Happy Thanksgiving from Grandma and ‘Brownie’

1980, edited

It’s often hard to believe, but my mom’s side of the family has a small measure of commoner royalty in its blood: We’ve officially traced our family lineage to pilgrim John Howland, which means we’re all card-carrying members of the Descendants of the Mayflower Society. I have a certificate that says so. Fittingly, Howland was the only pilgrim to fall overboard during the journey to the New World. The ship’s crew did take the time to fish Great (x10) Grandpa John out of the Atlantic Ocean, which was fortunate not only for the continuation of my family tree, but also countless others: After he arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Howland settled down (so to speak) and fathered 10 children and had 86 grandchildren! Maybe we’re all a little related to John Howland.

Grandma certainly wasn’t a professional writer, but she did manage to be inadvertently creative in her letters. One of her most impressive creative devices was stitching together seemingly unrelated sentences, phrases and thoughts into one magnificent mess. In this excerpt from a 1978 letter, Grandma begins by telling about a family member’s effort to begin putting together the family tree. Where she ends is entirely different. Professional genealogists worldwide are still trying to decipher this:

“Harry Lowry is running down the Lowry generations, and he was trying to get information on how the Prevos were related. I was glad I could remember things Mother told me. I’m sending a couple pictures I had and got some copies made for Harry’s book. The one with Grandma and Grandpa Prevo is from their 50th wedding anniversary. The other one is Mom’s oldest sister named Elizabeth Prevo Brown, and her husband was related to the Lowrys. It was her daughter that Grandma Prevo raised and she was the age of Uncle Arthur so that’s why Mother felt so close to her and she was the one we called Brownie that’s buried in Austin, Minnesota and married Lyman Mott at the same time I was but she was in her 40s and couldn’t have children, so I told her I would give her my next baby, which was Charlotte, but your dad wouldn’t give her up. That’s enough history for now, but if I don’t use what little mind I got left, it’ll soon be too late.”

We’re pretty sure Grandma and Brownie were cousins of some sort … less sure on which side of the family Brownie was from. Who knows? Maybe both sides (insert your own hillbilly joke here).

‘Then the hillbillies will really cut loose!’

My Dad (left), Uncle Buck (right) and a bunch of bull (left, right and center)

My dad (left), Uncle Buck (right) and a bunch of bull (left, right and center)

Although Grandma’s hometown in northwest Indiana is far from the hills of Appalachia, we’ve always affectionately called that side of the family “a bunch of hillbillies.” And that side of the family has always called themselves “a bunch of hillbillies,” so it works for all concerned. Colorful stereotyped behaviors strongly influence this description, and family lore is thick to support it. I suppose most American families have at least a little hillbilly blood in their trees. Ours had an infusion straight from the Bluegrass State that enhanced our inherent hillbilly-ness.

During the Great Depression through the 1950s, many Appalachian families moved north to find work in the Midwest’s industrial cities. Perhaps Chicago was the ultimate destination when the Jackson family pulled up their Kentucky stakes and headed north on the hillbilly highway. If so, they came up about 90 miles short of The Windy City and somehow decided that Medaryville, Indiana, was the place to be. Maybe it was the area’s vast potato crop – how could anyone pass up a community nicknamed “Tatertown”? Whatever the reason, bringing a large family with a distinct Kentucky drawl to a tiny northern town of about 600 undoubtedly had an impact. For my family, the impact was direct: On Feb. 27, 1954, Ellard “Buck” Jackson married Mary Lynn Lowry, my grandparent’s second youngest.

It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall when Aunt Lynn and Uncle Buck told Grandma their marriage plans: Grandma often called the Jacksons “good-fer-nothin’ moonshiners,” and Uncle Buck called Grandma’s family (the Guilds) “a bunch of thievin’ horse thieves.” I’m not sure why. Maybe there really was some moonshinin’ and horse thievin’ goin’ on. Perhaps the Jacksons and the Guilds were Medaryville’s long-forgotten, smaller-scale version of the Hatfields and McCoys, without all the gunplay (I think).

Apart from the other two, Aunt Lynn is the better behaved of the middle three Lowry sisters … although considering the threesome’s complete behavioral tapestry, that’s not sayin’ much. When she’s with her sisters, Aunt Lynn’s inner-hillbilly fully emerges and it quickly becomes a women-and-children-first situation. Uncle Buck was a larger-than-life, straight-talkin’, no-guff-takin’ mountain of a mountain man. In the 1970s, Uncle Buck and Aunt Lynn bought some tree-covered land outside of town, built a home and opened Leisure Time Campground. This would be the site of many of our annual “hillbilly reunions” over the years.

Besides the usual camping accommodations, Leisure Time featured a music hall with a small stage and a kitchen. Just about anyone could get onstage to perform as long as the music was distinctly country. Uncle Buck was the leader of the house band. His showstopper was when he’d do a Kitty Wells impersonation. It’s something to see a large, mustachioed man in a women’s wig and flowered muumuu dress singing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” in a perfect falsetto. After an evening of music, eating and drinking, we’d sit around a campfire and Uncle Buck would impart his pearls of hillbilly wisdom. In the morning, Aunt Lynn would fix the world’s best biscuits and gravy for everyone back at the music hall.

