Thursday, July 9, 2015

My life sounds a little boring in comparison

Like many people of their generation, my mom and dad didn't talk much about their early lives.  Both of them were children during the Great Depression and understandably those were not years to look back on with much affection.  The few stories my mom has told over the years have served to highlight how drastically different the lives my brother and I led in the 50s and 60s.  We were firmly rooted in the growing middle class, with all the hard earned luxuries afforded that group. A new car every couple of years, a home with bedrooms of our own and a fenced yard, a huge monstrosity of a TV in the living room and a cute little portable phonograph that my mom would sometimes let us play records on. Compared to the stories my mom has of her parents and grandparents, my life seems downright boring.  No romantic elopements, no illegal moonshine stills, no armed-to-the-teeth family feuds,..and certainly nothing like the story of how my 5'2", 100lb grandmother foiled a kidnapping plot.

In the late 30s my grandfather had taken a job at Joliet State Penitentiary and quickly rose in the ranks to become Captain of the Guards, then Assistant Warden. In that capacity he was in charge of the 2500acre Honor Farm where prison inmates raised cattle and hogs along with vegetables for the entire State of Illinois. There were 125 inmates who had earned the right to live and work on the Farm. In the 40s my grandparents and the remaining children at home moved onto a 20acre property owned by the prison, located about 3 miles outside the prison gates, but within the boundaries of the Honor Farm. In my mom's words: "We were assigned one houseman and as many workers as needed weekly. They painted the inside of our house every 3 months and the outside every 6 months. They did the yard work and took care of the garden, processing all of the food grown in the garden, canning or freezing it for later use. They cleaned the house, did repairs, built shelves and helped with the cooking. We could leave our shoes in the halls just outside our bedrooms and after school would find them polished and returned to our closets." For kids who could vividly remember how little food there had been just a few years before, this seemed like heaven to them. There were uniformed guards on horseback who patrolled the Farm and who would supervise the team of workers each morning as they made their way to my grandparents' house and then back to the Honor Farm barracks in the evening. Mom said she and her brothers and sisters were all on first name basis with the men who worked in and around their house and even though they knew they were in prison for a reason, she said they rarely thought of that and considered some of them friends.  All of that changed in the late 40s.

By 1948, there were only 2 children remaining at home, one of them just a baby. Here, in my mom's words, is the story of the fateful day of the aborted kidnapping.

"One day, our houseman named Wash went on a rampage and almost succeeded in taking my mother hostage.  My baby sister was asleep in her crib and my mom knew she had to keep him occupied until help came. She fought with him, ending up with bruises all over her body.  He was about 6'2" and weighed over 200 lbs, but my mom managed to slip out of his grasp time and time again, climbing over beds and running from room to room avoiding at all costs my sister's bedroom.  Her screams caught the attention of one of the horse mounted patrol officers, who radioed the State Police, then charged into the house.  Wash was captured and taken back to the main prison. They found several large slivers of glass pane with handles made of wrapped cotton and tape in our linen closets and the basement, along with several homemade knives. Three other inmates were in on the hostage taking with the idea of exchanging the wife of the Assistant Warden for their freedom. Mother had to testify before the parole board and Wash was given 4 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole."

Now you would think that with that experience fresh in her memory, my grandmother would have insisted that they move to a house far, far away from all things prison.  Nope, not my grandmother!  She was certain it was a one time thing and the likelihood of something awful happening again was very small. She was right.  She and my grandfather and my two aunts lived on the Farm until my grandfather's untimely death at the age of 47 at which time my grandmother, who had never worked outside the home a day of her life, suddenly found herself a young widow with two small children for whom she would have to provide. How she managed to not only provide for them, but become comfortably well off is an amazing story in and of itself and involved Tupperware.

Amazing woman, my grandmother.  Although I didn't know her well, she passed in the early 70s, I am proud that the blood of such a courageous woman runs thru my veins.  Sometimes at night, when I am alone in the house and I hear a scary sound and am just sure I am about to be murdered in my bed (I might read too many murder mysteries), I think of my grandmother and the courage it took to keep her wits about her as she faced down a convicted felon. And that thought drives me out of my bed to grab my faithful Louisville Slugger and confront whatever is lurking in the halls...which usually turns out to be my deaf dog getting a late night drink of water. So I pet my dog, put away the Slugger, and imagine I hear my grandmother saying "Not bad, granddaughter, not bad at all."

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

It's like Romeo and Juliet without the dead teenagers

One of the best things about visiting my mom in Southern California, is listening to stories of her life growing up in Illinois in the 30s and 40s. Some of her stories are hilariously funny, some unbearably sad, all are fascinating. She was the 4th of 7 children and from some of the shenanigans they pulled it is amazing that her mom survived their growing up!  But my grandmother was apparently made of sterner stuff than I can imagine. Smart, strong and determined to give her children the best life she could. Yesterday my mom showed me some memories she had written down. In the reams (and reams) of paper, I found the story of how my spine-of-steel grandmother started her life with the very clever man of her dreams, my grandfather.  Here, in my mom's own words, is the story of them.

