My oldest son was born late March, 1968.  A fairly easy birth, the first contractions commencing  a little after K-Mart closed while I was hula-hooping in its parking lot on Minnesota Avenue in Sioux Falls.  Now a Hy-Vee, a backdrop for other businesses–a bar, paint stores,  a kiddie daycare.

His father and I, almost the last to leave.  Not sure when but it felt like midnight.  Besides last minute baby supplies, for the due date was soon, I purchased a hula-hoop with which to exercise after the baby was born.  With those leaving the store herding for their cars, not paying attention to me, I decided that I would try out the hula hoop, just to see if I could make my immense belly swirl enough to twirl that hoop. But after the second or the third swirl, the buttons on my winter coat catching every once-in-a-while my mini movements in infinity, those noticeable contractions that then I thought were Braxton Hicks, prevented another lame attempt. Prior to that time, I felt invincible, capable of immense feats.

At first I thought the contractions false, for the due date, some two weeks away; but at 3 am that next morning, there was no doubt I was in the early stages of labor. I considered my last burst of energy in the parking lot a pregnant woman’s frenetic cleaning attempt that often occurs prior to labor.

His father and I lived on South Western Avenue, a nice two-bedroom bungalow without a basement, now a chiropractor’s office. At that time women were kept close to a week in the hospital after giving birth.  During that time, I tried to nurse, but my son was always hungry. The nurses, who were coaching me about how to nurse my child, attempted to console me, saying that once I returned home, the stress would lessen, and I should be able to satisfy my child.  At home he was still hungry, crying almost constantly.  I thought my heart would break.  He might be colicky, I thought, as I often heard infants were.  But no more than a week after his birth I supplemented my breast milk with formula: then the crying and fussiness eased.

That inability to provide sustenance to my child left me feeling inadequate, shrunken and shriveled. But before I relinquished my attempt to become a natural mother, someone I called at the hospital referred me to a Lamaze specialist.  I tried so hard, following her phone instructions as if they were biblical injunctions; but his crying prevented me from even considering lasting another day without resorting to formula.  My doctor at the time tried to offer a viable medical explanation, one that I repeated to another; but when that person’s expression slowly became nonplussed, I furtively avoided further inquiries from those who I thought considered formula a choice, mumbling something regarding the inconvenience of breast feeding whenever someone broached the subject.  But I did want an excuse, something that would reignite in me some sense of motherhood.  But I blame my deficiency on the binding of my breasts in Oklahoma when milk gushed through the tight gauze and fell not on swollen infant lips.



I’m not sure of the exact date or even the month, but it had to be at the beginning of 1973, not yet spring, as spring comes in rural South Dakota, cold chill rising off the melting ice.  I hibernated then in winter, seldom stepping outside except for musts, feeding chickens and horses, and what not; and especially did not then with three little children, two screaming around me, their paths like deer tracks to the barn; the third, blanketed in cotton.  Putting snow suits on the three- and four-year-olds while keeping the baby warm inside meant constant vigil at the south windows where the two were told they always had to be in sight; and a quick run outdoors if any one of them fell or ran off to chase one of the dogs.

It was a late or early Saturday afternoon, or early evening, but the traditional Catholic times for sinners to contemplate confession.  I can still see my husband in a para-military stance, although he never was in the military, framed in the opening between the kitchen and the dining room.  That early spring, he was bathed in light from the afternoon sun softly warming the kitchen through the west window, enough light for me to witness the expression on his face, that note of disgust, those hooded eyes that peered at me. Righteous indignation, I suppose one could call it.  I was sitting at a chair on the north side of the round oak, claw-footed kitchen table.  On a bentwood chair to be exact.  I know for I refinished them, sanded the curved  dowels, re-glued the ones necessary, stained them light oak and varnished.  I left them when I left him.  I left most everything else, but should have taken refectory table that my father refinished, even though the ex paid $100 from a local seller for it.

The baby’s stroller was always by my side, not only to keep an eye on him but to keep him safe from the poking fingers of his older brother and sister, ages three and two.  I had found an old baby carriage, one that an English nurse might still be using, or someone from the 50s, at a garage sale–black with springs that the slightest touch would coo-coo him back to sleep.

With the not yet able-to-walk baby in my arms, bottle-feeding him, I told my-then husband I wasn’t going to go to confession because the baby was sick, the youngest of three. All three were born within a four-year span, interrupted only by my teeny-weensy bout with cervical cancer, caused by an IUD.  Any fever, a cough, anything from the baby, I watched continuously.  At the age of three months, he spent a week in Mayo Clinic to be treated for dehydration, the result of projectile vomiting–the flu.  Prior he spent a week in Sioux Valley Hospital.  I was told that the flu had caused his intestines to be stripped.  The day we brought him home from the Sioux Valley, the vomiting began again. The pediatrician wanted us to admit him once again to Sioux Valley. I insisted that we go to Mayo.  He weighed a pound less than he did when he was born.

