Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Cruisin' (Episode IV)

This past summer Joyce and I drove to her family's farm in Illinois, but sadly we arrived (as things turned out) just hours after her 99-year-old grandfather had passed away. So what we'd hoped would be a final visit with Grandpa turned out to be a family reunion occasioned by Grandpa's funeral. As sad as we all were, it was such a joy to see all of Joyce's relatives gathered once more. This coming Sunday, April 20th, would have been Grandpa's 100th birthday. The next chapter in my ongoing story of our 1990 family vacation (think Chevy Chase and Beverley D'Angelo) tells of our visit to the farm. So in memory of a man who was great because he was good, here's Episode IV.

Following the night of nature's light show in Jacksonville, Illinois, we drove to Springfield, past the silver-domed Illinois State Capitol Building (a scaled-up version of the County Courthouse in Weatherford, Texas) and then dropped in on Lincoln's home. (Abe and Mary weren't in.) Although I'd been the only one to detect Jesse James's lingering essence back at Meramec Caverns, Joyce demonstrated her superior olfactory ability by being the first to detect the fragrance emanating from Ben. So (while Joyce dealt with Ben's soiled undergarments in Lincoln's restroom) Andy, James and I sat on a wood bench in the mansion's lobby. The bench was a split log, cut longitudinally. As we sat there, it occurred to me that this was one of those rare teachable moments with the kids.

So I shared: "Boys, did you know this bench we're sitting on was made out of a log from Lincoln's log cabin in Kentucky? Lincoln himself probably chopped down the very wood we're sitting on."

Just as my tutorial was getting warmed up, Joyce emerged from Lincoln's latrine with Ben all freshly diapered and (having overheard just enough blarney to cause her eyes to roll around) she wasted no time dismantling my carefully crafted lesson plan, "Bobby, don't fill their heads with such garbage."

I of course chided: "So how do you expect the kids to learn anything? It's important to pass on ones family heritage. Here James, let me show you how to tie your shoes."

Before leaving Springfield we drove over to Lincoln's tomb (a designation that one could convincingly ascribe to the entire town of Springfield, IL). Now I must admit, Illinoisans do have a marginal edge over their Missouri neighbors when it comes to honoring their fallen heroes (which is to say Illinois has entombed Lincoln somewhat better than Missouri has enshrined Lassie).

On the far side of Springfield we arrived at the farm (just a few miles west of Champaign, IL) where Joyce's Mom had grown up. There Joyce's Aunt Vickie (wife of Joyce's Uncle Wayne and daughter-in-law of Joyce's grandparents who lived across the road) instructed us on the terms of the truce between her and Grandma.

You see, it seems that our visit the previous year had sparked something of a hospitality war between Grandma and Aunt Vickie. Both ladies were far too kind and gentle to engage in open hostility, but I sensed that Grandma viewed Vickie's offering us food and lodging us as a surprise attack on her position as hostess. Grandma (who wasn't about to surrender her guests without a fight) had retaliated with the flanking maneuver of preparing and serving us meals every chance she got.

Throughout our stay that previous year, neither Grandma nor Vickie would cede the title of hostess, so we'd been served no fewer than five meals a day and the road between the houses had become something of a battle front (lacking only the concertina wire and tank ditches). But this year, much to the relief of our waistlines, the warring parties had declared a truce prior to our arrival. Vickie informed us that we were to eat at her house and sleep in the upstairs bedrooms at Grandma and Grandpa's.

We spent two days and three nights on the farm, during which time Uncle Wayne built Andy a toy steam roller out of lumber from a walnut tree that had stood near the barn until a tornado removed both it and the barn during the Spring of 1983. One evening as we were seated around an infinitely expandable dining table, Uncle Wayne pointed out that the table had been built by Grandma's grandfather. Our three boys were the sixth generation to sit at this table. Wayne also noted that Grandpa's grandfather had built the house more than 125 years ago.) The farm brimmed with family history.

