Author: craigborchard

Husband and father to two way-smarter-than-me engineering major boys. I hold my own with the dog and cat though; more than 30 years in marketing communications, 29 of those in health care.

The last

My last letter from Grandma arrived while I was in basic training at Fort Benning’s U.S. Army Infantry Training Center.

Private Borchard, July 1984

Private Borchard, July 1984

Evening mail call in our Sand Hill Training Area barracks was one of the few lighter moments in the land of sunshine and fire ants (otherwise known as west-central Georgia). I looked forward to it not only for the letters from home, but also for our drill sergeant’s performance.

Drill Sergeant Bobby McDonald was the loudest, scariest, most intimidating person I had ever met. From the soles of his spit-polished boots to the top of his Smoky the Bear hat, he seemed about 8 feet 3 ½ inches tall, or thereabouts.

Like Grandma, Drill Sergeant McDonald was an entertaining storyteller: A self-described good ‘ol boy from Alabama, his dad had been a tanker for General Patton in World War II. During the Vietnam War, then Private McDonald survived three days alone behind enemy lines. He ran nearly nonstop the last two days back to his base with a 60-caliber machine gun over his shoulders and a squad of Viet Cong on his butt.

Also like Grandma, Drill Sergeant McDonald was very funny … partly because he was the most-amazing cusser I had ever heard. The things he could do with a booming voice, scowling sense of humor and well-placed expletive were spectacular. But in basic training, you pay for your laughter with pushups, and I’ve always had difficulty keeping a straight face. So I did my best that summer to help push Fort Benning closer to the earth’s core for Drill Sergeant McDonald.

During mail call, Drill Sergeant McDonald would hold court at the front of the barracks with our platoon gathered around him, sitting on the floor like a bunch of anxious children on Christmas morning. One difference was that rather than festive holiday colors, everyone was dressed in drab-green camouflage with accents of drab-green camouflage. Another difference was that rather than a big jolly Santa, our gift-giver was a big scary drill sergeant. Details.

Drill Sergeant McDonald’s mail-call routine was to pull a letter out of the mailbag, holler the recruit’s last name, and expect him to be on his feet and standing at parade rest before the last letter of the recruit’s name left his lips. Guys with one-syllable last names were doomed.

When the envelope’s handwriting and return address called for it, Drill Sergeant McDonald would add the appropriately embarrassing miss-you-so-much girlfriend or momma’s boy insult, fling the letter like a Frisbee in the recruit’s general direction and move on to the next.

A few times every mail call, something about an envelope would inspire Drill Sergeant McDonald to deliver special attention to the letter’s recipient. Whether it was the envelope’s pastel color, the vague scent of perfume or – the ultimate sin – a small hand-drawn heart or two, Drill Sergeant McDonald would call the recruit to the front of the barracks and give him one of two choices:

  1. Read the letter aloud to the platoon without laughing. With this choice, you could edit out the juicy parts as you went, but usually without first turning red and laughing … followed by pushups.
  2. Allow Drill Sergeant McDonald to read the letter aloud to the platoon with no edits and no pushups.

We did a lot of pushups during mail call.

My letters managed to slip under our drill sergeant’s lonely girlfriend/momma boy radar through the first month of basic training. My luck ran out on the evening of June 26, 1984.

“Borchard! You’ve got a letter here from Mary in Indiana! I thought you were from I-o-way?! Don’t tell me you’ve got a girl in Indiana too! Get up here!” (Everything Drill Sergeant McDonald said ended with an exclamation point. I suspect he was also a sleep exclaimer.)

As I hurried to the front of the barracks, a panicked voice in my head was pounding, “Oh, crap! It’s from Grandma! What am I going to tell him?! Oh, crap! Oh, crap! Oh, crap!” (Not everything I say in my head ends with an exclamation point, but it sure did then.)

I took my place up front and snapped into parade rest facing Drill Sergeant McDonald.

“So who’s this Mary in Indiana, private Borchard?! Are you so hard up that you have to look that far for a girl or are you some kind of LO-thario?!”

“No, drill sergeant!”

“’No, drill sergeant,’ WHAT?!”

“No, drill sergeant, I a … “


Being a family-conditioned smartass, my mind instantly concocted about three answers guaranteed to make the situation worse. Not being a complete idiot, I decided on the fourth answer: Tell the truth.

“Drill sergeant, the letter’s from my grandmother!”


“Yes, drill sergeant!”

Drill Sergeant McDonald then leaned into my face until the rim of his hat was burrowing into my forehead and bellowed, “Do you LOVE your grandmother, Private Borchard!?”

Well of course I love my grandmother … what did he expect me to say? It occurred to me then that telling the truth was setting me up for about 5,000 pushups. Worse yet was the thought that he was guiding me straight to The Two Choices.

