There was even a tiny sandy beach Down South, in the curve of
one of the many bends of the creek. I thought I had found Heaven
when I discovered that! There were wild flowers and flowering weeds
abounding, and yellow butterflies, too. And dragonflies lighting on
the water as I waded along.
With BRIGHT sunshine everywhere! And, I knew exactly where my
MOTHER was. Just up the hill, in our house, cooking or canning
or cleaning, or sewing or weeding, or painting the house, or taking
care of the chickens. Or maybe talking on the phone. We had a party
line phone way back then, and you cranked it up to reach central. In
fact, before my folks were married, that's what my Mother did. She
was a telephone operator.
I must say, being a telephone operator seems to have been a
popular job back then for the women folk. One the men allowed them
to do, back in those little towns. What a lot to look forward to.
After you got out of high school then you could go to work in the
telephone office. Until someone proposed marriage.
My Mother wanted to be a nurse, and filled out her application
upon graduating from high school. Needing her father's PERMISSION
she presented it to him. He forbade her to go and tore up the
application! With great anticipation she had prepared it for her
dad's approval . . . and that's what he did with her hopes and
dreams. When she told me this story there was a great sadness in her
Before her marriage she also played the piano for DANCES, in
Kirkwood. And was the church organist at the Christian Science
Church. I guess it was in Kirkwood, too. Like the telephone office.
Or maybe it was in Monmouth, which was ten miles away.
I think it all came to an end once she married.
Maybe she would be playing the piano and singing. My Mother
HUMMED a lot. And sang, and harmonized; in her beautiful, rich
sounding voice! Unless she was under a lot of stress cooking for the
hired men, or canning . . . in that steamy kitchen on hot summer
There was a time when she didn't hum very much.
"Why are you whispering?" That's what my mother overheard
say. To Martha and my dad. While we were in the basement of our
house. And SHE was upstairs. I must have been around four at the
time. You know that age? Old enough to talk without any CENSORING.
I bet they wished I WAS censoring then. Keeping my mouth SHUT in
spite of what I was seeing. Yes, I bet they wished that when those
words came out of my mouth! Loud enough for my mother to hear.
While my dad and Martha and I were in the basement, and SHE was
You see, in addition to Martha being the 'hired man's wife' she
also came over and helped my mother clean every once in a while.
When my mother had BIG jobs to do, like SPRING cleaning. Maybe
that's how Martha and my dad got 'acquainted.' I believe this affair
lasted for a number of years. My mother told me about it after my
dad had died.
One day when she came to visit my three little children and me,
in our two bedroom apartment sitting directly on busy Harrison Street
in Davenport, Iowa, where my doctor husband was completing his
internship at the Osteopathic Hospital.
I was shocked to hear about it, even though once, in high
school, someone made a remark about my dad's GIRLFRIEND. Again, I
had been shocked into silence. I never said a word to anyone about
it, although that remark rang in my ears as I walked the main street
of Biggsville that day.
I told my mother that story then, as we sat at our red
Formica-topped kitchen table in the apartment on Harrison Street.
She said she threatened to tell Martha's husband, Leland, if he (my
dad) wouldn't end it. But he always denied it. She knew it was
true, however, because my dad got very nervous whenever they were
She said to him in a heart wrenching tone, "How COULD you?
When you have such a beautiful baby girl!"
I said, "Why did you stay?" She replied, "What could
I do? I
had two small children; my folks had nothing. Where could I turn for
What could have been in my dad's mind, I wonder. He had two
beautiful children, and was married to a woman who was head and
shoulders above us all. I guess he didn't have the eyes to see her
then. Maybe he was like John F. Kennedy, who, when confronted by
Hoover about his security threatening infidelities, responded, "I
just can't help it." Or like Martin Luther King who called his
lewd sexual strayings "a weakness."
What IS this with men, anyway? Aren't they supposed to be
people who are respectable, accountable and above-board? These are
the leaders, for God's sake. They sneak around behind closed doors
doing this sort of thing? Do they have any problem facing their
wives, the mother of their children? Or their children? Do they
have any problem getting up in front of thousands of people preaching
about honesty and integrity and doing the RIGHT thing??? How do
they reconcile this lack of integrity in themselves, I wonder, and
continue these behaviors? Surely it comes at some great cost to
their interior life.
Or maybe they just think they are "entitled." Could that be it?
After all, those Levite priests of twenty-five hundred years ago, the
ones who crushed the worship of our Mother, felt it was quite fine to
dismember their wife should she be found unfaithful, while they
owned and used women, concubines, numbering from one to five hundred.
My dad's eyes did open at some time in their life together
however, and he deeply regretted having hurt my mother in that way.
She told me that, too, while we sat at the table together in the
apartment on Harrison street.
She said he was always trying to make it up to her, later on.
