too? I allowed myself a few minutes of self-pity but I knew I had to pull myself together and get back out there into the madness that was Christmas at grandma’s back when we all lived within a 30 mile radius of Logansport. I took that gift home that night and it sat in the back of my closet, unopened with a smushed bow, for years.

In retrospect, I should have given it to grandpa anyway. He would have loved it and we all would have gotten a good laugh out of it. I know that now- as a mother who treasures every gift my children give me out of love and grace and innocence. When I see him again, I will tell him all about it. I will love seeing his smile and hearing his laugh at this tale – that smile, that laugh will be his gift to me.

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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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her ring ~

Grandma and grandpa were married for 66 years before grandpa died in 1998. As grandma told it to me, grandpa had been living with grandma’s family as a border during the depression. They were dating by then but it was the depression and great-grandma needed to rent out rooms to make a little extra money. Times were lean.
Grandpa was working as a truck driver and had a day trip scheduled to Danville, Illinois. After a little plotting and planning, grandma and grandpa convinced great-grandma Herron to let her eldest daughter, Evelyn, go with her boyfriend, Gene, on that day trip. While they were in Dayton that day, February 12, 1932, they eloped.

Grandma & Grandpa Conn

Grandma & Grandpa Conn

Grandma told me that they didn’t even tell great-grandma Herron right away. They knew she would insist that they move out of her home and start a home of their own. But she needed the border money and they couldn’t afford their own place right away, either.
Within a few months, grandma and grandpa were expecting and the elopement had to be shared.
Grandma and grandpa had run off together to a justice of the peace in Dayton, Ohio, with no family or friends to witness this event in 1932. Fifty years later, we all gathered together to witness the renewal of their wedding vows in the sanctuary of Trinity Lutheran, where they had worshipped together for all of their married life but where they had never married. We all came up to their unity candle and lit our own candles from theirs. By the time all their children, spouses, grandchildren and grand-spouses, and a few great-grandchildren had all lit our candles, there were over 40 of us snuggled together in the small chancel.
Grandma was delighted as she looked around her beloved sanctuary at her family gathered there. She exclaimed, “Look how blessed we have been!” And grandpa responded, without missing a beat, “We’d a been blessed any more, we’d a burnt down the church!” A classic grand moment!
It was around that same time, that grandma stopped wearing her wedding ring. The ring had worn through so that the gold band on the back of the ring was very thin and fragile. Two of the small diamond chips in the ring had been lost and much of the engraving around the diamond edges had worn down. Grandma could not find a jeweler who could guarantee a strong and attractive repair of her ring at that time in Logansport, so grandma took it off, set it aside, and then, it was lost.
After grandma died, mom and my brother were cleaning out a small desk and found the ring wedged in the edge of a drawer. Still worn thin, still in need of repair, mom gave the ring to me. Grandma’s small hands wore a size 4 ring and I wear a 3.5.

Grandma's Wedding Ring

Grandma’s Wedding Ring

In the spring of 2002, I took the ring to a reputable jeweler where we were living in the suburbs of Chicago. He repaired the band and replaced the diamond settings, one with a new diamond and the center with an amethyst, grandma’s birthstone.
I remember that I hesitated to wear it at first. I didn’t want to ruin it. But then my mother-in-law convinced me that it was a very touching remembrance of my grandparents and that I could always have it repaired again if necessary.

So, here it is, 81 years later, simple, lovely and strong. A daily reminder of their life and love, I wear grandma’s wedding ring next to my own.

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of hands~

I always loved Grandpa’s hands. His hands were huge and strong. As a toddler, I could only grasp his hands by his pinky. He would offer his smallest finger to me as we would walk down the street to the store and when my little, short legs could no longer keep up with his long, tall frame, he would grab me under my tiny arms and swing me through the air, through dizzying heights, until I landed squarely on his broad shoulders.

The skin on his hands was calloused but smooth, from years of wear and work with the grease and oil of a trucker’s garage. I can recall his return home from long days of work in the garage, covered with grease and grime. He had this oil based gel that he used to dissolve the grease from his hands before using the bar soap. It was white and slimy and odorless to my recollection and sat of the edge of the bathroom sink in a pump bottle.

I only have one memory of grandpa raising his hand against me- spanking me after I piddled on the front porch stoop because I waited too long and could not make it to the potty in time. We still lived at 207 West Ottawa, of course, so I had to be under the age of 5.

As I pour through the old family photos, I came across this picture of  George and Robert Conn . These are my great-great uncles. I am struck by how much Frank Hand, grandpa’s cousin, resembled George. But, look at Robert’s hands. I never knew my great-great uncle Robert, but I recognized those hands.

George and Robert Conn

George and Robert Conn, my great-great uncles, brothers to Jesse M. Conn.

And all of my life, I knew grandpa’s hands would take care of me. When I talk abut him to others, describing the way he loved me and cared for me, his hands always come into focus in my mind’s eye.