The doctor made arrangements, my husband made living arrangements for me in a boarding house across from Mayo.  I called my parents in Iowa and asked them to drive the 180 miles up from Manilla, Iowa, to Sioux Falls and take the other two children back with them.  I had called my husband’s parents who lived in Sioux Falls first to request  that they watch him. My mother-in-law, my husband’s stepmother, refused to take the two, saying something to the effect that she and my father-in-law decided prior to their marriage not to babysit grandchildren.  Their refusal at this time of need has always bothered me.  Yet, for most of the grandparents’ lives, my children favored my ex-husband’s parents more than mine.  I should think that had to do with proximity, but I doubt it. It had to do with their false displays of affection, not the tough exterior of my parents whose lives depended upon the ability to endue hardship.

Late that morning the folks arrived. They didn’t stay the night, and headed right back with the children, only to be stopped by a blizzard near Sloan. Thank goodness, they had friends in Sloan who took in them and my children.  The folks were running the Shelby County Farm then, so I assume, although I don’t know for sure, that my older brother fed the seventeen residents.

Standing in the opening between the kitchen and dining room, my husband told me I was sinful and needed to confess.  Perhaps he wanted a transformation, for since the birth of my youngest, our marriage was deteriorating.  And of course, as women in the late 60s and early 70s understood and lived, the survival of a marriage depended upon the wife.  To be barefoot, blackandblue, and pregnant was something not just bandied about as a joke; some wives endured it. Pregnancy for me. Being barefoot in the summer time was my choice.

We lived on a farm, some eight miles out of the city of Sioux Falls, having moved there after the second youngest was born.  My husband had his business in town, and I spent the days taking care of the two children, gardening in the summer time, boarding horses for others. When my water broke in the early afternoon in August, I was chasing geese, having sold them to Red Kimball, an elderly farmer who lived a half mile south.  Red was concerned, for he comprehended the situation.  I urged him to go home, that I would be all right.  I first called my doctor, who urged me to be there as soon as possible. Then I called my husband who said he couldn’t come right then, for he had a salesman in the office.  I called the neighbor girl who came to stay with the children and drove myself into Sioux Falls, to my husband’s business; and then he took me to the hospital.  Face, I suppose, face.

That I gave in that night and rode the eight miles in the car with my husband to kneel in confession didn’t make much difference.  What was sin to me then was that I had already decided that I was going to divorce him.  I decided on the day that my youngest was born that August of the preceding year.He was a fussy baby, always crying during the night, and I was always tired during the day.  Sometimes my husband would walk him around the house jiggling him asleep. I suppose colicky, one could call it; but I think then it had more to do with the extreme swaddling Mayo Clinic nurses and doctors did.


During the last week I lived in North Dakota, I had my hair dyed, knowing that once I moved, it would take time to find someone I would trust to color my hair. That day I showed some pictures of my mom to two beauticians: one, the owner of the salon, the other, coloring my hair.  I was bragging about Mom’s hair, coal black hair even into her 70s, hair that once was long enough for the immense  blackness to sooth her like a shawl.  Any gray that threaded into her hair slowly over the years was a soft, rain-cloud gray.

I complained about the fact that my gray hair is as white as snow, so white that while visiting my older brother during a time my hair was in dire need to be colored, my brother, who has difficulty with his eyesight, mistook the whiteness for scalp.  He expressed his sorrow that I was losing so much of my once beautiful hair.

I have lost fullness to my hair, some coarseness too, both absences that continuously threaten my view of self.  I retreat, avoid looking in mirrors even more than I have in the past.  I stare at the beautiful hair of other women.  I become ashamed of all my nakedness.

As a teenager, rolling my hair was almost a daily occurrence, especially during the months of school.  During my senior year, and I don’t remember what month, but it must have been somewhat cold, for I remember the red-orange glow of a fire in the oil stove that sat in the middle of the north side of the living room, a little ways from the television that we often rolled  from place to place but at that time sat across from the sofa fairly close to the north wall.  Someone must have brought me back home after a school event, for I wasn’t allowed to drive, or I had a date.  It wasn’t that late; but there was school the next day, and I had to set my hair.  So a glass of water, a rat-tail comb and rollers while I sat on the sofa and watched television, after having turned it down low.

The folks’ bedroom was a small room off to the right; the door to the room open slightly to hear bumps in the night, a crying little brother, an animal in distress.  A man and a woman were arguing on the television.  For some reason I think the program was gangster-type, such as ones in which Peter Lorre starred.  The woman was passive, of course, as usual.  I remember Mom standing in the doorway of the folks’ bedroom looking at me.  I don’t remember if I said anything at all; but Mom did say, “Hurry up, and get to bed,” or something similar.

A few days later I overhead Mom talking on the phone to one of her friends.  I’m pretty sure she didn’t know that I was in the other room. Maybe homework, but usually I was reading something.  She said on the phone, “I thought to myself, “If that guy is going to talk to Karen like that, I’m going to give him a piece of my mind.'”

When I was in the 7th grade, the doctor told my mother that her headaches resulted from the weight of her hair, three huge braids on each side, coiled around one another like some sort of Celtic maze.  Once in a while she would call me to her side and ask if I would tuck in an errant coarse end of a braid, ends that sometimes looked like wires.  The number of  black hairpins, enough to choke a cow, she often said like an invocation. When she took down her braids, one at a time, the hairpins would slowly fill a cereal bowl like ants.  A hairpin every inch or so, especially to secure the curves in the braids.  Once in a while, she would bend back an end of a hairpin, I think to secure it better in the mass of hair.

