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Friday, May 24, 2013

I Just Won't Cook Them Lima Beans




After the first trip to Neenah from Edina in 1969, the five hour drive seemed to grow shorter and easier to make, in part from the distinct change that occurred after leaving the interstate at Eau Claire. The rise and fall of the two-lane road, the turns through town at Niellsville, Auburndale, Milladore, Stevens Point, Waupaca, and Weyauwega - each with their own familiar landmarks and milestones - became part of our rhythm of life. Red barns, grain elevators, railroad tracks, Carnegie libraries, coffee shops that served Polish kolaches, and tractors chugging along in the road at their own unhurried pace - it was a slow but steady disassociation with the rest of the world. And then in Neenah we entered this house, which was in and of itself a portal to an equally unhurried life that had little or no connection to the world beyond its doors. Shaded by huge old forest oaks, and by elms with branches that draped gracefully to the ground like willows, the house was man-made but seemed to be a natural and breathing extension of the land and trees around it, as if it had always been there and always would be.





NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post HERE. For those of you who are reading because they love stories about Neenah, I'm certain you'll find this chapter engaging and an important part of a moving human drama that has everything to do with Neenah, its history and the six degrees of separation that link link us all together.

CHAPTER II, Part 9


This is where the story for me gets a little too complicated to sort out easily, so I apologize for taking so long in getting it posted.  As a high school student I was old enough to begin seeing myself as separate from my parents, and yet I was still dependent on them and by trial and error was sorting out their values and world view, both of which were based on the depression, the Second World War, and all the succeeding wars and events that had contributed to the social upheaval of the 1970s. In California it was easy to dismiss the counter culture as just an isolated bunch of pot-smoking hippies camped out in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury District, but the sea change in American life had even reached the deep winter freezes of upper middle class Minnesota, where at Edina Senior High School a radicalized student council organized a walkout that effectively shut down the school by involving nearly 4,000 students. These numbers, however, rather than being a reflection of political awareness, were more probably due to the entertainment provided by John Denver, an Edina resident until the release of his breakout single "Country Roads," at which time he beat a hasty retreat out to Colorado.

And while I was tentatively attempting to peck out of my shell with longish hair and only occasional forays into funky clothes, Mom and Dad had become increasingly lonely and withdrawn, and dependant on their family as their primary source of human contact. At the Academy of Parish Clergy, Dad and two secretaries were the entire staff, with only limited interaction from one day to the next between them and the governing board, or for that matter the academy members who were scattered across the country. It was a far cry from Dad's seminary days when there were students and administrators and other professors to be seen and spar with and challenge in class or in his office, or even in the meetings Dad despised and railed against. The same was also true of Mom who found no women in Edina who responded to her rescuing ministrations, a trait that had served her well as a mother and was a compliment to Dad's church and seminary work, but that was entirely out of sync with Edina's success code of conduct, admitting no weakness or want of strength, ambition, or competitive spirit. Nor did Mom and Dad find any community in Edina's churches, where the primary focus was on making the newly rich feel entitled to wealth that Jesus pointedly said must be given up in order to follow Him.

So in the absence of any more suitable adult alternative for my parents, the burden of meeting their social needs fell squarely upon Steve, Bonnie and me, Dave being in medical school and home only for the holidays, and both Bob and Bill married, who with wives and children and careers seldom came to visit. For the three of us remaining the implicit assignment was fundamentally nothing new, the team effort being well established during our two years in New Jersey. In Minnesota we simply continued the weekend travels, movies and going out to eat - the universal favorite being the locally legendary Jolly Troll, an all-you-can-eat quasi Scandinavian smorgasbord where you could fill every body cavity and orifice to the point of unconsciousness without a shred of guilt. There was, however, one new and extremely embarrassing development in our family arrangements. In Edina I had become part of a particularly close circle of friends, and when any or all of them came over Mom would inevitably insert herself into the conversation or whatever it was we were doing, which I now realize was because for the first time in her life she had no meaningful involvement in Dad's work. So when my friends and I brought home as a laugh a wino's unopened bottle of Boone's Farm we found hidden in a hollow park tree, Mom immediately became part of it all."Have you ever wondered what this stuff tastes like?" she asked. Glasses were soon being passed around with Mom pouring samples for everyone.




During her visits to Edina, as well as ours to Neenah, Great Aunt Betty seemed equally fascinated by the world we occupied as well as by our response to hers. In Edina she was spellbound walking through Southdale Center, the first regional enclosed mall in America with 72 shops and department stores. Impressed by the choice and convenience, in a jewelry shop she was nevertheless floored by the price on a strand of gold beads that turned out to be vermeil. "Goodness!" she exclaimed. "What mine must cost. They're real."  Aunt Betty also took note of our enjoyment of the things she had saved and cared for in Neenah. While her mother's trousseau had been given to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the number and diversity of family treasures still in the house seemed endless. Here Aunt Betty organized an impromptu fashion show of ladies' hats she had kept in the attic cedar closet. Recorded once again with my little Instamatic from the left are Aunt Nell's great friend, Nesta Edwards, Aunt Betty, Bonnie (wrapped up in a tattersall throw to look like a dress), and Mom.




