IT FLOORS ME HOW LITTLE I understand history. Not capital-H History, but the personal, intimate kind. After hanging around long enough to watch people be born and die, succeed and fail, I expect previous generations to help me make sense of life, if not explicitly then by example. I’d like some feel for how the peculiarities of time, place and personality land us here, and why we should be proud or amazed or defensive or ashamed.
I’m not any of those. I’m just here. Wasn’t I paying attention? Are there lessons folded neatly into lives, like a family cheat sheet?
After my grandfather died last year, I took a few things: his cases full of sharpshooter medals, stained glass tools, a couple of old hats and fishing rods. And suitcases full of photos. They show familiar people, but even in our small family, most I hardly knew. There’s no family business, religion, or common cause to reconcile them against. What were they like? More to the point… what am I like? The suitcases has some clues.
Above is my great-grandfather, Noel, seated and shirtless in the family cabin in Waubeek, Iowa. He worked in a small-town service station and pitched baseball, which made him kind of a big deal. When I was small, I recall Noel taking me on walks to get soft serve, or leading me to “discover” small piles of candy corn he’d placed on the side of the road, like fairy treasure.
He lived with his wife Audrey on the Wapsipinicon River into his late 90s. Sometime in the 1990s, he went for a walk on the river, fell in and died. People have suggested it probably wasn’t an accident, but for what reason that is, I don’t know.
Behind Grandpa Noel is my mom, looking pretty and bored. She’s recalled her time at Waubeek to me fondly. Other times she mentions there was yelling, hot tempers and short fuses with children. Pinochle and cocktails, it seems, were the main activities.
Noel’s wife, my great-grandmother Wheeler (I called her “Grandma Quasqui” for the town of Quasqueton where they lived) is shown here on her pony. She has a strange middle name I’ve never seen elsewhere: Serepta. There’s something about vintage Iowan women’s names of that era—Vietta, Ardell, Neone—you know aren’t due for resurgence.
Audrey married Noel at 16. In my memory, she is quiet and distant. I don’t what her hobbies or interests were. In pictures, she sits around with her family, talking and not talking, smoking and not smoking. Many years later, Sarah observed this is what my family does, chronically sits around together.
Below are two Christmas pictures, one of my mother and another of Grandma Quasqui. I don’t know what my holidays were like for my mom growing up, but these illuminate my own.
My mother has a thing about perfect Xmas trees. Her collection of hundreds of ornaments, mostly vintage, are stored with immaculate care and pulled out for display each November, a process that can take days. For many years, my sister and I were not allowed to help. This seemed proper to me until decades later, when, with a child-helper of my own, I realized how obvious it is to make them part of the action.
Here’s Grandma Quasqui, handing out presents I think. While the monochrome tree decor is nothing like ours, to me it suggests, “Christmas control freak.” My mother, in the other shot, clutches a favorite doll and strikes a beaming pose in her home in Cedar Rapids. She aims to please and expects satisfaction in return. This pretty much sums up my social philosophy.
One more: Mom, sis, grandma and me visiting Aunt Neone (pronounced “nay-own”) and Uncle Tom Zonneville in San Diego in 1984 or 85. Tom was lazy and a complainer (cardinal sins in my grandfather’s book). I remember his snide comments and air of moral superiority (over what I’m not sure). While he was hard to like as a person, Tom was a great photographer. He documented everyone in the family for decades, including bewitching stereoscopic images of vacations and mundane get-togethers. Looking at these through the special binocular viewer, you are AT the card table in 1947 holding a Tom & Jerry.
Here I am emulating him with a camera around my neck on my only trip to DisneyLand. I don’t remember much: palm trees; a swimming pool in Neone and Tom’s upscale trailer park that did not admit children; learning to play pinochle by candle light. Whether or not it was fun I don’t remember.
(to be continued)