Her thick, coarse hair did not make braiding difficult, as I  discovered.  Mom would part her hair down the back of the scalp, then break each section into three. When I got older, once in a while she would ask me to braid her washed, damp hair.  The wetter the hair, the tighter the braid.  Arms of farm women do become tired of all kinds the labor, and then again, having another touch one’s hair soothes the mind and soul.

As I braided first one and then the others in the summer or in the heat of the wood stove, to keep strands of hair wet enough to braid tight, I dipped a rat-tail comb in a glass of water and soaked the strands.

All of us at the county farm Gail teenager before 1976

I remember the day Mom came back from having her hair cut short, short enough for me to stare until the kitchen seemed to fill with regret.  I felt empty and lost. I can’t imagine what my mother felt.  I don’t remember where Mom first kept the braids after they were snipped off; more than likely on a high closet shelf in the folks’ bedroom, tucked in the back, out of sight.  I do know that when I came across them when I was older, when my fingertips touched them, they felt alive still, but the braids had lost some of their blackness. Mom’s headaches never went away.

In my sophomore year of high school, I’m not sure who convinced me to cut my hair; probably my aunt, my mother’s sister, whose own hair barely covered her ears.  During that summer, I waited tables for my aunt at the restaurant she ran in Irwin, Iowa.  I spent most of that entire embarrassing summer serving burgers and fries and making malts.  I hated my hair for over a year, until I was able to roll it once again in curls.

One other time another convinced me to cut my hair short. My soon-to-be first husband thought my hair was too long, so I cut it short for the wedding.

Jerry and Karen's wedding picture

After Mom cut her hair, at first she wound strands in pincurls, beginning at the crown, then curling around the head like a labyrinth.  It wasn’t until later that she resorted to rollers, the same that I use today. But because of its thickness, Mom’s hair held curls for a long time.  My fine hair flattens against the side of my head by mid-afternoon.

When one of the hairdressers saw that picture of my mother, all of us framed around the folks, she said, “Your mother must have some Indian in her, for she’s so dark.” That statement surprised me so, for I’ve been led to understand that Mom is as German as one could get–all German with a little French on a great-great grandfather side.  In response, I said that one of my uncles thought that originally the family was Jewish, pushed out of Russia during one of the pogroms that periodically purged Jewish people from small communities.  I’ve often contemplated such, that forced conversion to Lutheranism was often the way to avoid being uprooted from one’s home in 1800s.  If I ever have the time and the money, I would like to find out.  But that day in the salon, the word Jewish silenced the room. I don’t know why on their part, or even if that word did not cause any silence other than in my imagination or if the silence was the result of the tone of my voice.

It wasn’t until much later I realized why my mother looked so dark in that picture.  Mom had been suffering from problems with her liver, the result of a botched operation when she was in her early 40s and I was ten years old or so. She was losing weight and ill.  Some time later, she was operated on in the Harlen hospital, her ninth operation if I remember, and that problem went away.





I attended only one full-fledged Manilla class reunion, the 10-year reunion held at Cronk’s Cafe in Denison, Iowa.  1971 was four years after my first marriage, after two children, and one year before the final child.  Manilla High School was difficult for me, for more reasons than one.  I suppose one of the major ones was that I was an overweight teenager, a size 16; and anyone overweight then and now who did not have position in a community readily becomes an object to mock.  The other basic one is that I entered Manilla as a high-school junior, our family moving as most tenant farmers on  March 15 soon after the first spring thaw.  Most of my Manilla High classmates had established friendships already, and thus my becoming part of those groups would have taken an Iowa congressional act and many more social skills than I had at the time, and more than I have now.  I tend to avoid rather than to confront unless there is no escape, and then I panic.

Even though I have always struggled with my weight, in the intervening years between high-school graduation and the 10-year reunion, I had thinned down considerably, first down to a size 8, then after two children a year apart up to a size 12, until I hovered somewhere around a size 10.  Even though my husband had money, I was on an allowance of $15 a week for clothes and incidentals and other household items.  My husband bought the groceries and paid for any medical, but the fact that I thought I didn’t have any say about finances was because of my own meekness and stupidity.  A few weeks before I asked for a divorce he raised my allowance to $35 a week.  He retired at age 41 while I am still working, but as my mother would say, “It’s only money” and most of the time I would tend to agree.

For that reunion I made an outfit consisting of a white top with cute cap sleeves and shorts, an outfit classy enough to be one for a country club but with shorts barely long enough to be presentable.  I still had difficulty conversing, and of course since it was my high school reunion, any conversation then was up to me.

