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We always met in some small brightly lit café on the south side of Ottumwa, not far from the Des Moines River, Morrell's packinghouse, the John Deere plant, Barker's Implement Company, and other factories with names I never learned. The dinnerware was heavy and indestructible. Paper napkins bulged from metal dispensers. No one bothered with tablecloths.
Aunt Thelma always joined us, along with Uncle Kenny and Aunt Lily, my mother, my sister, and assorted cousins. My father usually couldn't attend, being off in some little Iowa depot - selling tickets, decoding the mysteries of the telegraph, and writing train orders for the Rock Island Lines.
These gatherings normally took place on the weekends, though occasionally we met during the week. For some reason, I retain the illusion that these events always happened in the fall, although I know that that could not have been the case. The ostensible purpose was to eat dinner together, but by the time I was six years old, I knew the real purpose. Every session allowed the adults to do something they truly loved - fight over the bill.
I never understood why this gave them so much pleasure, but they ended every meal with the same routine. After the beef and potatoes and green beans, Uncle Kenny - tall, masculine, self-confident - would begin with a firm "Give me that" to the approaching waitress, who normally complied.
Aunt Thelma, usually soft-spoken and reserved, suddenly became aggressive. Quick with her hands, she tried, sometimes successfully, to snatch the check from him. If she failed, she invariably said, "By goshens, Kenny, I'm going to pay that." My aunt Thelma was the only person I ever heard use the expression "by goshens."
My mother made feeble attempts to compete, with lines such as "Let me pay that" or "Kenny, I'll take that." But she was no match for her older sister and younger brother. Aunt Thelma's blue eyes were flashing by then. Because she had never married and had no husband and children of her own, she had concluded that the huge salary she earned as a grade-school teacher obligated her to feed the entire Hunter family. Uncle Kenny, although the youngest sibling, was also the only boy. In some families, this fact would have automatically made him the recognized leader, but in this family his sisters had never mastered the habit of following.
If Aunt Dottla, my mother's oldest sister, had attended these ritual events, the contest would have grown even more intense; for my aunt Dottla was a formidable woman, a woman with a commanding presence. But she and her family had moved to northern California in 1947, depriving her of the rewards of these periodic battles.
So the struggle continued. With the check still in Uncle Kenny's possession, Aunt Thelma grew increasingly vocal and Uncle Kenny became increasingly resolute, sometimes gazing out the window at the elms and maples, pretending not to hear. My mother continued her futile protests, clearing her throat indignantly. Beautiful Aunt Lily, a placid Swede among these volatile Scots-Irish, sat quietly and smiled at the children, for whom this battle was the day's best entertainment.
Even after the victor had pocketed the change, the dispute continued, with the parking lot providing the setting for final arguments and promises of future reprisals. Finally, we piled into our Fords and Chevys and drove off down the brick streets through the autumn haze, content that the routine would soon be repeated, that it would never end.
* * *
Into this standard mix came an occasional variable, my father, Pete Irelan, home for the day from endless travel on the main line. With his black mustache, colorful tie, countless Pall Malls, and skillful telegrapher's hands, he brought new life to the contest. He was flexible and resourceful. He was courageous and daring. He did something no one else thought of.
He bribed the waitress.
His technique was as impeccable as his dark-blue suit. I'm sure I'm the only one who ever noticed, and I knew enough not to tell anyone else and spoil the fun. My mother and her innocent siblings never saw what happened, and my father would never tell.
Seventy-five cents or a dollar went a long way in the late forties and early fifties. My father, who seemed to know everyone, would say, "Hello, Maggie," as he came through the door, taking off his gray fedora with one hand and pressing the money into her hand with the other. His movements were flawless, invisible, accompanied by the whispered phrase, "I'll take the check."
After the pie, with which he ended every meal but breakfast, he nodded casually at the waitress, who gathered herself for the final maneuver. As she bore down on the table, my father bent his arm up and back with his palm outstretched. With all the grace of a ballerina, the waitress transferred the check to my father's hand without a word and without pause. The contest ended before it began.
But not without protest. "Pete, you give me that," Aunt Thelma said with genuine irritation, snatching for the check, which my father immediately secured in his deepest pocket. "Pete, I was going to pay that," Uncle Kenny said manfully, but with resignation already on his face. My father responded to these objections by sitting there without saying a word, laughing quietly to himself, his face flushed, his eyes closed, his body rocking gently. I never saw anything bring him more joy.
