Monday, December 29, 2008

My Hero in a Homburg Hat

We traveled from Northern Illinois each year 140 miles to Wisconsin and I knew Grampa lived there. We visited other friends and relatives but we never went to Grampa’s house.

My Mother always spoke very sparingly about her Father.

When my brother and I ask why we never saw him, ”Well, he broke my heart when I was a little girl.” In my young mind I thought,”Yeah,but...” and I would wade right in with more questions. So it went with me pecking way like a little chick getting very few answers.

I could tell she still loved him because I just believed she did. She would smile and get a soft gooey look in her eyes. It was the same look she got when she looked at my brother and me and told us she loved us. Yeah , I knew she loved him. But why did he never visit......? Why did we never visit him.....? Why did Poge live with us instead of Grampa?

We totally forgot about grampa when we were reintroduced to our cousins
and we were allowed to roam in and out of the bluffs and caves that surrounded their home. How I loved an outdoors that was so exciting ; we could run and play like wild indians and then drink from a sweet water spring that flowed from a rock.

It wasn’t ‘til we were back in the car and we would set out for a long ride that I would think and say,”Why didn’t we visit Grampa?”

My Mother would turn in her seat and say firmly,”We just didn’t. Weren’t the Dells pretty and didn’t you have a wonderful time with your cousins? I think you better be quiet now and try to take a little nap-----it is a long ride home. We will talk about Grampa another time.”

She was right,of course but she still couldn’t hide that soft look in her eyes when she said,”grampa.” I tried to talk to my brother(he was thirteen and should know about things) but he told me to, “be quiet and take a nap.” He acted like a grown-up more all the time! My cousins Evelyn’s brother was the same way!!! I was mad but I soon fell asleep.

A Year later I never lost my natural curiosity about grampa,my preparation for being a writer. I gleaned those little bits of information that were exciting to me : my mother had gone camping when she was a little girl and when she woke up with a snake wrapped around the leg of her camp cot. Pretty exciting stuff in my little sheltered life. My mother never went camping again.

Grampa was trapper,a hunter and a fisherman (I pictured him in a coonskin hat,tramping those beautiful hills and bluff in Wisconsin.) That was not much for a little girl of nine to know about her grampa but I held on to those few scraps of information and I wrote them down.
I began to write in earnest when I was nine. My father was a flaming alcoholic. I clung to my pencil and paper like as a drowning person clings to a life buoy. I spewed hate and venom on my paper. Writing about things that were pleasant or curious took me away from the problems of an alcoholic home.

Those words that I wrote about my grampa were few but I remember how I would look at them and smile. I liked to imagine I was out there walking with him. Once I showed my friend Aggie what I had written my grampa. She said, “That’s not much, I know a lot more about my grampa than you do yours.” I was hurt. It had taken me so long to find out his little bit. I never showed her anything again.

In November of 1941 my mother received a telephone call from her father. He had trapped two young bears. He found the mother bear dead with the poor little creatures trying to nurse from her dead body. He was going to sell them to the Brookfield Zoo, in Chicago. He would come to Harvard, Illinois and there was a three hour delay before another train would be available going into Chicago and everything had been arranged to transport the bears from the train to the zoo. Could she or my father pick him up at the Harvard station so he might visit? The village of Chemung is five miles west of Harvard.

When I arrived from school my mother told me my grampa was coming for a visit. I was elated I was prancing around the kitchen with my usual exuberance, “ Grampa is coming, grampa is coming.” My mother began to cry,not just cry but sob and sob. The kind of sob that seems to take over ones body and make it shake.

I was subdued now. “Don’t cry Mother. Won’t you be happy to see him?”
“Yes,yes,” she tried to answer. “It has been so long.” she sobbed.
My father came in and he was sober. I was thankful.He flashed his great grin. “ What is going on here?” He looked at my Mother crying. His concern for her was real. He put his arms around her and her head rested on his shoulder and she sobbed out her story.
He listened through every sob and finally he held her at arms length and said,” Sweetheart, this is wonderful. Maybe you two can talk and get all this stuff between you ironed out. Don’t you think it is time?”
“ I don’t think I can.” She sobbed.
“Yes you can and you have to start somewhere.” My Dad was so great in so many ways. I was glad to witness this because sometimes during those days we all needed to have him remind us of his best qualities.
My brother got off the school bus and I ran to greet him and tell him the news. “Hi Squirt,” he said. I’d even overlooked this nickname he and my cousin,Bob had chosen for me.
“Grampa’s coming and he’s got two bears and he’s going to sell them to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.”
“Oh, he is not, Squirt!” He grinned as I gave him my best cross look about that nickname. He still did not believe me as we entered the kitchen door. My brother drew up short when he saw my mother had been crying---he always figured that my father was at the bottom of it.

He was relieved to hear my father say,”Isn’t that great news? I’m so happy you are going to finally getting to meet him---Andy is quite a fellow.” There was that big grin again.

My eyes flew wide open. “You have met him? How come you never told me?”
He leaned over and winked, “Cause you never asked me. All this time he knew something about grampa and he never told me. He saw the hurt look on my face and said, “Your mother asked me not to and it is up to her to tell when she chooses. Your mother and I need to talk. You two find something else to do and we’ll let you in on all the plans."

