medaryville

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 …

Advertisements

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.

‘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.

‘Worse than a disease that’s incurable’

1970s, Grandma

As for most of us, getting old was one of Grandma’s archenemies. She accepted its inevitability, but that didn’t mean she cared for it one bit. In her letters, she took every opportunity to express her disgust with everything that came with advanced age. She also had little sympathy for everyone growing old right along with her – their getting old was their problem, not hers. And in her final year, she took Dylan Thomas‘ advice and showed no intention of going “gentle into that good night.”

After Grandpa died in 1974, Grandma and their youngest child Ellie, who had Down syndrome, continued to live in their home in Medaryville, Indiana. After Aunt Ellie died in 1977, Grandma would come to Iowa and stay part of most years with us. With Grandma around, my mom often complained about having another ornery kid in the house – although this “kid” was a sharp-tongued, practical-joking senior citizen who saw the opportunity for dirty play in every card game, even if it meant cheating her grandkids. We caught her most times … she was a determined but poor card cheat.

Grandma described living with us in a letter to my Aunt Mae:

“This family is the goingest family I ever saw. Carol works in the mornings, plays bridge Thursday afternoons, gets the boys to ballgames, runs to the store, gets meals ready, tonight there’s a party here for Howard’s customers, supper out another night for his employees, Monday afternoon is her PEO Christmas party here and what else is coming up, I don’t know. The world just buzzes around me, and I do as I please.”

During Grandma’s last stay with us, her heart landed her in the hospital twice. Her first “spell” happened on a Christmastime evening. It started with Mom asking me to help her in Grandma’s room. Grandma was a plus-sized woman and, as she got older, she occasionally needed some help getting out of her chair. Sometimes it took two of us pulling on both sides with Grandma huffin’ and puffin’ and cussin’ the whole way up. But when I got to her room this time, Grandma was in her chair with her head slumped to her chest, unconscious and panting for air. My mom, a registered nurse, was kneeling next to her with her stethoscope to Grandma’s chest. She calmly told me to call 911. A great thing about living in a small rural town: A paramedic heard the call on her scanner, grabbed her medic bag, ran down the street and was at our front door almost before I’d hung up with the 911 operator. It took the ambulance another 60 seconds to arrive. Slow pokes.

The next evening, while my brother and I were visiting Grandma in the hospital, she mentioned how annoyed she was with the monitor beeping out her every heartbeat. She had an idea: “Let’s see if I can get that infernal racket to stop.” She took a big gulp of air and held her breath. At first, we thought she’d just hold her breath for a few seconds and let it out … joke over. But she continued, and the beeps from the heart monitor were indeed slowing! Only after we yelled at her to knock it off did she finally take another breath and start cackling. Besides practical jokes, gallows humor was another of her specialties.

A second heart episode followed three months later. Grandma was in her room knitting while my parents and some friends were playing cards in the kitchen (yeah, we play a lot of cards). Suddenly, a loud “THUD!” came from the direction of Grandma’s room. Everyone rushed back to find her on the floor, flat on her back and seemingly unconscious. Someone said, “Call 911!” My dad knelt next to her, and noticed she wasn’t breathing and her complexion changing quickly to a very dark shade of purple.

“Forget the ambulance,” he said. “I’m afraid we need to call the funeral home this time.”

No sooner had he said this than Grandma gasped loudly, opened her eyes and, like that, she was back among the living. After another short stay in the hospital, she was back at our home, knittin’ afghans and mittens, and cheatin’ death and card players.

Early that summer, Grandma had recovered enough to make the return trip to Indiana. She died a few months later. The news of her death was something I was prepared to hear. After her heart episodes with us, it seemed just a matter of time before she’d have an unrecoverable event. Still, when Mom told me she’d died, the first thought that crossed my suddenly numbed mind was, “Are you sure?”