And that, sadly, she wouldn't let him. They would go to a dinner
party, or a gathering of some sort and when they came home my
middle-aged father would say to his beautiful middle-aged,
snow-haired wife, "You know, you were the best looking woman there."
But, she would push his remark aside.
In the end, however, before he died from his second major heart
attack at age 63, things were 'ok' between them. My mother said. A
softening of the heart had occurred and love did prevail.
Do you remember SPRING cleaning? Where EVERY room was taken
apart, one by one? And the walls were washed or painted? And the
woodwork was washed? And the floors got whatever they needed, and
all the furniture too, so that when it was finished the room was
like new. At least as far as being CLEAN was concerned.
My mother did that, too, in addition to EVERYTHING ELSE she did.
My mother did NOT loll around eating bonbons and reading movie
magazines. No, indeed.
She worked, HARD. She tended a garden. A BIG garden. And she
raised chickens. Hundreds of chickens each year. We would get the
baby chicks from the hatchery in Monmouth. They came in those big
square boxes with holes in the sides so they could breathe.
Baby chicks are ADORABLE. Did you know that? They are yellow
and SO fuzzy. And they kind of fall all over each other.
My mother would get the chicken house ready for them. Clean and
tidy, with fresh straw on the floor. And it needed to be kept warm.
Just the right temperature, you know. Because baby chicks are just
like other babies. They need TENDER loving care. And my mother
knew how to give it to them.
If it got too cold, if we had a cold SNAP in the spring, she
would bring them into our KITCHEN. I remember our kitchen floor
covered with newspapers and little yellow chicks, cardboard across
the doorways, so they couldn't get out. Oh, the SOUND! They make a
lot of noise, you know. Peeping away. Now these chickens were sold,
after they got bigger. At least the roosters were. For FRYERS. I
don't remember if she sold them alive. I don't think so. Could she
have dressed all of them herself, and then sold them?
She kept some of the hens for the eggs. And then sold the eggs.
You know, EGG money.
Hens need some care. They need to be fed and watered, and the
eggs gathered every day. And, the HENHOUSE has to be cleaned out,
with fresh straw added from time to time. So, I fed and watered
them, and gathered the eggs. After school each day. Somebody else
cleaned out the henhouse. I wonder who did that, my mother or my
dad? I bet it was my dad.
I'd come home and change my clothes. We always changed our
clothes when we came home from town or school. We were CONSERVATIVE
with our clothes. Saving them AND laundry. Then I'd go out to do
my chores. Taking care of the chickens, and feeding the cows after
they came into the barn to be milked, were among my usual tasks.
The golden brown and white spotted cows and a few solid brown
ones, their furred skin stretched over wide, sharp hip bones, full
bags of milk swinging between their legs with each patient and slow
measured step, came into the barn, the sound of their hoofs a dull
staccato against the cement floor.
Each went to her own spot, putting her head into the stanchion
to be locked into place. I can still hear the sound of that metal
contraption clanking shut.
Then I gave them several ears of bright yellow corn, and some
oats too, from a room FILLED with oats. Sometimes I played in that
room, sliding down a hill of oats that almost reached to the ceiling.
When we had horses and they were in the barn, I fed them, too.
They stood patiently in their wooden stalls, darkened from years of
sweat and oil, across the aisle from the cows.
One winter morning, I watched a mother cat give birth to her
kittens in the manger where the horse usually ate, which was softly
lined with wonderful smelling alfalfa hay.
I remember going into an empty stall one warm summer morning to
watch the kittens play. We generally had a lot of kittens. I sat
down on a bale of straw to watch them, as morning sun streamed
through the four paned eastern window above me. They scampered and
chased each other up and over and down the bales. Kittens at play
are absolutely delightful to watch. There is no end to their energy
and incredible agility, particularly when they have each other to
play with! Sometimes I would impulsively pick up a sweet little
kitten and kiss it right on the mouth.
At the end of the aisle between the horses and cows was a Dutch
door. There were actually THREE Dutch doors across the back of this
wonderful barn that my folks built the first year of their married
life, the same time their house was being built, in 1918. The Dutch
door toward the east was where the horses came into their stalls.
The door toward the west was where the cows came in to get locked up
for milking. And, the door in the middle was for us humans.
I would often stand on a little ledge just above the bottom of that
lower door, leaning on my elbows over the top of the door, swinging
back and forth, as I gazed out over the back barn lot, past the
watering tank, and across the long field that gently sloped down
toward my place of adventure, Down South.
My mother CANNED. All from that big garden that she tended.
I remember the rows of jars in our basement. ROWS and ROWS of jars.
Filled with string beans, and beets and tomatoes. And peaches and
cherries and applesauce. My mother made the BEST applesauce. And
sweet pickles. She'd say, "Run down stairs and bring up a jar of
applesauce." And I would.
