Sunday, January 26, 2014

visiting my grandma’s house, or background, part I

My mother spent the first few years of her life on a farm near Nora Springs in northern Iowa. In 1931, when she was 11, her father, Homer, traded the farm for an auto dealership in the small town of Aledo, Illinois. The family left the farm, moved into a rented house, and my mom would later write in a brief memoir she wrote for her daughters, “It looked good to me—indoor plumbing and hardwood floors.”


Homer died in 1950 at age 61. In the late 1940s, when he was ill, my mother, who had been living in Chicago working for the American Red Cross, moved back home. Although she and my dad had both grown up in Aledo, it was only then that they met. In 1949 they married. My parents stayed in Aledo for a few years but soon moved on and by 1963 had settled in a suburb of Chicago.

After Homer’s death, my grandmother, Daisy, stayed on in the house. According to my mother’s memoir, in 1938 Daisy had purchased the rental house they were living in with money she inherited from her family in Nora Springs, the Morrises. Every summer we would visit Daisy in Aledo, usually when the cantaloupe, musk melon, and watermelon were just ripe—melons grew well in that area, in the sandy soils around New Boston and Keithsburg—and on that late August drive from the northeast edge of Illinois to its western hump—a hump my father liked to call “Forgottonia”—my mother would say things like: “Oh! Look at all that good black earth!” and “Oh! Look at all that corn! All that good, sweet corn!” Between Chicago and Aledo were miles and miles of black earth and corn, and yes, indeed, it was good, black earth and good, sweet corn.

Daisy’s house was on a corner surrounded by scrappy lawn and an uneven, decaying brick sidewalk. We would pull into the gravel and dirt driveway, spill out of the station wagon, course through her house like new blood in old veins.

A pencil drawing of my grandma’s house by my mother, date unknown.

Just off the driveway, tacked to the side of the house closest to the garage, a small stoop led up to the kitchen. We would slap through the screen door, pull on the big silvery handle of the dull white refrigerator, its edges all softly rounded like a big lump of dough, and find always within nubby glass bottles of orange and grape Nehi.

The kitchen was large, anchored squarely in the middle by a grey-topped, chrome-legged table with four matching chairs. I lay on that table once with a gash under my left my eye. I remember looking up through bloody tears, seeing the concerned faces of my Uncle Charles and my dad. I had tried to ride Grandma’s old dog, Butchie, and had fallen. Oh yes, I was wounded, it left a scar, and as the story goes I made a point of telling anyone who asked that “Butchie did it.” For years people fought to re-enact that comment, complete with sorrowful, weepy expression. It made people laugh.

A door in the kitchen led to a bath, and a second door in the bath led to my grandmother’s bedroom. This, to me, was one of the wonders of the house, the bath being like a secret tunnel of white cast iron leading from the bright, bustling kitchen to the warm, dark bed chamber where everything seemed antiquated, old, incredibly still and quiet. On the dresser, its dark wood slightly worn, were a crocheted doily, thick and wheat-colored, and hairbrushes and combs and perfumes and hairpins and a delicate hand mirror backed with etched silver. A large, dark armoire held mysterious clothing. The bed was covered in worn chenille. In that room I felt my grandmother’s life, but it was an elusive life, as if camouflaged on the dresser or hidden in the armoire. It was a life different from the one I knew, from the one I saw. A past life, certainly, and a private one. Here in this room were clues, but only clues.

The kitchen opened onto a dining room that was filled with a large table surrounded by tall-backed chairs. Here we ate dinners of minute steak and sweet corn, pot roast and Lima beans, breakfasts of eggs and bacon, pancakes and French toast. At the far end, along one wall, was an immense wooden desk laden with papers and all the hodgepodge of life. There were old letters and bills and pens and pencils and paper clips and scissors, scattered notes and photos. Stamps and scotch tape, a letter opener, a bottle of ink, a stapler. A clunky black telephone with a thick tail of wire, and, best of all, a glass candy dish with a lid in the shape of a chicken setting on eggs. There was always candy in that dish, from hard disks of butterscotch to chewy fudge.

A curio cabinet of flat and curved panes of glass consumed one corner of the room. It loomed and leaned on skinny little legs and it scared me to be near it, thinking somehow something was going to fall or break, but inside, among many finer things, I’m sure, were Daisy’s plastic Easter decorations, including little pink and yellow chicks. In braver moments, I would carefully turn the skeleton key that rested in the keyhole, open the doors, and take out these trinkets to play with.

The dining room spilled into the living room which contained two or three upholstered chairs and a sofa that unfolded to become a double bed. There my sister Jennifer and I slept on starched white sheets. Across from the sofa was a rocking chair next to a round table on which stood a heavy, bronze lamp with a glass shade of subtle blue, green, and orange hues, even a little pink. The shade fanned out from the top finial in six sections, each of which held the same woodsy, park-like scene created by bronze cut-outs atop the glass. At night, before drifting off to sleep, I would stare at the lamp, now the only light in the room, and imagine myself drifting across the blue lake into the trees, getting lost in that world rather than my own.

