I see places. I don’t know whether it is a blessing or not, but I can tell you more about how a place looked than what I did there. Perhaps that comes from taking lots of photos..perhaps taking pictures is a consequence of the way my brain functions..either way, asking me to remember someone often begins by recalling a place.
Take Greenberry Road. My mother’s parents lived at the very end of Greenberry Road, just before the bridge over the Moreau where town ended and Route B took you to Wardsville. The house was faced with sandstone slabs bound with thick bands of mortar protected by asphalt, a style I now know is called “Ozark Giraffe”. When Laura and I were little and the days were hot, we would amuse ourselves by pressing our fingernails into the asphalt while we played on the deep front porch that protected the front door. My grandparents had a huge porch swing, big enough and wide enough to lay down on. The cushions and pillows were covered in striped canvas; to get the whole assemblage moving was more like launching a ship than taking to the air. Even though Grandma and Grandpa Froerer had one of the first home air conditioners, a real marvel, I still remember summer days reading on that porch swing. Second choice was the green canvas butterfly chair; the wooden Adirondack took a distant third.
Grandma made my dad the oatmeal cookies with caramel frosting he loved. My grandma drank Coca Cola, but the rest of us enjoyed Dr. Pepper, unavailable way up north. We ate cake or cookies and pretzel sticks in a booth in the kitchen, which also featured a fold down ironing board, and a flour bin in the lower cabinet. When Grandma made home-made noodles she rolled them out on a cutting board that pulled out from the cabinet. In the basement was her washing machine, electric, with a wringer attachment. There was clothesline spread all across the basement for winter and clotheslines in the backyard.Grandpa had been a civil engineer with the WPA, helping build the road to the top of Scotts Bluff. Both he and Grandma hailed from Utah where their ancestors had emigrated with the Latter Day Saints and established their farms and families near Logan. My mom told me they bought the house on Greenberry Road when my grandpa went to work for the Missouri Department of Transportation because it was the only one for sale. Grandpa read constantly even when cataracts forced him to use a big lighted magnifier. His vocabulary was not gentle and he had strong opinions. My father always addressed him as Mr. Froerer. At Grandma and Grandpa’s, we got to watch Hollywood Squares, Password, Ed Sullivan, and Art Linkletter. Grandpa was a night owl..long after our bedtime, he would still be in his chair listening to the Tonight Show.
Grandpa F. was a superb woodworker before his eyes failed him. He built their dining room table and chairs, hutch and corner cabinet. He made the hard maple desk on which I did all my schoolwork. He designed and created the big toy train, tender car, flatbed, and caboose large enough to haul our dolls and stuffed animals around their house as well as the multi-hued building blocks and wagon his great-grands still use. His workshop in the basement was engineer neat with cases of cubbies and jars containing tiny incomprehensible parts.
Granny and Grandpa Renken, my dad’s parents, were the mirror image of my Grandma and Grandpa F. Where Grandma F. was quiet, Granny was a tiny, talkative, vivacious woman who loved music, children, making up and telling stories and all the world outside her door. Family meals were big, plain affairs with lots of canned or frozen produce from Grandpa’s garden.
She adored my grandfather, a quiet man who worked in his orchard and his garden after he retired from years as a letter carrier. I can easily picture him in his rocker next to the piano, the lamplight shining over his shoulder as he peered through his bifocals down his long straight Renken nose at a Time magazine. Granny always had a record playing on the stereo. She wrote poetry and spoke of the mockingbird outside her window as a personal friend. Granny worked at the Conservation Commission but then, after age 50, took her daughter’s encouragement to heart and began writing. She published a series of children’s books featuring a big family as well as two hardcover books for young adults. Even though I wasn’t quite old enough for the young adult books at the time, I was thrilled when I got to read some of her typewritten chapters.
Granny always had surprises for the kids around, something she continued to do for her great grandchildren...puzzle books or story books gleaned from book fairs, homemade musical instruments for a parade...Granny and Grandpa lived on Greenberry Road too, a few blocks up the road from the Froerers. My mom’s younger brother was best friends with my father’s younger brother. But Granny and Grandpa moved across the river to a small acreage past Holts Summit when we were still young and that’s the place I remember the Christmas and Easter and Fourth of July celebrations.
The house was brick with aluminum windows and certainly not a bit of insulation between the interior and the great out of doors. It was without a doubt the hottest and coldest house I’ve ever been in. Cold was never a problem when all the families were there at Christmas; steam condensed into a river on the windows and even the unheated sun porch where we cousins ate meals was cozy when the stove was on and ten people were doing dishes. But in the summertime when the house became a brick oven, we were more than happy to escape to the cool basement where Granny set up her ironing board after lunch while she watched her “stories” as she called the soap operas she dutifully followed. (Side note: my dad got hooked on a soap opera or two during the years he repaired televisions...this tiny vice always made me smile.)
All summer Grandpa would work among his trees or wrangle his beastly tiller through the rows of his garden or push mow the vast yard and come in with his face red and his pith helmet and retired mailman shirts black with sweat. The windows were open all summer and oscillating fans provided relief until the evening cooled down.Fourth of July and Easter at their farm were the best a kid could hope for. At Eastertime, Granny would boil dozens of eggs for all us cousins to dye. How come the colors back then seemed so much brighter? There was nothing fancy about the decorating, no shrink wrap, or glitter or tie dye: just Paz tablets, the smell of vinegar in hot water, and the little white crayon with which to write names or draw crosses. The “Easter bunny” would hide the eggs throughout their big yard and we would run like crazy to search them out before the dogs found them.
On the 4th, Grandpa would grill hot dogs and hamburgers, the men would play ball or have a green apple fight, and we’d all play croquet until it got dark enough to shoot more than bottle rockets. Fireworks were illegal in Illinois, so even sparklers and Roman candles were a thrill. Some 4ths, the humidity was so high, we couldn’t set anything down or it wouldn’t light. Most nights, heat lightning would add to the show, flickering silently and futilely on the horizon.
I didn’t grow up with my grandparents just down the road, but the memories are so vivid that it sometimes feels that way. The four of them were so different in experience and personality, even from my vantage as a child. Grandma Froerer’s Mormon upbringing means there are still papers and stories to read and pass down. Granny wrote of her own childhood experiences and my aunts Liz and Anne bound them for all of us to keep. As I gather up shreds of my memories and attempt to record them, I’m just following a tradition and hoping my grands and greats will treasure them too.