Drill Sergeant McDonald didn’t intend for The Two Choices to ever work in a recruit’s favor. But a letter from Grandma had the potential to lead to something cataclysmic either way. So I ran all the smartass answers through my head again, and decided the truth was still the best option. An 8-foot fire-breathing drill sergeant in your face helps you find the truth real fast.

“Yes, drill sergeant!”

“Yes WHAT, private Borchard?!”

“Yes, I love my grandmother, drill sergeant!”



“Well that’s just out-FUCKING-standing, private Borchard! I love my gran-maw too! Now take this letter, sit down, shut up and STOP WASTING MY TIME!”

No pushups and no two choices … wow. I wasn’t sure how thoroughly hell had frozen over, but I wasn’t about to stand there and contemplate it – I scurried back to my place on the barracks floor and focused all my physical and mental strength on not wasting Drill Sergeant McDonald’s time.

After mail call broke up, I returned to my bunk and read Grandma’s letter. I realized I’d have been fine if Drill Sergeant McDonald had offered The Two Choices. I’d have read the letter aloud without editing and probably started my pushup marathon after the first sentence. They would’ve been worth it:

Hi there “Soldier Boy,”

How does your haircut suit you? If it’s not too hot there, I’ll be down. We went without rain for three weeks, and the temperature’s 90 in the shade every day. The nights are nice though, so I do get my sleep and since this is Sunday, I’m like your dad – I’m getting my afternoon nap. We did get a good rain this morning and it’s a bit cooler, so maybe I’ll live through another day.

I’ve got strawberries coming tomorrow, so I’ll be busy cleaning them. What we don’t eat, I’ll have to freeze. Maybe there’ll be some berries and ice cream left if you make it out here before your school starts, but don’t hold me to it if there’s a hillbilly reunion before then – you know they all eat like hogs. Ha!

Outside of that, I’m not hurting myself with work. Just answering the phone and talking to those crazy campers when Lynn’s gone. Rhonda and baby Amanda will be up over the fourth. She’ll help Lynn with the food, and I’ll be babysitter.

Your mother said your brother got his little finger broken at playing ball. I had to laugh as he’s so slow and clumsy, it wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t step on his own hand and mash his pinky. Oh well – look at the grandmother he’s got.

I hope you’ll like it down there, and the time will go fast for you. If you find time, write me a note.

Good luck in your adventure. I love you,

Your “dear sweet” grandma

I missed the chance to eat strawberries and ice cream with Grandma that summer or any after. I returned to “I-o-way” in late July and getting ready for graduate school immediately consumed my time. Grandma died about three weeks later.

Looking back, I’m sure Drill Sergeant McDonald knew from the start that my letter that evening was from Grandma. How many other letters had he seen written by a grandmother’s hand, and how many times did he go through the same routine with previous recruits? Hundreds, I imagine.

Maybe Drill Sergeant McDonald’s “gran-maw” was also a crazy letter writer, and he spared me because he understood the potential embarrassment contained in such a letter was more punishment than even the U.S. Army would allow.

If I’d had the time to see Grandma one last time, I imagine if we could have magically transported the non-drill-sergeant version of Bobby McDonald to join us for a day. Grandma and Bobby would swap “war” stories and tall tales, and I’d do my best to stay out of the line of fire – listening and laughing pushup-free until strawberries and ice cream jettison out my nose.

Callin’ ‘em as she sees ‘em

Grandma never had a problem sharing her opinion, whether it was wanted or not (often not). Combined with her finely tuned bullshit detector, Grandma’s frankness provided some entertainingly blunt observations of people and events around her.

Grandma was also quick to recognize the person who impressed her the most: herself. She rarely missed the opportunity to point out her resourcefulness and ingenuity, especially if it was at another’s expense.

Here are some highlights of Grandma practicing one of her favorite pastimes: seein’ ‘em and callin’ ‘em:

Roberta’s boyfriend turned out to have a heart condition, so she dropped him like a hot potato. I laughed at her and told her from now on, be sure her suitors have physicals first.


From the reports I get, Bill’s taking care of Aunt Ann. Isn’t that a pair? He’ll get his butt skinned.


When you come out here, have Craig bring his horn. Just let him be my musician, and he can play all day for me. You’d just as well put him on that piano. You and Perry will never make the grade.


I called her yesterday and she was mad and just said ‘goodbye’ and hung up. So I don’t know which way to turn. If it wasn’t for her children, I’d tell her to kiss my ass!


Say, I got a bright idea. I opened all those narrow ties and faced them. Now they’re in style. When I die, you kids had better sell my brain to research and see how much is left in there.


