In the mood for a summer read that will boost your faith in people, yet without being simplistic and sappy? A book that may even compel you to cry real tears—I confess I did—from sympathy and joy?
A Wisconsin woman has written such a book for you. Her name is Amy E. Reichert, and the book is called The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go.
No, it’s not one of those step-by-step self-help guides guaranteed to make you happy by teaching you to trust your Inner Self. Instead, it’s a novel, the tale of four women—three generations of one family—who must try out new, unaccustomed paths through life as they cope with dizzymaking love, heartbreaking loss, and hard-wrought social and psychic defense mechanisms.
The story centers on Gina, who owns and operates a one-woman food truck, serving gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches for Milwakee’s lunchtimers. Gina’s a pushover for people in real need, yet hard-nosed enough to run a thriving business. She’s also half-numb with mourning for her deceased husband and stumped by the challenge of relating to May, her equally grief-stricken daughter.
Gina, May, and Gina’s younger sister, Vicky, are showered with unwelcome parental supervision by Lorraine, Gina and Vicky’s overbearing mother. When a sudden crisis in Lorraine’s health begins to expose deeply-buried family secrets, all four need to readjust their lives to accommodate startling new realities.
I loved this book, principally because the people in it are so real. They are all people I’ve known, and I’ll wager you know them, too. The family situations they find themselves in both preposterous and absolutely credible. These are just the kinds of things that happen to people in real life.
The characters’ strengths can also be weaknesses, and their weaknesses strengths. Gina is a compulsive organizer, who can only stumble through her hectic days by making lists. Patronizing remarks to the contrary notwithstanding, it is Gina’s listmaking that gradually, persistently, begins to impose order on the chaos of her life—and even on the structure of the novel itself.
The old woman, Lorraine, is almost as irritating to the reader as she is to her daughters and granddaughter. But as her story gradually unwinds, we find ourselves admiring the very adaptations that make her so annoying.
I would like to go on and on about the strengths of this novel, with its sure-footed narrative style. But if I write any more, you’ll begin to feel I’ve told you the whole story.
And it’s too good a story not to experience for yourself.
Ensconce yourself, at your earliest opportunity, with a copy of The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go. I’ll bet you will like it as much as I did.
Waiting. Waiting. Waiting all year. Waiting in a little town on the prairie.
Waiting through the commotion at Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s brown board house under the big elm on the Square. Waiting in bed at Grandma and Grandpa Sommers’ quiet house, with the lone blue light in its window, waiting with dreams of an electric train or a trap drum set, waiting for Santa Claus and his reindeer, if only they would—
It’s morning. Christmas morning!
I jump out of bed and dash into the living room. And there I find . . . NOT the amazing trap drum set from the Sears catalog. Not even a Lionel electric train, which I know for a fact Santa keeps plenty of on hand, and gives to lots of boys my age.
Something has gone terribly wrong. Under the tree, instead of a train on a loop of metal track, sits a big flat thing wrapped in red and green paper. I pick it up and rip off the paper, while the thing underneath makes clicking sounds. It’s a clear plastic box. A bunch of little metal balls inside it roll around and bump into things as I tilt it sideways.
“Look, Larry, it’s a pinball game,” says Mom, in her nightgown and robe.
“Here,” says Dad, in his wrinkled pajamas. “You work it like this.” He takes it out of my hands, tilts it so all the little balls roll down to the corner, pulls back on a handle and lets it go. One of the balls shoots up and goes bouncing around between pegs and plastic fences until it comes back to the bottom. Wow.
“Here, let me try.” I reach up, take the thing back and start shooting metal balls. I’m so busy watching the balls bounce around that I almost, not quite, forget the trap drums.
“Why the long face?” Grandpa hollers. With his pointy nose and his wire-rimmed glasses, he stares at me like a bird getting after a worm. “Y’oughta count yourself goddam lucky to have a nice game like that!”
“Maybe when you’re a little older,” Mom says, “Santa Claus will bring you an electric train.” She doesn’t mention the trap drum set.
Although I have given them quite a few hours of free informational talks on it, I have never heard either Mom nor Dad actually speak the words “trap drum set.” Still, Mom just said “electric train.” So there is hope for the future.
