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.
I grew up in Manilla, one of the McDonald girls. I loved your writing about Bruggeman’s Variety Store. We all loved their penny candy, and Mrs. Bruggeman was sooo patient while we stood on the other side of the case drooling over all of the choices!!