I don’t remember if at that reunion was Nancy Bruggeman, a Manilla classmate whose family owned Bruggeman’s, a store that Mom and we girls frequented even when we lived on the Bey place or near Botna while I attended Irwin. The store faced  south.  It was not one with a fancy marquee, but it always was a place to stop in on a Saturday when in town for groceries or during a walk up and down the main street while the folks enjoyed a beer at the Rusty Nail. Bruggeman’s I remember with its aisles and aisles of notions, thread, buttons, patterns, knickknacks, in small boxes, in rows and displays so crowded that moving around the store if there were two or more patrons at one time was difficult. There was a huge island in the center; and in rows on the left and right, on waist-high cupboards, were notions in boxes.  If I remember correctly, in front of each of the south windows, one on either side of the center front door were displays on both sides of the windows and under. Both windows let in the afternoon sun.  Whenever Mom, my younger sister and I entered, one or two or all, either Nancy or her mom visited. I don’t remember much laughter, if any; but there was always a cautious smile or two from her or her mom.  I’m not sure why.

Recently my older sister and I were talking about ledgers that Mom had left behind and, after Mom’s death, my sis now has.  In one of those gray, red vertical-lined ledgers are poems that Mom copied down that seem dedicated to my older sister’s father, Edward Lorenzen, who died in 1937 from tuberculosis:  Lorenzen Edward 1937.  The operation to remove lobes of both of his lungs was the third of its kind in the United States ever to be performed in an attempt to save someone from the ravaging effects of TB.

When I was a young adult, for some reason I had discovered the ledgers in the attic of the house in Manilla and read the love poems, thinking at the time that they were originals of Mother’s, but I don’t think so now.  Mom became angry at me for reading them.  My older sister said that also in one of those ledgers Mom had copied down songs from the Hit Parade radio show that she listened to every Saturday night. We both think how curious that behavior was of hers.  Mom was not much for sharing thoughts.  Any feelings that she had she mostly kept to herself.  Also in those ledgers are details as to what occurred to her and my older sis after Edward had died.  In them Mom kept accounts of every nickle and dime and penny that she spent for groceries and other items.  My “old sis,” as she calls herself, says that she will make copies of a few of those pages and send them to me.

I can’t imagine how tough it was then in the late 30s to be a twenty-three year-old single woman with a five-year old child in the midst of the Great Depression and not to have any resources for income.  Money was scarce and, as those ledgers documented, every penny was carefully accounted for.  That Mom often worked for room and board during that time before she married my father also meant that my older sister had to be taken care of by others.

The 5 and dime store, Bruggeman’s, the place where 5 cents could buy a skein of embroidery thread, if it were in existence during the Depression, would have been a godsend to anyone who lived on pennies.  I know that for a period of time after Edward died, Mom and my older sister lived in an apartment above a corner store, which I believe was a block north of the current Manilla post office.  I do know that when I was growing up in the 50s the little items in Bruggeman’s that lined shelves, hung from hooks on pegs, stuck in corners, in tiny boxes and in huge ones also fascinated me.  I loved to go through the embroidery patterns and the many colors of thread, which was on the west side of the center island, down towards the bottom.  At Bruggeman’s I would buy embroidery thread and sometimes patterns.  At times Mom would draw a pattern on white pillowcases or tea towels in a pencil and I would create fields of flowers or embroider initials to claim ownership.

In that conversation with my older sis, she told me that Mother’s embroidery was impeccable, both sides of any design on any cloth mirroring the other.  I knew that my dad’s mom’s embroidery was like that, but I never knew that Mom’s was also.  I remember mostly Mom crocheting doilies  or sewing.  I do know that I never truly learned the art of embroidery, never was able to craft daisies and daffodils on one side of pillowcase that swayed on the other as it billowed on the clothes line.

Whenever anyone entered Bruggeman’s, a little bell at the top of the door rang, and either my classmate Nancy or her mother would emerge from the back.  I don’t know where they lived then.  More than likely in the back of the store. I never really knew too much about her, nor do I know where she is now.  I do know that of all of my Manilla classmates, she is one of the few that I remember.

Chenille Bedspreads

Poverty alters minds, creates in those immobile beneath its weight a focus on minutiae, wasting not while still wanting, discovering through trial and error some means to obtain a little more use for a little longer time. Poverty bemoans loss but eventually it acquiesces to the limitations imposed on it.  It scrapes out the tiniest bit of peanut butter, rinses the dregs out of a can of beans and pours that also in the soup.  When one is impoverished, after each meal leftovers are transferred from one container to a smaller and smaller one until what remains become inedible or devoured.  Hand-basting patches on jeans before sewing, my mother taught was a skill to be envied, like embroidering a pillowcase so the designs on both sides were indistinguishable.

Most impoverished become immune to desire.  There are levels of course, levels based on age and duration, on experiences or lack of them, on family cultures, on propaganda that the suffering of the impoverished induces a kind of holiness similar to Christ on the cross. But one thing to be sure, those who are not impoverished would not change their positions with those impoverished, and those impoverished, not with the destitute, the ones with packs on their backs and minds unable to filter nonsense from sense, the ones sleeping in alleys or curled in laundromats for anything in the world.  Poverty is a curse to most, even to those who fight the devil faithfully to the end of the month.

I didn’t realize until late that we were that poor, certainly not as poor as a of few high-school classmates.  The sparseness of their homes echoed: patched crazy quilts covered beds that sagged in the middle, army blankets peeked out from underneath, but most all were immaculate, even the cracked porcelain squeaky clean.  Everything was in its place, for if not, once undone, that facade would tumble down what remains. I remember feeling so sorry for one of my high-school classmates as she expressed her shame at the poverty of her family.  The bleak gray interior with the wallpaper torn in places, the railings up the staircase wobbly, the lack of warmth in the home. It was the first time I compared what our family had to those who had less.

