Chicago’s East Side and its Fox Valley suburbs form the backdrop for Growing Up and Finding Her, a memoir told with the poignancy that only a true story can deliver. Authors Brad and Mary Buettner recount how their lives stream together following the difficult challenges of the 1950s and 60s when their families struggled to overcome poverty, misfortune, and mental illness.
The contrast between Brad Buettner’s small-town environment and Mary Ellen Janowski’s big-city experience is one aspect of the story. However, when Brad is six, the death of his sister, Bobby, plunges his family into a spiral of grief and anguish. Meanwhile, Mary battles personal insecurities after being rejected by her closest friend. The pair grapple with life independently until red corduroy, of all things, provides the nudge that blends them together in a union lasting more than forty-five years.
In this moving tale, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower make a brief appearance, and the Vietnam War poses an unexpected obstacle three days before the couple’s wedding. Growing Up and Finding Her is a story of pain, friendship, and love which unfolds with sincere warmth and humor.
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About the Author
Growing Up and Finding Her
By Brad Buettner Mary Buettner
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Brad and Mary Buettner
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe year was 1946. Two families were moving, one only three miles north but the other several states east. One family included a two-year-old girl and the other, a four-year-old boy. Two seemingly unrelated events, originating five hundred miles apart.
The longer move was the urgent one, although the four-year-old had no idea at the time. Brad didn't grasp the panic in his parents' eyes or hear the tension in their speech. To him the move was merely another adventure, one that would free him from the dangers of the mud in the front yard, where his father parked the family's '36 Plymouth. But the move would end up changing his life much more than getting rid of that muddy parking spot. It would prove to be even more significant than his parents could imagine. The move would bring them to Batavia, Illinois, where Brad's sister, Bobby, would die and send the family spiraling into a catastrophic descent. It would take years to escape that trauma, and it is in the escape that the two moves would be linked.
As far as Bobby's death was concerned, Brad's mother never ran out of theories. She never accepted what the doctors told her, claiming that the doctors didn't know. As a result, none of the explanations was final. None gave closure, because she didn't want closure. She wanted her daughter's death to forever remain a mystery, so that the mystery would lead to questions, and the questions would lead to sympathy, and the sympathy would lead to attention. Mildred Buettner craved the spotlight.
So did Brad. And when Bobby was alive, he thought he never got his share, at least not the good kind. He got the parental kind, the kind that says do this and do that. Bobby was his third parent, and in his young mind worse than the other two combined. She ordered him around, pouncing like a bullying tyrant, forcing him to use whatever tools were at hand to fight her off. He would lash out with his fingernails like a cat attacking the neighborhood mutt, or he would touch the private parts of her dolls until she got so excited that she screamed for her mother.
Not that they were a violent or nasty family. Their father was a marvelous peacemaker. A meek bookkeeper, Bill Buettner was small in stature, a pipe-smoking gentleman two inches shorter than his five-foot-six wife. He had begun losing his hair in high school, so most of it was gone even in Brad's earliest memories. He spoke quietly and understood Brad's problems far better than the two females of the household did.
On the other hand, Brad's mother was a beauty. Slim, with an hourglass figure, Mildred's brown eyes could melt the resistance of any male she encountered. She used her looks to manipulate the men in her life, the shopkeepers, doctors, and repairmen, persuading them to give her special consideration now and then. The family got plenty of good deals.
Bobby's pictures show a slim girl too. But in Brad's eyes she was a tall, fat shrew with a screeching voice and a malicious personality, nothing like the pictures that show a pretty little girl with bright eyes and smile, long curly hair, and a narrow waist. One of Brad's earliest memories is of his sister carrying his potty bowl down the stairs of their little home in Falls City, Nebraska. The war had just ended. Their father was about to lose his job. We will begin Brad's role in the story then.
* * *
Falls City was the county seat of Richardson County in the southeast corner of Nebraska near the Kansas and Missouri borders. On the Nemaha River, it was a short boat ride to where the Nemaha empties into the Missouri. If people used boats, that is. The citizens of Falls City didn't. They populated a railroad town. Their loyalty was to the rails and solely to the rails until the late thirties when a discovery put a gleam into old farmers' eyes, eyes that hadn't had a gleam like that since puberty.
Someone had visited Texas, saw its flat, dusty surface and noticed a similarity to the plains of Nebraska. If Texas had oil, why not Nebraska? If Houston could get filthy rich, surely Falls City could as well. An early attempt at drilling a well confirmed the theory. But before the old farmers could clear their mouths of tobacco juice, word of the find got out, and newcomers from all over the country flocked to the small town south of Omaha in a mini-gold rush. One of those opportunists was Dan Ivy. Ivy built a refinery outside of town and recruited people he knew and trusted to help him run it. Among his employees, he would need a discreet and honest bookkeeper who was loyal and hardworking, someone who could prepare a good set of books that would keep the government off of Ivy's back. That man was a little fellow with a new wife and daughter named Bill Buettner.
Bill, Mildred, and their daughter, Roberta, lived in a tiny apartment in Joliet, Illinois. The late nineteen-thirties were full of hard times and limited opportunities. Bill was barely earning enough to put food on the table, and Mildred's frustration with the family's meager financial resources had grown with each passing day. A paid move west, doubling Bill's salary, had to be enticing.
