Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Preface: Lady Love has been chiding me about writing down some of my family histories for my children and grandchildren. "It's important", she says---and I know she is right.

Great-Grannie Rosenbalm
Her garden was huge. I played in her garden; promising to walk carefully thru the rows as she told me about what she had planted. She showed me around her house: she had a root cellar; she would keep carrots there so she could have them fresh all winter; there was two pickle barrels with sweet pickles in one and dill in the other. There was shelves with jelly and jams. She told me she didn't need to keep all this food now 'cause she didn't eat much any more. She grew it to give it away to friends, neighbors, poor people, for church suppers.

She was a woman used to giving.

She had given my Mother and her brother a home. She had given them direction and purpose in life when their father, Andrew seemed to have failed them. (It took years before my mother and my uncle ever forgave him for his indiscretions.) She encouraged my mother to go into nursing which gave her a lifetime career. My Uncle Marlyn was a career soldier and he too was in the Medical Corp. Grannie had taught them caring for others was very important. Her son, Andrew had let those children down in a way that was grieivious to her and she tried to make it up to them and she did.

The two years that followed : we were unable to get up to see Grannie but she and Mother wrote to each other on a weekly basis and I was always so happy to read her letters--imagining I could see blue eyes shining out of that tanned leathery face that I knew smelled of pipe tobacco.

In October of 1940 we received a phone call from Great Aunt I was six years old the first time I remembered meeting Great Grannie Rosenbalm. I always thought that she was going to be a great big grannie. I was in for a surprise!!

Our car pulled into this neat,flowering yard; it was abundant with flowers, bushes,vines,vegetables and there in middle of all these things stood a little woman. Her face was wrinkly and tanned as brown shoe leather and she was dressed in a long flowered dress which was covered by an equally long, rough apron. A scarf was tied around her brow to catch the perspiration. It was July. A hot job for an 84 year old.

The tiny woman had an expansive smile--while still holding a clay pipe in the corner of her mouth. She held her hoe in her left hand but she extended her right arm out into an opening embrace. My mother ran into her arms. As she and my mother hugged, tears ran down both of their faces. (My mother was only 5' 4" but she seem to tower over this wisp of a woman.)

She hugged us all and what I shall always remember from that hug was her smell. She smelled like vanilla cookies and pipe tobacco. (Grannies pipe smoking came from Ireland. It seems in those days it was a rite of passage for the old crones to take up pipe smoking. She ordered her little clay pipes from Ireland.) I have never smelled anything like it since but I would recognize it in an instant--it was so unique.

As my mother released Grannie from her second hug,Grannie addressed her firmly, "Josie, (No one ever called mother that!!) go in the house,there is tea water on low and cookies in the brown tin. I need to finish hoeing this row of onions and then I'll be right in."
"But, Grannie, I came all this way to see you, can't you give up a row of onions and come in now, " my mother pleaded.

"Now,you know the answer to that,Josie!" My mother was scolded by this little tiny woman.

"Mother,why did Grannie call you 'Josie' ? "

"I'll tell you when we get inside," she said.

We went inside and Dad told us the story about Mother's name: 'When your mother was a baby her name is and was to be given at her baptismal as Josephine Vera. Her Grandfather was very nervous holding her and when the pastor ask, " What name do you give this child?" He answered, "Billie Vera"--He had just told someone that if he ever had a grandson he would like him to be called "Billie". So on her birth certificate it says Josephine Vera and on her baptismal certificate it says Billie Vera and her Grandfather from that time on called her Billie. Grannie is the only one that calls her Josie."
We had never heard her called anything but Billie.

While Dad told us this story, mother fussed around doing as she was told and fuming that Grannie wouldn't give up her "row of onions."My Dad was grinning one of those charming grins that totally disarmed my mother into smiling. She knew she had just been "bossed" around by Grannie--who was so obviously in charge of her home.(Mother was a nurse and she was usually the one giving orders.) She succumbed, leaned back in one of the many rockers; she and Dad chatted about this amazing woman.

My brother and I listened as they talked about how she raised her family, Andrew( her son,our grandfather),Jack and her daughters Eunice and Rosette. When my Grandmother, Elizabeth died in child birth, Andrew became at first despondent and proceeded to become a drunk. He drank and gambled until all the family money, and their home was gone.

Grannie Rosenbalm stepped in. She and Great Grampa Rosenbalm took my mother and her brother,Marlyn and gave them a home. My mother was twelve and her brother was an infant. Grampa Rosenbalm died a few years later and this tiny,tough middle-aged woman was left to fend for herself with a young family.

Both the Rosenbalms had grown up in Ireland and were married there. When they came to Wisconsin, Great Grampa built the house in which we were sitting. He knew the winters would be dreadfully cold. He built their home so the backside of the house (north) fit into a very substantial hill. There were no windows on that side. The front of the house faced south and had a generous amount of windows. The house was long and low and looked like it had been plucked from Ireland and planted properly in the Wisconsin landscape.

I fell so much in love with Grannie and this house, they seemed to be burned in my brain.
There were 3 bedrooms downstairs and "the loft" as Grannie called it had 4 beds setting dormitory style with an ample aisle down the center. My brother had one bed at one end of the room and I at the other. The roof sloped down quickly and I loved to lie on the bed and let my feet touch the ceiling. There were down mattresses to sleep on and down comforters to cover us. Most of the Wisconsin summers we didn't need them but when you did--how lovely they were! Whenever I hear John Denvers song, "Gramma's Featherbed" I know why they are called comforters--they comforted one little girl to sleep during a summer thunderstorm.

The next 5 days with Grannie I followed her about like a puppy,loving to sit near her to smell her pipe and her fresh washed skin. I liked to watch her sleep in her chair,her head back and her glasses setting in her hair on top of her head. I found her fun to be with and she seemed to like me. I knew because of the way she always patted my hair. I never told her I loved her and I wished I had because my thoughts of her have remained so indelible. Instead I always asked her a lot of questions and she answered with great patience.

The following late October, AuntRosette called--Great Grannie had fallen in her beloved garden and had remained there for hours before anyone found her. She had pneumonia and was gravely ill. Our family made plans to go to Great Grannies bedside.

My mother prepared us for what probably would occur. I remember my mother weeping most of the six hour trip. We went into the hospital. It was night time and it was quiet, dark and dreary. The lights on the wall were dim and the smell of alcohol seemed everywhere.
Mother told me I did not have to go into her room if I did not want to. She told me I could sit in the waiting room. I assured her that I wanted to go with her.

As we walked toward her my mother began to cry quietly. She knew that death was near. Great Grannies breaths were shallow and raspy. I was so sad and yet I did not cry. I walked closer and touched the weathered hand and was shocked by its coldness. Mother and I stayed there for sometime and then other members of the family moved in and out.

We returned and then stayed until she drew her last breath. Mother kissed her on the cheek and went down the hall sobbing with me tagging along quite not knowing what I felt.
My mother said,"Oh ,no, I forgot my purse."

"I'll go get it," I said, not knowing where that voice came from.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." I turned and walked back down to Grannies room.
I found mother's purse. I looked again at that tanned leathery face that I knew so little about and yet loved so much.
I walked toward my mother and tears were streaming down my face."Mother, I told her I loved her and Goodbye."
We held each other in that dark and dreary hallway.

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