Both of my grandparents lived just south of Louisville, Kentucky, on adjoining farms. The two men who would become my grandfathers had a running feud for many years with neither family allowed to associate with the other.  Of course this made the two children, my mother and father, each want to be with the other even more.  Mother left high school at 16 to attend boarding school, then one year of college. Her parents had great plans for her as many of her family members were doctors, lawyers, school teachers.  What their parents didn't know was that several love letters passed between her and the young man she was smitten with whose daddy worked the neighboring farm. My Dad was 18 and Mother almost so when they tried to elope. Her father sent the sheriff after them who took Mother back home. A few months later the church was having a revival meeting, which my mother and her family were attending, and Dad had prearranged to have 4 buggies with one couple in each buggy meet at a fork in the road outside of town.  Dad rode his horse up to the church window and Mother jumped out the window onto the horse and away they went. At the fork in the road the two young lovers got into one buggy and headed for the Tennessee border, while the other 3 buggies each took other roads.  When the Sheriff's posse got to the fork in the road, they had to choose which buggies to follow...they chose the wrong ones.  The eloping couple got to the river crossing but the bridge had been washed out the week before in a heavy rain. They waded across the river into Tennessee where they were met by Dad's cousin who had a Justice of the Peace ready and waiting to marry them. When they returned home, naively hoping their families would welcome them with open arms, my mother's family informed them that they were dead to them, but my father's family was delighted.  Of course that might have been because there was money on my mother's side and none on my father's.  Years later my mom reconciled with her family, but she never quite forgave them. 

To be honest, I am not sure exactly how factual this story is.  I found in the same reams of paper a version of their elopement that had my grandmother jumping out of her 2nd story bedroom and in another the buggies were Model Ts.  I personally like the image of the buggies better and really the details aren't the story, the emotions and feelings behind it are.  It must have been so hard for my grandmother, at not-quite-18, to be told never to darken her family's door again and doubly hard when a few years later the Great Depression hit, driving them and thousands of others to relocate in hopes of making a better life for themselves.  They were a hardy lot, those ancestors of the early 1900s.  I'd like to think I would have had the courage to take a literal leap of faith out a window, whether it be the 2nd story bedroom or church, into the arms of my horseback riding beloved, but who knows?  I may have taken one look at the horse I was aiming for and decided I would rather take a nap. Fortunately for me, my grandmother made that leap.

Here is my grandmother in 1941 with 5 of her children.  The other two late-in-life babies had not yet made their appearances.  My mom is in the front in a home-sewn satin dress.  She said she would like to say it was red, but she remembers it was navy blue. She also remembers that just moments after she was keeping an eye on him in this photo, her younger brother pulled his hands out of his pockets, and yes, he had a frog in one.  So of course she punched him. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Change is that a good thing?

Change happens.  All the time. The weather, the landscape, your children's ages. Everything changes. As I write this I am eating a bowl of homemade cauliflower soup (and can I just say YUM!) which in a minute or so will be gone. Change. Anyone who says they don't like change is being disingenuous.  If they really didn't like change they would sit in the same chair, wearing the same clothes, day in, day out until someone either hosed them off or set them out on the curb for the no doubt underpaid garbage truck people to pick up. Oh well, they say, some change is ok. It's the big changes I don't like. Like what? You don't like summer turning into fall into winter into spring? You don't like the revolution of the earth? Don't like to see the sun come up every morning? Well, that's just silly! Of course that kind of change is ok. So what kind of change is not ok? I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the kind of change we don't like is a change we don't want.

I had breakfast with a good friend this morning and as I drove home I made a detour around town, realizing that this will be one of the last times I do that. Not the last, but one of the last. Change is all over Missoula. In the 20+ years I have lived here I have seen houses march along the hillside where empty lots used to sit. I have seen the city spread out to include dozens of businesses along a 4 lane road that runs the length of town, river to mountain. New buildings at the University. Different shops downtown. New restaurants, coffee shops and golf courses. When I first moved here, locals were always giving directions by saying what the location used to be, like the old JC Penney store, the even older Safeway on Higgins, the now abandoned drive in, the old Mansion (the original location up the Rattlesnake, not the new one on the hill). Now I can give my own directions with what-used-to-be-there's. Like where Insty Prints where I briefly worked was, or Hansen's Ice Cream Parlour where you could get a great hamburger as well as a killer hot fudge sundae, Montana Pies as well known for its soup as its pies.  The shopping mall has its own stories of change. WaldenBooks, Grady's Cafe, El Matador with its food barely recognizable as Mexican, a coffee shop done in forest green and white that had the best coffee I ever had, Nordstrom Annex that only sold women's clothing, and a host of local businesses that did not survive mall rent.

Some of the changes to my city were welcome (can't wait to shop there), some barely noted (hey, where did that come from?), others mourned (I loved that place. No, I didn't go much, but still). As I consider the move that is in my near future, I can't help but wonder what will be changed when I return. This won't be a temporary move as some of my others were. This is a move toward a future I can almost see and that I am excited about embracing. I will return to this much loved city, to sit on decks and drink wine, to camp by gorgeous rivers, to celebrate milestones both mine and others, both happy and sad. I will return but I doubt I will ever live here again.

A friend drove me home late one night last week and as we went past one of the several brand new apartment complexes springing up in the most unlikely places, I wondered out loud where all the people who were moving in lived before they were built.  To which my friend replied, at least there will be lots of choices when you move back. He's a funny guy.

Missoula Evening