* * *
Most of them are gone now - Aunt Thelma, Aunt Lily, my mother, my father, Aunt Dottla in distant California. Their century and their way of life have gone with them, and we will have to await the evidence that our way of life is better or worse. Uncle Kenny is the only one left, and not in the best of health. But before Aunt Lily died, we still went out to dinner with her and Uncle Kenny occasionally - my cousins, my sister, our spouses, our many children. We were all nice, respectable people, but we were weak imitations of our parents, and we knew it.
The old cafés on the south side were closed and dark by then, abandoned shells beside the deserted packinghouse and vacant factories, the very places where five of my twelve uncles had worked for most of their adult lives. We met instead at ugly franchises on the edge of town. The food wasn't as good, but no one complained. A meal always tastes better when someone else cooks it and cleans up the mess.
After the pie, we all agreed how much we enjoyed seeing each other again, how we should get together more often, and how we hoped that this or that relative could join us next time. Then the talk dwindled. One by one, we slid away from the table. And when Uncle Kenny picked up the check, no one said a word.
Chapter Two Jerry
After my mother's first child, a boy, died at birth in 1934, she would sometimes disappear for long periods from the little farmhouse where she and my father lived. Following a frantic search by my father, Grandpa Hunter, and Uncle Kenny the first time this happened, Father always knew where to look the next time.
He would drive to Hopewell, a country graveyard beside a white church on Iowa's gentle prairie, where generations of Mother's ancestors lay beneath granite and limestone markers. There he would find her, sometimes in darkness, sometimes in a pouring rain, weeping inconsolably on the grave of her unborn son.
"Come on, Jerry," he would say. "We can't bring the baby back. You can't stay here. You'll make yourself sick." After coaxing and pleading without response, he would finally pick her up, carry her to the car, and drive home, never knowing how many more times he would have to do it again.
Someone had shown the dead boy to my mother before they took him away, but she retained no memory of this. She remained heavily sedated for days and did not attend the burial. They took her to my grandparents' house, where Grandma refused to leave her side. The minister came and read from Isaiah: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and a little child shall lead them." He prayed that God would comfort this woman and this family. The doctor came, but could find little to do.
My father went home only to tend the livestock, and always returned at once. He sat on a chair beside the bed and held my mother's hand. Sometimes he dozed. Grandpa told Grandma she must sleep, but she would not. Neighbors came and left food, entering and leaving by the kitchen door, without knocking, without a word.
Finally, Mother began to rally. She asked for tea, then for food. My father held her in his arms and called her "My Dearest," "My Sweet." Grandma allowed herself to rest. The minister came, thanked God for his love, and spoke of that day "when the earth and the sea will give up their dead unto everlasting life." The doctor called one last time. Grandpa filled my parents' car with gas, added oil, added water to the radiator. Grandma prepared a basket of food. Father took Mother home.
In the mysterious way that things often happen, Mother's oldest sister had given birth to her daughter Jacquelyn only thirteen days before my mother lost her son. Mother later confessed that she couldn't bear to look at her sister's child. "I didn't dislike her," she said. "She was a beautiful baby. But she reminded me of my own baby, and I couldn't bear it." It wasn't until my sister was born two years later that my mother fully recovered. From that day on, she never refused to look at Jacquelyn.
* * *
Although my mother was born in 1907, my grandparents, Laris and Austa Fleming Hunter, persisted in the nineteenth-century practice of selecting unusual names for their children. They named their first child, a girl, "Dottla." For their secondborn, they decided on the more commonplace "Thelma." For my mother, the third child, they outdid themselves. I cannot imagine what sources they consulted before arriving at "Gerata," a name I have never heard attached to any other human being. Finally, moderation returned and they settled on "Kenneth" for their only surviving son. Another son, Melvin Elwood, died in infancy.
When my mother started to grade school, it didn't take long for her siblings, cousins, and friends to see that "Gerata" was not a suitable name for a high-spirited, red-haired, blue-eyed child of the bustling twentieth century. Someone - I don't know who - decided that "Jerry" would be more appropriate, and that is the name she carried, to the dismay of her mother, for the rest of her childhood and much of her adult life.
A black-and-white photograph of her from the twenties gives the impression of a typical flapper, peeking from beneath the narrow brim of her cloche, those close-fitting little hats so popular during that decade. The photo reveals that her firm chin, delicate nose, and gentle smile were her best features. Short hair and a knee-length dress complete the image. Although the picture doesn't show it, by this time her red hair had faded to brown.