While I found intrusions like these were upstaging and therefore infuriating, my friends found them unendingly hysterical - laughing heartily along with Mom, engaging in a way they couldn't with their own parents, and then laughing again in recognition of themselves in my aggravation. As their own families posed equivalent (or in some cases far worse) problems, there soon developed an understanding between us that parents of all stripes (as well as most all brothers and sisters) were inexplicable and sometimes frightening creatures from a parallel but occasionally intersecting universe, creatures which we had to tolerate and ignore as best we could, if only to keep them from swallowing us up whole by the horrendous life decisions they had made and we were certain never to repeat. This construct had a distinct appeal at that point in our lives, and as a result we developed a kind of bond that must be like what grows up between shipwreck survivors on a deserted island. We none of us were part of the socially elite at Edina Senior High School, being geeks to one degree or another long before the term came into general parlance. Paul, John and Bear all collected super hero comic books (although Bear dabbled in "Little Lotta," "Stumbo" and "Richie Rich"), and with James and Tim they were all devotees of science fiction.  And while Tim, James, Paul and I aspired to be writers, my first good friend Mike and the others just had my friendship in common. As might be expected, this generated a good degree of conflict, but the only real trouble between us all was Tim, whose increasingly bizarre and eventually disturbing antics ultimately tested the limits of our unexpressed affection and loyalty, not to mention our own sanity.

In spite of all that I might very well have detached myself even further from my family in favor of these close friendships were it not for Great Aunt Betty. For unbeknownst to her (or to any of us for that matter), her regular presence in our lives served as a great leavening and cohesive force around which we all unexpectedly began to gravitate. This was nothing particularly new for Dad, having enjoyed long established ties with Great Aunt Nell, whose intellectual daring and outlook on life he admired and sought to emulate. In her absence, however, he had discovered a new appreciation of the balance Aunt Betty provided, whom he had come to realize had lived her entire life in the shadow of her older and more highly regarded sister. As for Mom, she now found in her former nemesis a kindred spirit who was sincerely impressed by Mom's many talents, and, more significantly, one who in her advanced years readily accepted and even welcomed Mom's hand holding and sympathetic ear. But on an even larger scale, Aunt Betty effectively broke the spell that had hung over us ever since the Thanksgiving of the Dog. For unlike all other family relationships, each invitation from us was reciprocated in like kind by Aunt Betty, and vice versa. And rather than being futile exercises in hauling an old lady around to places she couldn't remember or knew nothing about, or struggling to make conversation with someone on the threshold of death, the visits and trips with Aunt Betty were all engaging adventures that offered nostalgic glimpses into an astonishing past, and at the same time produced a renewed appreciation of what we had in our own life and times.

So in staying with us in Edina at our first house - the cold and inhospitable split level that was totally lacking in character - Aunt Betty was perfectly comfortable and at home, being genuinely amazed by the small number of steps from one level to the next. "I could manage very easily in a house like this," she said, as if we deserved some credit for the ingenuity of design. Back in Wisconsin, taking her down to Greenbush to see the Wisconsin Historical Society's Wade House, a stagecoach inn, Aunt Betty regaled us with stories of family trips up north to their cabin on Lake Kentuck, their party transported by private train car as far as Eagle River, where they spent the night in a rustic loggers hotel. "The next day we'd have bites all over us," she recalled, rubbing her arms as if the night in question had just passed. Among the vast collection of carriages at the neighboring Wesley Jung Carriage Museum, she drew us over to the surreys and sleighs and cutters (all like those they used to have in Neenah), and to a rather sporty phaeton, a wicker sided two-seater like the one Dad's grandfather used to drive. "Father never took a cab in the city. Only a handsom," she said. "He couldn't abide the smell of motorcars." In return for these and other excursions she treated us all to Thanksgiving dinner at Milwaukee's famed English Room in the Pfister Hotel, picking up the tab for the meal and the overnight accommodations. Afterwards, across the street at Chapman's Department Store, she showed us where she and her mother or father or later Aunt Nell would sit by the fireplace on a blustery day and be served hot tea or chocolate in little cups while their packages were being wrapped and brought down, in the day when the term "carriage trade" had real meaning.




