I almost like to think that I remember being born. I like to think lots of things. Mostly I get bothered by people who think they know everything, its irritatin’ to those of us who actually do. My earliest real memories are of those cold mornings on the farm in Iowa. The stove would go almost entirely out during the night, til paw got up and stoked the little pot belly in our sleepin’ room. The flannel nighty pulled up around my neck as far as it would go barely made up for the fact that we was indoors and I could still see my breath. By the time that sun come up we was thawed out enough to get dressed and start chores. Only thing got me through the winter was the thoughts of summer and all them damned bugs. Ain’t nuthin’ worse than sweating like a horse an havin’ a face full of skeeters and gnats. An that was at night. Harvest was the worst. Pickin’ that damn corn till I swore that when I got out of there, there would, “never be an ear of corn in the same room with me again.” At least after the crops was in we got to go to school some. Reverend Uhlig’s wife set up some desks and chairs in the basement of the church, and when the weather wasn’t too bad my little brother Bobby and I would borrow one of the good horses and go spend hours listening to stories, readin’s from the bible, and doin’ ‘rithmatic on the chalkboard. Seemed like those years went by like decades. Nothin’ much changed. There were the irrigation canals in the summer, but the water always melted right off ya and you was dry by the time you started to walk home. Then you would be sweaty again. No, winter was better that way. We could always find something to do to get warm, like milkin’ the cows, but there weren’t a damn thing to do in August and September to get cooled down.
We had us some good times tho. Dad was the best fiddle player in all of Des Moines county; State of Iowa said so at the fair darn near every year (there was that one year that some Yahoo come up from Nashville and took it, but he weren’t no local boy). There was foot stompin’ and dancing and an occasional sip of that corn whisky the Rasmussens used to brew up every payday. Us kids never got involved in that much, specially after what we saw it did to the Eckhardt twins. Mark got skunk drunk once he hitched up his plow and drove smack over the levee into the canal, damn near drowned the horse. Took all the neighbors, three horses, and half a day to get it out, and the rest of the day to get it straightened out and set up again.
That weren’t the only excitement in Ames, tho. On Friday nights me an the girls would sneak off with the Rasmussen’s and Eckhardt’s boys and go down to the stock yards to watch the pigs hump. On a good night we could count ten or twelve of the lucky ones havin’ themselves a time. We left the whisky home, but there was usually a bottle of cider around, and we got just tipsy enough to laugh and joke and somehow pass the time.
I don’t remember those times ending, but damn if I didn’t find myself married to Art Rasmussen, all moved in an fixen’ to have us a family. That was 1916. God don’t always play fair. In 1917, three years after Henry Ford started building cars in Highland Park, the US declared war on Germany. To most Americans this was a very patriotic time, and the men of Iowa were no exception. The only hitch was that Art and his family came over from Hamburg, and my parents still had kin in Frankfurt. Actually lots of our friends and neighbors were of German descent. Sometimes these people were singled out for harsh treatment. Some were made to take a loyalty oath or to salute or even kiss the flag. Schools did not allow their students to study no German. Things with German names got new names. “German measles” became “liberty measles” and “sauerkraut” became “liberty cabbage.”
It was war time, and the nation needed soldiers. Some Iowa men volunteered for patriotic reasons. Because the Army still needed more men, the government required all men between the ages of 18 and 45 to register at the county courthouse. There would be 115,000 to go over and fight with the British and French, and Art was one of them. He was shipped out with the 116th infantry division, but he had left behind a present. I was pregnant.
Iowa was called on to provide corn, and hogs, and cattle for the war effort. It was all I could do to tend our little “victory garden” and fend for ourselves. Our first, a son Donald, was born the day after Christmas 1917. In the fall of 1918, the Spanish Flu took Donald, along with 675,000 other Americans (ten times as many as died in the world war). It wasn’t long after we buried Donald that Art came home from the war. He had been one of the lucky ones and still had all his pieces. That was good ‘cause we figured he’d need them all if we was to try again to start a family.
Judy was born nine months, three days, and two hours later. We was hoping for another boy, but at this point we take what the good lord gives us; a healthy baby is good. Gladys was born just about a year later, December 12th 1920. The girls are bright and active, pretty as a picture, and we are so proud of them. They play basket ball in high school, and both end up marryin soon after. Gladys found herself a nice soldier, although when he came back from WWII things weren’t the same and they split up. Judy married a real smart man, got to be the vice president of a big paper company. Things was fine for several years, but the thing was, he was also a drunk. They lived in Chicago, and Texas, had a nice little girl named Jody. Dick took off after he found out that Judy had MS. There wasn’t much to treat it with back then, and being a drunk, I guess he just figured it was too much bother to watch his wife take 30 years to die. Jody kep’ in touch with her mom best she could, but they lived in Chicago and she had started a new family of her own.
Gladys found herself a job and moved out to California. She ended up findin’ herself a good man too, he drank some, but not like Dick. His name was Francis, but he never did like that and went by the nickname “Buss.” After they got established good, they sent for us and Art and I took the train out from Iowa. That was the first time I saw little Stevie, Gladys’s son.
We had some real good years out there. Art would spend hours and hours tellin’ stories and teachin’ little Stevie about carpentry. We moved into an apartment complex in the city where Gladys lived, and was the managers in exchange for rent. Art did all the fixin’, and Stevie helped. It was a good time, and as pleasant as I can remember. I wasn’t always happy, and when I was with the girls (Judy had moved out there to be with us) we mostly fought. It was always little things, but I guess we was just too much alike. Cats and dogs when we was together, then miss each other when we wasn’t. We still managed to have some great camping trips and family times until Art had his stroke. Glady’s husband was real good to us and bought us a house near to theirs. We lasted there for a few years until it became too much for Art to maintain, and a real miracle had happened.