Cynda gets her heart’s desire, a stupid doll named Betsy Wetsy. Mom brings a little glass of water to pour in its mouth, so my little sister can watch as the stupid thing pees its pants. Cynda is carried away with joy. She pours more and more water until not only the doll’s panties but also its dress, its hair, its chubby hands, and its sappy face are all dripping.
“Now let’s put Betsy Wetsy away for a while,” Mom says, “until she dries out.” Cynda starts crying and carrying on as Mom takes the doll from her hands. Betsy Wetsy, to her, is what a trap drum set is to me. She has no right to complain. Hmph.
There are socks, bigger than we can wear, hung by Grandma’s fake fireplace with care. In them are oranges and nickels and candy canes and Mars bars and a few things like that.
We dress, eat, pile into the car and drive down Main Street to the fun grandparents’ house. Grandpa and Grandpa Sommers will come along later.
The place is already humming when we get there. The bottom of the tree swims in a sea of presents. The biggest one is for me, and I grab it right away, because it is too big to be wrapped: an American Flyer sled, longer than I am tall. It has shiny wooden slats on two red metal runners, with a wood steering bar to make it turn.
Now, this is more like it. “Mom, where’s my coat? I’m going outside to try my sled.”
“Wait a bit,” Dad says. “We’re about to open all the presents, and then we’ll eat. You can play with your sled in the afternoon.”
More waiting. Sigh. I give the steering bar a twist or two. It doesn’t seem like it really works. The runners don’t hardly bend. “Dad, the runners don’t hardly bend.”
“It’s just fine, son. You’ll see.”
My cousin Steve is there, his eyes big and round behind his glasses. He doesn’t need to be jealous of my sled. I’ll let him ride it this afternoon. He has already done pretty well at his Grandma and Grandpa Stucki’s house. He got a cowboy hat and BB gun there. His little sister, Betsy, got, guess what—a Betsy Wetsy doll! Even though she’s only two.
Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry—Mom’s aunt and uncle, everybody’s favorites—come in through the little wooden shed that stands outside the front door to keep the cold out. (Grandpa calls it “the vestibule.”) They have red-tipped noses and big smiles. They came later because they went to church for the Christmas morning service.
Grandma and Grandpa Sommers pull up in their big old Hudson. Grandpa’s wearing his suit and tie now, with his shoes shined and his hair slicked down. He’ll be on his best behavior—no yelling and cursing here. Grandma gives him the fish eye as they come in.
We all sit down to open presents. The grownups sit in a big circle. Aunt Sue and Aunt Linda take the presents from the tree and hand them out, because they can read the tags. I can read, too, but not when it’s written in longhand.
It’s like a madhouse. Everybody unwraps presents, whooping and hollering, laughing, showing off, trying on new shirts and sweaters. I get some clothes that are nice, I guess. But my best presents are a coiled metal thing called a Slinky, and a tin Caterpillar bulldozer with rubber treads. It has a key on the side that you wind it up with.
I have to wait to play with my new toys, because it’s time for dinner. We go down a step from the living room to the dining room. All the rooms in this house are one or two steps higher or lower than each other. I don’t know why, that’s just how it is.
Steve and Betsy, Cynda and I, Aunt Linda and Aunt Sue eat in the kitchen. The grownups sit at the big table in the dining room. There is turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and sweet potatoes and stuffing and two different kinds of rice—Spanish, and glorified—and cranberry sauce. And three different pumpkin pies, each one a little different. Maybe I can try them all.
Aunt JoAnne comes into the kitchen with something called the wishbone. It was part of the turkey. I get to pull it with her. We each hold one end and pull to see where it breaks. Whoever gets the big end, their wish will come true. I hurry up and wish a wish. I close my eyes real tight to think.
“Oh, I know!” I shout. “I’ll wish for—”
“No, don’t tell!” Aunt JoAnne says. “If you tell your wish, then it won’t come true.”
Really? There are rules for wishes? I didn’t know.
So I close my eyes again to remember my wish. Oh, yeah, that’s right. I can’t say what my wish is, but it’s not an electric train. Mom already said I might get an electric train next Christmas, so I don’t want to waste my wish on that. So I’m wishing for something else. Something that can make a loud noise.
