Sunday, May 8, 2016

when it was good to be back in illinois

I took a trip to Peoria.

Josie came along. We crossed the Illinois River.

I played dominoes.

Random gravestone serves as train/dominoes reference.

Found my grandmother’s grave.

Right there, where we left it.

And one morning like panning for gold old photos spread out on a table and there it was: a studio photograph of Great Uncle Ben and … his family? Could it be? Ben I could recognize, but the woman next to him? And the two children? Who could they be but Ben’s wife and children? I took a picture of the picture and sent the image to be verified. Yes, I now know a person who can verify these things, who can say, Yes, that is my grandfather. He is, of course, Ben’s grandson. I am just amazed to have found—and to have been found by—Ben’s grandson. He is a real person. A second cousin. Recently he sent me a mug.

What’s with the two Tsades?

Then there was an album of pictures, snapshots from the 1920s and 1930s. Beneath each photo a short description written in fuzzy white. The pages black heavy paper. The photos glued on. My aunt put together this book, my mother’s younger sister, and as I turn each page the photos go from town to farm, from farm to town, the farm in Iowa where the family started out and the town in Illinois where they ended up. There was a farm photo with the description: “Mother – Grandma / Our house before the porches were built on.” I wondered which grandma. Daisy and her mother? Daisy and Homer’s mother? Both lived nearby. Or could it be … Daisy and her mother. The one from Cincinnati. The one who Daisy, then known as Fannie, came to America with. The one she was separated from when nine years old. The one who settled in Cincinnati in a Jewish enclave with a man named White, who raised a family there, who did not know that her eldest daughter had been put on a train, shuttled west, raised in a world of Iowa and Christmas. But, I just couldn’t tell from the picture …

Then I saw the next page. Photos labeled “Aunt Jean,” “1924.” So. This is it. This is when Grandma White, as my mother called her, and Aunt Jean visited the farm. Here are photos to match the only memory my mother has of Grandma White, Daisy’s “real mother.” A memory most often expressed as something like: “I remember her as being kind.”

Daisy Morris Treloar and Hinda Leah White.
Daughter and Mother.
Iowa, 1924.

In the photo, Daisy and her mother have their arms around each other. And Aunt Jean, Daisy’s half-sister (though I am tempted to drop the “half-”), smiles big in every photo. She wears overalls and high heels. She sits on a horse. She smiles. She would have been about 25 at the time, and I think married, living in Cincinnati where she was raised. I wonder what she felt there on the farm, with her sister Daisy, with these nieces and nephews in overalls, straw hats, dusty feet.

Also in the box loose snapshots from the 1950s and 1960s. There are my sisters. There’s a dog I remember. The dog stands in a tree. Now wedding photos and a cousin I have no recollection of. He’s getting married. It’s a funny family, I think. But I get it. Maybe. Kind of. We all know, so why talk about it? Some pictures of my grandmother from that wedding—What a smile! Look at those glasses! That hat!

Daisy, 1964.

Yes, we found my grandmother’s grave. It’s right there in the cemetery, up the hill a bit from my uncles. Yes, families are funny. At times I laughed so hard playing dominoes it delayed the game. But that’s an aside. We, my first cousins and I, also walked through our grandmother’s house, “the old Treloar house” is what the guy called it, the guy out in front whom we talked to, who invited us in, who remembered Charlie, our uncle, sure, he sold cars, and the garage is still there, boarded up now, across the street from the Tastee-Freeze. So we eat lunch. We drive around. We listen to the Cubs game, and do you know the Cubs haven’t lost since I took that detour through DeKalb to the Jewel-Osco and got my RizzOs, the Magic Cereal? We comment on the corn, just coming up, on the blackness of the earth, of the fields. It’s Illinois. It’s spring. Full green, full leaf, sweet scent. Black, spindly-legged calves in fields of green and corrals of mud. Roads flat, straight, horizons far-flung.

The Tastee-Freez.

We visit another cemetery near the Mississippi River. Here is my father’s family. A whole ’nother story or two. This cemetery has gravestones dating back to the mid-1800s. Even though they are strangers, unrelated, I take pictures.

I visit my aunt, my mother’s younger sister, the one who kept the photo book, and in her I see my mother, my grandmother, my uncle. I learn things about her I never knew. A bit of who she is, who she was. She was a chemist. There was a research lab in Peoria that once played a big part in the production of penicillin. She worked there, and I had not known this. Now I do.

My Aunt Vada and her Aunt Jean, 1924.

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