Commodity peanut butter and flour I thought were leftovers that all could have, but Mom was lucky enough to be there first when they were handed out.   Flour sacks became dishtowels, and old chenille bedspreads became dishcloths.  In fact, the white or peach or lavender chenille desired more for they brought a little color into the kitchen.

When chenille bedspreads became worn enough, the edges tearing away from the hem, Mom would cut them into foot squares, finger-press them to whip-stitch the edges so that they would not fray, to look somewhat like store bought.  If the folks visited, a handful of them cut would be in her tiny suitcase.  While watching television, Mom would take a needle and some white thread and hem a few.  Once in a while I even joined in.  Sometimes neighbors and relatives would give Mom old chenille bedspreads.  Mom would stitch and give them some in exchange.  And we children were never without them in our home, until many years after her death.

E. H. . . . .

When E. H. and his parents moved to Harlen, E. H. cleaned cars for a car dealership. I was told that he was a perfectionist, digging out the errant crumb between car seats, making sure that consoles shone, that white walls of tires were like new.

Like his mother, E. H.  was stubborn, of those times I witnessed, sometimes clashing with his mother on basic issues–whether he could go somewhere, if he should see someone or not, take out the garbage. Usually his mother won and E. H. would storm out, angry at the injustice of it all, his face crunched in an expression of frustration.  But not the issue regarding a girlfriend.  E. H. won that battle, even though the girlfriend and E. H.’s mother seldom encountered each other.  His mother thought that all the woman wanted from E. H. was what little money he had.

Small towns breed information like weeds.  Some sprout in crevasses and remain there; some infuse the entire garden and destroy whatever can be harvested. What a son or a daughter or a neighbor did the night before usually makes its way to parents quickly and easily, especially if the parents are well known and even if the information is embellished or slanted.

After his father died, but before his oldest brother passed away, as E. H.’s mother aged, she wanted someone she could trust to take care of her and her son. Three of her other children had died: a child in infancy, a daughter,  and her second oldest son, who had suffered brain damage after being assaulted on the streets in Las Vegas.  She turned to my older sister, her ex-daughter-in-law.  E. H.’s mother sold her house in Harlen and bought a one-story home right across the street from my sister in Kalispell where for the next few years both E. H. and his mother lived.

The  bridge between my mother and E. H.’s mother was maintained even after my mother died. One of my mother’s brothers drove both E. H. and his mother to Montana, helping them become situated in their new home, and it so happened that I was visiting my sister at the same time that they arrived. I was surprised that my uncle helped in the move, but I must say that E. H.’s parents knew most everyone too in the small area in and around Harlen.

That weekend when my uncle and E. H. and his mother arrived, when I was in my 50s, was the first time that I found out that as a child I had an invisible playmate.  I was setting the table for lunch and my uncle was helping in his own way, when he said to me, “You’d better set a plate for Mr. Deetz.”  I said, “Who’s he?” All looked at me, my sister, E. H.’s mother, and of course my uncle.  Then he said, “Don’t you remember your imaginary friend, Mr. Deetz?”  He continued to tell me that until I was five or so, at every meal, I had to have a plate set for Mr. Deetz at the table.  I guess I was so explicit as a child when I told anyone about him, for my uncle said that he was tall and thin and wore overalls.

For quite a few years, my sister has been married to someone whom we all like, a kind, considerate man, and that someone also helped with transitioning both the mother and the son from one culture to another. He took E. H. and her son places, repaired things that needed done. For the next few years, there was consistent traffic between the two homes.  Four of my sister’s five children live in and around Kalispell, and they also spent time with their father’s mother and brother: meals at others’ homes, holidays, camping in Glacier, huckleberry and blueberry picking.  And when E. H.’s mother became ill, all came to her aid.

E. H.’s mother seldom mentioned the deaths of her children in my presence, but I assume, and I hope, that she and my mother and my older sister shared confidences. It would have been tough to have suffered all of those deaths and be silent.  In that way she was like my mother, hoarding memories as if they were gold, afraid of airing them especially to those who would not  have the slightest inkling of the emotional underpinnings.  Besides not doing so saves emotional energy.

But Kalispell was not Harlen, and after his mother died some years later of cancer, E. H. moved back to Harlen where once again he cleaned cars, rode his motorcycle, and dated.  My older sister arranged that an old family friend of E. H.’s parents helped E. H. with whatever he needed, eye appointments, groceries, housing, a friend that is still helping E. H. during his final stages of life.

After E. H. was discharged from the hospital after being diagnosed with leukemia, he couldn’t understand what was happening to him, even though I’m sure many tried to inform him why he was sick.  I can’t imagine what it would be like not to be able to hear and speak, not to read well enough to understand what is going on, but still to be conscious of changes in one’s body, to be essentially alone in this world, without means and agency, to depend solely upon the will of others.  Like most of us, E. H. possesses the ability to feel pain, loss, joy.  He understands death, for at this time E. H. was the only one left in his family, his oldest brother dead from alcoholism.