I open my eyes. We pull the wishbone and it breaks on Aunt Jo’s side, so I win. “Hooray! Now I’ll get my train and my—oops.”
I’ve waited long enough to play with my toys. When I get back to the living room, the uncles have set up the books from the Collier’s Encyclopedia to make stairs, and they have the Slinky walking down the steps. “This is just to show you how it’s done,” says Uncle Earl.
Then he winds up my tin bulldozer and shows me how it can drive down the steps. This is so much fun that Uncle Dick does it next, and then Uncle Garrett, and then Richard Henderson—who isn’t even my uncle, yet. Next, they try to make it drive up the steps, but it won’t go. “Goddam grade’s too steep,” says Grandpa Sommers.
“We can’t give up now,” says Richard. He takes half the books out of the stack so it is shallower. Now the tractor goes up the steps just fine, but then it turns and falls off the side.
“Maybe the damned thing needs a new driver,” Grandpa Sommers says. So finally it’s my turn to wind it up and aim it toward the book-stairs. It falls over when I start it, too.
By Sunday, when we go home, the Slinky has a bent coil and the Caterpillar tractor is dented, but we’ve all had a lot of fun playing with them. The sled works okay when you pull it with a rope, but when we get back to Streator, I know where a hill is, and that will be even more fun.
We drive along between the fields of corn stubble on Sunday afternoon. Dad switches on the car radio. The Detroit Lions are playing the Cleveland Browns. “Bobby Layne versus Otto Graham,” Dad says. I don’t pay much attention to that because I’m dreaming about my electric train and trap drum set.
Detroit wins. “Guess Otto Graham will have to wait till next year,” Dad says.
A vast reach of flatness, wrinkled only where streams of water flow. Small towns wedged among square fields of corn or, in winter, corn stubble. A place where calendars yield only 1950s, and people come in all varieties of regular. In this place I am always a boy, roaming bemused through a tall prairie of grownups.
In 1953 I am eight years old. It is Thursday night, December 24. It’s already dark when Dad comes home at five. Mom bundles us into the car. It’s a 1939 Chevrolet like the ones in black-and-white gangster films. Dad drives, because I’m too young. (But if I had an electric train, I could drive that. How great would that be?)
I share the back seat with my teddy bear and my three-year-old sister, Cynda. Mom reaches over the seat and hands back a tuna sandwich on white bread. Cynda gets a sandwich too, but Teddy must be content to share mine.
The miles unspool, a ribbon of two-lane highway painted by headlights.
In a small town called Wenona there is a mountain, the only one I have ever seen. Dad says it’s only a hill of coal mine tailings. By day it is a pink cone that sticks up like a huge pimple on the skin of Illinois. By dark, we can see it only because someone has placed a five-pointed star of colored lights on its top for Christmas.
We zoom along at fifty miles per hour. (By the way, did you know there is no top speed limit on electric trains? Another advantage.)
We have eaten our sandwiches. Cynda has given up on crawling all over the back seat and has gone to sleep. I curl up with Teddy by the cold glass of the window and watch the night go by. Here and there a light gleams from a farmyard. Not much else out there.
Near Princeville, a wooden barricade like a sawhorse juts into the road to keep us from driving into a hole. It is marked by round pot flares, like black bowling balls with little orange flames flickering from their tops.
After two hours we arrive in Knoxville, a town of 2,000 souls, many of them our relatives. Dad drives past the old courthouse, makes two left turns, and parks in front of Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s one-story house.
At the party
Inside, a party is already going on. Uncle Dick and Uncle Garrett kneel on the floor, unscrewing and replacing colored bulbs in a string of unlit lights. Richard Henderson, Aunt Jean’s skinny boyfriend, stands by, cracking jokes and handing them new bulbs. Suddenly the many-colored lights blink on. Everybody claps.
The grownups stand around drinking from red glasses.
“What’s in the glasses?” I ask.
Dad takes a sip from his. “Mogen David and Coke,” he says.
“It’s wine,” Mom says. “Only for the grownups.”
Grandpa comes in from outside, holding a metal pitcher. He pours from the pitcher into the big brown heater that stands out from one wall of the living room. The stuff he pours in has a funny smell. I like the heater because you can look through a round window on its front and see orange and blue flames dancing inside.