Before there was freezing, she canned meat, too. We would
butcher a hog. She then carefully and artistically placed the
freshly made sausage patties in the jar with the juice of the meat
Her fruits and vegetables were canned in the same artistic way;
always with an EYE to BEAUTY.
As I said, we milked cows. My dad did the milking. I got up
the cows, riding my pony Blackie out into the pasture. My pony,
Blackie, obviously needed a firmer hand than mine! Getting me off
his back appeared to be one of his goals. Sometimes he would skim
me off by going under a low hanging limb. Or I would fall off as he
jumped a ditch, and then he would buck as I tried to get back on. I
walked back more than once from that pasture, I can tell YOU!! I
wasn't too thrilled to get ON him, after a while, either! Knowing
what was in store for me.
If we were riding along the gravel road in front of our house,
and a car happened along, Blackie would break into a fast gallop,
racing the car. Always! There was nothing I could do and as he
swerved into our yard I fell off. I was riding bareback, of
course, and there just wasn't anything to hang onto.
So I can tell you, if we were on the road, I would hightail it
back into the yard the minute I heard a car coming. Generally, I
just couldn't get there in time!
My brother, Howard, had had a Shetland pony as well, and my
mother told stories about how MEAN he was. Once he chased her right
up on the front porch, after she had been scolding him for some of
his antics with Howard. Howard had to ride him to school, and I
don't think it was much fun. My mother said the pony once
deliberately stepped on Howard's toe, and it took his big toenail
They eventually sold him too. Like we eventually sold Blackie. ~~~
We had a separator in the basement, to put the milk through.
And we sold milk, in those big silver colored metal cans. Milk cans.
My mother made BUTTER. In the basement, where the washing
machine was and where the large silver colored separator for the milk
was kept as well. It was right at the bottom of the stairway that
came down from the grade door landing, the outside entrance to our
basement. We hung our old coats on this landing just above Tippy's
Zelda made the butter in one pound loaves. She patted them gently
with her wooden spatula into soft rounded loaves; then carved a
beautiful leaf design into the top of each. This was the same
delicate design she carved on her artistically made pies. The same
leaf pattern that I put on the top of my pies! (At least I used to,
when I made pies.)
My mother was a wonderful cook. She really was. My children
can attest to that.
AND SHE DID IT ALL WITH SUCH GRACE.
Her food always LOOKED pretty, as well as tasting good. Nothing
was ever slung onto the table in a PAN, I can tell you. When the men
were harvesting the crops she would cook for all of them, setting up
a long table in the back yard for the noon meal. It was laden with
Perfectly fried golden brown chicken, a steaming platter of
corn on the cob, fresh from the field. String beans cooked with
onion and bacon until they were VERY done. Thick slices of red,
sweet and juicy tomatoes from the garden, and potatoes, and
delicious sweet apples from our trees, made into apple crisp, with
iced tea to drink. And, of course, bread and her fresh churned
In fact, most everything on the table had been raised or killed
(in the case of the chickens) and collected and cleaned and prepared
and stirred and cooked by her hand.
It was generally hot, and the men would wash their dark red,
dusty and sweaty faces and necks with the water from the pump, right
there in the back yard. Their white foreheads stood out in contrast
to the dark tanned skin and clothing below.
Did I tell you the name of the creek down in the pasture? It
was and still is called Tom Crick. In addition to the tall shade
trees there were a lot of shorter scruffy ones too, running along the
side of the crick, and many FLOWERING weeds, thriving in the hot
sun. The crick used to flood in the spring rains, turning into a
raging river for a few days or weeks. If we had corn planted down
there it would get washed out. I have seen photographs of the flood,
but I don't recall seeing it myself. Some kind of diverting of the
crick occurred upstream so that it no longer flooded quite so
regularly, by the time I came along.
zelda and jay
eva and samuel
My mother and dad lived the first year of their married
life with HIS mother and dad, Josephine and George, on the Home
Place, while their house was being built. And, that was not a bit
easy for my mother. She said her mother-in-law treated her like she
was the 'hired girl.' I don't know how it was for my dad.
One of his two sisters, Margie, was still at home when my mother
moved in, after their wedding in Lincoln, Nebraska. My dad had been
living at home all along, of course, working on the farm. My mother
said that his sister got a reprieve from her daily work when she was
feeling poorly from menstrual cramps, but my mother was allowed no
such luxury. Her mother-in-law, Josephine, expected Zelda's chores
to be carried out, no matter HOW she felt!
Kinda sounds like Cinderella, doesn't it?
I've wondered why my folks got married away from home, where no
one knew them, rather than in this little community of family and
friends. I know that my mother and HER mother, Eva, were visiting my
mother's older sister, Myrtle, in Montana before their planned
wedding. My folks came from their separate directions, he from
Illinois, she from Montana, met in Lincoln, Nebraska and were wed by
a Justice of the Peace on December 12, 1918 and then traveled on to
Chicago for their honeymoon.
