weight

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.

Advertisements

‘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.