By now, the uncles have draped the lights all around the skinny balsam that stands in the middle of the wall across from the heater. Mom and Grandma and Aunt Sue and Aunt Linda hang glass balls, bells, and tinsel on its branches. “That looks real nice,” Grandpa says.
Grandma has placed white fluffy cotton on the window sills. It’s supposed to be snow, and on it stand plastic reindeer and Santas. One is a red plastic Santa with a brown pack on his back. He is not in his sled but stands on a pair of green plastic skis, ready to deliver his gifts on foot. I like this Santa best, because of the skis. I can make believe the skis allow him to fly, like ski jumpers in the newsreels at the Earl Theater, even though he has no reindeer. I lift him off the cotton, fly him in circles through the air, and bring him in for a perfect ski landing.
Grandma and Grandpa and all the aunts and uncles make a fuss over Cynda, because she now walks quite well. She stalks all around the room. “My, how she’s grown!” Big deal. I could walk years ago.
The other grandparents
After a long time, we get back in the car and drive Main Street to the other end of town. Even though all the Christmas fun happens at Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s, we are going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa Sommers. Their house is quiet, except when Grandpa shouts or curses about something. We have to stay with them because they have enough room for us. Uncle Stanley and Uncle Franklin died in the war. Uncle Ed and his family live in England; Aunt Mabel and her family are in California. We’re the only ones left who live close enough to spend Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa Sommers.
It’s not so much fun at their house, and I’m afraid of Grandpa. But it is kind of nice to stay there on the night before Christmas. They have a tree, but not a lot of other decorations. Only, in the front window of the side room where Cynda and Teddy and I will sleep, Grandma has hung an electric candle with a single blue bulb. When we’re tucked into bed and the lights are turned off, the blue light from the candle glances off many points in the silvery wreath that surrounds it. It is pretty.
I can imagine Santa and his reindeer, or maybe Santa on skis, just outside that window, just beyond the blue candle. I hope this year he’ll bring me an electric train, or else a trap drum set like the one in the Sears catalog.
I want to stay awake long enough to see him arrive, but somehow I never quite make it. . . .
My wife’s father, Joe Nelson, and his older brother Morris, as boys in North Dakota, spent a couple of years in an orphanage. They were not orphans.
Their father, an itinerant small-town newspaperman, struggled to make a living. The eldest son, Bob, could work and augment the family income. The youngest, Lou, was too young to be away from his mother. So Morris and Joe, in the 7-to-10 age range, were placed in a Catholic orphanage. The family was Protestant, but beggars can’t be choosers. You could “go to the Sisters” or live in the county poorhouse.
Many of our families have stories like this, often just a generation or two back. Times were tough. People did what they needed to. Many children in orphanages were not orphans. Sometimes, they were collateral victims of family troubles or fiscal hardship, perhaps temporary.
Buy the Little Ones a Dolly
Rose Bingham’s memoir starts at Thanksgiving—“a very special Thanksgiving” in 2013. Rose’s large extended family has come to her house in the woods near Wisconsin Dells. Plates are full; cups runneth over. They give thanks. Thanks for the strength and grace that have kept their bond strong through decades of pain caused by a dark mystery.
In 1952, when Rose was a teenager, her loving, luminous mother disappeared, vanished without a trace. The family was devastated. Through the years that followed, emotional and economic turmoil plagued them. As Rose’s father, a talented sign painter, struggled to keep things together, she and her six siblings were placed in St. Michael’s Orphanage, miles from home—a strange, unfamiliar place run by nuns.
The woes that brought the family to this point; Rose’s lifelong battle, as the eldest, to keep her family together; and unexpected light shed only in recent years on the decades-long mystery of her mother’s disappearance, form a riveting and inspiring story.
It is a story told in the authentic, down-to-earth voice of a wise and humane survivor. I highly recommend Buy the Little Ones a Dolly. You’ll get a lot out of reading it.
’Tis the Season
And now, for something completely different: A series of Christmas stories from veteran Wisconsin writer/guru Jerry Peterson. Peterson is the creator of James Early and many other memorable Americans—some stalwart, some eccentric—whose doings and undoings are guaranteed to please you and sometimes tickle your funny-bone.
