Heirlooms

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

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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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>

ReunionGrma

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).

MerleHerron

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.

TimeLord1916

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

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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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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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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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Room at the table~

Grandma & Grandpa Conn

Grandma & Grandpa Conn

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

I loved that house. I loved that home.

Most of my earliest memories are rooted there.

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

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

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

“March,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grandma died in September of 2001.

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

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

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

I miss that house.

I miss that home.

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Thank you, Al Capone~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grandpa Conn

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

“Yes,” he said, “it was winter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I told you she was beautiful!

I told you she was beautiful!

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

Thank you, grandma.

Thank you, Al Capone.

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