In Harlen, the man to whom my sister entrusted with E. H.’s care, to guide him, make sure that he had enough spending money, that his bills were paid, picked up E. H. from the hospital.  There were adjustments to be made, but still E. H. struggled to understand what was happening to him, demanding answers, more than likely by persistent gesturing, by repeating vocalizations.

But this man instinctively knew what must be done, even though I’m sure he weighed the consequences.  One afternoon, he took E. H. for a ride, driving by this place and that.  They wound up at a cemetery near Harlen. There he stopped the car and through the windshield, he pointed to the graves, the variety of stones immobile in the cold autumn wind; and then he looked over at E. H. and gestured at E. H. to indicate that he too will lie there.

That moment we will all face, sometime a second before death; sometime we will have immense warning but death too soon sneaks upon us.  From that point on, it’s the decay of hope, the demise of experience, the beginning of acceptance or rage.

E. H. . . .

The relationship between the folks and E. H.’s parents  went back many years.  The origin, I have no idea, but early in their lives, they became fast friends and remained so until their deaths. The fathers dying first, then Mom, and the E. H.’s mother.

People in small communities never venture too far in any one direction.  The art and skill of creating lasting friendships are attributes of most who remain in rural areas, both I wish I had developed, even though I love the culture and the anonymity of living in a large city. Most of the time, the opinions of others were tolerated, if they were said at all.  Of my mother’s nine brothers and sisters, only one left southwestern Iowa, moved to Washington State and operated a fruit farm; of my father’s five brothers and sisters, one married locally but soon after she and her husband moved to California.

During the 30s and 40s,  if no work could be found, some men, like my father and my uncles, hired themselves out to ranchers and farmers, harvesting wheat throughout the upper Midwest, down as far as Kansas, west to Montana and up into Canada.  They rode the rails, hitched if they could, and walked long stretches of road when no one would give them a lift. Two of my mother’s brothers met North Dakota women while working in this state where I now live and brought the women back as brides to Iowa.

My older sister, eleven years older than I, remembers as a child being in the backseat of a car with me as a baby and the E. H.’s parents’ three children; her future husband, one of them.  All had driven to Corley, Iowa, to visit my dad’s sister and her husband, Goldie and George.

E. H.’s parents were always present in our lives.  Sometimes they might not see each other for a month or so, but whenever they could, lots of catching up and companionship.  E. H.’s mother chattered, and not really about insignificant things; when E. H.’s parents were around, Mom became livelier. Dad and E. H.’s father visited, not sure what about, but both seemed to enjoy the topics of conversation.  The folks went to dances with them all over the region, played endless games of double-deck pinochle late into the night, drank Budweiser and sometimes harder stuff at each other’s place.  If E. H.’s parents happen to drive in when others were visiting, they were welcomed.

The giving wasn’t always on one side, as so often happened to Mom when she cooked meals for anyone who stopped by, and then before the company left, gave them not only leftovers but sometimes garden vegetables, canned goods and meat.  E. H.’s parents reciprocated equally with my folks. It’s not that they were poor as were the folks; they  had some extra that they put aside for investments and apparently they invested wisely.

Until they retired and moved to Harlen, E. H.’s parents ran a grocery store in a nearby small town; the father was also the postmaster for that small community. In and around other towns dotted the landscape a few miles from each other as still are most small towns throughout Iowa.  Denison, some 14 miles from Manilla; Irwin, a seven mile jog from Manilla; Kirkman a little over seven south of Irwin; Harlen, 17 miles south of Kirkman, but to drive there one can either pass through Red Line or drive down Hwy. 59 and wave at Earling and Westphalia in the distance. Whenever I would go home or Mom and I visited on the phone, she would always insert some tidbit of news about this family and that one–who’s been sick, deaths, so-and-so’s son or daughter’s marriage.  Now I recognize only a few names.  It’s not that those with the traditional family names have all moved away; it’s that I’ve forgotten.

E. H.’s parents’ grocery store was like similar stores in very small towns, a few shelves with staples, sundry items, uneven pine floors. In my home town of Manilla, Tiny’s Grocery recently closed their doors.  Bruggeman’s, a five-and-dime store, left a long time ago.  There’s no Olson Produce, no place to eat, except what a bar can fix, frozen food microwaved most of the time.

After school at E.H.’s parents grocery store, kids would stop and purchase candy, some of which were single items in glass containers.  In the back of the store there was a living space.  There the folks and E. H.’s parents played a few games of pinochle if there was a lull in the business, which there often was.

The post office was on the east wall across from the grocery counter with its cash register that pinged loudly whenever someone purchased something. The office was a separate structure built of oak set out from the wall, somewhat in the center of the store.  The door was on the left; and in the wall facing the grocery counter, there was an opening through which E. H.’s father would hand mail to a customer or take a package.  That opening contained metal bars, and it was shuttered up and the structure locked at night.  We kids could never mess with anything in the post office or in the store.

E. H.’s parents lived in a nice home within walking distance in that small town.  I remember marveling how pretty and spacious it was, such a contrast to our own: knick-knacks, doilies, a dining table without oil cloth, built-in bookcases between pillars, even open stairs to rooms upstairs.  For most of my memories of the store and of their home, my older sister was not around.  She was either in high school or had left to work in Washington, D.C., or she had moved with with her husband to wherever he was stationed.