My last memory of his strong, loving hands was when he was in the hospital the final time. The sheet that separated us from his roommate was drawn closed and grandpa and I were talking, visiting, and I was gleaning some tales. Grandma and Shirley had gone to get some supper, rest a bit and would return later that evening with some socks because grandpa’s feet were cold due to his poor circulation. While we visited, I tried my best to warm his feet by adding more blankets and snugging them tight, rubbing his legs a bit to stimulate some circulation in his extremities. He continued telling me stories and I moved to his side and held his hand in mine. He called me “sis”.

His stories wound and wove, through his memories, all about family and road trips, and road trips to visit family, new babies, and food. His stories were laced together with the common thread of care and love. After a while, he stopped talking for a moment.

Grandpa was never quiet for long so I seized the opportunity. I told him I always loved his hands because I always knew they were there for me, always taking care of me. He told me he wished he could still take care of me. I told him that it was alright. It was time for me to care for him. And we fell silent for a moment.

His roommate, whose face I had never seen, called out to me. He told me he had a spare pair of hospital socks, “Take them. Please.”

I thanked him and took the socks, and put them on grandpa’s feet, warming them with my hands as I dressed them. And I returned to his side, and held his hand in mine. I loved this man, this giant, this father-figure deeply and I knew he was never going to return home from this hospital stay.

I returned to my home in Chicago that evening, knowing I had seen my grandpa for the last time. The next day, grandpa was moved into the hospice ward. And when he died a few nights later, I felt it. I just felt time pause, for just a moment, and there was this tug in my heart and I knew he was gone. I was grateful for a stranger’s socks, so that I could care for my grandpa. And I was grateful for that moment I had to tell him how much I loved him and his hands and the way he always cared for me.

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Thunderbolts and subtle truths~

Ah-ha moments, those moments of enlightenment when circumstances, events, or life come into such clear, high-def focus, leaping off of one’s rational, theoretical page and into one’s emotional, passionate heart. In my 50 years, I have experienced them often, more in the last 20 years, as I have moved beyond self-absorption and into parental love, when I have responded more with giving love and less on taking and hoarding love. Sometimes those moments hit me like a thunderbolt. Sometimes they hit me more subtly, gradually, taking their time to reveal their truths.

While in Logansport this summer, my parents had a church function that required their attention. While they attended to those responsibilities, I took the opportunity to visit some local cemeteries in the interest of genealogy research. I remember once in high school, I had spent an afternoon with my grandma and grandpa, visiting the graves of deceased relatives and putting flowers on the graves of our Hoosier ancestors. This was a regular ritual honoring that grandma performed. She visited the graves of her beloved family: Hazel, Merl, Milda, Alfred, Sarah and baby Patty. I am sure there were others, too, but these family members comprised her most frequent visits. I remember going to two or three different cemeteries. Mount Hope Cemetery is located in the heart of Logansport. Crooked Creek Cemetery is located out in the countryside near Royal Center, where grandpa Conn’s people had their deep roots, just 20 minutes outside of Logansport. Many family names are also located in the Royal Centre and Kistler cemeteries.

In baby Patty’s obituary, it is stated that burial was to take place at Mount Hope. But I had this vague, unsettled hunch about that. I could swear she had been buried in a small church cemetery in the Hoosier countryside. After a little digging online, I found two entries for Patricia Ann Conn’s gravesite on find-a-grave.com. One was for Mount Hope Cemetery in Logan, the other was for Crooked Creek. I fact checked this with my mom and she confirmed what I believed to be true- baby Patty was laid to rest at Crooked Creek. She explained to me that they had planned to bury Patty at Mount Hope but they had to purchase the plot. Before the burial could take place, Uncle Harvey Spencer notified them that there was a place available in a family plot at Crooked Creek cemetery. My mom told me that Uncle Harvey even built her tiny casket.

Last winter I upgraded my stupid phone to get myself a smart phone. I suffer from a severe lack of direction, both literal and sometimes emotional. But armed with my smart phone GPS, I set out on my mission to find baby Patty for myself. As I drove through the country highways and small country roads, I thought about the farms in this area. Grandpa was born near here. Can I find that farm still? My ancestors, Conn, Spencer, Kennell, and Cogley, rooted themselves on this land several generations ago but where did they come from before that? And how many times did grandma and grandpa make this trip to visit this grave? My memories of grandma are so grounded in her gracious love for her family. She had a present under her tree for everyone, a card with a small monetary gift on every birthday, and family bragging rights on every kitchen visit. These were my thoughts as I drove those roads.

