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.