E. H. during all these years did what most other young people did.  As he matured, he developed close relationships.  Dad and Mom could visit with E. H., understand in part his individualistic sign language.  I never could, but I’m sure my older brother and sister can understand what he’s saying most of the time. As a family, who is not related to him, is now helping E. H. during his final months, and they have been over the years. Others looked out for him, finding him work when they could.

E. H. . .

A couple of months ago, E. H., the youngest son of one of my parents’ friends, was diagnosed with Leukemia, a fairly advanced stage, with the only possible cure a bone marrow transplant. E. who lives in southwest Iowa is my oldest sister’s brother-in-law, a couple of years younger than she and nine years older than I.

A slight and skinny man, rail thin, with a face that has always seemed diminutive to me, this 79-year old man, cannot speak or hear.  And he was never taught standard sign language; from what I understand, a decision made by his parents.  Over the years, E. H. created personal hand gestures of his own that was accompanied by various sounds and he learned to read and write some.  His mother and father were friends of my parents long before my older sister and their oldest son married, a marriage that lasted until the children were grown.

E. H.’s oldest brother, my sister’s ex-husband, was a hard-drinking man during his years in the service and more so after he returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam.  After he and my oldest sister divorced, my sister eventually moved from what was their home on Flathead Lake to Kalispell.   After a drunken rampage during which her ex-husband shot and injured a man whom he thought was an intruder, my ex-brother-in-law moved from Montana back to his home town.  Years later, after he died, his children returned from Montana to help clean up the house and ready it and the contents for sale, but it was no use.  The building was in such sad shape that it had to be demolished. But there is so much more to the story.

I remember not being very old when E. H. first pestered me when his parents  came to visit  When he became a teenager with desires, I became the object of his somewhat ineffective and juvenile sexual intentions.  When I was four or so, playing in a sand box that my father had made north of the house, and E. H.  was age 13 or 14, E. H. would expose himself to me.   I would be frightened and run and hide.  Going to my mother and father was useless, for they understood that one doesn’t become upset with someone who has and always will have an immature mind. Even when I was adult, even during both of my marriages, E. H. would gesture to me as if he pleasuring himself.  At the same time he would rapidly point at me and back at himself to indicate we should make a connection.  I would shake my head no and walk away, which was often whenever he was around.


My grandma Snyder, my father’s mother, was 4’2″ tall, humpbacked from scoliosis of the spine, not from falling off a tightrope, as she often whispered when asked by one of us grandkids.  Not that she couldn’t have, for according to family historians, which really mean family gossips, her relatives were Hammond Circus trapeze artists who died in an Indiana train wreck in 1918.  I would try this genetic disposition out more than once by attempting to walk barefoot up the steel cable that braced the grandparents’ yard light, traversing the cable lengthwise through my instep and grasping it with my toes, but it never failed that after a few feet or so, I either fell or froze such, weaving back and forth, that I had to be helped down.

Grandma was very soft-spoken, so soft-spoken that we grandchildren had to be quiet to listen to her.  The radio was seldom on, and of course there was no television.  In her house, on a sofa in the living room, we grandchildren played games–button-button, the most popular.  But outlandish noise, no.  All had to be done with respect to silence and the unsaid.

Grandma’s other version was that a horse kicked her.  That also could have been true, but I doubt it, considering my father’s propensity to tell tall tales, something that he surely inherited from his father and that was probably shared by his mother.  Then, true stories were banded back and forth between adults, if they were aired at all.  We grandchildren had to listen behind closed doors, but if caught, from then on, we could only hear the sounds of barnyard animals snorting for position and nudging open waterers and feeders.

Grandma’s presence was one that inspired awe.  We grandchildren measured the depth of our maturity by our height in comparison to hers.  Her words golden, but she could wedge kindling in the fire pit of the kitchen’s wood stove and not be burned.  When she hooked the cast iron lever into the lid, she did not grasp the lever with a potholder.  Sometimes she did first grab the end of her apron if the stove was really hot, but that too would amaze me, for the cast iron stove contained all that fire. While flames spurted out from the firebox, Grandma would wedge in a piece of kindling without singing her hands.

Grandma in Botna

Grandma made all her aprons from a special pattern that conformed to the hump in her back. After my mother’s death, in one of her boxes, I found the pattern cut out from old newspaper, laid inside a few yards of flowered material ready to be cut anew. I don’t know where the pattern is now.

The kindling was kept in a steel bushel basket over by the sink, replenished often, especially in the late forenoon and late afternoon.  The farmstead contained numerous trees, enough for us kids to gather dried sticks and twigs to get the stink out of us, as my father would say. I only remember a few times when I was told to stoke the fire in the wood cook stove, for most of the time, Grandma seldom left the kitchen fire unattended.

In that tight kitchen a small table with an enamel top was positioned right beside the door that led into the living room.  There Grandpa would pull out a chair and sit and drink coffee, eat lunch and dinner, the space so tight that none could scoot behind his chair into the other room.  At that table after stirring in teaspoon after teaspoon of sugar into a cup of coffee, Grandpa would then pour some of the contents into a saucer, and drink the concoction from that saucer.  During strawberry season, I was always amazed at the spoonfuls of sugar Grandpa would spread across the mound of strawberries and cream.