’Tis the Season, hot off the press, collects eleven of his best Christmas stories, written over the past 26 years. Some are excerpts from longer works. Others were originally written as short stories. This book puts them in one place for the first time.
If you’re a member of “Jerry’s Army,” you may have read some of these, but others may be completely new to you.
If you are NOT familiar with Jerry Peterson’s work, you have been missing out on something special.
Only just now have I received my copy of this handsome volume. I will plunge into these stories in the very near future. But as a member of Jerry’s bi-monthly Tuesday night writers’ group, I have previously read some of this work in early draft. I have also read lots of Jerry’s other stories. Therefore it is with confidence I say, get this book. You’re in for a treat.
This is a guest post by Millie Sommers (1889-1971), my grandmother. In 1969, at my request, she wrote a memoir of her life, mostly telling about her early days, around 1900. She wrote 13 pages, in clear, crisp longhand. I have broken it into three parts for easy reading. It is verbatim, straight from her pen, except for a few additions of my own, in [square brackets].
I was born Aug. 8 – 1889, at Greenview, Menard Co. Illinois. I was the oldest of 10 children. My father & mother were running a resturant [sic] in Greenview. But when I was about a month old, we moved to a small farm, about 10 or 12 miles from there.
My father’s name was John Oliver Gunsten, and his folks were Norwegian, altho he was born in this country. My mother’s name was Sarah Elizabeth Foster. My father did not farm, but was a carpenter as were quite a few cousins of two other Gunsten families who lived near by.
They all worked together, with my father as Boss Contractor. He never had but little education, but was an excellent carpenter, and drew all his plans and then had them blueprinted. He also made a lot of our furniture, such as dressers, desks etc.
Several years later we moved to Lincoln, Logan Co. Illinois. There was a Feeble-minded Institution there, and they always kept several carpenters for repair jobs & other work that needed to be done. So my father was Boss Carpenter there.
I also had my first two years of school in Lincoln. Then we moved to Middletown, also in Logan Co, and about 25 miles from Springfield.
Later quite a few of my fathers relatives moved there, as did a few other Norwegian families.
My mother’s folks still lived in Greenview, about 10 miles away, but quite a trip in horse & buggy.
I finished my schooling in Middletown, which had 8 grades, and 2 yrs. High School, as most small towns had.
This was all one 2-room building – one downstairs and one upstairs, with two teachers.
I even taught several times in the lower room, when the teacher was sick or had to be away.
I was large for age and also rather quick to learn, so I suppose that was the reason I was chosen.
In those days only the “well-to-do” tho’t of going away to High School or College.
Small Town Life
After finishing school, we moved to Lowpoint, Ill. a very small town in Woodford Co. But it was a very important town, and was practically owned by three brothers. They had a large general store, lumber yard, elevator, coal, etc.
They always kept a Carpenter for their house building etc. thru out the country, so that was my Dad. The telephone exchange was in the middle of the General store, and there were wires extending from there to different parts of the store for the cash boxes. So I was the telephone and cashier there.
There was a blacksmith, but he was independent, and let everybody know it.
Several years later we moved to Springfield. My mother’s sister lived there, and later most of the rest of her family moved there.
The older ones lived there until their deaths. I still have one sister living there. My mother’s father lived to rather a good age, and her mother [Martha Elizabeth Smith Foster] lived to be 100. She was in good health always and able to get around rather well altho her hearing was not too good. She was knitting a suit for one of her grown up grand-daughters, and finished it soon after.
But she seemed to give up at 100 years, and 6 mos. later she died.
Marriage and Family
I worked as telephone operator in Springfield for awhile, then later did office work, until I was married on May 29, 1912 to Wm P. Sommers of Metamora, Illinos. He and his father [Peter Anton Sommers] owned and operated the Telephone Exchange in Metamora, as in those days most of Telephone Exchanges were privately owned.
My husband was a Telegraph Operator, and railroaded since quite young (14 yrs.) Those days they worked as apprenticesˆ(and general roustabout) in a station until they learned Telegraphy and then they were on their own.
