My own home town

I was born in a small town near the middle of Ohio along the I-75 corridor, north of Dayton, south of Toledo, called Piqua. My parents, and their parents, and grandparents, and further on back in their genealogy lived in Piqua. Most who immigrated here from Germany, or Ireland, or England, settled in Piqua and established homes and families. Many are buried in Forest Hill Cemetery along the river in the north section of town.

In March of 2011, I wrote about my memories of growing up in Piqua.

Even back in the 1950s, it wasn’t easy to find a job in a small town. When my dad returned from the service in the mid-1950s, he started working for NCR in Dayton, Ohio, about an hour’s drive away. In the 60’s my parents packed up our bags and moved us there. Neither my mom or dad really wanted to go. My mom didn’t work outside the home. All her family and friends were in Piqua. Over the years, my dad made no secret of the fact that he always missed Piqua. My parents had conversations about moving back “home” during their  retirement years. They finally made it back in January of 2013, when they were both buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.

I understand the allure of small town life.

So, this morning, as I watched a CNN report on Beattyville, a small town in Kentucky where people are struggling to get by, it brought me to tears. I am a small-town girl at heart.

But sometimes you have to move. Times change. Opportunities shift. Throughout history we can find example after example of towns and cities that once prospered but then failed. The Dust Bowl comes to mind (probably because I just watched the documentary on Netflix). Sometimes we see cities that came through a rough patch and are beginning to thrive again. Buffalo, NY, is a good example. Buffalo was a rich city at one point during the height of waterway commerce. Then other forms of transportation developed and Buffalo was left with empty grain silos decomposing along its riverfront. The good news is that Buffalo is finding a way to reinvent itself. It is finding a way to thrive in the country and world as it is today.

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St. John the Baptist Church in Bakum viewed from Elmelage farmland.

My husband, Mark, and I visited Bakum, Germany last summer. It’s a small agricultural town in northern Germany about a half-hour’s drive south from Bremen. We’ve traced Mark’s ancestors back to Bakum from 1530 until 1850, when they emigrated to Amerika. In some ways, you could argue that Bakum is Mark’s family’s “hometown.” Certainly it was his great-grandfather’s.

In the early 1800s, the population in Bakum grew at a fast rate and  the farming communities became over-crowded. People were living in barns, sheds, bake houses, in any available structure they could find. There was no food to eat. Parents struggled to provide shoes for their children. Poverty was rampant. Mark’s ancestor, Bernard Dominicus Grote, lived in the farming community of Elmelage and worked as a hired hand on land owned by the Knese family. Dominicus’ brothers all lived nearby on other farms. They all went to St. John the Baptist, the small church in town. I’m sure they did not wish to leave their family, their hometown and their homeland to come to a strange country with a language they couldn’t understand.

But they did. Like other ancestors of probably most, if not all of us.

I’m not talking about immigration right now. I’m talking about people following opportunity and doing what they need to do to survive. There is nothing new about this. It is the story of human survival from the beginning of time.

