Grandma’s letter writing

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 … “

“STOP YER YAMMERIN’ PRIVATE, AND TELL US WHO MARY FROM INDIANA IS!”

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!”

“Your 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!”

“LOUDER!”

“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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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?]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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

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

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 “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.”

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 “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.”

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

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 “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 …

‘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.”