Your dad just brought in a letter from Helen, and shocking news: Her husband deserted her. He’s living with another woman. He won’t support her anymore, so she had to go out and get a job. Aunt Thelma came to be with her awhile, and she says it’s him going through the change. So now you’d better take care with your old man. It looks like you’re working him down to a frazzle. Maybe he’s still happy in his own bed. Ha! [Ha?]


Rhonda is trying to break Amanda from the baby bed to the waterbed, and she fell out last night. That’s what the doctor said to do. What do these doctors know anyway? Lynn slept with us until Ellie was born, and it didn’t wreak her nerves.


From a letter to Aunt Mae, whose two teenage sons had developed a taste for tobacco:

Have a nice Christmas. I’ve included a five spot for the boys to fight over. Ought to get Jay a good chew and Jeff a good puff.


Someone wanted off work at the last minute, so your dad worked a double shift last night. That’s the only time in his life he’s ever made $30 in one day for sitting on his butt.


Roberta and George got a pup – a wiener dog – for $25. Well, shortly after, Roberta took after one of the kids for something and the dog got underfoot. She accidentally kicked it, broke its neck and it died. They all took on so bad, George went and got another one. In other words, it’s a $50 dog.

The meaning of ‘got you’

My first Christmas, 1962

Christmas, 1962

When I was 10, Grandma told me I was adopted. No, it wasn’t an elaborate setup for one of her practical jokes, and she really didn’t mean to tell me. But it was news to me, and I had no reason to doubt her.

It was a late fall weekend in the early 1970s at our home in Hartley, Iowa. Grandma, Grandpa and Aunt Ellie were visiting us. Mom and Dad took advantage of having temporary live-in babysitters and went out that evening.

Shortly after my parents left, I lost my temper with Grandpa for an excellent reason: He sat in my spot on the couch. Yes, I beat “The Big Bang Theory” to that compulsive behavior by a few decades … they may owe me for that.

Instead of haranguing Grandpa until he moved, my response was to stomp from the family room to the living room, crank up the thermostat, sit cross-legged on the large floor register with an afghan blanket over my head and create a one-person, foul-tempered sweat lodge (another compulsive behavior).

It wasn’t long before I heard Grandma heading in my direction. Apparently, my family room exit hadn’t been as subtle as I really hadn’t wanted it to be. Grandma sat in the rocking chair in front of me and proceeded to give me the what-for.

It started as expected with much “respecting your elders” and “controlling your temper” – stuff I also got regularly from Mom and Dad – but I could tell Grandma was bringing more than the usual determination to this scolding. So I stayed hunkered under the safety of my blanket and, in my mind, converted her voice into an adult Peanuts character. She may have been delivering a stupendous dressing down, but it was mostly “wah wa-wah wah wah” in my head.

Even so, I was vaguely aware that her admonishment had gone back to my arrival in this world. At any age, you know it’s serious when a talking-to goes back that far.

Then she said it.

“… and when your parents got you …”

“Got you.” I don’t know why those two words stood out then. Any other time, I would have assumed it was just another example of the odd way adults occasionally talk – as if she were avoiding saying “had you” so she could also avoid any chance of getting into an uncomfortable “Where do babies come from?” discussion. She would have been safe with “had you”: By that time, I had secretly read from cover to cover my parent’s copy of “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask.” I didn’t understand much of it but, needless to say, the cat was already way out of the bag on the baby-making topic.

I flipped up the front of the blanket, looked straight at Grandma and cut her off midbluster: “What do you mean ‘got you’?”

Grandma froze. On the opening kickoff of the first football game my senior year in high school, I was hit so hard, I actually saw stars. You wonder where unusual expressions like that come from. Then it happens to you, and you get it. Those few seconds after I asked Grandma to explain herself helped me get how all the air could be sucked out of a room.

Grandma finally recovered and replied, “What are you talking about”? (She knew what I was talking about.)

“You said ‘got you.’ Don’t you mean ‘had you’”? (I knew what she meant.)

“Well … uh … what I wanted to say was … well … it means … ack! Boy, you’re adopted. There, I said it. Do you know what that means?”

“I know what being adopted is. But I don’t remember living anywhere else or with anybody else.”

To that point in my life, my concept of adoption was shaped largely by the movie “Oliver!“: Being an orphan waiting for adoption meant days filled with pocket picking, extravagant song-and-dance numbers and a severe lack of porridge.

Grandma clarified:

“No, you wouldn’t remember that far back. You were just a few days old when your mom and dad got you [those words again]. But that doesn’t mean they love you any less. They couldn’t have children of their own at the time, so they went to an adoption center in Sioux City. After a while, the center called and said you were ready and waiting for them. They were so excited. Your mom and dad have always been your parents and they always will be. You’re stuck with your ol’ granny too.”

