Saturday, June 19, 2010

Memoir Supplement - Chapter Two

I've always had a strain of melancholy running through my being. Not that I don't have fun, or laugh and joke, or like being with people and being socially active. It's just this note of sadness that tolls in the distant background, louder at times, haunting me. I don't know why or where it comes from exactly, just that it's there as part of who I am and has to be paid attention. Only once, when I was older, did circumstances flood to overwhelm and drag me down to nearly drown in it. But that comes later in the story. For now, I trace at least some of it to childhood experiences which may, or may not, be quite similar to those of most people.

My mother, Bess Mary, was born April 5, 1903, the fourth of seven children; three older brothers, one younger followed by two sisters. Her mother, Rose, married Jacob Pflug, who the family whispered was a Jew, though never that was never confirmed or spoken aloud and remained a family secret. When we visited he'd take me to his store where he sold John Deere farm implements and I'd walk around holding his hand, feeling happy and important.

Mom's family lived in a small farming community, Ohiowa, Nebraska, with maybe 1,000 or so inhabitants, , all of them on the same telephone line with a a particular ring for each phone to indicate an incoming call to which everyone listened in. Since people had to rapidly turn a little handle of the side of the big wooden-encased wall phone to ring up the town operator, that sound also signaled everyone of the so called party line to pick up the received to listen in, everyone was pretty tuned in to all the news and gossip of the day. That was the entertainment of that time, along with church services and socials.

My grandmother, and then as a young girl, my mother played the piano for the morning and evening worship services in the small, clapboard church which the whole family attended. as did my Grandfather Jacob though he sat in the back pew and never joined as did the others. And yet, my mother told me that when his brother had a "nervous breakdown," it was my grandfather gave him a home, took care of him and read the bible to him every night.
When I grew up, I was proud of having a Jewish ancestry but my memory of my Grandfather Jacob is shadowed by another time when we drove all night to visit mother's family and he was lying very still in a bed in a room off the wood stove kitchen. Everyone was quiet and kept wiping their eyes with their handkerchiefs. I was told he'd had a stroke, whatever that was. All I knew was that he was sick and silent, my mother was sad and worried, so I felt lost and cried, too.

That memory blends into another which must have been very shortly after. There was a fire in my grandparent's house and I watched it from the window of a house across the dirt alley leading to the barn. Following that is the image of my grandmother, Rose, standing off to the side of a gathering of people looking at her house and furniture and my mother telling me the bank was selling their house and everything because there was a big Depression and Granddad had died and Grandma had no money and no home now.

I didn't understand much of what she said except it was bad and I was very scared because my mom was squeezing me so hard and making strange noises as her tears ran down into my hair. I remembered the night not long before when the truck with the whirling red light took my mom to the hospital and I wondered if something like that was going to happen again that very day. I clung to my mom and sister, who was standing with us. I just knew I had to be very good so that my mom wouldn't leave me again. That didn't happen, but I knew it might someday, who knew for sure. I never forgot that terrifying feeling.

My father, Theodore William, Sr.,was born November 7, 1902, the oldest of four brothers. His mother, Alice Snyder, and his father, William, also lived in a small agricultural town named Waverly, Nebraska. My grandfather, with his father, ran what was called a dry goods store in town. The store sold groceries, buttons, pickles and flour from barrels, cloth for sewing, and other things people needed. I remember being fascinated by the story and the stories my dad told about how he, and his brothers in turn, worked in the store as they grew up. I also remember that railroad tracks divided the little town, most businesses being on one side, most houses on the other and listening to the plaintive whistle of trains going through and the rhythmic pump of the steam engine and being strangely stirred lying in bed as those haunting sounds floated though the night air and wondering where the train was going.

My Grandmother Alice was very special to me. My mother and father, and sister, Rosemary, left me with her when they drove to the Chicago World's Fair when I was just four years old. My grandparents still had a horse and buggy, as did lots of the people of Waverly and the surrounding farms. So the horse, Dan, was a great attraction to me as a little boy. The kindness of my grandmother was evident in tying Dan to a post near the back steps and letting me sit on him as I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. How did she know I'd remember that, and her, forever? She just did. It was grace personified.

So were the stories she told when putting me to bed. And a song she taught me I still sing to myself sometimes:

"Come, little leaves/Said the wind one day;/Come to the meadows/With me and play./Put on your dresses/Of red and gold;/For summer is past,/And the days grow cold.//Soon as the leaves/Heard the wind's loud call,/Down they came fluttering,/One and all./

Over the meadows/They danced and flew,/All singing the glad/Little songs they knew.//
Dancing and flying,/The leaves went along,/Til Winter called them/To end their sweet song./
Soon, fast asleep/In their earthy beds,/The snow lay a coverlet/O'er their heads.///

It was New Years Day after that summer, when my Grandmother Loder was killed in an car accident when returning home from visiting us in Clinton Iowa. The accident happened after the two memories I shared in Memoir One about my mother's fall and miscarriage and the profound sense of longing I had on Christmas night that year. My Grandfather Jacob's awful sickness and dying, my Grandmother Rose's having to sell her house and everything, my Grandmother Alice's death, all seems to strike out of the blue while everyone was doing what they had always been doing, just as had my mother's fall and miscarriage and being taken away, leaving us behind. Why had all that happened? What went wrong? Couldn't someone stopped it from happening. Couldn't I have? The world seemed increasingly scary to me.

I remember my Dad driving us all to the hospital where my Grandmother Alice and Grandfather William were. We arrived late at night. Everything was dark and quiet, even inside the hospital where we walked down a long hallway with doors on each side. My Grandmother was behind one of those doors. I have a vague memory of entering the room, standing at the foot of a bed, standing on tip toe to look over a board at the end of it, seeing only a white sheet pulled up to the top and nothing else, nothing moving. I heard my dad cry, my mom whispering to him and saw other figures like shadows around the bed. not understanding what it was all about except it was bad.

I remember gathering later at my Uncle Ed's house Lincoln, Nebraska, which was near Waverly later and seeing my Grandfather being helped into bed, his side tapped up where, I was told, his ribs were broken. I heard them talking, Uncle Ed, Uncle Doc, Uncle Dwight who was pounding his fist on the arm of his chair. Someone had gone through a stop light and caused the accident. Who was it? How could whoever it was do that? Why was my Uncle Dwight, who had been driving the car my grandparents were in, pounding on the chair? Where was my Grandmother Alice? Indeed, "Dancing and flying,/The leaves went along,/Til Winter called them/To end their sweet song.//Soon, fast asleep/In their earthy beds,/The snow lay a coverlet/O'er their heads./// It was like my Grandmother Alice's song, only not just leaves. but everything churned out of place

Or was it in place? What did it mean that not only leaves but people, grandmothers, go fast asleep in their earthly beds? It seemed a bottomless mystery though I then didn't have words to call it that, or identify the lost, lonely feelings I had. I was just 5 and a half. Now, more than seven decades later, the mystery is less frightening but just as real. Less frightening because it has to do with God, and as Isaiah reminds us, God says, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (1)

So, there is always something unfinished about our mortal life for all of us, however fast we run, however busy we are, however hard we work, however much we have or don't have, however many good works we do. And those feeling of being lost and lonely? That strain of melancholy running through me and my awareness of the mystery of it all, even in seasons of joy and deep love? I realize they are the gates what open to longing, and the way home.

(1) Isaiah 55: 8-9 NRSV

1 comment:

  1. The Memoir for Chapter Two evoked my parents and grandparents and myself as a little one. The last line comforted me. Thank you for writing this. Please don't stop.