Saturday, July 31, 2010

My Mother, but Younger - Part One

Marie was born in Lamotte, Iowa and she lived on a rented farm with her seven older siblings and one younger. When her father was 39 years old and she was three he died. Pulled his own tooth and blood poisoning followed. Grandma Liz moved to Cascade to be near her family and her brothers paid $600 for a house on a corner lot not too far from the center of town. Church was down a couple of blocks and then over one and Grandma Liz was a stickler on regular attendance. When that church bell rang those kids better be sitting in the pews.

Back row: Joe, neighbor girl, Irene, Howard (deceased)
Front row: Marie (deceased), Elmer (deceased), Rita, Leona, Walter

Leo, not pictured

This was the Depression in the middle of a small Iowa farming town. There just was not enough to eat. Mom said they ate an egg in the morning and that was all until supper. Maybe a slight exaggeration but nonetheless, they were hungry. The yard had a big garden and they put up 500 pints a season. Mom had small wrists and she was the one who washed the insides of those jars every year. She made herself a promise that she would never can produce when she was an adult. And she married a city boy and she never did. Her gardens only had flowers, lots of flowers.

Occasionally, her brothers would give her meat but cheap cuts like cows' lungs that she would use for flavoring soup. Mom did say they had turkey soup for Thanksgiving. I can remember my grandmother's stove. It dominated the kitchen and there was a soup pot that sat below the surface of the stove and it was always simmering. Grandma had a glass bowl on top of the stove filled with salt and I remember her taking handfuls of salt and dropping them into various pots. I have that same glass bowl next to my stove and it holds utensils. Mom said that after she married Dad they would go out to Cascade for Sunday dinner and they always had a beef roast. Sonny had said at the time that it was the best meat he ever tasted (only salt and pepper were used for seasonings) and the honest truth was that Nana, Dad's mother, was not greatest of cooks. Dad joked that when he met little Marie Knockel he went out to Liz's house and all the girls lined up. He said, which of you is the best cook? Marie stepped forward and that was the girl he married. Har, har, Dad.

The children all had poor teeth. There was no money for dental care. In Mom's belongings after her death I found a card regarding a dental exam that had been done at school when she was five years old. They were recommending that Mom get further treatment. I'm sure she never did. One of her diary entries talks about a dentist visit when she was 15. Three teeth pulled and eleven teeth filled. She had dental problems all her life. At the time of her death she had three separate contraptions that she put in her mouth. My aunt Rita, the youngest, lost all her teeth at age 15. Not enough milk.
Mom always wanted a bicycle. There was no money for that and she talks in her diary about borrowing other kids' bikes. One time she rode to Monticello and back - a round trip of twenty miles. I can see her pedaling down the road her little legs churning and her black curls whipping back from her face. I always thought about getting her a little charm of a bicycle that she could wear around her neck. Well, I guess I forgot about that.

I remember my grandmother as a quiet woman sitting in a chair while the activity of children and grandchildren played out around her. I don't remember that she smiled much. She was very large at first but then a diagnosis of diabetes resulted in her losing weight. She always wore dresses with a belt around the waist and black, old lady shoes. All her children did well and they built her a brick ranch house on the edge of town and she lived there with my uncle Leo, an unmarried WWII hero. I can remember visiting her on Sundays and there was a stack of comic books inside the closet. There was a little room between the garage and the house and a few months ago I took some clothing to be altered (haven't figured out how to use my new sewing machine - haven't actually tried) and this older German lady had the same set-up in her house on Kane Street. I was immediately transferred back to that Cascade house, the wooden paneling, cold in the winter and we would line our boots up against the wall. There were so many cousins. It was always noisy.

I remember a newspaper article that Mom had showed me. Grandma had five sons and they all served in the war. My youngest uncle, Elmer, was the last to go. Now Elmer was a funny guy - not like my other uncles, serious natures and all. Elmer would tease and kid and I found him different from the rest of the family. I used to say to him, are you sure you are from this family? When Elmer was being raised situations probably lightened up for Grandma. The older children were out of the house and earning money and supplementing Grandma's laundry income. She took in laundry plus her widow's pension as her only income. Perhaps she used a lighter touch with Elmer and he had room to develop a sense of humor. Anyway, in this article it shows Grandma facing Elmer in his full uniform. And she is shaking his hand. The article explained that this was Mrs. Knockel saying goodbye to her youngest son. Now if that were me and my youngest son, I would have my arms clamped around him so tightly Uncle Sam would need to ship both of us out together. Now I am not a hugger by nature but desperation would propel me to a different level. Grandma was reserved, somewhat emotionally distant, and always strict with herself. She could not afford to lose control. She had a family to feed.

Did I say she took in laundry? The local dentist was one of her customers. Mom can remember how his white shirts would freeze on the clothes lines during winter and their hands became chafed and raw from the water and the cold. There are entries in Mom's diary talking about Mom ironing - the entire day. Interestingly, Mom enjoyed ironing all her life. She always set up her board in a scenic part of the house. At 1302 she chose the downstairs back porch and on Stone Ridge Place the basement level where she could look out at her lilac bushes and birdhouse. When Grandma Liz became sick for the last time all the Knockel siblings came back to Cascade and stayed with Grandma until she died. I remember Mom being gone about two weeks. I had just turned 18. I wanted Mom's homecoming to be pleasant and that she would walk into the house and not have to worry about housework that had gone undone for too long. Her numerous plants I wanted to be healthy and thriving and not really having any plant experience at that point of my life I watered the poor things every day and well, they were yellow and rather lifeless when she returned, but my intentions were good. And then there was the ironing. I had not realized at that time in my young life that ironing was therapeutic for my mother. I saw it as a chore. I had never ironed because there were certain tasks that Mom performed solely herself and Amy and I were never trained to do. One of these tasks were cooking for Dad ( I was taught to bake but only my mother alone would cook for my finicky father.) When I married I called my mother and said, what do I do? I don't know how to cook. She sent me a Betty Crocker cookbook. And another was ironing. So, I prepared to attack the piles of wrinkled clothing on the back porch and it was a slow and laborious project. It took me many hours, but damn, I got that ironing done. When my mother returned, I followed her out to the back porch and she looked around at the empty room and seemed shocked and forlorn. I believe she was looking forward to doing that ironing - for her it was peace and calmness, a return to the routine that she badly needed. Once again, I was wrong about my mother and once again, I learned.


MrDaveyGie said...

That is good write. Maybe, perhaps, my biking zeal is from my mama, and I ride where and when she didn't.

dawn marie giegerich said...