In fact, in the bottom of my wicker chest there are six letters
written by my dad to my mother, three of them dated in 1918. He
wrote these letters to her in the weeks before they married.
The other three letters were written to my mother in 1913 and
1914 while he and his older brother, Charlie, were on excursions to
(This older brother, Charlie, was the uncle that sexually abused
me when I was about nine years old as we played ball in evening
light, in he and Aunt Alice's back yard on the outskirts of Kirkwood.
As I retrieved the ball from behind a shrub . . . where he had thrown
it, out of eyesight of my folks sitting just forty feet away . . . he
came up behind me and put his hands up under my blouse to feel my
slightly budding breasts. He had his nerve, didn't he? He is also
the uncle that lighted a firecracker in a cowpie and then called my
brother Howard over, as a little boy, to be sprayed with manure.
What a nice uncle to have. Our trio, the Harmonettes, sang at his
funeral when I was in high school, and I was GLAD that he was dead.
My dad did not seem to have any of these traits, thank goodness.)
My dad was twenty-two at the time. From the sounds of the
letters it seemed that half of Kirkwood was in Chicago as well, some
folks going to the Elgin Auto Races. He and Charlie traveled by boat
on Lake Michigan to visit friends, he went to Lincoln Park to take
pictures, all the while staying at their usual hotel, the Brevoort.
It doesn't quite fit one's image of a farmer, does it? It doesn't
even fit MY image of my dad! I never knew photography to be an
interest of his. I think he must have been part of the jet set of
Kirkwood, Illinois, pop. 200. The Rezners were well off in their
My mother saved his letters all those years. Touching, isn't
it? I wish my dad had saved HER letters, too.
My dad sounded quite social and pretty YOUNG in the letters
written before their wedding. They were then twenty-six. He began
several sentences with the word, "Say" . . . "Say, did
you know . .
." That's how we talked, and how I sometimes STILL talk. I hope
they won't mind if I share the letters . .
Kirkwood, October 31st
This is Thursday night and everybody has gone to town and I
think it is about time for me to write that letter I promised to
write Tuesday-say, I hope you wrote Tuesday night for I sure will be
looking for it Saturday.
I went to town in the wagon Monday morning and brought home your
box and chairs-say, there was a dress on the box and I took it too-I
suppose you did not have time to put it in the chest. Your father
was there and he helped me load the things. It looked rather
lonesome around the hotel. Say, I sure will be glad when the six
weeks are over.
I went over to Oquawka Monday afternoon to see Mr. Maloen.
Well, he had a letter from the Non-War Construction Board and they
wanted more information about that building. I believe it is going
to be rather hard to get a permit but Mr. Maloen said he would do all
he could to help me. (Could this be a permit to build their house?)
Say, Mother is going to have Harry Love paper one of the rooms
upstairs next week and she told me to bring up three pigs and put
them in the little garden. She said they were for Marg, Zelda and
herself so you see we are getting ready for you. Mother was talking
to Aunt Annie today and Aunt A. said she saw in the paper that you
were going to stay out there until spring, but she said it would not
be very long before you would be back here. I don't know how she
knows, but I guess she does.
Say, Nine Swegan is not any better, they have had the Burlington
doctor for her. Mother went uptown tonight to see how she was. I
hope Nine will get better. Say, Del Norton is real sick over at
Peoria, he has pneumonia. Well, Zelda I think I have told you all
the news and I will quit for this time.
Nov 24, 1918
Here it is another swell Sunday afternoon and nothing to do.
(Unusual talk for a farmer!! J.R.) The weather has been cloudy all
week but has cleared off today and it is swell outside. Harold
Lundren and I went down to Guy Renstroms for dinner and I just got
home a few minutes ago. Say, I have not received a letter since
Tuesday-I do not think that you are writing very much more than I am.
I will be glad when you get back because I sure hate to write letters
but I like to get them. We have five men husking corn and if the
weather stays good we'll get done about Christmas. I wish we were
going to get done before I leave but I don't think we will.
Say, Philip Baxter was accidentally killed at the Great Lakes
Naval Station. The funeral will be Monday morning. Say, the flu is
real serious at Monmouth yet. One of the girls at the Central Office
died yesterday. You want to be real careful and not catch it. (Many
people died from the flu during this period.)
We brought home the bedroom set the other day. It sure looks
real swell, but I don't like the bed very well. We got the springs
and mattress at L. Everetts and brought them home too. I think
Mother intends to have it all ready for us when we get back. Say, we
have not been to Burlington yet. I do not think we will get those
things, now since the war is over, until we need them. (I wonder
what " those things" are? He is speaking of the first World
Say, I do not see why I need to bring a suitcase and
traveling-bag. I would think that with your traveling-bag and the
suitcase that I bring would be enough. But I can bring both if it is
necessary. If it is cold you will have to wear your heavy coat.