There were several doors in the living room. One led to my grandmother’s bedroom and opposite was the front door of the house. It led out to a big wrap-around porch. Another door led to a hallway at the end of which were stairs, and the corner of the living room opposite the dining room opened onto another room where there was a sofa, a couple of chairs, a television, and a piano, a very old, upright piano with chipped ivory keys where my mother had learned to play, a half hour every day. I remember vaguely a story about my grandmother sitting next to her, ruler in hand. But now this room was for Lawrence Welk, once a week, on the TV. One day I realized that the wall behind the sofa was actually two large doors that if open would show the hallway.

The hallway was dark and cluttered. Here Grandma kept the toys we played with. I remember particularly a large bear covered in worn checkered cloth with big buttons for eyes and large, flat feet with cardboard stitched in the bottoms. Also a metal gas station and garage. At the end of the hall, the narrow staircase turned and led up to the second floor and a door next to the staircase led out to the far end of the wrap-around porch, the end where the overgrown lilacs began and flourished. These bushes meandered like a jungle all along the backside of the house. The front part of the porch was comfortable with a glider and chairs, wide steps leading up to the front door, but this part of the porch, on the side of the house with its wide steps set at the corner, was neglected. No chairs, no glider, no adornment, just overgrown bushes flopping over a railing. Through the lilacs you could climb up this side of the porch, sneak in the door, creep up the stairs or down the hall, feel all the world like a fugitive or a spy.


My oldest sister slept in an upstairs bedroom, as did my grandmother when we visited, my parents using her first-floor room. Being upstairs seemed forbidden to me, though I’m sure it was not. It was just a narrow hallway with three, maybe four bedrooms. The only room I remember is Uncle Charles’ room. In it was a trunk with some of his things, including relics of World War II. Charles had taken over his father’s auto dealership in 1940 and had a house with his wife, Thelma, just a few blocks from Daisy, but his room here remained intact, or so it seemed to me, as if a boy or young man might walk in at any moment and it would be 1936 or ’38 or some such crazy year all over again. It’s possible Charles shared this room with his brother, Hugh, or maybe it was Hugh’s room and my memory is fuddled.

I wish I had a memory of my grandmother as full as the one of her house. She was the only grandparent I ever knew. My father’s mother died when he was 15, and his father passed on when I was young, my only recollection of Grandpappy, as we called him, being that of a very old, thin man in a large, white bed. So in the grandparent department, Daisy was all I had.

What I do remember is this: She was soft, quiet, slightly stooped, wore horn-rimmed glasses, shapeless dresses, and sturdy shoes, always dressed neatly, always dressed nicely. Her skin sagged a bit and her ears were intriguingly large, like two big bookends on either side of a lopsided smile. She had a vaguely mothballed, clean, sweet smell, and a light touch that brings to mind dampness. I have no sound of her voice, but I know it’s there in my head, or maybe my heart, I can almost hear it, just not quite.

In 1971, Daisy had a heart attack. Shortly before Thanksgiving, she died. She was 85, I was 14. Often she would have visited on Thanksgiving or Christmas, Charles and Thelma driving her to the Big City, to the suburbs, to see Dick and Marion and the girls, or we would all meet in Peoria, where my mother’s younger sister, Vada, lived with her family.

Growing up, my mother knew Daisy’s parents, the Morrises, as they lived in Nora Springs near the farm. Daisy named her firstborn, Charles, after her father. The Morrises died before Daisy and Homer moved to Aledo, but while on the farm, my mother recalled that the family would go to “Nora” for Sunday dinners, visiting Homer’s father, Grandpa Treloar, as well.

My mother also had a Grandma White in Cincinnati. Grandma White visited the farm once, when my mother was about five, my mother remembering her as a nice lady, somewhat “hep.” Daisy once told my mother a story about being temporarily left at an orphanage in New York City when her mother, this Grandma White, could not care for her. The Morrises had come to New York looking for a child to adopt, Daisy said, and chose her. Later her “real” mother had spent a good deal of money looking for her.

Daisy had two much older sisters, daughters of the Morrises, named Mary and Mahala. Daisy also had a younger brother, Joe. His last name was Heintzelman. He grew up in Nora Springs but as an adult lived in Spokane, Washington and then Florida. I have always heard that he was a successful man, perhaps in sales, perhaps running his own business.

One day, Joe’s son Bob called my mother. It may have been 1978, the year that Joe died. Bob told my mother a story that his father had told him just before he died. It was about Joe and Daisy being left by their mother at an orphanage in New York City and soon after being put on a train which shuttled them west. It was called an “orphan train,” and it made many stops, stops where the children were taken off the train and presented, offered up, as it were, to local townsfolk. Throughout the journey, Daisy refused to leave the train, refused to be taken in by anyone who would not also take her brother, so the two rode the train all the way to the middle of Iowa where, in Nora Springs, they were taken in by separate families. The Morrises took Daisy, age 9, the Heintzelmans took Joe, age 7. According to Bob, as his father related this story from his deathbed he “broke down and cried like a baby.”