We sat in silence for a few minutes. Finally, Grandma asked whether I wanted to come back to the family room.

“No, I think I’ll stay here awhile.”

So Grandma left, and I disappeared back under the blanket. I was sound asleep in my bed when my parents got home. Mom came into my room and gently awakened me.

“Grandma told me what she told you. Do you have any questions?”

“No, I’m OK.”

“Well, if you want to talk about it tomorrow, just let me know, OK? I love you.”

“I love you too, Mom. Good night.”

That night was 43 years ago, and that’s been the extent of any discussion of my adoption with anyone in my family … and that’s fine with me.

I know not all adoptions are the same, but for me (even at 10), it was never a question of who “had you” or “got you” or whether a stork dropped you down the chimney. It’s always been about who loves you, who’s cared for you and who’s helped you become what you think you want to be. And I supposed if I hadn’t done anything bad enough in my first 10 years to compel Mom and Dad to trade me in for a less-temperamental model, I probably had half a chance of staying around another 10 years. I did test that assumption many times though.

I was fortunate to be “gotten” by loving and supportive parents and families. Although the Indiana side’s behavior has occasionally tempted me to play the adoption card (“Hey, don’t look at me – I’m not a blood relation to these goofballs!”), I know I’m just as culpable … “family” wears off onto you pretty quickly, and it’s something I’d never want to wash away.

The following is from a letter Grandma wrote to a niece in the late 1970s. Although I wasn’t the letter’s recipient, I think it’s close to what Grandma was trying to tell me that night on the floor register:

Isn’t it great to have family and to stay close to them? It’s such a little thing to be considerate to one another. One can go through almost anything if there’s love in the heart. Don’t ever let ‘family’ down. They’re the only ones who will stand by you in the end.

Lost letters file: Loyal pets, dead bodies and severe wardrobe malfunctions

Although my parents intended to save every entertaining letter from Grandma, it was inevitable they’d lose some along the way. Really, the number of letters that did survive is remarkable considering our five relocations during those three letter-writing decades. Despite the lost letters, we have managed to keep some of their stories alive.

Grandma’s most notorious lost letter was one she wrote in the early 1960s. The letter arrived in the middle of the summer, and it told about the death of a local farmer. He was a widower and, other than his faithful dog, he lived alone on his farm. While working out in the field one hot summer day, the elderly farmer had a heart attack and died instantly. Several days passed before anyone missed him.

Finally, some neighbors stopped by his farmhouse. No one answered the door, but as the neighbors were leaving, they noticed in the field the farmer’s dog lying next to what they suspected was the farmer’s body. They walked out into the field to investigate but when they got close, the large dog sprang up, growling and baring its teeth to the approaching group. It wasn’t about to allow anyone near its fallen master. After several failed attempts to distract or scare the dog away, the neighbors decided it was a job for the marshal.

When Grandpa arrived, he quickly determined the only solution was to tranquilize the dog. A local veterinarian supplied a dose of sedative that Grandpa added to a handful of raw hamburger. After tossing the juiced ball of meat out to the dog, Grandpa and his posse waited under a shade tree near the farmhouse. A few minutes after wolfing down the medicated meatball, the dog collapsed into a deep sleep, and the men began the grim duty of removing the farmer’s body.

This is where the letter got interesting.

Although Grandma wasn’t there, she painted a vivid written portrait of the scene based only on Grandpa’s account. After lying in the blistering 90-degree sun for several days, the farmer’s body was in a severe state of decomposition. Grandma didn’t hold back: She wrote about the swarm of flies and other winged insects the men had to fight through to get to the remains. She told about how maggots and other creepy-crawlies had quickly inhabited the bloated corpse, particularly in its eyes and gaping mouth. She described how they shoveled the farmer part by part into a body bag. And she brought to powerful life the overwhelming stench of rotting flesh.

Mom read this letter to some family friends shortly after it arrived. At the maggots-in-the-eyes-and-mouth point, our friend’s 10-year-old daughter began dry heaving. At the stench-of-rotting-flesh point, she jumped up, ran into the bathroom … and garped in the pot.

Most writers try to elicit emotional responses from their readers. If causing someone to puke counts as an emotional response, Grandma could have been Hemingway in an alternate bizarro universe.

Several years ago, I put out a call to all relatives to scour their homes in the hopes of discovering some of Grandma’s lost letters. Nothing significant turned up, but my mom and Aunt Mae did have interesting replies with letters of their own.

Both told about an incident that happened when they were in their late teens/early 20s. Although Mom and Aunt Mae wrote to me independently, they told the same story nearly word for word. That might seem uncanny, but for anyone who knows Mae and Maudie, it’s no surprise.