Say, I went to Monmouth yesterday to buy an overcoat but I did not
get any. I think I will have one made. I sure have to buy a lot of
things. It will almost break me up. (!!!) You have not ever said
how much money I should send but I will enclose a draft for $50 in
this letter and you can give me the change if there is any when you
Oh say, I heard last night (I was up to the picture show) that
Frank Walker was married. I suppose somebody will be saying that
about us soon. It is only two weeks from next Tuesday when I start.
Say, you sure want to get to Lincoln Wednesday night Dec 11 and I
will be right there waiting for you. If we get married the next
morning and we are going to-we cannot leave Lincoln until four
o'clock in the afternoon and we will get into Chicago about seven
o'clock Friday morning. But I think that will be alright, don't you?
Well, Zelda, I think I have told you everything that I know but,
of course you know I cannot write a real letter like you do, but I
will make up for it when I see you, and I can hardly wait until the
Received a letter yesterday and I was real glad to get it-I am
looking for two more letters then I will be looking for you. Am real
sorry that you do not get into Lincoln at noon but I would rather
have you come at mid-night than not come at all. Say, I do not see
why there is any need of me sending a telegram when I start, because,
I intend to leave here on the 10th and I will be there waiting for
you unless the train is wrecked. Say, I will write again Wednesday
and that will be my last letter. You never said whether you wanted
me to bring both a suitcase and a traveling bag. So please tell me
in your next letter. You have decided that you want size 5Þ for the
ring. I suppose you think that you are going to get fat. You had
Marg, Harriet, Harold and I went to the picture show last night,
but it was not a very good show. I saw your father on the street and
he looked like he was feeling alright. (Could this be in reference
to Samuel's alcoholism?)
Mother and I went to Monmouth yesterday afternoon. I got some
new shoes and Mother bought some blankets and spread for (our bed).
It looks real nice up there. I have to go to Monmouth again Tuesday,
and that will finish my shopping and I will be all ready to start for
Myra and Bert were over here for dinner today. Bert is not
going to help us husk corn, I guess he is too tired to work any
more. You never can depend on anything he says. Say, Myra said that
she wrote to you last week. Well, Zelda, there is not anything new a
happening around here to write about, only that the flu is awfully
bad. All the Leo Jones family are down with it. (Another reference
to the flu epidemic.)
I will be looking for you Wed. night about mid-night on train
44, so good-by until Wed. night.
P.S. I sent you a draft for $60-don't forget to save me the change.
I am touched by the sweetness of his letters, and amazed at my
dad's writing. Where was all that when I came along? He hardly ever
talked to me. I wonder how my mother felt about her mother-in-law
getting their bed and bedroom ready. Apparently it was the era when
wives were brought home to their husband's family. I suspect it
wasn't all as sweet as it sounded. For years, after my folks'
marriage, my grandmother Rezner, Josephine, blackballed my mother's
name whenever presented for membership to P.E.O. in Kirkwood, a
popular women's group of the time. Imagine, her own daughter-in-law!
There was a lot of down-to-earthness in his letter. Clearly
my dad started out being excited about my mother; they had had a
relationship for several years. It was a lovely revelation to me.
In all my years with my folks I saw them kiss once. I had come home
with a date and was parked in the driveway when my folks appeared
through the window in the lighted dining room, unaware that we were
outside. It looked like just a little peck, but it meant a lot to
me. They touched each other's arms. It was the ONLY affectionate
gesture I ever saw between them. I might add, I never saw any
harsh gesture between them. There were no acts of violence in my
The letter tells a lot about the life then, how full it was,
doesn't it? It demonstrates how LESS is more. How empowered they
were! They weren't living life by a clock, fighting traffic,
rushing, doing someone else's bidding. It was THEIR life. It was
their home, it was their farm, it was their work, it was their
community, and it was rich. I grew up like that, too.
Speaking of letters from the past . . . an old building on the
Home Place was torn down about ten years ago, and a jar was
discovered within one of the walls. Inside the jar was a letter my
dad had written when he was a young man, before he and my mother
married, obviously put there to be found at a later time. It
contained a letter from a young girl, too; perhaps the hired man's
daughter. The jar was placed in the wall while the building was
being constructed, and was discovered some seventy-five years later.
My dad lives on, doesn't he?
I imagine my grandfather, Samuel, was feeling forlorn during
that time before the wedding, with his wife and youngest daughter
gone to Montana, the hotel they ran, empty.
I have a feeling my grandfather was very SAD on the inside. He
had a sister, Leona, whose husband was alcoholic; my grandmother's
brother, Tom, was, as well. I remember a story my mother told about
Tom. After a night of 'carrying on,' he returned home, and knowing
he had been out of line, threw his HAT in the door first, to see if
it was safe to come in!
Why were they all so unhappy? What terrible pain were they
trying to DULL by drinking?