During our stay we also found time: to visit with Joyce's Aunt Sharon and Uncle Stan (sheep farmers who live down the road a ways), to fetch reluctant kitties out of the barn, and to swing on a swing hung from a pine tree that Grandpa's father planted.

But as I was saying, Aunt Vickie informed us that we were being billeted in the western upstairs bedrooms at Grandma and Grandpa's house on the east side of the road. Aunt Dorothy (who was born during the McKinley Administration and who was never to be confused with Grandma whose name was "Dorthy" - sans the "o") lived in the other half of the upstairs. She came and went from her apartment by way of the outdoor back stairway. We were to use the indoor stairs.

At the top of that indoor stairway were three doors: to the right was the north bedroom (which Joyce and I were assigned), straight ahead was the south bedroom (where our three boys were to bed down), and to the left was the door to Aunt Dorothy's apartment. But of course, that door was never to be opened. I can't say whether the door was locked (I rather doubt it could have been since even the outside doors didn't have locks), but one thing I knew was: Touching that knob would have been akin to touching the Ark of the Covenant. I for one, wouldn't have dreamed of desecrating what God Himself had declared sacred.

Each morning Aunt Dorothy would walk the length of two farm sections regardless of the weather, a mile down to the grain elevator and a mile back. Andy and I were privileged to be invited (along with Joyce's youngest girl cousins, who were only a few years older than Andy) to tea parties in Aunt Dorothy's apartment. The gossip about what the girl's dolls were up to and everyone's practiced extending of pinkies was well worth the climb up the outdoor steps. Sometime during our visit in the heat of a Scrabble game, I learned the hard way that Aunt Dorothy did not approve of the word "ZIT". (I was forced to concede that indeed "ZIT" is not in the official 1947 edition of Webster's.)

Grandma talked incessantly (mostly about her nerves). But when not fretting about her fretting, she found things even more trivial to fret about. Grandpa kept the summer sun's hours - up at 5:00 AM every morning and down when the cobalt-blue Harvestore's pink hue darkened to purple, or when Lawrence Welk's champagne bubbles quit bursting - whichever happened last. (Only Lawrence Welk could keep Grandpa up past his [and the sun's] bedtime.) During those intervening sunlit hours, Grandpa (whenever not tending the popcorn in the side yard or the sweet corn down at the corner) would harness his horses and take our kids for wagon rides.

Grandpa was also a very accomplished listener. His words were few but always worth your time. Grandpa and I both felt quite comfortable with long periods of silence and we liked each others jokes. He laughed like pumped air brakes on a truck. Sadly while we were there, Grandpa had to go to the hospital to have his gall bladder removed. Joyce, the boys and I left before Grandpa actually went under the knife. By the time he had his surgery, we were in Sparta, Wisconsin. But that's a whole other story.


Hula Doula said...

I love your stories. It reminds me so much of my own it is nutty. The arc of the covenant door and the locked room plus the North South East and West rooms in my grandparents house were all assigned. You just had to change the sheets in fear that the bees had made a home in the covers during the winter.

joyce said...

Since I attended school in Illinois from kindergarten to my sophomore year in high school, I know first hand how Lincoln is used for educational field trips, and places of interest for visiting tourists. New Salem, Lincoln's Home, Lincoln's tomb---all these enrich the education of the school age child in Illinois.

joyce said...

I am not sure Aunt Vickie will appreciate your post. She was just trying to lighten Grandma's load. But, Grandma so enjoyed cooking for the locusts. We used to descend upon her without warning when I was a child. And Grandma's cooking expertise was the highest standard---I remember my mother's roasts being compared to her mother's roasts.

Grandma James cooked more for breakfast than we do for a Thanksgiving feast. And I have never had to kill and de-feather a chicken and put it in the oven before church on a Sunday morning. She was amazing.

joyce said...

you are so close to one-thousand !

Bob said...

I do hate to disappoint you, dear ... but the stat counter doesn't record hits from our own IP address. It was nice of you to try to push the counter over the top, but regrettably, your efforts were for naught.