Aunt Mae and Mom in mid-gab, 1991

Aunt Mae and Mom take a mid-gab breather, 1991

Born 16 months apart, they’ve often been mistaken for twins – not so much for their physical resemblance, but for the way they communicate on a level no one dares ascend (or descend) to.

To the listener, Mom and Aunt Mae’s verbal exchanges probably sound like the conversational equivalents of the blind leading the blind, but somehow they magically understand each other. It’s as if they share one brain … which means they each use only half at a time … which seems about right.

Here’s a compilation of Mom and Aunt Mae’s letters about an eventful shopping trip in the late 1940s. Grandma may not have written this, but coming from the next generation of letter writers is a close second:

We were shopping in Valparaiso with Mom and our nephew Steve, who was about 5 years old at the time. Everyone knows Mom never wore underpants unless she was going out of town.

We were walking down a busy street, and just as we were in front of a big store window, Mom felt something falling. Lo’ and behold, it was her underpants! The elastic band broke and they fell to the ground right in front of a crowded department store.

We kept walking as if we didn’t know her, but little Stevie stayed with her. She stepped out of her undies, and Stevie picked them up and carried them as they went into an office building’s stairwell to fix them.

We were in the doghouse for a long time after that.

For the record, I didn’t know about Grandma’s underwear-wearing policy, which is fine – I think it’s best I didn’t.

Grandma grammar

I’d mentioned in an earlier post that Grandma was far from a professional writer – I suppose you’ve figured that out by now. But that lack of proper linguistic training and experience didn’t stop her from making a point … even if the point that ended up on paper sometimes seemed straight out of “Alice in Wonderland.”

She was no Lewis Carroll, but Grandma’s free-range approach to language and storytelling could magically deliver some inspired absurdity. Mixed metaphors, hyperboles and portmanteaus (I had to look up that one) were child’s play in her hands. Although it was mostly unintentional, one of her writing-gone-awry moments did provide my family with a well-worn offbeat response to anyone looking for a male family member (“He’s down in the basement …”):

“Hello ‘out there’! Maybe my letter won’t be so grulesome this week.”


 “I got word that Aunt Jeanette has been in the hospital again. They went down in her stomach and took away her cigarettes.”


 “Well, I’ve got to get busy. I’m still knitting stocking caps. They are so boresome.”


 “Say, Zelma’s been sick ever since their big a-do, so she finally went to the doctor. He said she’s full of water.”


 “You should see my flowers. Half of them are dead, the rest look sick and the TV has a wire off the antenna. All I get is snow. I still hear voices though.”


“I can’t get sick until my new health policy gets inaffect.”


 “Your dad’s down in the basement cracking his nuts now. I guess he wants more candy.”

 The lengths Grandpa would go to just for some more candy …

When it began

March 6, 1954, Fairbanks, Alaska

March 6, 1954, Fairbanks, Alaska

My parents married 61 years ago today. With Dad being from Iowa and Mom from Indiana, their wedding took place, naturally, in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Actually, it makes perfect sense:

In May 1952, during the height of the Korean War, the U.S. Army graciously extended a binding invitation to my dad to join its travel club for the next two years. He accepted. After basic and artillery training in Arkansas and radio mechanic school in Oklahoma, the Army decided his next stop should be Fairbanks to help defend (successfully) the soon-to-be 49th state against a Communist invasion. He repaired radios during the day and taught evening English classes on the side at the University of Alaska.

Dad and Uncle Bernie, Fairbanks, Alaska

Dad and Uncle Bernie, Fairbanks, Alaska

Shortly after arriving in Fairbanks in June 1953, he met another freshly minted private named Bernard Harris, from Medaryville, Indiana. “Bernie” also had accepted a gracious and binding invitation from the Army’s travel club. Being Midwesterners with plans to become teachers after their club memberships expired, they became instant friends.

Meanwhile, back in Medaryville …

Charlotte Mae Harris was making plans to join her husband Bernie in Fairbanks. They would live near the military base, and Char would find a job – she worked for a loan company in Indiana and assumed they had similar businesses in Alaska, what with all the igloo construction financing and such.

The plan had a small hitch: Char was uneasy about traveling 3,600 miles alone to an unfamiliar land where she’d know only one other person. And she didn’t speak a lick of Eskimo. One of her older sisters, Carol Maude Lowry, provided the solution.

“Maudie” (aka “Mom”) was single and worked as a nurse in a doctor’s office in Valparaiso, Indiana. Although she also lacked in Eskimo linguistics, Mom offered to move to Alaska with her sister and find a job in Fairbanks. She assumed they needed nurses in Alaska, what with all the igloo construction injuries and such.