After retiring from the hotel in Kirkwood, Eva and Samuel
returned to Oquawka, the County Seat of Henderson County, living in
a small house a few blocks from the Courthouse. My memories of my
grandmother are there, in the then quaint little town beside the
Mississippi River. A place where Lincoln once visited. A place
where Indians once traded.
One day, when I was out on the sidewalk playing in front of her
house, my grandmother called me in. In retrospect, she didn't know
WHY, but right after she did, a LARGE LIMB simply fell off the tree
and came crashing down, exactly where I had been playing. Isn't that
something? I find it interesting that she remembered the sequence
I had moments of quality time with my grandmother, in spite of
her "senility." She would repeated rhymes and limericks again
again to me, at my pleading. One I have always remembered. This is
a "what to do if you have only ONE dress." When someone asks
dress you are going to wear, you can reply,
"Should I wear my NEW one, or my BLUE one, or the one I wore
yesterday?" (And, it would all be the same dress! Times must have
been tough back then. How many of us have just one dress? Her life
was quite different from my Grandmother Rezner's.)
I remember watching her make apple dumplings, rolling out the
dough on a floured cloth resting on a pale yellow enamel table, in
the middle of her little step-down kitchen. There were several
neat-looking, dough-clad apples sitting in a pan. The kitchen door
opened out of that tiny room with it's low ceiling, to the back STOOP
and the yard beyond. I have always liked places where the back yard
is just outside the kitchen door.
I would ask her to tell me stories about when she and her young
and handsome husband, Samuel, crossed the creek in the horse and
buggy. And she would. She would be sitting in a chair, while I sat
at her feet, in her little house in Oquawka.
I also remember, and this is one of TWO memories I have of him,
of lying across my grandfather Samuel's lap as he sat in the swing .
. . under a big tree in the side yard bordered by a hedge all the
way around it . . . as he scratched my bare back with his rough hand.
It felt good!
Eva told me her mother had not wanted her to marry Samuel and
had said to her, after they were married, "I'd as soon you had
married a nigger, as to marry him." "That hurt a lot,"
grandmother said. My mother told me her grandmother, Mary, was
very harsh with her daughter, Eva.
I have to say, I find it hard to write that appellative with its
cruel DISREGARDING of humanity. It certainly shows the
INGRAINEDNESS of the racism prevalent in that time. There were no
black people living in the area. There had been ONE black student in
Biggsville High School's history, in my brother's class, when I went
to school there. I wonder if the Klu Klux Klan was around then?
My mother told me that she and dad were approached to come to a
meeting of the Klan, right there in Illinois. Probably in the 1920s.
They didn't go.
What were they doing . . . those MEN hiding behind white sheets
. . . trying to sow their seeds of hatred and violence in the
mid-west? Why were they anyplace on earth? What kind of monster
mentality IS that?
The other memory I have of my grandfather Ryason was of visiting
him, before he died . . . having something called creeping paralysis.
. . in a neighbor's home down the road from us, on the way to
Biggsville. This neighbor took in several old men; that era's
version of a nursing home. The four of them were lined up in their
wheel chairs, facing the setting sun with heads hanging, nothing to
do but sit there, day after day, semi-alive. I remember the
lingering sour smell of pipe tobacco smoke. It was a sad scene, and
very hard for my mother to see her dad in such a place, but she
couldn't care for him at home. It would have been TOO much.
After one such visit, leaving him in his SUFFERING upstairs, as
we reached the bottom of the stairs, my mother turned to me and
putting her arms around me said, "Oh, Janie, what am I going to
I think I was eight years old. I, of course, felt overwhelmed.
I remember my grandfather's funeral, and my grandmother in her
tall dark hat, crying.
Back to my folks and their wedding . . . I have a couple of
theories regarding their unusual plan to meet and marry in Lincoln,
Nebraska. Since my mother's parents were poor and couldn't afford a
wedding, maybe she didn't want to cause any hardship for them. So
she elected to marry away from home. Perhaps having a church wedding
wasn't done in that little country town.
I also think my mother felt a lot of shame around the idea of
being sexual. It would have been easier to be away from home when
you get married, where people won't know what you are doing, i.e.
making love. I intuited that my mother's embarrassment at being
around someone who was pregnant was for the same reason; what you
had been doing was so obvious!
We HAVE expanded our consciousness and acceptance of natural
events since that time, haven't we? Thank goodness! My mother
lived at the end of a religiously repressive and PURITANICAL era
that degraded the most NATURAL of events; pregnancy, birth, nursing
your child, touching and hugging your child. It was a SHAMEFUL era,
led by men, who proclaimed themselves to be the EXPERTS on such things
. . . who stood beside the cradle, heaping SHAME upon a mother's instincts.
My mother's folks, Eva and Samuel, lived in Kirkwood for several
years, running the hotel. It was their move to Kirkwood that
brought my mother and dad together. Oquawka was really home to the
Ryasons; that's where their roots were; where my mother and her two
sisters were born and raised, until high school. These two little
towns are about twelve miles apart.