But Jerry was no Scott Fitzgerald flapper. She was an Ash Grove, Iowa, flapper: stylish but devout. Ash Grove, the village near which she lived, contained a post office, two small churches, a general store, a doctor's office, a mill, several houses, a telephone exchange where my mother sometimes worked as an operator, and a bridge across the normally calm waters of Bear Creek. A mile and a half north of town, on a dirt road, stood Ash Grove School, the one-room building where my mother and her siblings received an excellent education.
Although they could barely afford it, her parents insisted that Jerry, her sisters, and brother should attend high school in Bloomfield, the county seat of Davis County, Iowa, eighteen miles away. Every Sunday, her father took them to their rooming houses in Bloomfield, and every Friday he brought them home. In the fall and spring they traveled by buggy, in the winter by sleigh.
Each weekend, my grandmother prepared all the food Jerry and the others would need for the coming week, and together they did the laundry. Jerry's laundry couldn't have taken long. "I only owned two dresses," she said, "one for the fall and spring, and one for the winter." After her freshman year, her wardrobe improved slightly, for by then Aunt Thelma had graduated from high school and was earning the astonishing sum of forty dollars per month as a schoolteacher, and she often lent her new dresses to my mother.
Mother's high school career had a somewhat tiresome effect on my own, for as she never stopped reminding me when I entered the same high school thirty years later, "Because I had no money for movies or other amusements, I spent all my time studying." She finished second in her class, only 1.005 percent behind the valedictorian. I don't know whether the girl who finished first had money for movies or not.
While in high school, Jerry completed "normal training," a course of study designed to prepare students to teach grade school. Then, after graduation, like her two older sisters, she became a teacher in a succession of country schools - schools with names like Buttontown, Hindu, and Pleasant Hill. No other career would have occurred to her and none would have been more appropriate, for by then it had become clear to everyone that my mother was obsessed with children. She loved them. She cared for them. And as she later told my sister, she wanted no fewer than six of her own.
* * *
Although my mother's doctor knew that her children would have to be born by Caesarean section if they were to survive, he decided not to perform this procedure with her first child "because the family could not afford it." No one who heard this remarkable statement has ever been able to tell me if he feared he would not be paid or if he wanted to spare the family an economic hardship. In either case, these were the words of a man who knew nothing about my parents.
Later, with different doctors, my mother gave birth to two healthy children, first my sister, Jane, then myself. I have in my possession the original bill, dated February 1, 1936, from the Ottumwa Hospital, where my sister was born on January 18. The entire charge came to $77.50. This included fifteen days of care for my mother at $3.00 per day, fourteen days of care for the baby at $1.00 per day, $10.50 for use of the operating room, $3.00 for a laboratory test, and $5.00 for medicine and dressing. Since the baby was still inside my mother's womb the first day, the hospital generously charged one less day of care for the baby than for the mother.
As it happened, my mother owned seventy-two chickens. My father, who could not stand being in debt, quietly sold the chickens to pay the bill. For this, my mother frequently recalled, "I never forgave him." But she kept the baby anyway. I don't know what Father sold to pay the doctor. By the time I was born, both of my parents were working for the Burlington Railroad, earning enough money to avoid the sacrifice of additional chickens. During my birth, the doctor saw that another pregnancy would kill my mother, and he did what he had to. Thereafter, in the delicate phrase of that era, my mother "was no longer able to have children."
So she never got the six babies she wanted. Nonetheless, she managed to surround herself with more children than many people find conducive to their mental health. She had two of her own, thirty-five nieces and nephews, her students, the neighbor kids, and any others who happened to drop by. She knew so many children that she often confused their names with those of other children or adults. Even my name often escaped her. "Kenny," she would say to me, using the name of her brother, "hand me that bowl." Or, "Come eat your breakfast, Kenny."
Excerpted from Central Standard by PATRICK IRELAN Copyright © 2002 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 13, 2006
I greatly enjoyed Irelan's novel. It is great to read a story that takes place in Iowa and be able to say you have been to some of the towns mentioned. Also, even for those who know nothing of the railroad, this novel has very interesting and informative accounts that will give you a better understanding. The story is divided into smaller essays, making it easy to read and go by quicker than with chapters, and his description of characters makes you feel at home in the Irelan house. I greatly recommend this book, as well as his sequel, A Firefly in the Night, which is just as good, only funnier!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.