grandparents

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.

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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.

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 …

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

HOWARD SHE IS YOURS. GOD BLESS YOU BOTH. MOTHER AND FATHER LOWRY

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

‘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.”

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.