On Sunday, Aug. 2, 1953, Mae and Maudie boarded a plane in Chicago and headed north to Alaska. The Last Frontier has yet to recover. “Sisters leave for Alaska” was the headline for an above-the-fold front-page story (with photo) in that week’s edition of The Medaryville Herald. Every day is a slow news day in Medaryville.

After arriving in Fairbanks, the sisters were soon surprised and somewhat disappointed to find a complete absence of igloos.

Maudie and Mae, December 1953

Maudie and Mae, December 1953

But they were relieved to learn Alaskans were very friendly and spoke fluent English … not their Indiana hillbilly brand, but close enough. Char found a job with the Alaska Railroad Corporation, and Mom worked at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Meanwhile, back at the base …

The guys in the communications platoon were making plans to attend Dog Days, a late-summer event that gave area dogsledders the opportunity to show off their teams to the locals before the mushing season began. Bernie suggested to my dad that he stop by their place afterward and meet his “old maid” sister-in-law (Mom was an ancient 25 years old at the time). So he stopped by. Dad’s standing joke is that he went to Dog Days that afternoon and came away with the best in show. Mom chooses to take that as a compliment.

Dad makes his first, but not his last, friend on Dog Days

Dad makes his first, but not his last, new friend on Dog Days.

That was in September 1953. They got engaged three months later and married three months after that. And today, they’re celebrating their 61st wedding anniversary. That’s how it makes perfect sense.

With everything happening so fast, friends and family members from the lower 48 couldn’t make it to the wedding, so nurses filled one side of the church and soldiers filled the other. I’m guessing it was one helluva wedding reception.

The day before the wedding, Grandma and Grandpa sent a telegram to Dad – a person they’d never met who was about to become their son-in-law. Considering the true writer was Grandma, the telegram was uncharacteristically brief, but to the point. It was just the start of hundreds of cards and letters Grandma would send over the next 30 years:

MARCH 5, 1954


2006, Jan. 26, Howard and Carol, Spirit lake

Bad Cupid

Bad Cupid

If you were one of her grandchildren, Grandma rarely missed sending you at least three annual greeting cards: Christmas, your birthday and Valentine’s Day. She’d always add a few words and a “five spot” to each card. Her comments in her Christmas and birthday cards were usually occasion-appropriate sentiments. But that was rarely the case with Valentine’s Day. She brought a much more mischievous “Bad Cupid” approach to this holiday.

The earliest known appearance of Grandma’s Bad Cupid personality is from when she was just a schoolgirl. Her older brother had bought a box of chocolate-covered cherries to give to his girlfriend later that Valentine evening. This situation had three major problems:

No. 1 – Grandma really liked cherries.

No. 2 – Grandma REALLY liked cherries: When no one was around, she snatched the box of candy, used a knitting needle to pry the gooey fruit from the bottom of two of the candies and ate them. She then carefully placed the hollowed-out chocolates back in the box as if they’d never been disturbed.

No. 3 – Two was good, but all was better: After resisting temptation for a few minutes, Bad Cupid took complete control – Grandma grabbed the box and knitting needle, and got back to work. She quickly extracted and devoured every cherry from every candy. Later that evening, her brother unwittingly gave his girlfriend a box of gutted chocolate shells. I’m guessing the relationship didn’t last.

If Grandma couldn’t deliver a Bad Cupid assault in person, she’d resort to hinting at the embarrassment she could cause in her Valentine’s Day card messages. She added this wink-and-a-nod note to a card she sent to me while I was an “innocent” college freshman:

Age does a lot for you, so keep pecking away – you’ll make it. Now take this five spot and find you a Valentine to spend it on. I bet you’ll have a heck of a good time, so get a good looker – maybe you can get your money’s worth.

It didn’t occur to my innocent college freshman mind, but reading these words 30 years later, it sounds as though Grandma was suggesting I use the money to “buy” a “date” for Valentine’s Day. If so, I doubt a five spot would have gotten me my money’s worth in the “good looker” and “good time” categories … at least not at the same time. But I’m almost positive that isn’t what Grandma meant … almost.

The only thing that really mattered was every card from Bad Cupid ended the same way:

“I love you, Granny”

‘Nothing much ever happens in Medaryville …’

Marshal Lowry

Grandpa served Medaryville, Indiana, as its marshal and jack-of-all-trades for 20 years. Before that, he’d been a farmer and had worked in area factories, including an ordnance plant during World War II. I was 3 years old when he retired in 1965, so the only occupation I remember him having was as a full-time grandpa. But being married to Grandma meant he was often on the receiving end of her many practical jokes. Therefore, “Victim” was another job title he frequently found thrust on him.