Grandpa and Grandma Snyder

In the kitchen, to bide my time while Grandma worked in the kitchen, Grandma would set up a small table for me to play canasta, most of the time by myself, or she would reach over and move a card once in a while or tell me what card to play.  For years, I thought I would never forget how to play that game, but even though I still see the stacks of cards, the steps have dwindled from my memory.

On the other side of the sink, to the left of the door that led into the dining room was a pantry, with its sacks of flour and sugar, canned goods retrieved from the cellar, beans sealed in jars, and other grocery items.   The colors in that pantry those of an autumn garden. The entrance only a curtain that moved in accordance with what breeze strode in behind whoever entered.  On warm days especially to balance the intense heat of the kitchen, Grandma would open the tiny west window in the pantry, and the curtain would flutter constantly.

I remember one time Grandma told me to hide in the pantry.  I remember crouching in a corner to the right of the opening.  I remember fearing something, but not sure what.

When I was a sophomore in the middle of winter, after I worked for the Hueys, the neighbors across the road from Grandma, I worked for one of their friends, a family who lived on a farm close to Irwin.  My pay was to be ten dollars a week.  During that week, I caught the bus from their house to  school.  My job was to help the man’s wife in the kitchen and to tend to the children, but first in the morning to make sure the fire in the stove was enough to  heat the house.  I believe I slept with one of the children, but I do know that where I slept was upstairs in a room in the far corner.   I don’t remember what the wife looked like, but the man looked and acted like Glen Huey, a short stubby man that for some reason I felt had a mean streak.

One cold morning, the fire mere embers, after I stoked the fire in the pot-belly stove that stood in the middle of the living room, the man of the house seemed to sneak up next to me and say that I would make a good wife for I knew how to build a fire.

I don’t know what my father heard or his reasoning, or if my mother urged him, but I do know that without warning, at the end of one week, my father drove up to get me, insisting before I left that the man pay me the ten dollars that I was owed.  I know I never told anyone, much less my father, what the man had said to me.

Raw Eggs

Every night Mom would force us kids to swallow a dose of cod-liver oil. She would hold our nose, or we would once we quit fighting the daily routine, and force us to swallow that rotten fishy liquid.  After, she would put the bottle high up on a shelf, tuck it behind other unmentionable liquids, probably thinking that we couldn’t reach it and hide it, or dump the contents in the slop bucket. Besides the pigs would have the runs, and that would have resulted in trots at market.

It would  not have done any good to fight the good fight, for Mom was a fanatic about keeping us healthy.  Vicks Vapor Rub, the least sign of a cold or sore throat, under our nose on rubbed on our neck and chest.  At times we would be forced to swallow Mentholatum, as if we were cats with hair balls.  Mustard plasters on our chest, but no hair shirt.  On the Paxton place, Mom heated bricks in the cast-iron stove and wrapped them in towels.  They not only rested on floorboards in Fords as we headed to town, one kept me warm at night.  Mom would tuck it between the sheets at the foot of the bed, and pile quilt on top of quilt on top.  Of course with the lack of insulation in these old farm houses, waking up with frost on the covers often occurred in winter.  And if we were really sick, running a fever of 101 or so, and possibly delirious, the extent of Mom’s fear was palatable.  One could see it hovering in the air as if a spector from a deceased ancestor guarded us while she cooked and baked and cleaned, and fed the chickens when we couldn’t.

In the summer time, cold well water, not ice for a fever, for no ice could be had.  With the heel of a spoon, Mom grounded aspirins to powder and mixed it in water for us to drink.  We gargled with salt water the first sign of a sore throat.  And there were many of those we had as children.

Then there were hot toddys–whiskey and sugar and hot water but no tea–that we craved to sooth a throat or calm tickles in the throat.  They dumbed us to sleep with a warm buzz.

Besides the cod-liver oil regimen, Mom believed that children must be de-wormed once a year as are all farm animals. Something must have warned her about the pests that could be housed in our bowels.  Only once for me at age 5.  Hives erupted inside and out, and breaths became difficult to catch and hold.  I remember Mom pacing back and forth in what could be called the only room capable of communal living on the Paxton place, a space in front of the folks’ bed that contained a table and chairs in front of the east window, a player piano that Dad eventually chopped into firewood on the north, a wood stove on the south wall, some chairs scattered here and there.

Dad must have gone to town to fetch the doctor, or went over to a neighbor’s house to phone, for Mom didn’t usher Dr. Hennessey into the room.  He strode in as if announced by bugles and ordered Mom to fill a bowl full of egg yolks.  Dr. forced them down my throat.  Needless to say, anything and everything that was in my stomach followed the yolks as I threw them up.  More and more until my breathing became somewhat normal.  After which I slept.

Mom told everyone it was strawberries that caused a reaction, and I suppose it could have been, for it was that time of year; but I know, and so did she that is was worm medicine.  I found out a few years later when I bit into Grandpa Snyder’s plug of tobacco and hickupped myself almost to death that chaw also keeps worms at bay.