Sometime in the late 1980s, Uncle Buck found Jesus out in those woods. Soon after, Uncle Buck became Pastor Buck and Leisure Time Campground evolved into Leisure Time Baptist Assembly Church. The onstage music headed in a gospel direction, and Kitty’s appearances were less frequent. But Uncle Buck was still Uncle Buck, and Aunt Lynn’s cooking stayed the same. Praise the Lord!

Uncle Buck died in 2007 and, shortly afterward, Aunt Lynn moved to Indianapolis to be closer to their two daughters. The reunions out in the woods are gone, but the memories of good times, great food and occasionally weird musical performances remain.

Grandma would often provide updates from hillbilly headquarters:

“Buck and Lynn are still having music in the woods Saturday nights, and now they’re getting ready for the Fourth of July weekend. Then the hillbillies will really cut loose! They had one of those big weekends over Memorial Day too, and they gathered in from all over the country. There were around 6,000 people. They brought their campers and some had tents. It was really a sight to see. Now they keep calling in for Fourth of July tickets. When Lynn’s gone, I have to work the phones, and you can’t believe the crazy questions they ask. I just give them back crazy answers.”



“Brenda [my mom’s niece] has set her wedding date for July 13, and it’s to be in Terre Haute in the Catholic Church. He’s Catholic, but they haven’t made one out of her yet. And if that’s the wrong time for you, plan your doings and forget about hers. It’s just another hillbilly wedding. Brenda’s having trouble pleasing everyone. Steve [Brenda’s half-brother] wants your dad to give her away, but they think he’ll mess things up. So Steve said he’s next in line and if he does, then Dan [Brenda’s full brother] is left out and there Brenda hangs. If I was her mother, I’d take her up myself and say, ‘Here, take her – I’ve had her long enough!’ She’d just as well start a new trend. Well, I’d better stop. Have a nice Mother’s Day, and we’ll be thinking of you all. Love Mom

“P.S. Brenda goes into the hospital May 13 to have repairs made [huh?], and Steve goes in on the 14th to have the rest of his teeth pulled.”



“I was reading the paper Saturday night, and I always check the death notices. In the column before the notices, I read a heading: ‘Man Shoots Out TV Over a Family Quarrel.’ I laughed and said to your dad, ‘That sounds like hillbillies from Medaryville.’ I read on, and it was my sister and her husband! I called her and she said he was drunk when she got home and after supper, she turned on the TV. It made him mad because she wouldn’t talk to him. She said, ‘Who wants to sit around and listen to an old drunk all evening?’ She saw him go get the gun and wondered what he was going to do. She soon found out. He blew the TV all to hell!”

Unfortunately, my great-uncle and his family struggled with his alcoholism for the rest of his life. Our understanding and treatment of this disease have certainly changed in the 51 years since Grandma wrote this letter. But I don’t think the medical community has made much progress in addressing the condition that afflicted Grandma immediately after she read this account in the local newspaper. In scientific terms, they call it “flabbergasted,” and Grandma was never a fan of having her flabber gasted in any way.

Several years ago, my great-aunt and great-uncle’s (the TV slayer) oldest son began writing his memoirs, which he shared with the family. Alcohol is also the unfortunate catalyst for the following story from his memoirs, but the impact is firmly on the other side of the flabbergasted scale:

“On New Year’s Eve 1950, about 11:30 p.m., I had just picked up my fiancée, and we were headed for a private party. I was going south on the county line road and had just turned west. I had an old 1938 Chrysler, and I was about to shift into high gear when I noticed headlights coming up fast in the rearview mirror. We later learned it was an uninsured drunken driver. I had just filled my rear gas tank that night. The next thing we knew, he hit us in the rear at 100 miles per hour without touching his brakes. This shot our car off the road into a ditch. Our car rolled over three times, and it burst into flames. I couldn’t get the doors open, and the car was filling with smoke. A small restaurant was about 50 feet away from where my car stopped rolling. They were having a New Year’s Eve party there. One of the men at the restaurant got close enough to the burning car to yell in, ‘Is anyone alive in there’? I yelled back that I needed help with the door. I remember hearing people yell at him to stay away from the car because it was going to blow up. Thank God he didn’t listen to them. He jumped on top of the car and started pulling on the door as I was pushing up. With his help, the door finally opened. He asked if anyone else was in the car, and I said, ‘Yes,’ as I started lifting my fiancée into the opening. He pulled her out and got her away from the car. As he helped me out he said, ‘Jump! The car’s going to explode!’ So I dove off the car. I could feel the heat on my feet as the car’s gas tank exploded and engulfed the car in a ball of fire. As we lay on the ground checking our conditions, we suddenly realized that our guardian angel was my fiancée’s brother! I then understood how he won a Silver Star Medal for valor in the Pacific during WWII. We both owed our lives to his courage.”

