Friday, January 12, 2018

From Greenberry Road

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.
Not only did Grandpa, a WWI veteran, and Grandma, whose mastery of needle and thread ranged from crocheting doilies and my mother’s lovely pink silk wedding dress, have air conditioning in their home, but they also had the first air-conditioned car I’d ever seen...a 1964 Dodge with a push button transmission.  When we visited, Grandpa would eat ‘mush’ every morning for breakfast and a couple of slices of wheat toast.  There was always a jar of Heinz Chow-chow on the table, an unappetizing concoction of mustard and pickle.

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.

Monday, January 1, 2018


I can only guess what my mom or dad thought when they ventured out of the hallway past the threshold of our room, but I can tell you what the kid's eye view was from flat on the blue hooked rug.  On one wall were our bunk beds and the toy box and opposite were our two dressers and a bookcase. Our desks stood against the far wall while the wall nearest the doorway consisted primarily of murderous bifold metal closet doors..  The general effect, from ground level, was that of a box canyon, cliffs overhanging the chasm and detritus piled high against the canyon walls.
Hole in the Wall, Wyoming
It made for a narrow twisty path from door to the plateau of my top bunk. Once up the ladder I was like a character in a Western, safe behind my ramparts of stuffed animal friends, with a birds’ eye view of the goings on down below.  Winnie the Pooh, sewn by my mom in honey hued velveteen, Raggedy Ann with her black button eyes and replacement knees of hand-colored felt, Silver the tall gray poodle dog, and Charlie Brown, the understuffed floppy eared puppy, were just a few of the critters that I lined up every night so they could all watch me sleep.  
The narrow confines of our room became a fantasy land for the Breyer model horses we collected, or the menagerie of pipe cleaner and yarn animals Laura and I made.  We created camels and lions, deer and even a Pushmi-Pullyu...the herd we constructed included the equine protagonist of every horse story by Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry as well as Smoky the cow horse and Black Beauty. The artificial flowers my mom had yet to “antique” and her out-of-fashion head scarves were fair game for making our room the garden of Eden in our eyes.

Laura and I benefited from the talents and hobbies of our family: our Barbie doll dresses were trimmed in rick rack with darts, collars, even tulle and pleats.  My grandmother’s imagination led her to sew lovely glass buttons on tops as brooches or to hem a matching satiny scrap of fabric into a scarf for the swing back coat and dress ensemble.  I would say our Barbies were better dressed than any other little girls’....if not for the fact we instantly lost the shoes and earrings so our dolls were always barefooted.
The wagon load of homemade blocks my grandfather made more than sixty years ago show but little wear from the three generations of children who have built roads and castles and walls and fences from them. We drove our Matchbox cars over them and even made sixties style furniture...Scandinavian, I guess, for the Barbies to lounge on.

I remember our dollhouse.  It was a two story Colonial...metal….with plastic furniture that was all the same color.  We played with it lots….until the day my mom decided we were old enough...and careful be trusted with her dollhouse furniture. What an upgrade! Instead of molded monochromatic plastic, her childhood couch and chairs were padded and upholstered; the dressing table had a mirror and a skirted stool.  The radio had cathedral windows.  The single door refrigerator looked just like the one in our kitchen, but there was also an icebox.  The china family with their rosebud lips and their “nurse” were quaintly old fashioned, but also fragile, so we rarely used them in our play, spending most of our time rearranging the furniture as was our prerogative as females.

When we traveled, our ditty bags of prized possessions came along.  “Super balls and “creepy crawlers” , baseball cards and Matchbox cars: looking back, I now realize how much of what we prized cost less than a dollar bill.
The Matchbox display was right on front of the cashier at the local dime store, but we bought our baseball cards at the Walgreens next door. A quarter bought a toy, but a big gumball from the machine was still just a dime. As kids whose earning power was measured in pennies(for dandelions) or dimes per hour, our desires were constrained by our pocket change.
But not all our toys were “Made in Japan”. (In case you don’t remember, in the ‘60s that was code for “cheap”!)  Every Christmas our stockings would yield treasures like the wooden apple with a tiny tea set inside, or a bag of polished stones, a two toned ball with faceted sides that bounced in crazy directions or a sliding puzzle with a smiling frog and tiles numbered 1 through 31.  Looking back, I’m betting my mom found prizes like these in the Miles Kimball catalog, which ranked with the Christmas catalogs distributed by Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck as the subject matter for wishful thinking.