Spending Christmas in Neenah with Aunt Betty soon became a much anticipated part of the holidays and the high point of each year as a family. In 1970 Dave joined us during his break from medical school and organized the building of a nearly 7-foot snow gorilla, executed over several days and involving the freezing of ice blocks to make sure he was built with a steady foundation and would last until spring. Posing with the finished product from the left are me, Bonnie and Dave. Soon after we left for home, the Post-Crescent sent out a photographer to record and publish our finished creation, it having attracted much attention and comment, no one having ever built such an ambitious snow sculpture on Wisconsin Avenue before. It was also a first for us. Nothing we had ever done before had attracted public attention and we didn't know quite what to make of it all. We were simply not accustomed to anything we did being newsworthy. Aunt Betty, however, was thrilled. Surviving through the winter, our snow gorilla was a harbinger of things to come.




And in finding a comfortable place for herself in our lives, Aunt Betty in turn welcomed us - warts and all - to be a part of hers. I can't say that she acted any differently or made any extra effort when we were visiting her in Neenah, but she made us all immediately comfortable and at ease and unaware that we were sitting on silk damask or dining on sterling silver and being served by uniformed maids - or for that matter traveling from floor to floor in the little cage elevator she and her sister had installed. At Christmas Aunt Betty had Alfred put up the tree and string it with lights, but left us the job of burrowing through the boxes of treasured ornaments to make the decoration our own. With Mom's encouragement I was also for some reason given the assignment of creating a centerpiece for the dining room table, which with Aunt Betty's enjoyment of parties delighted her to no end. The first was a gold topiary tree hung with icicles and angels, after which came a forest of green burlap Christmas trees strung with snowflake sequins and gold balls, and then finally - what would prove to be my pièce de résistance - a three foot long snow covered winter scene, complete with frozen lake, snow covered willow and miniature ice skaters. That same year Mom got Steve to bring his stereo system with us, filling the house with Christmas music - along with a few slightly incongruous country western songs from albums that Aunt Betty's cook, Rose, brought down from her attic bedroom.

Rose, who was just about 60 at the time, struck the only sour note in the proceedings. Aunt Nell had hired her as something of a charity case when their beloved Alma retired as cook and married Alfred the yard man (who as a recovering alcoholic needed someone to keep an eye on him). Raised on a farm, Rose had spent her life caring for aged parents, and when they died she had no resources or employable skills accept as "a good plain cook" - a description of faint praise with which Aunt Betty would have taken exception. "These aren't as good as Alma's," she said pointedly of Rose's spice pancakes served at breakfast one morning, just as their maker stepped into the room. This intentional slight seemed to be uncharacteristically rude on Aunt Betty's part, but Rose had apparently grown quite high and mighty in her formal status as cook, brazenly limiting the number of dishes she would make for any meal and refusing to serve more four people, looking on with grim satisfaction while others ran dishes and platters of food out to the dining room and back. In passing through the kitchen at other times of the day (which one did only if absolutely necessary and then quickly and quietly), it was also common to hear Rose engaged in lengthy one-sided conversations. "And then Miss Betty said, 'I've invited Mrs. Graebner here for lunch so you won't get that extra pork chop,'" Rose replayed to herself in the kitchen one afternoon. "Well, then," she imagined herself replying with a tart riposte, "I just won't cook them lima beans."

The only other player on these occasions was Nesta Edwards, a maiden lady in her 90s like Aunt Betty, but one who in spite of being confined to a wheelchair was a dominant presence to be reckoned with, in many ways like a female Lionel Barrymore (whom she resembled and even sounded like). Nesta was a long time friend and protégé of Aunt Nell's, living for many of her later years with her sister Gladys in suburban Milwaukee, and after that as a resident of the monumental Milwaukee Protestant Home on North Downer Avenue. A dynamic individual of agreeable outlook and life philosophy, as well as possessed of an indomitable spirit, she was nevertheless a woman who freely boasted of never finding traditional success or dependable income, while at the same time readily accepting gifts, loans, hospitality and all manner of  financial support from rich friends - primarily Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty. "My failures made me," she said of her retail, office management, social work, industrial safety and food service experience at places like Marshall Field's, Union Carbide, International Harvester and eventually Kimberly-Clark, where she claimed to have single-handedly introduced Kotex to the American public - an assertion also made by Albert Lasker (considered by many to be the founder of modern advertising) and several others. Nesta had come to expect Alfred or Louis to chauffeur her back and forth from Milwaukee for the holidays, during which she frequently asserted how the construction of a wheelchair ramp for her use was really a service to Aunt Betty, helping her to prepare for the time when she would need it.

This pattern of life was all new and mysterious to me, but for Dad it was perfectly normal. Growing up in his mother's house he was accustomed to the limitations of domestic service (and the inherent idiosyncrasies that come with cooks and maids and cleaning women), as well as being surrounded by opportunists who clung tightly to rich old lonely women. Knowing what he did, Dad felt sorry for Aunt Betty, but the focus of his pity was far more prosaic. "With all these people around," he said, "she can't fart whenever she feels like it."



CHAPTER II continues HERE.



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