We lived in Metamora 23 yrs. Our 5 children (4 boys & 1 girl) were born there. My husband was station agent there for awhile, then he went to work for Sinclair [Oil Corporation]. At that time they dispatched their oil [on their oil pipeline] by telegraph, and had pumping stations every 40 miles (I believe). He had to work as relief Opr. at different places at vacation time until a permanent place was open. Finally we moved to Dahinda, Knox Co., Ills. We lived there 8 yrs. but as the children had to drive 10 miles to High School, we moved into Knoxville where we still live (or at least I do.) My husband died Jan. 1957. He had retired from Sinclair after 16 yrs. The children all live away now.
Our children all graduated from Knoxville High School. The oldest Edward went to University of Washington 2 yrs. Then enlisted in the Naval Cadet Program, which was being pushed at that time on account of W.W. 2 looming up. After 4 yrs in Navy, he went with Pan American Airway where has been [sic] ever since.
He married Mary Nelson of Knoxville, and have three children and 3 grandchildren.
Next oldest is Mabel, who married Robert Hiler of Knoxville, who is mechanic for United Airlines in California. They have one son.
The third was Stanley, who went to Knox College 2 yrs. & then enlisted as Aviation Cadet. He became a Pilot and 2ndLt. He married Mary Parkins of Galesburg just before going overseas.
He was killed in So Pacific. Dec-1st 1942.
The youngest Franklin was also a pilot and 2nd Lt. He was killed in France at age 20 years. Sept 2 – 1943.
The next to youngest was Lloyd went into the Army, just after High School.
He spent 3½ yrs. in So Pacific and came home in fairly good shape. He then went to Knox College for 4 yrs, and taught H. School for 3 yrs. [Mistaken: Actually 2 years.]
He is now Chemist for Johns-Manville in Waukegan, Ills. He married Barbara La Follette of Knoxville, and they have two children. Cynda, the youngest is in first yr. college.
Larry who is overseas with Army Air Corp [actually, U.S. Air Force], works as interpeter [sic] of Communist broadcasts, for one thing.
He went to a Chinese language school & studied the Chinese language. Since being in Okinawa part of the time, he has studied Japanese language. He is the one who gave me the idea of writing these memoirs. He wanted me to write of some of the things we did differently in the days when I was young, and what we did for fun. So I will try and think of some things that might be interesting.
December 9, 1954—Edward turned right at Formigny, and the little German car divided the French fields en route to Omaha Beach. Millie, riding in back beside Mary, watched the hamlet of St. Laurent-sur-Mer slide by her window. No bigger than Knoxville, she thought. Not many people out. Probably taking their siesta.
At the cemetery, all four got out of the car. The sun came out, but a stiff wind drove the cold into one’s bones. The caretaker, wearing a beret, led the way to Plot A, Row 14, Grave 32. Millie was glad Will had bought a new overcoat in Galesburg before they left. Thin and wiry as he was, the cold went right through him. Not like me, she thought.
There it was:
FRANKLIN W. SOMMERS
2LT 559 BOMB SQ 387 BOMB GP (M)
ILLINOIS SEPT 2 1943
Will polished his specs, stuffed the handkerchief back in a pocket. He stared at the cross.
That’s the look he gives to kids cutting across his vegetable patch, Millie thought.
Edward frowned as if embarrassed how the Luftwaffe had treated his youngest brother. Mary stood by him, eyes closed, lips moving silently, hands clasped in front of her.
Will stepped up, bent forward, ran the fingers of one hand over the letters cut into the cross.
“He was flying a Marauder, Pop,” said Edward, the pilot. “B-26.”
Will straightened up, turned away. “Doesn’t matter much, now.”
The wind was blowing from land to sea. You could see the English Channel from here. At least Frankie has a view, she thought. What a thing to think.
Will brushed his cheek with the edge of his hand as he walked away from the grave. “God-damned wind. Smarts the eyes.”
The wind took his fedora, and he chased it across the memorial colonnade.
A fictionalized account of true events.