Although Grandpa was also a prankster, he couldn’t match Grandma’s outsized efforts. For him, these Grandma-engineered practical jokes sound especially impractical:

  • After a hard day at work, Grandpa asked Grandma whether she’d massage his back and shoulders with a hot liniment. She agreed, so he stripped to his underpants, laid on the bed, and Grandma started working the liniment into his aching muscles. Just as she was finishing, she pulled down the back of his shorts and slapped a handful of the fiery product on “his boys.” Grandpa got to know an ice bag intimately the rest of the night.
  • For a short time, when Grandpa was working a late shift, he would come home and sneak into the bedroom without waking Grandma, quietly change his clothes, jump as high as he could and belly flop on the bed, startling Grandma out of a deep sleep. It didn’t take her long to fix this behavior. A few nights later, Grandpa came home and began his routine: He tiptoed into the dark bedroom, slipped out of his clothes and into his pajamas, leaped into the air … and landed face first on the bedroom floor. Grandma had moved the bed over a few feet before she’d turned in for the night.
  • On one of the first pleasant spring days in the late 1930s, Grandma and Grandpa decided to take the family on a picnic. Grandpa had to run some errands in town before they left, but he promised he’d be back in a few minutes. So Grandma got the kids dressed and ready to go, filled the picnic baskets with food and waited for his return. Nearly two hours later, Grandpa stumbled through the front door, took a quick look at his furious wife and, without saying a word, plopped onto the couch and passed out. While in town, some friends had intercepted Grandpa and, with little effort, persuaded him to have a couple quick drinks with them at the tavern before he headed back home. A couple of drinks became several, and they hadn’t been very quick. Grandma’s response? She found some rope and hogtied a still-passed-out Grandpa to the couch. She took the kids on the picnic and left him tied up for the rest of the day.

Yes, Grandma usually had the advantage with Grandpa, but perhaps he was just born to be an easy target. Some evidence for this was there well before he and Grandma married. As a youth, Grandpa once fell for the old snipe-hunting ruse. In this case, the quest was for “ring-tailed” snipe. After ditching him out in the country holding a burlap bag under a tree, Grandpa’s tormentors sneaked back to town and waited for his return. Their wait was longer than usual for this gag, but eventually they spotted him trudging back with his empty burlap bag – no ring-tailed snipes. His “friends” got a good laugh at Grandpa’s expense, but they also were impressed with his snipe-hunting determination. They quickly christened him “Ring,” and that nickname stuck for the rest of his life.

Grandpa apparently learned a thing or two from his snipe-hunting experience and years of Grandma keeping him on his toes: As town marshal, he once earned another nickname and some notoriety for being diligent and as determined of a lawman as he was a snipe hunter. People began referring to him as “the pajama-wearing policeman” after this story hit the newsstands:

Chicago Sun-Times, Monday, June 10, 1957

A town marshal catches two after 70-mile chase

Nothing much ever happens in Medaryville, a hamlet in Pulaski County, Indiana, 70 miles southeast of Hammond. But Ogle Lowry, the town marshal, proved yesterday his alertness during a disturbance of the peace.

His peace was disturbed at 2 a.m. by a telephone call from Dewey Wayne, owner of a garage and filling station. Suspicious hammering had awakened Wayne in his home next door to the garage.

The marshal rushes

Lowry pulled on a pair of pants over his pajamas, leaped into a motor truck, and reached the garage in time to see two men emerge and drive away.

Lowry raced after them. The night chase – at 80 miles an hour – led through Gary, Indiana Harbor, East Chicago and finally into Hammond.

There the fugitives stopped for a traffic light and Lowry, pulling up alongside, drew his gun on them.

Ex-vets charged

At the police station, his captives identified themselves as former servicemen, both from Hammond. Earlier in the day, they had held up a rural movie theater and obtained $165. Police found this and $126 taken from Wayne’s safe in a paper bag under a seat of their car. They also found a loaded gun.

Over the years, family lore has varied the amount of non-pajama clothing Grandpa was really wearing at the time of the arrest, and I doubt the long-lost letter from Grandma that accompanied the newspaper clipping added much verifiable clarity. But I am sure that when Grandpa returned home that night, he didn’t request a hot liniment massage.

‘I never left his side’

Not all of Grandma’s letter writing was crazy. Much of it concerned uneventful topics: How the garden was doing, progress on her knitting projects and whether it was warm enough for Grandpa to switch from long Johns to boxers. Between the crazy and the ordinary, she’d occasionally touch on something much closer to her heart.