Here are a few of her written opinions and observations about getting old, death and proper denture care:

“Those old farts from the center took two buses and went to the state fair Sunday. They were in wheelchairs and using canes. I could just see someone pushing me around in a wheelchair. They’d say, ‘Mary, give it up!’ Old age is worse than a disease that’s incurable.”

______________________________________

 

“The strawberry patch is loaded, but I can’t pick them. I tried hoeing around the tomatoes, and now I’m pooped. I also tried pulling some weeds, and I see I can’t do that either. I guess I’d just as well give up and sit the rest of my life out. But I’m like an old bull … I keep trying.”

______________________________________

 

“I must of caught Lynn’s cold, and I’ve really had a siege of it. Can’t get my breath and at times I cough so hard, I began writing my obit. Now today, I have an appointment to have my head put back in place.”

______________________________________

 

“Everyone’s going to Indy this weekend and seems like they think I could go too, but taking two Lasix a day and with the pot in the basement there, I’d never make it and I don’t think my heart would take it either. So if anyone wants to see me, they know where I live.”

______________________________________

 

“Well, I must stop now. I have to find a couple flashlights and help your dad in the garden. He was bent over pulling weeds and his teeth must a fell out of his shirt pocket without his noticing. Now it’s dark out and he can’t find them. The old fool needs to keep them in his mouth where they belong!”


Besides not wearing his dentures, Grandpa also had a hearing aid that spent more time out of his ear than in it. I assume the low audio quality, discomfort and bulkiness of hearing aids from that era affected how often Grandpa used his. I also suspect that not using it was a convenient way to amplify his selective listening with Grandma.

By picking out the few words he thought he heard, he could fake his way through many conversations with well-timed nods of the head and grunts of understanding. That approach also left him open to some spectacular misunderstandings: One summer day when my cousin Rhonda was at their house, Grandma asked her to tell Grandpa that an alert on TV just said a funnel cloud was heading in their direction. Grandpa was outside admiring the garden, so Rhonda went out on the front steps and yelled, “Grandpa! There’s a tornado coming here!” Grandpa looked up at her and yelled back, “Oh, I think the tomatoes are doing great this year!”

Death from peculiar cause … or ‘They did what with what?’

In one of her letters, Grandma had included a newspaper clipping about her grandfather’s “peculiar” death. Naturally, it’s bowel-related. I don’t know that the cause of his death is nearly as peculiar as the failed treatment. Two things to consider from this story: 1) It took three doctors to devise the “novel” treatment approach (is that somewhat impressive or freakishly scary?) and 2), on the list of 101 things to do with a bicycle tire air pump, this should place no better than No. 118:

Pulaski County Democrat, Thursday, Sept. 19, 1907

Death From Peculiar Cause

The death of George Guild, the Medaryville liveryman, occurred Tuesday morning from a somewhat unusual cause. Last Thursday, just after sliding to the ground from a load of hay, he complained a little of straining something in his bowels. The pain grew more severe through that night, and his family summoned Dr. Linton Friday morning. A day later, he called Dr. Clayton of Monon in consultation, and Sunday evening, he called Dr. George Thompson of Winamac. At that time, the man was very low. He had been suffering intense pain, no action of the bowels had been obtained since the injury and he was nearly pulseless. The physicians agreed a telescoping of the bowel was the trouble, but the man was so low, an operation would mean sure death from the anesthetic. They adopted a somewhat novel treatment – a tube 2 feet long and air pressure from a bicycle tire pump – as the only resort that could give relief. It proved successful – they secured proper action of the bowels and, with it, ease for the patient. But he had sunk so low that exhaustion coupled with a heart weakness that had affected him for years resulted in his death. A post-mortem examination disclosed the exact accuracy of the diagnosis: The treatment referred to had straightened the tangled bowel, but its discoloration and other marks showed where it had been locked. Mr. Guild was 62.

I suppose there are more-undignified ways to go other than with a bicycle tire air pump up your derriere. Nothing leaps to mind, but I suppose …

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.