After a War
Western Europe today is modern, progressive, and well-to-do—a success story. But in the 1950s, when my grandparents made their only visit there, the place was a wreck. In the first half of the twentieth century, it had been destroyed, partly rebuilt, then destroyed all over again. When peace came in 1945, standing Europe back on its feet was a monumental task. There was the Marshall Plan, but that was hardly enough. We were urged by radio announcements to support the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, which sent “CARE packages” to needy Europeans. When Grandpa and Grandma, Will and Millie Sommers, visited at the end of 1954, the contrast between American prosperity and European austerity remained sharp.
He was 70; she was 65. That equates to 80 and 75 in today’s world. Folks got older younger in those days. They were not wealthy but were thrifty. Still, they might not have made the trip had they not had a ready entrée to Europe. Their eldest son, Edward, was a pilot for Pan American World Airways. He and his family lived in Bad Homburg, an old mineral-springs resort town about ten miles northeast of Frankfurt.
Due to a flight delay in Boston, Grandma and Grandpa missed connections in London and had to stay overnight at the Richmond Hill Hotel. There, at 4:00 pm on November 10, according to Millie’s notes, they had “tea, milk, and hot water; sandwiches of fish and cheese—very good; bread, butter, and marmalade.” You may think of “English High Tea” as something a bit more elaborate, but remember: This was less than ten years after the most destructive war in history. As to the hotel—“Rooms cold,” she reports, “so to bed early.
They flew on to Frankfurt to stay with Ed and his family. In the following weeks, with Ed or his wife, Mary, at the wheel, they visited Freiburg; Alzenau and Michelbach in Bavaria, in quest of Sommers family records; and Berlin, including a brief trip into the Russian sector. While in Berlin they saw the bunker where Hitler spent his last days. “Mass of rubble – right in business section,” Grandma reports.
At this point in her narration, she pauses to wax philosophical: “It has been said that after hearing of all the destruction, you may say, ‘There’s nothing left to see.’ But turning to what remains, there is more than any traveler is likely to take in during a lifetime.” Clearly, she was impressed by the sights of Europe.
There was one sight, however, that must have evoked strong emotions. (Understand, Dear Reader, in our family strong emotions are something to be avoided rather than sought or indulged.) On Monday, December 6, they left for France by auto with Ed and Mary. Grandma lists every city and town through which they drove.
Spoils of War
They drove through places famously scarred by the First World War: the Meuse River and Argonne Forest, Château-Thierry on the Marne. At Verdun, they saw a monument to André Maginot, whose fortifications failed to prevent the Nazi conquest of France in 1940. At Châlons-sur-Marne, they stayed in the Hotel de la Haute-Mère-Dieu, built in 1700. They drove through the Belleau Woods battlefield.
They rushed through Paris and Versailles in less than 24 hours—a shame bordering on a crime. They continued across France to the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, a newly-built resting place above the invasion beach. (This is the setting of the imagined vignette above. It’s a piece of fiction, but from my knowledge of the individuals involved, something very like it must have taken place.)
While at the cemetery, they spoke with the its caretaker, whom Grandma describes as “very nice – American with French wife. 2 live there with 24 hr. supervision. He was in Normandy invasion. Cemetery on shore of channel where landing was made. This was after our boys were gone of course. [She’s referring to sons Stanley, lost over the Solomon Islands in 1942, and Frankie, lost over France in 1943.]
“Much wreckage still in Channel – which is covered during High Tide. Drove along water – Fort still partly standing there with German Gun still sticking out.”
Later the same day they visited Dunquerque (which the British spell Dunkirk), site of a major battle early in World War II, a beach from which more than 330,000 men were spirited across the Channel in a huge boatlift. Grandma’s notes report: “Desolate country . . . . Immense amount of damage. . . . Looked across at White Cliffs of Dover.”
by Carl Sandburg
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
The tagline of this blog is “seeking fresh meaning in our common past.” It’s my mission as a writer. I’m all about the past. Especially, I take an interest in how the past comes down to the present, and what that means to us.
Sometimes a mere object flushes a covey of memories like doves bursting from cover into sunlight. Who can say the meaning? One must be content to list the fowl of the past and let them perch where they will in the present.
I rummaged through a box of old junk—some to scrap, some to keep. My 7-year-old grandson, Tristan, said, “Bapa, what’s this?”
