Grandma Reenie and the Steamer Trunk

16 10 2009

A year or two before my step-grandmother “Grandma Reenie” passed on, I had made one of only a few wise decisions in my life. I went back to my home-town in Colorado to spend time with my family.

Grandma Reenie was getting on in years, and I knew that the opportunities to gather history and memories were running thin. Over the course of that year I visited as often as I could make the five-hour drive from my place in Colorado Springs to the remote farming community of Wray. My stepfather was her youngest son and only son of her second husband “Ernie”. Ernie was an ornery-spirited old man who had died of a heart-attack when I was nine years old. Although he died early in my life it wasn’t before he made it clear that he was willing to hold a grudge against a small child, just because he had a feud with my biological father’s family. It was difficult to comprehend how a grownup could dislike me merely because of my last name, but my mother assured me that this was the case. In his softer moments he showed signs of fleeting kindness and humor during which he did things like pop his dentures out mid-sentence. I’m not sure if it really happened, or if it was a childish nightmare, but I do have memories of Grandpa Ernie chasing us around the house with his teeth.

After Grandpa Ernie died, Grandma Reenie went through some adjustments, one of which involved the appearance of a bottle of Jack Daniels in the spice cupboard. She made no bones about the fact that she chose my oldest little brother as her “favorite”. My father and stepmother sent me a gift package on both my November birthday and Christmas, and sent for me to spend my summers with them in Florida. It was hard for the grownups to explain why my little brothers couldn’t go with me to Florida. I am surely exaggerating, but the feelings I had were much like what I’ve heard described as “Survivor’s Guilt”.  My special treatment came from Florida and my youngest brother’s came from Mom, who was traumatized by almost losing him when he was born premature and with Rh negative blood. This left my middle brother, and Grandma Reenie made it no secret that she had taken it upon herself to make him her favorite. She always got him presents that were grander than those for our little brother and me. Despite all of the favoritism, we grew up feeling safe and loved. I was just not especially close to Grandma Reenie as a child. I was close enough to appreciate her phenomenal cooking, and the fact that she was a reliable source of toilet paper and laundry soap whenever we ran out. Grandma Reenie always made sure we had the things we needed.

Although I had returned to Colorado to visit upon many occasions, things changed between Grandma Reenie and me, once I had become an adult. Our previously tenuous relationship quickly evolved into a loving, affectionate friendship as my interests in cooking and researching the family history were revealed. She taught me how to can wild plums and how to make the perfect pie crust from scratch. She told me the story of how her mother had sewn straight through her fingertip with an old trestle-powered sewing machine and how her childhood best friend had died of botulism from a mistake made in canning green beans. Her blue eyes flashed with mischief as she told me funny stories and dirty jokes until we both exhausted ourselves with laughter.

She shared her justification for treating my mother with such contempt and for showing extreme favoritism towards my brother. I kept a notebook to jot down her seemingly endless stream of humorous and fascinating euphemisms, colloquialisms and aphorisms. When my mom came to visit she usually left “Madder than an old wet hen”. When the summer heat got to Grandma she would complain of “Sweating like a whore in church”. When I asked her how she was feeling she would say “Foxier than a fresh fucked fox in a forest fire” and so on. We had a great time with her as the teacher, and me the avid student.

Grandma Reenie and Grandpa Ernie collected humorous novelties and naughty souvenirs from their travels. Her home was scattered with fun nic-nacs from tourist traps around the country. My favorite was the pair of ceramic frogs, which appeared innocent enough until one flipped them over to reveal that they bore graphic representations of human genitalia. The female frog did not have a monopoly on glazed breasts, though. Grandma Reenie also owned a pair of booby coffee mugs, with holes in the nipples for “sipping”. Where other grandmothers might display decorative plates bearing images of famous landmarks, Grandma Reenie proudly showed off items like this little gem:

Chicken-Plate

Grandma Reenie’s spunky sense of humor belied a more serious, sentimental side that I had rarely witnessed until one special afternoon. Perhaps it was in response to my interest in antiques, or maybe she just figured that it was time. For whatever reason she spontaneously announced that she had something to show me; something that she needed my help to excavate.

With curiosity raging, I followed her down the dark and narrow hallway that led to the garage. The gravity of the event was highlighted as she carefully worked her way down the uneven concrete steps. I offered steadying support as her feeble knees threatened to give way at any moment. It had been years since she had dared to go down into the dank, musty garage. She guided me to a pile of grime-covered boxes. We had lived with Grandma Reenie many times throughout my life; and I had spent countless hours “helping” my stepdad work on vehicles within inches of this same pile of boxes. Yet, never once had I noticed the antique steamer trunk buried beneath the mass of dusty cardboard. Together, we dismantled the pile with the enthusiasm of gold miners. Upon reminiscing,  I can relate to the excitement she must have felt at the prospect of revisiting such long stored memories.