Next to where Gladys and Buss lived was an English Commodore. Sir William Barton had just lost his wife, and was very close to Gladys and Buss. He had a nice old house with an extra bedroom and was kinda lonely. We talked a few times and ended up moving in with him right next to my daughter. We had cut a gate through the back fence, and it was just like we all lived on the farm together for a while. There were a few years there that were trouble free. That will be what I remember later in my life as a period of Shangri-la. We had BBQ’s in the summer time, gin and tonics on the porch, playing croquet on the fancy dichondra lawn Buss put in… the best of times.
It was a couple of years, but all good things came to a quick end. ‘Bout the same time Commodore Barton dropped dead of an aneurysm, Art went into the VA hospital and lasted a few months before he died, and Judy finally had to be put in a rest home for her MS. I took an apartment downtown San Carlos and a job at a local clothing shop. Things went on for a few years like that, then the next round.
Gladys’ husband got Alzheimer’s, she got cancer, and Judy got worse with her MS. Stevie graduated from college and came back home to help. Buss died then, and Gladys died a couple of years after that. I was left with one granddaughter in Chicago, a dying daughter in a rest home, and my grandson to take care of me. He did the best he could, but had his own life and family. They helped me with my apartment; I think he gave me $500 a month (from the inheritance from his mother) and we all just got by – somehow. We wasn’t hurting, but we wasn’t rich. Just minding our own business, getting by. Stevie and that girl he married would come by and pick me up for dinner once a week. We’d spend holidays together, sometimes at their house (he got a big one when his parents died) and sometimes at my apartment, but always together.
Them people at the social security call me in and give me a “case” worker. I aint no dam cow, need a “case” worker, but she asks all sort of questions: how much is my rent, what do I spend on electricity, where is the other money coming from? I tell her that Stevie helps me some, and we get by. She tells me that it’s not legal for me to take any money from anybody else while the governments helping me, so to save money she’s gonna have me move out of my apartment into a government subsidized assisted living place that costs them twice as much. Government nothin’ but a bunch ignert arseholes.
Hell, I don’t know a soul at this big ugly place, and its three cities away from the only kin I got left. Stevie comes by and takes me out to dinner once a week. ‘Side from that I’m surrounded by dead people. Don’t know why I need to put up with this crap. All them bossy old ladies playin’ cards and yackin’ away at themselves not saying a damn thing, bunch of dam old men sittin’ around in wheel chairs farting and drooling. They can’t keep nuthin’ clean. My back is so bent I’m leaning over like an ant-eater. I guess it makes it easier to see all the shit all over on the ground. They call it osteoporoses, but all I know is that my back is crookeder than a dogs hind leg, and this place smells like a big ol lye tank full of horse shit.
I guess I got a bit worked up, and had what they call a minor infarction, whatever the hell that is. Now I got to go to Stanford and they want to cut me up and put a pig valve in my heart. For God’s sake why? I’m 87 years old and getting tired of all this shit anyway. Just take me out and shoot me like some old dog!
When I wake up my chest is yellow and the room is fuzzy and spinning. There’s sheets on big metal poles around me, and all sort of machines buzzing and clicking. They have tubes running out my nose and my arms and about everywhere but up my backside. They tell me they’s taken me to another place to rest up after my surgery, a better place down closer to Stevie and that girl he married and their baby. We pull up in a place they call Los Altos, and it’s kind of nice. They have trees, and grass, and real nurses to help you too. Ain’t a soul sitting yapping at each other playin’ no cards, or those sick old men in jammies lining the halls. I get to kind of settle into my own room, and it’s quiet and peaceful.
Days turn into weeks, and week’s months. Most of the time I sit out by the old oak tree, soak in the sun, and remember. The people here are good, and kind, and I like it here. Most of my old friends have long since passed on, Eva Mitchell, Gladys, Buss, Art, Commodore Barton, but there are a few nice nurses, a couple of friendly orderlies, and the old geezer that reminds me of Lawrence Welk.
Its been a while since I’ve seen Stevie; he’s all busy with his new baby and family and I know he does the best he can. He came over with that girl he married, their baby, a bottle of Peppermint Schnapps, and his buddy Paul. I remember feeling peaceful, like everything is gonna be OK now. Stevie even says something about kind of an “aura” around me, like it’s a halo. I’m wonderin how much of that Schnapps he and Paul have been into. Its Christmas time now and the rest home is all lit up and decorated. There’s the smell of cinnamon candles, and cookies in the air. We had just had a good big dinner, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy – my favorites. It reminds me of the old farm in Ames.
Stevie has always been a good piano player (got the genes from my pa) and they sit down and play all sorts of Christmas songs in the lobby. They play Silent Night, What Child is This, Away in a Manger, all my favorites. We all sing along together, though I forget most of the words. A few of the other inmates straggle in one by one and join us. They put the baby in my lap and I laugh a little and hold it up over my head. It makes me feel kinda peaceful that I have a great-granddaughter, and that life will go on. Paul gives me a little snort of the peppermint schnapps – then another. It reminds me of my daddy, of Frankfurt, and of what a life I have had. It feels warm, and good, and I’m getting kinda tired now. I think it might be time for me to go home.
And she passed that night in her sleep.