The little house that my grandmother lived in when I knew her,
had been given to her by her father, before he died. I have the
deed somewhere. I trust I can find it again. Somehow all of these
details have more meaning to me than ever before. Before the move
to Kirkwood, my grandmother ran a boarding house in Oquawka; to
provide for her three little girls, Myrtle, Zona, and Zelda Fortuna
. . .there were nine years between Myrtle and Zelda, my mother being
the youngest . . . and her husband, Samuel.
I guess Samuel would simply disappear for several days at a
time. While he drank. They would say he went off on a "toot."
stayed and cooked and cleaned, and sewed and did the large laundry
for her boarders. And cared for her three little girls. With no
sympathetic mother to tell HER troubles to.
I have a wonderful photograph that was taken outside, behind the
boarding house in Oquawka. My grandmother stands in her long summer
dress, holding a large SUNBONNET in one hand . . . with the other,
grasping the clothesline that stretches out in front of and behind
Facing her is her sister, my mother's maiden aunt, Aunt Sue, who
is living with them. She, too, is dressed in a neck-to toe summer
dress with a long apron covering it; back there in sticky Oquawka,
hot, sultry summer sun beating down. She is holding a glass jar in
preparation for canning.
There they were in those dresses! While they're CANNING and
doing the LAUNDRY. Another parallel clothesline is full of neatly
hung, all alike white dish or hand towels, decorated with a
double boarder along the bottom. I count fourteen of
them. On the grass beside her are more white cloths drying in the
summer sun, again in neat rows!
I suspect that I come from a long line of neat and orderly
women. Always with an eye for beauty in whatever they touched! Who
worked very hard and whose LABORS were seldom seen or appreciated.
The back yard in which my grandmother and great aunt stand might
be quite pretty; green, lush and colorful, but if we had a color
photograph. There are a few things about this life that have been an
improvement, I'll have to admit. Color photography is one of them!
Color laser printing is another.
In addition to her other tasks, my grandmother took in sewing
on the side. How did she do it all, I wonder? My mother said she
was a wonderful seamstress and could take "the tiniest stitches."
My mother's job as a little girl when she came home from school
was to pick up all the scraps from her mother's sewing of the day.
My mother said she felt sorry for her mother and the hard life she
had, and tried to help her as best she could. My mother also felt
sorry for her dad, and said he had a hard life, too.
My grandfather, Samuel Ryason, a handsome man, with the same
beautiful dark brown eyes that my mother had. And that my brother,
Howard, has. My mother said they three girls would hide under the
bed when Samuel came home drunk because they were afraid of him.
But, that he never did lay a hand on them.
She said, "isn't that terrible? Having to be AFRAID of your
Eva and Samuel Ryason. Eva MITCHELL Ryason. I guess the name
originally was Ryerson, before it was changed. Just as Rezner was
once Reasoner. My grandmother was eighteen years old when she
married Samuel and began her life of drudgery. If we used the
grandmother's maiden name for the beginning of the matrilineal line,
then all our names would be Mitchell. Zelda Mitchell, Cynthia
Mitchell, Stephen Mitchell. I rather like the idea that my little
GRANDSON, Caleb, would have the same last name as me, and his mother
as well. Why not? Seems appropriate, doesn't it?
I want to say here that Eva's parents, Mary and James Mitchell,
and Samuel's parents, Levi and Suzanna Ryason came into this life
around 1835 and passed on about 1910.
On GOOD days, Samuel worked at the button factory in
Oquawka, which sat beside the Mississippi, where they made buttons
from the clam shells. One can still find shells along that shore,
with many little round holes carved in them. Just a few years ago I
found some, on one of my trips to Oquawka, Illinois.
A Buddhist Vipassanna retreat at Angela Center with Christopher Titmuss
we sit together on our cushions
the quiet of the hall is rich with vibrations
of meditators, present and past
sounds of the wind swishing through tall trees
just outside the windows
a solitary plane passes overhead in the noonday heat
gentle breathing of the man next to me
nothing to do, no place to be but here, feeling my breath
sitting on a cushion on a summer day in late August
feeling spacious, feeling quiet, feeling clear
Yesterday I said out loud, as I drew my bathwater for a much anticipated
leisurely bath . . . after running at the track near the residential
hall I am sleeping in:
"My mother said, "You know, your dad loves you a lot."
She said this to me as he lay in the bed in Monmouth Hospital enclosed
in an oxygen tent, after his second major heart attack.
My dad never said to me, "I love you." Nor do I recall ever
saying those words to him.
Today, I said out loud, as I stood in front of the lavatory and mirror
in Brescia Hall at Angela Center, on retreat:
"Not to be present when your own mother is dying!" After all
our years together, in the same fifty mile radius, to be separated at
this deeply important time in both our lives.