I truly hope our country can find a way to make things better for the folks in small towns who have lost their local industries and jobs. No one wants to see people suffer like that. But I also believe the way forward is exactly that, forward. Not back.

~~~~~

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Someone’s crying

Three years ago today, I held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath. This is the post I wrote the day after. Today I am remembering a moment towards the end of her days when she was at Hospice. I never had a lot of time to have the heart-to-heart conversation with her that I yearned for. Things were moving too fast; I was too busy with Dad, and Mom was too sick. But on this afternoon, for the minutes she was awake, I leaned over her bed and said, “I’m going to have to find a way to talk to you.” She said, “Yes, you will.” Then I cried the tears I tried so hard to hide from her. She reached up with both of her arms and cupped my face between her two hands, giving me a lifetime of gratitude and love, a million words of goodbye, in one moment I will cherish forever.

Christine M. Grote

On Thursday night I heard my mother stir and I rose from my bed on the floor in the corner of her room and hurried to her side.

“What’s wrong?” she asked as she roused from the deep sleep she had been in all day.

“Nothing’s wrong, Mom.”

“Someone’s crying,” she said.

In my mom’s 78 years on this planet, I imagine she heard and answered a lot of someones crying.  In the 1950s through the 1970s she was raising five children who had been born within six years, including my sister Annie who was extremely disabled.  I suspect there were a lot of times someone was crying.

Even as we grew older we were sometimes crying: me coming home from college carrying a basket of laundry when a relationship ended; a long-distance phone call to speak of a loved one who died; a conversation about one thing or the…

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All that’s left is the amaryllis

The ornaments are wrapped in their boxes and stacked on the shelf in the basement. The cookies have been devoured. Containers of leftovers from elaborate meals now empty, washed, and stored. The lighted angel is silent, the announcement of a birth long past, she stands in the dark downstairs beside the box of strings of lights that brightened the bushes outside our window. The sheets are changed and the towels washed. Toys are put away. Santa came and went in a flash. But the amaryllis remains.

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Why I like to iron, but don’t do it.

I dress more for comfort than style, you might say. Unless you are my daughter, and then you might say that I never dress for style. But I maintain I do have a style, and it is called, comfort.

One of the things I like about my particular style, is that it requires little to no ironing. Wash, dry, fold or hang-up and my clothes are ready to wear. There are one or two exceptions for special occasions, like Christmas.

I wanted to wear a light-weight wool sweater today for the family party we are hosting. It is a rich cranberry color and mostly I save it for the holidays. I washed it, dried it flat, and it is not ready to wear. Iron on a warm setting, the tag informs me.

So I pull my rickety ironing board out of the closet, unwrap the iron’s cord from the handy shelf/bracket I installed in my closet five years ago expressly for that purpose, and plug my iron in.

My mother taught me how to iron.

In fact, when I was young, I loved to iron. My mom would save my father’s hankies, and all the pillowcases for me to iron. In those days she didn’t have a steam iron. She dampened the things that needed to be ironed, which I suspect were most things in those days before the miracle of permanent press happened.

Mom had a shaker bottle that she filled with water. She would lay the clothing or household article flat on the table or ironing board, and sprinkle it with water. Then she rolled it up and placed it on its end in the laundry basket to wait its turn. I can remember it as clear as if it happened yesterday.

I would unroll the damp pillowcases and go to work on them with the iron, transforming the wrinkled and damp to dry and smooth. I folded the pillowcases as I worked. I folded each one into thirds lengthwise, making a long narrow, neat column that I would fold in half and again into fourths, pressing each section as I went and ending with a nice neat little square that stacked perfectly in the linen closet.

I can’t remember the last time I ironed a pillowcase.

I liked doing my dad’s hankies even more. They were quick and sweet and made a nice little square when folded in half eight times.

I still have one of my dad’s hankies. I stuck it in my pocket when we cleaned out his room in the nursing home the night he died. I took it with me to the cemetery at his funeral where I dampened it with my own tears and pressed it between my fingers.

Maybe I’d still enjoy ironing pillowcases and hankies today if I took the time to do it.

Can we ever really know the truth?

At my writing group last night one of the women wrote about care-giving for her father who had Alzheimer’s. She wrote of herself as a reluctant caregiver. She found a lot of reasons why she didn’t want to make the 2-hour drive to Columbus and stay overnight at her parents’ house.

I applauded her for her honesty.

And then I started to wonder about myself. Did I resent feeling a responsibility to take care of Mom and Dad over the past years? I don’t remember not wanting to go visit them. I don’t remember it being a burden. What I remember most was being driven to try to fix the problem, to help ease their pain, to scramble to make things better somehow, someway. It was a vocation for me.

I’m sure there were days when I might have preferred to stay home, but I really can’t recall feeling that way.

And it makes me wonder whether I am now in denial, or whether my personal history has made me approach or feel differently about care-giving than some others might. I learned care-giving from a very early age as I stooped to pick Annie’s toys up off the ground where she dropped them, or straightened her up in her chair, or fed her a meal. When I moved away from home it wasn’t very many years before I was giving care to what would eventually be four children in our family.

I know there were times when I grew tired, or frustrated, but I don’t think I would ever refer to myself as reluctant. I wanted to help my parents. I was desperate to make things better.

When things fell apart last December, I spent nights on a sofa in the lobby of a hospital, on a sofa at my Mom’s house, on a Hospice chair that converted to a very hard bed, on an air mattress on the floor, in a recliner beside my father’s bed. I wanted to be there. I went home and slept in my own bed only because I knew that if I didn’t take breaks I would not be able to sustain the level of support I wanted to give.

But in this place of grief where I now dwell, I wonder if I will ever know the truth of any of it anymore. Can we ever really know the truth?

Sunlight on water-2013-10-21

Time for grasshoppers

Grasshoppers dot the sun-warmed paved path every couple of yards or so where I walk Arthur beside the rippling lake on a cool autumn day. Arthur gets close and pokes his nose at one. It hops away.

Arthur scampers along beside me in the grass, his nose to the ground. Following a trail. His little white paws startle grasshoppers hiding there. Arthur ignores them.

I remember a long ago fall day on the river levy of my dad’s youth where we scampered along the hillside, our little Ked’s-clad feet startling the grasshoppers who hid there. Grasshoppers popping up all around us.

We set chase, catching them with bare hands then letting them go again. The thrill of the catch enough.

We had time for grasshoppers then.

Arthur-Oct 21-21

Lives contained in a cedar chest

I feel my past slipping away like a landslide, the topsoil steadily moving down behind me like a carpet pulling everything with it into the deep dark void. Unstoppable. Taking the houses, the trees, and me.

Who took the Adams’ Bible?” my aunt wants to know. “There was a big ruckus over that Bible. It landed in the hands of an alienated family member.  Aunt Flo finally got it back and your mother got it from her.

I scanned all the black and white photos in Dad’s leather album from his time in the army in Germany, transcribing all the little handwritten notes on the backs.

Me standing at attention. Shaner messed this up. He didn’t tell me I was shadowed.

This is my equipment that we had to carry most of the time. I took it Sunday when we had inspection.

We had a demonstration yesterday and here is a shot taken right after the air force dropped some napalm on the target before the tanks and big guns moved in. It was some show.

Me sewing up a pair of shorts. The general is coming to inspect. (It didn’t do any good. We failed.)

Mom’s framed wedding portrait with a telegram from my grandfather to my dad in Germany.

Congratulations. It’s a little girl. Arrived at 9:30. Everything okay.

I scanned all the photos of Mom and my sister in the back of Dad’s army album that I never realized were there.

She’s got her eyes open a little bit more here. Isn’t she the cutest thing you ever saw?

This is where I give her a bath. Right by the stove. I turn the burners on so it will be nice and warm for her.

Mom and Dad’s memories, recorded on film, sent across the ocean, returned home, arranged in a photo album, held in place with black photo corners.

Envelopes of color photos from the trip to D.C., my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, Mom and Dad’s 50th anniversary. Grandchildren.

I’ll keep the things they saved from their parents. Photos, marriage licenses, death certificates. A hand-written diary from Mom’s grandfather and his farming days.

I’ll put it all in the cedar chest with their high school graduation photos and yearbooks; with the outfit Mom wore in the photo with her great-grandson just two years ago, and Dad’s captain’s hats from his pontoon days at the cottage at the lake.

Little mementos. Articles of genealogical interest. Sentimental items.

I’ll store them all away, for what purpose I do not know. Small fragments of a past that is no more.

23-08 - sewing short - not in album