Grandpa, Charley and the vagaries of health insurance

Charley wasn’t a deputy, but he was Grandpa’s right-hand man. I never met him but from what I’ve heard, he was a combination of Barney Fife and Gomer Pyle with a healthy dose of Goober thrown in. Here’s Grandma’s description (words and spelling) of life on the job for Grandpa and Charley:

“Your dad’s out reading the meters. He ought to wind that up today. He has such a time with Charley. He can’t remember where the meters are from one time to the next. Charley’s not back on the job fulltime yet. He went to lift a barrel of cans up on the truck and in some manner he got his peenis caught between the can and the truck and mashed the end of it. Then when it healed up, he couldn’t make water, so they had to operate and correct it. Anyway, he was showing everyone his operation and by the way they talk, he must be built like a stud horse. They said they could cut half off then he’d still have more than the ordinary man. Anyway, the doctor won’t release him to go to work until he stops passing blood on account of the insurance.”

I’m not sure how his insurance was controlling his blood passing … and “a barrel of cans”? Maybe she meant “a can of barrels”? Is there even a difference? Regardless, it was always best not to overthink a crazy letter from Grandma.

‘Who garped in the pot?’

My family spends an inordinate amount of time talking about their “bowels.” Always have and always will. Whenever a group of the Indiana kinsfolk gathers, the discussion invariably heads in that direction … usually sooner than later. All it takes is for someone to blurt, “Oh, what a time I’ve had with my bowels!” and suddenly it’s an Activia commercial on steroids. These days, the bowel-fixated standard-bearers are my parents and my Uncle Bernie and Aunt Mae. These are all well-educated people … sitting around talking about their bowels for hours at a time. It’s grotesquely fascinating. But what’s truly scary is that as I get older, I’m beginning to feel I could add something meaningful to the discussion.

If an outsider or two happens into one of these conversations either by choice (their fault) or not (still their fault), it helps to have a working knowledge of the lingo before wading into the conversational cesspool. For example, “pot” is not something you smoke: It’s a universal term for any sort of toilet bowl fixture or a bathroom itself, and you can use it as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb … you name it: “He went to the pot.” “I hav’ta go pot.” “All they had were them porta-potty pots.” A “winder” is an unproductive fart (usually, but not always, a good thing). A “crack” is a loud fart with more treble than bass. “The shoots” is projectile diarrhea. And although “bowels” technically refers to the plumbing south of the stomach, my family uses the word loosely to refer to any (dys)function of the digestive system. So “garp” – a favored word for “puke” or “vomit” – is a bowel issue. Once, at a family gathering, I actually heard the phrase, “All right, who garped in the pot?!!” announced loudly. Thank you, Aunt Mae.

As I mentioned, the family’s current generations are doing a fine job of keeping the bowel-discussion “movement” going. Although they’ve had moments of pure genius – “garped in the pot” was a real pole-raiser – the undisputed potty-mouth champion was Grandma. Here are a few of her many bowel updates. In a previous post, I noted that Grandma’s letters often contained material unsuitable for the dinner table. Well, the following falls firmly into that category – consider yourselves warned. I guess I also should remind you that Grandma was a large woman … she didn’t move very fast. That might help explain a couple of these … maybe.

“Hello Iowa! Mammy want to write so much and take up all your extra time reading, but you know me – I’m loose on both ends.”


 “I had that pork from Jean’s last night, and I think that’s the darn stuff that gives me the shoots. I woke up this morning with such a headache and after I got up, I started with loose bowels and what a mess. I didn’t make it to the bathroom once in time, and now I’ve got such a backache from cleaning it up.”



“I got my stomach in a heck of a mess. My mouth is so sore from garping, I can’t wear my lowers.”



“Yesterday was my weigh-in day and I lost 6 pounds this time. I told the doctor that wouldn’t of happened if I hadn’t been like a goose for over a week. The doctor said it was a virus, but where in the heck did I pick up a bug like that and why don’t anyone catch it from me? It’s been 10 days and I still can’t trust a winder.”



“I had to get medicine yesterday for my bowels. I’ve had a shitting good time. What a mess. Ran clear down in my shoes.”

Like I said … maybe.

Odd stories and odder observations

My maternal grandmother died Aug. 25, 1984. She was 83. She lived most of her life in a small town in northwest Indiana that was, and probably still is, much like Mayberry from “The Andy Griffith Show.” The Mayberry comparison extended to my grandpa, the town marshal. He was also the fire chief, garbage man, meter reader, mailman and anything else that needed done. Like Sheriff Taylor, he was an affable and polite guy. Grandma was a different story: nothing like any Mayberry character. More like Mama from “The Carol Burnett Show” and “Mama’s Family,” only larger and sassier.

After my parents married in 1954, they settled in northwest Iowa. From then until Grandma died, my mom and my grandma wrote to each other at least monthly. That’s a lot of letters, and Grandma always had an interesting way of putting things.

The day a letter from Grandma arrived was an event in our household. Mom or Dad would often read the letter to us over dinner, which was occasionally a bad idea: In Grandma’s world, no topic was off limits and she delighted in including every stomach-churning detail with certain subjects (usually something to do with her “bowels”).

Fortunately, my dad had the foresight to keep some of her more entertaining letters. “Crazy Letters From Grandma” is a collection of her odd stories and even odder insights over those 30 years.