I say to the mirror with tears in my eyes, "All I can say is "I'm
sorry.!" I didn't have the inner resources then. I didn't know."
How the long ago, important and RICH experiences come to us in these
quiet reflective moments. Without announcement.
My brother said he saw dad cry only once. Howard was ten years old at
the time. He came home from school and found our dad crying, after his
wife had given birth to a little baby girl, two and a half months prematurely.
She lived just a few hours. They didn't have incubators then. Actually,
she was put out in the corridor of Monmouth Hospital to die. My mother,
with great anguish, said to Dr. Kampen, "Is that ALL you can do
I am sure she grieved at not being able to at least HOLD her own dying
little baby, as she died. To soothe her baby during those suffering
moments, rather than let her die alone and cold, without the comfort
of her own mother's body, that she had so recently departed from.
Surely it would have lessened the sting for my mother. The sting of
losing this precious little being that had been so close to her heart.
Wouldn't it have been comforting to both my mother and dad if they had
held her together? Why don't we do these obvious things?
They named her Marilyn.
I WAS present during my dad's illness and death. I came home from Kirksville,
Missouri, and was right there a lot of the time. I sat beside his bed
in eight-hour shifts. My mother and I did that for about two weeks,
taking turns. Sometimes someone else would take a shift.
He spent two weeks in the hospital after the first major heart attack.
Then he went home to recover.
I remember the joy of bringing him home on a Sunday afternoon, to our
country home in Illinois, helping him out of the car and into the house.
Duane, my young husband, had driven up from Kirksville and we all brought
him home together. My dad was happy, too. I gave him a new robe. Friends
had helped my mother put their double bed downstairs, in the living
room, so that he wouldn't have any stairs to climb.
I was twenty-two years old at the time, with an eight month old baby
girl, Cynthia. Then, sadly, I left to go back to my "appropriate
place as a wife" to Kirksville, Missouri, where my husband was
studying to become an Osteopathic Physician. I hated to leave, but never
even voiced it! Of course I wanted to be there with my mother and dad
in this difficult time, in this beautiful place in the country that
I loved so much.
Why couldn't I have stayed, me and my little girl? We could have talked
together, and my dad could have gotten acquainted with his little baby
granddaughter. I could have helped and been a comfort to them both.
Truthfully, I would have LOVED to stay, even if my Dad hadn't been ill.
This was HOME. It was the last time we would be home together.
My Mother took care of him alone, no other family member around. I'm
sure she was scared. She had been fearing this for the last ten years,
after he was diagnosed with Angina. I am glad they had that time together.
I know it was very important for them both.
The second coronary heart attack was two months later. I returned from
Kirksville once again, by train this time, me and my little baby, frightened
for my dad.
I sat beside his hospital bed in the quiet of the night, praying sometimes;
so concerned about him. I sat in the dark, listening to him breathe.
He was too sick to talk, but slept a labored sleep most of the time,
surrounded by a plastic oxygen tent.
I would pray, as we were there together, that the vitality of my body
would pass into his, that he would be strengthened and restored by my
life force. I prayed that he could shave himself once again, and feed
himself, and talk, and have his life back.
Sometimes I touched his arm so that this might happen. I also promised
God that if my dad were healed I would give up smoking.
It was after one of my shifts with him as I was leaving to be with Cynthia,
who was staying with Duane's folks, that my mother said to me, "
You know, your dad loves you a lot."
It was after another visit with Cynthia when I returned to the hospital,
that my mother, greatly upset, said, "Your dad has been talking
to me. He said, "You know, you'll have to get used to doing things
alone. And going places alone."
She couldn't bear to hear it and said, "no, don't talk like that."
He died later that day.
Afterwards, I wondered how it would have been if she HAD been able to
hear it, that somehow they could have talked about it together and shared
The nurses shooed us out of the room to change his bedding, and he died
while they shifted his sheets. My mother and I started back into his
room and they shook their heads to indicate that he was gone.
My mother ran hysterically down the hall to call the doctor. I went
back into my dad's room. Through my tears, as I stood looking at him,
I realized that for the first time in my life, my dad had gone someplace
that I couldn't go.
I want to say, as I write this and weep, sitting in my car under the
shade trees at Angela Center, that we reduce our experiences to NOTHING,
in this chaotic world. We squeeze everything out of them.
We sit and talk of NOTHING. Nothing with any heart in it. Even in retreat.
We don't talk about our griefs, in fact we hardly feel them.
We don't share our heartaches. We label and categorize everything, in
this day of psychological enlightenment. "Oh, it's just grief or
loss or worry." Or maybe we say, "Oh, I'm just obsessing."
No wonder we're so out of whack.
The authentic heart felt, heart rendering, heart awakening life experiences,
told with authentic feeling. . . that would be so rich and moving and
HEALING . . . are totally absent from our lives.
They are not allowed, even on retreat.