This New Year’s Day, the parades are over and football rules the big screen.  It’s way too cold to play outside.  How many kids are spending this afternoon playing with Barbies...or blocks...or puzzles?

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

I Heard the Bells of Christmas Day....

I heard the bells on Christmas Day...actually, 'twas the Third Sunday in Advent, but who's keeping track.  Earlier that morning, the angelic host had proclaimed  "Gloooo-ria in Excelsis Deo". Well, perhaps they were more energetic than angelic...Either way, a joyful noise was made.
Maybe even a little "yee-ha" before the shepherds arrived to tell the good news...
..and we dismissed to breakfast pizzas for the kids and Snickers and Butterfingers for everyone else.

There may not be snow on Christmas. Juggling the permutations of our big family means we may not open packages on Christmas. We may not always be together on Christmas. But there should always be music on Christmas.  Joyful, exuberant, waiting-for-this-all-year music.
This year there is snow...perfect cold crisp unsullied expanse for kids and puppies to destroy....
And the rest of the family is nearby the fire; there are packages stacked haphazardly like the aftermath of an avalanche and shoes and boots thawing under the radiator.  The food that won't fit in the refrigerator is stored the old fashioned way: on the frozen back porch.  My Granny used to store her Christmas cookies in cookie tins and coffee cans on her back porch; one family friend used to come in that back way, eat himself full of cookies, and then go around the front to knock on the door for a visit!

Tonight there's  a fifty degree temperature differential between back porch and kitchen.

"Their old familiar carols play.
And loud and deep, the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men..."

Out of nowhere, out of imagination and energy and the Spirit of Christmas and the sweetness of grandchildren toward grandparents, Aaron and Lizzie, Gabe and Abbie, Josh and Levi, have concocted the Redbarn Christmas concert this Christmas Eve (produced by the kids, with help from the adults says one sign)...
...Produced by the kids (with help from the Moms)
  For the adults (but mostly for Grandma)...
says the sign affixed to an empty wrapping paper roll and waved about like a heraldic flag by Joshua.

And in case we don't get the message, Levi is announcing the concert in stentorian tones , with a death grip on Lizzie's karaoke mike.  You can run, but you cannot hide....

Last Christmas, my mom and dad were up here in Tarkio for the first time in many years. This year we remember my mom's Christmas birthday with a bouquet of flowers.  Two years ago, the great grandkids listened to their grandpa play in a Christmas concert down at the Lake of the Ozarks; they marveled at the bass clarinet and tried spreading their fingers over the keys of his clarinet.
This Christmas, they decide celebrate his decades of music the very best way: by singing and playing together unselfconsciously, generously, filling the rooms of our house with big sound and big singing and being rewarded with hearty applause and proud smiles from everyone in the audience.

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

How I wish my folks could hear their great-grandchildren's songs this Christmas.  Their hearts would have been touched: I can hear my dad say, "Yeah!"with an approving smile and see my mom grin with delight.

For everyone who is celebrating this Christmas with an empty place in their heart, there is cheer in unexpected gifts like this spontaneous concert, a grace note, a hug from your Father, a reminder that He understands our hearts better than we....
The First Noel, Abbie and Lizzie on Piano and Vocal
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

May we all be granted the eyes to see and ears to hear the blessings that are around us.
May we be granted wisdom to give thanks for them.
Let the love of your Savior and Friend be your comfort
And His words your blessing...

Christmas Blessings for this day and days to come....

God Bless the Music Makers...for they shall bring Joy!