Within a few moments we had unearthed the ornate, steel and oak camel-back  trunk and carted its contents into the living room. The trunk surrendered a cache of antique porcelain, glassware and fragile ephemera. Grandma Reenie was especially interested in a sheath of old letters and photographs. She thumbed through the yellowed pages, explaining that they were love letters detailing the courtship of the couple who had adopted her from the orphanage when she was a small child. The stack also contained one or two love letters of her own; which she quickly snatched away and read with a youthful blush engulfing her face. She held close her personal mementos and handed me the remaining letters.

The Love Story

As we sat together on the sagging, afghan-draped sofa we attempted to decipher the scribbled writing (some in fountain pen and the rest in pencil).

The letters were written on small pages of yellowed stationery and crammed with unpunctuated text; as though to take advantage of every inch of precious space. Grammatical and spelling errors abounded, bringing to mind the script of a spaghetti western. Grandma Reenie was from Glen Elder, Kansas, which is the central scene of the touching romance which unfolds upon these brittle, hand-penned pages.

Grandma explained how her birth mother had died and how Freeta and L.J. Anderson adopted her from the orphanage after her father was forced to give up her and her siblings. I regret the fact that I did not pull out my notebook and jot down details. Now I cannot recall her accounts of how she was treated by her adoptive parents, or what took place between the time they took her in and the time that I wore my sky blue dress in the wedding between my mother and her son.

I took the letters to bed with me that night and spent long hours attempting to decipher the hand-penned scrawl and impossible grammar. I felt a sense of immense privilege to be allowed this glance into the intimate life of two strangers from a lost time. The letters wove a tale of a young couple separated by circumstance and distance. L.J. worked on a farming crew and spent the harvest season traveling around Kansas and Nebraska. Freeta and her sister alternated between Glen Elder, Kansas and Oklahoma Territory. Instead of using periods in his sentences L.J. peppered his paragraphs with  “Here is a kiss” throughout his touchingly tender letters to Freeta. The earliest letters are from 1899 and continue on through 1912.

The next day the trunk was packed back up and returned to its place, where it stayed the remainder of her life. A couple of years later I had made my way back to Florida and was waiting tables when I got an emergency phone call at the restaurant. It was my little brother calling to say (between heartbreaking sobs) “Grandma Reenie is dead!”.  I was devastated, but a great deal of my grief went towards my brother, who had just lost the one person who made him feel as though the moon and stars revolved around him. I could hear the loss and despair in his voice and I cried hardest for him that night. My mom later explained that Grandma was found on the floor next to her vacuum cleaner. Her house was always immaculate and a bad heart wasn’t going to stop her from keeping it that way. I was thankful that she went quickly and didn’t suffer. I remembered the time she had shown me her arterial bypass scars and (nonchalantly) spoke about her death. “I’ve lived a good life and I hope that when it is my time to go, I just drop dead in my tracks”

I wasn’t able to make it home for Grandma Reenie’s funeral. The next time I did get out there my mom led me out to their shed to show me my portion of the inheritance. There was the big old trunk. It looked so out-of-place amongst the gardening tools and spare car parts, looming in silence, as though steadfastly guarding its contents. Excitedly, I revisited the artifacts (which seemed almost artificial in the bright sunlight that beamed in through the shed door). Although I could not take the trunk and the antiques with me, I did salvage the letters and photographs, which I have carefully preserved to this day.

They have been gnawing at my conscience and curiosity ever since. As life whizzed by and changes rushed like whitewater, I promised that I would eventually get around to translating and preserving these precious bits of history.

That time has finally come.

As I scanned and processed the images of the delicate letters I ruminated upon their value. The greatest treasure to me is the story I have just told. A close second is the link they add to the chain of history and genealogy. As precious as they are to me, I have come to the conclusion that I would happily donate them to an organization with the desire to preserve and share them. Once I have connected as many dots as possible, I may offer them to a Glen Elder museum or historical society.

I think of my cousin Roberta (who is the historian for my biologically paternal side of the family), and how excited she would be to come into possession of family heirlooms, like these letters, in her genealogical research. I truly hope that someone with the ability to make good use of them will surface.

For now, please see my next post for the love story of Freeta and L.J. Anderson.


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