Mother seemed to come up quickly with the grocery list and we were sent to pick up a few groceries at the store that was two blocks from our house. My brother seemed to feel just fine not being included in the plans but I felt left out.

The plans were made. My Grampa and the bears would be on the train very early and would arrive in Harvard about 9:30 a.m. He would spend about two and a half hours with us and be back in Harvard about 1 p.m. to board the train for Chicago.

There was much discussion as to whether my brother and I would be kept home from school. I could not believe that my mother was even considering sending us to school. I begged and pleaded and finally our father sided with us and he said he felt the only fair thing was for us to meet our grampa.
I could not sleep that night for thinking about my grampa. What he looked like ; what his voice was like and would his voice sound deep like Poge’s?Poge was my mother’s brother. Poge was 12 when he came to live with Mother and Dad in Chicago. Poge advanced from fifth grade to the 7th grade. Poge was smart. He was 12 years younger than my mother. Their mother had died when Poge was born. He was wonderful and was like a much older brother to us. Poge had been raised by his grand mother until the time he came to live with my folks. He was a sweet man........but you couldn’t get him to talk about much of anything. He read ,read and read. I saw a light under his bedroom door.
I tapped softly. I said,“Poge.”
He opened the door,”Sis, what are you doing up?”
“I can’t sleep,I am so excited about seeing Grampa. Aren’t you?”
“Well,sure I guess I am,” he said. He smiled.
“Do you and Mother love grampa?”
“Sure we do. We have been a part a long time. Sometime it takes along time for each of us to heal. Do you know what I mean? Sis,you better get to bed or you won’t be able to get up early to meet my dad.” He smiled again.
“Ok.” I walked down the hall to my room thinking that grownups were hard to understand sometimes. I crawled into bed thinking of baby bears and grampa.

The next morning the house smelled of cinnamon and coffee. I still love that smell. Mother had made on of her wonderful coffee cakes.

“You kids eat your cereal and toast and we will save the coffee cake for when my dad gets here.” The word “dad” fell naturally from her mouth. My brother and I shot a look at each other and smiled. She hustled and bustled around the kitchen making everything look nice. It was the way she looked when it was a holiday. She loved holidays.
“Poge, you drink all the coffee you want. You too,Honey. I’ll make a fresh pot right before Dad gets here.” Wow! She did it again. This time Poge winked at me and I winked back. My brother was off getting cleaned up--I couldn’t wait to tell him. We all went in our different directions to get dressed and ready. My Dad went out the front door to head for the train depot.
“Their here.” I called. I watched from our sun room window as a tall man in a homburg hat and long black coat emerged from our ‘39 Ford. I watched and tried to figure out why this man could have so much mystery about him. My brother pulled me back so mother could go around and greet her dad.
Grampa and Dad were chatting as they walked up the sidewalk. Grampa stepped in and removed his hat and said,”Josie, it is so good to see you.” They stepped into our kitchen and they embraced for several seconds and Poge walked over and they hugged. The tears ran down my father’s face and Bob and I stood there knowing we were watching something wonderful but we didn’t know what. Grampa had brought mother a box of chocolates and a book for Poge.
My Mother dried her eyes and regained her composure and said, “Dad, let me take your coat and hat. Come in the living room and have a seat, we will have some coffee and coffee cake in a bit. This our son, Bob and our daughter,Gloria Jean.”
“Yes, Hello,” he said in a soft,deep voice that could have been Poges. We both responded with quiet "hellos." I could not take my eyes from his face. Poge had deep set blue eyes; a broad but pointed nose and my mother had sharp chiseled features,the same blue eyes,chestnut hair and she was very beautiful. His children did not seem to share any of his face but Poge had his voice,his slender body and his very quiet strength.
I thought his face was the best face a grampa could have. His face was tan and quite long. His brow had scraggly eyebrows,only a slight bridge to his nose, and a scar that showed his nose had been broken and was flat; when he smiled it was as if what was left would melt into his face. It was that smile that seemed to be cheering on the rest of that face. I fell in love with that face.
He saw me looking at him so intently and said,” Gloria Jean, why are you looking at me so hard?”
“Grampa, you have a nice face.”
He laughed and slapped his leg,”You do too,honey.
“Grampa, will we be able to see your bears at the zoo?”
“Sure can. Do you get to Brookfield Zoo?” he asked.
“Yes,we have a field trip at the end of the year and we always go to Brookfield Zoo.”
“Then you will see them,”he said.
“Grampa did you ever kill a bear?
He looked at mother very cautiously, and answered,”Yes, I have.”
“Gloria Jean, please no more questions.”
“Ok” I said. I probably would never find out if he ever ate any bear meat.
We had our coffee cake and drinks. Mother packed grampa a lunch to eat on his way to Chicago. It was time for grampa to go. Grampa put on his hat and coat. He smiled and I thought he looked handsome with that tan,strange, chiseled face that looked like it had been formed by the cold Wisconsin wind.
We hugged and had a tearful goodbye.
Mother put her arm around Poge as Grampa and Dad climbed into the car.”Dad looks good doesn’t he?” she asked.
Poge chuckled,” Andrew looks mighty fine in that homburg hat.”
I repeated longingly,“Yes, Grampa you do look mighty fine in that homburg hat.”

In the spring of 1942 I saw my Grampa’s Bears. It was a thrill and I’m sure every kid in school got sick of me talking about my Grampa’s bears!!!

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