It was a lighter—the self-capping Ronson type, not the Zippo type. A handsome thing in silver and white, it touted the Galesburg Register-Mail, “A Better Newspaper.” The gizmo enthralled Tristan, who had never seen one. He is mechanically inclined and immediately discovered that this thing flips its lid with a satisfying click every time you push its lever. There was no other effect—no spark or flame—because the lighter had lost both flint and fluid long ago. But the mere action itself: that, Tristan loved.
I explained that it was used to light cigarettes back when everybody smoked. And that the reason we have this item is that my great-uncle, Harry Young, was circulation manager of the Galesburg Register-Mail in those days. Tristan’s eyes scrunched up the way they do when he’s working something out, so I told him what a circulation manager does; that many boys, not much older than Tristan, were hired to fling papers on porches all over Galesburg, Illinois, a city of 35,000; and that Uncle Harry made sure enough boys were hired and told them which houses were to receive the news.
There was more to it than that. Uncle Harry had overall responsibility for getting the paper out to all its customers. When a delivery was missed, the phone rang in Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry’s house—in the middle of supper, for the Register-Mail was an afternoon rag. Uncle Harry usually had two or three spare copies on hand; so they would finish eating, get in the car, and drive the paper out to the stiffed subscriber. Then, if it was a nice summer evening, they might stop at Highlander’s for ice cream.
A Family Affair
In the late Forties, when I was a tot, my father attended Knox College on the GI Bill. Mom had a part-time job, but even so, we needed a bit more money. Uncle Harry hired Dad—that is, his niece Barb’s husband—to drive a Register-Mail route every afternoon to Bushnell, thirty miles south of Galesburg. All to make sure folks got their papers.
Aunt Jean worked as a secretary at the Register-Mail for a year or two after she graduated from Knoxville High School in 1952. I don’t know whether she worked in Circulation or elsewhere in the paper. In any case, being Harry Young’s niece was a good thing.
Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry were family favorites. Down-to-earth, droll, with no children of their own, they doted on my mother and her six younger siblings. And, by extension, on me, my sister, and our cousins. They took us swimming at Lake Bracken. They had the whole family over for fish fries after they made a good catch.
Nothing lasts forever. Uncle Harry, a lifelong smoker, succumbed to emphysema. The loss devastated Aunt Bertha. She did not long survive him.
Even after their passing, the Register-Mail went on. It remained a presence in our lives.
In the 1960s, I attended Knox College following my father’s footsteps. For spending money I worked the lunch rush in a hamburger joint, Charlie Nash’s “Big Guy” restaurant. One day, a lunch customer made a strange remark about President Kennedy; but I had hung up my apron, was on my way out the door, did not stop to inquire.
I walked a block out of my way to pass the Register-Mail on my way back to campus. The printing plant had a huge front window, so townspeople could see the paper printed. Pressmen would crayon headlines on a big sheet of newsprint and tape it up in the window, a preview of the day’s edition. If the news about Kennedy was important, I would see it in the pressroom window.
No sheet hung on the pressroom glass. The presses were still. No employees to be seen working inside.
“They killed him.”
I walked back to school puzzled. The silence was eerie. No cars moved, as far as I remember. Near Seymour Hall, the student union, I encountered one living soul—a history major I knew, Ray Gadke. Ray walked toward me, away from the union. “They killed him,” he said, tears in his eyes. He staggered on by.
We had only one television on campus. It was a floor-model Sylvania with a fine wood cabinet and commanded form one corner the Seymour Lounge, a large room with lots of sofas and chairs. Students, professors, administrators, staff members occupied all the furniture, leaned on walls or pillars, sat on the floor. It was a scene of flowing tears, faces frozen in shock.
The sound was cranked all the way up. Martin Agronsky of NBC-TV News announced that the president had died.
You know the rest, if you were alive then. If not, you have heard all about it all your life. No point rehashing it. It’s just that it comes up, inevitably, when a flock memories is flushed out by the mere mention of the Galesburg Register-Mail.
Someday I’ll share all of these things with Tristan. He knows that Uncle Harry worked for the paper, managed the lads who delivered it across town; and that the lighter itself makes a delightful click. That’s enough for now.
But we’ll hang on to the lighter, for the time being.