It was a beautiful summer day. Mapquest led me easily to Crooked Creek Church Cemetery but I never would have found it on my own. Crooked Creek is a small cemetery so it did not take me long to find the family graves. Throughout the cemetery, I saw names I recognized but their connection to me was yet uncertain. Rekindled in my heart is the desire to know. Where have I come from? What stories remain unheard, untold? And then I saw it. I saw Patty’s gravestone.

located at Crooked Creek Cemetery, Royal Center, Indiana

located at Crooked Creek Cemetery, Royal Center, Indiana

I stood there for a moment, struck a bit numb. Patty’s name on her tombstone is not spelled correctly. Do you see it now? I did not actually notice it at first but it hit me within a few seconds. And then my memories flooded back. Cards, checks, envelopes, notes, even books – repeatedly throughout my life, grandma mis-spelled my name. I remember as a youth thinking that it was odd, cute, almost ridiculous that my grandma did not know how to spell my name. Was she just in a hurry? Or was it simply one of her challenging words? I have words that I constantly have to write or type slowly, ones I repeatedly mis-spell: d-e-F-I-N-I-T-E-l-y, r-e-c-E-i-v-e, e-t-c-E-T-E-R-A.

I have not been able to find a birth certificate for Patty, to determine how it is spelled on that official document, perhaps because one did not exist as she was likely born at home in 1936, perhaps because her untimely death at just 7 months old finalized the need to ever file for an official birth certificate. Her obituary spells it P-a-t-r-i-C-I-A but was that an editorial correction? Or, was P-a-t-r-i-C-A really grandma’s preferred spelling? All of these thoughts and emotions flooded my heart in a matter of seconds, covering years, decades.

Now I stood at this site, shamed and humbled, pained and touched, enlightened and ignorant. How many times did my grandparents visit this place, this pain? How many tears were shed here? How long does it take for that kind of pain to heal? Sometimes, the more I search, the more questions I carry away with me.

Thunderbolts and subtle truths. Some answers, more questions. But this I know is truth, and it is a truth I learned from my grands: Love. Love. Love.

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Satchmo~

I have had a very busy summer, home improvement projects, entertaining guests, traveling around my current home and traveling “back home” — all your usual summer busy-ness. However, this summer Logan visit did afford me some opportunities to polish and glean some new tales from Logan. A few more stories to tell, a few more details to add to ones I had squirreled away.

I heard this story from grandma around 2000. Grandpa had died two years earlier and grandma and I were just visiting, laughing and talking about grandpa’s stories and tall tales, his Big Fish life and his infectious love for the world and people in general. He just really loved being with folks.

So, in one of those pauses from laughter, out of the blue, grandma says to me, “and like that time he had dinner with Louis Armstrong–”

!!!

What?! Wait, whoa– back up, grandma- I have not heard this one!

“Oh, yeah, well you know how he worked out at Trucker’s all those years. People were always passing through Logansport on their way to and from Indianapolis, South Bend, Detroit, Chicago, Gary. . . ”

Grandpa had started working at Trucker’s Paradise, a truck stop just on the west edge of Logansport on US 24, as a mechanic in the late 1950s, just out of the trunk of his car as a sort of freelance mechanic, servicing semi-trucks as they passed through Logansport on their way somewhere else. My mom told me that when she was a young gal, she began keeping his books, billing companies for service he had performed on trucks as they needed it. One company refused to pay grandpa so he had to stop working on their trucks when they needed help. However, mom told me that one day a refrigerated meat truck was passing through and broke down just outside of Logan. The trucker called grandpa but grandpa politely declined, telling him that his company refused to pay him for his work. The driver, worried about losing a semi-truck full of beef, offered to pay grandpa with steaks. That was an offer grandpa could not refuse. By the mid 60s, recognizing his invaluable skills as a big rig mechanic, Trucker’s had grandpa on their payroll.

So, grandma begins telling me that back in the days before cheap mass transit, just after the wave of televisions in most homes but before the Civil Rights Movement, when grandpa was working at Trucker’s Paradise, he walked into the restaurant and noticed several black men were seated in a booth, awaiting service. Again, this was in the days before desegregation but it was also in the North. There were no designated “colored only” seating assignments as there would have been in the Jim Crow South.

English: Louis Armstrong, jazz trumpeter

English: Louis Armstrong, jazz trumpeter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grandma told me that in grandpa’s usual manner, he approached the men in the booth and conversation ensued. Grandpa was always one for a good visit, a good story and making friends wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself. The guys in the booth invited grandpa to join them and they all enjoyed a meal together.

Later, and I don’t know how much later– days, weeks, months, maybe years– grandpa came home from work one day and grandma had the television on. Louis Armstrong was on the program and grandpa stopped in his tracks, looked at the television and said, “Hey, I know that guy! I had lunch with him out at Trucker’s–”

Grandma was exasperated and exclaimed, “You had lunch with Louis Armstrong?!!”

And grandpa replied, somewhat deflated, “Oh– Louis Armstrong?! No, no, nevermind– The guy I met was named ‘Satchmo’.”

Now, I don’t know if this is a true story or not but it’s how I heard it from grandma, anyways, and I think to myself, “What a wonderful world!”

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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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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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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_timeline_21

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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