For my family, the 1970s included the usual assortment of comings and goings – marriages, divorces, young’uns added to the mix – events that most families experience in a decade. But the ‘70s was also a period of great loss for us: Grandpa died unexpectedly in 1974; Grandma and Grandpa’s youngest child, Ellie, died in 1977; and cancer claimed their only son, John, in 1979. I can’t imagine how Grandma handled so much grief over a relatively short time. But through all the sorrow, the Grandma I remember from then was the Grandma I always knew: Someone who never lost her feistiness, was quick to offer words of support and criticism (sometimes in the same sentence) and remained fiercely devoted to her family.

Grandma was with Uncle John during his final days. The following is from a letter she wrote shortly after his death:

“Don’t feel too bad about John. He’s at rest, and when God knows you’ve had more than you can endure, he steps in. John worked so hard all his life, and he died such an easy death – just slept away so easy that his children didn’t realize he was gone until I told them. He told me his dad was with him, and there was music ringing in his ears. He didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful. One of his wishes was that his children would be in the kitchen, with me showing them some of my recipes. Really, the end came before I thought it would. We called for a visiting nurse at four in the afternoon. He talked with her awhile, but when she said his blood pressure was 80/60, I knew he was losing ground. So with the sound of his children in the kitchen, he shut his eyes and that was it – he just slept away. Just before he closed his eyes, he said, ‘Don’t leave me Mom – it won’t be long.’ I never left his side.”

‘Tell me something I didn’t already know!’

1970s, Grandma

Grandma’s other archenemy was her bathroom scale, followed closely by the scale at her doctor’s office, followed closely by any scale in any location anywhere in the world. She often claimed to be dieting, but I don’t remember seeing her make any significant progress with that. It’s just as well: Someone with such a large personality as hers really demanded an equally imposing physique. I can’t imagine a “dear sweet” 90-pounds-when-soaking-wet brand of grandma cutting down a grandchild’s excuse-filled lament with, “Well, boo-hoo you … and if the dog hadn’t stopped to take a shit, he would’ve caught the rabbit too!” From any other grandma, family members might follow up that comment by asking her to identify the current year and president. But coming from my grandma’s impressive physical and vocal girth, it landed as a perfectly sarcastic “get over yourself” rebuff. And when it came to the topic of weight (hers and others), she did a lot of rebuffing:

“I had a nice trip back to Medaryville, but I hit a snag in Chicago – all the kids going back to school at Notre Dame and St. Mary’s was at the gate for the South Bend plane, and it was a jam. They put me in a wheelchair when I got into O’Hare, and an old guy pushed and pushed me through the airport. I wondered where he was taking me, so I asked him if he knew where he was going. He said, ’Yes, it’s over a mile to the South Bend plane,’ so I really didn’t have much time to wait. Then he said to me, ‘Lady, you should think about losing some weight!’ I told him to tell me something I didn’t already know!”



“You tell the boys Ellie and I got on the stairway steps going to the basement, and our fat butts held down the house during that tornado. I’m going to fix a chute to the basement. It takes us too long to get down the stairs.”



“We haven’t had rain for three weeks, and that temperature hangs around 90. At night, the air conditioner and fans keep me from sweating too much, but how else can I get rid of all this lard?”



“I’ll see if I can do better with my diet next month. It’s getting easier to leave food alone. At my last checkup, I told my doctor anytime someone needs skin for grafting, I have it!”


Besides a sense of humor, my dad and Grandma shared the desire to drop a few pounds. After Dad stopped smoking in the early 1970s, his body responded by adding layers of insulation. In 1979, he crash-dieted his way back to his smoking-era weight (cigarette-free this time). That December, a much slimmer version of Howard Borchard picked up Grandma from the airport for her annual stay with us. This was the first time Grandma had seen him since he’d lost weight. He also had grown a mustache during that time. Grandma was unimpressed. A few days after she’d settled back in at our house, she recounted in a letter to Aunt Mae her airport meeting with Dad:

“I was pooped out for a couple of days when I got here. In Minneapolis, the plane was a puddle jumper. You had to go outdoors and climb steps to get in it. They had to pull me up when I got to the last step. Then at the Worthington airport, Howard was waiting. I had to look twice to know him. He had his work clothes on, and they hanged like an old man’s pants, baggy at the seat, his jaws sagging and that mustache doesn’t help matters. He looked so old. He still has some stomach, but you don’t notice that too much – it’s just a roll of fat.”

According to Dad, the warm family greeting at the airport went like this:

Grandma: “Howard! You look like hell!”

Dad: “Shut up Mary, or I’ll put you right back on that plane and send you back to Indiana!”

Dad and Grandma really did get along fine with each other … just not right then in Worthington, Minnesota. And although Grandma’s been gone for 30 years, I’m still trying to figure out an effective comeback to that dog-shit-rabbit smack down. It’s like The Three Stooges’ double-eye-poke block – it’s nearly impossible to defeat.