Mildred was a Riffel. Her parents had come separately from Slovenia in 1911. They met in Joliet and were married a year later. Grandma Riffel had thought she was marrying into money, since the Riffel name in Slovenia supposedly belonged to a family of wealthy landowners. She didn't realize that Grandpa's father had already gone through his inheritance and was a family outcast, leaving Brad's grandfather a pauper. He had fooled Grandma, though, and she never forgave him for it.
Growing up, Brad often wondered about Slovenia. The kids he would meet at school were German, Irish, Swedish, Scottish, Lithuanian, even Mexican, but no one was Slovenian. He figured Slovenians must be odd, so he asked his mother about them. Rather than describing the Balkans, Mildred bragged that her parents were from the Austrian Empire, and that their heritage could be found in Vienna with its palaces and treasure. Those aspirations evidently had lingered after immigrating to America. Brad would notice his mother measuring success by size: the size of a house, the size of a car, or the size of a diamond. Conspicuous consumption counted. Charity was fine, but only if being charitable added to one's social status. Travel was for bragging rights, not for widening one's horizon, and food was simple unless there was company.
Opposites attract, however, and the union of Mildred Riffel with Bill Buettner was a good demonstration of that. Even the names themselves prove the point. Riffel is spelled differently on Mildred's birth certificate, since the spelling was changed after she was born to help the new generation assimilate into America. Buettner was not changed. It's a German name, pronounced Bit-ner. Most Americans mispronounce it, saying "Beaut- ner" which emphasizes the "u" in the first syllable. This seemingly trivial mistake would prove to be one of Mildred's weapons in later years. At the time, however, she and Bill would politely correct any mispronunciation.
Bill Buettner respected the authentic, especially when it offered a good time. He liked a good drink or two, good humor, and pretty girls. But he was a timid, gentle soul who never drank too much, forever worried that he was laughing too loudly, and, unlike his wife, never chased the opposite sex after marriage. His ambition was simply to coexist with the world and not to cause any trouble while doing so. A good book was sufficient entertainment, although he seldom talked about what he read. Actually, he seldom said much of anything. His car was forever small and old, and he never owned more than one suit at a time.
While Brad's father rarely talked about the past, his mother began filling her son's ears with her stories as soon as he was old enough to understand. She complained every chance she got that her upbringing had been poverty-stricken. No Christmas. No gifts anytime. She never went anywhere or did anything, and she had had no clothes of her own. During one of these sessions she told Brad how she met his father at a wedding in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. It had happened in the middle of the Great Depression.
Of course, Brad couldn't help but wonder how an eighteen-year-old girl, so poor and with no spending money, had managed a trip from Joliet to Sheboygan, a 200 mile journey at a time when 200 miles was a long distance. Somehow she made the trip, though, and caught his father's attention. Bill got her address and traveled to Joliet at his next opportunity. According to Mildred, he was so exhausted by the time he arrived that he just wanted to sit on her front porch. He sat there smoking cigarettes, pushing smoke through a pinhole in his lips, making it come out in a tight line, a style meant to impress a young lady.
An aunt once said that Mildred was thoroughly smitten with her beau. But Mildred insisted that the only person Bill impressed was Grandma Riffel, and that it was Grandma who decided that Bill Buettner would make a suitable husband for her daughter. In Mildred's version, he and Grandma had a private conversation and arranged the marriage without consulting her. There would be no children because she was too fragile. Mildred claimed that at nineteen she had no option but to agree, and that she came back from her honeymoon a virgin and, perhaps even worse, to an apartment with no running water.
She was probably right about the plumbing. Even Grandma's house didn't have indoor facilities until Brad was old enough to remember their installation, some twelve years after his parents' marriage. As for virginity, Bobby arrived less than a year after the supposedly childless marriage took place, and Brad came five years later.
Despite Mildred's claims, she was the leader of Brad's family, not a victim of some secret plot. Dan Ivy persuaded Mildred, not Bill, that going to Falls City would be the opportunity of a lifetime. He knew that once she was convinced, she would insist that her husband accept the position. If Bill Buettner had a flaw, it was that he was too content, too resistant to change. All he wanted was to enjoy what was there. Taking a chance with relocation was scary.
When Bill finally gave in, Mildred celebrated by purchasing a coat and hat so outlandishly stylish that she eventually destroyed every picture of her wearing it. Except one. Brad found it many years later in a shoebox, stuffed deep in a desk drawer.
Brad's family arrived in Falls City in 1939. Three years later Brad was born, giving his sister a full five-year advantage over him, five years of height, muscle, and cunning. He was officially named William Bradley but called Bradley, supposedly to avoid confusion with his father. Mildred insisted that she did not like "Junior." However, there was more to it than that. Mildred wanted to stamp her own imprint on her son, so that she could have an exclusive claim.
Brad's bedroom and potty were on the second floor of the little rented Cape Cod. The bathroom was on the first floor, and it was Bobby's job to keep his potty "fresh." It was a great contraption with a wooden base and porcelain bowl, and it fit Brad like a glove. As far as he is concerned, no toilet since has given him the comfort of that old potty chair. Furthermore, in all of Mildred's stories, she gave Brad credit over Bobby at only one thing: toilet training. According to his mother, when Bobby was at the training age, she knew what she had to do but was too stubborn to change her habits. One morning Mildred finally resorted to keeping her diaper loose. After dribbling down her leg for a while, Bobby finally decided that using the facilities was worth the effort.
In any event, that day Brad was downstairs waiting, surrounded by wood: wooden stairs, wooden floor, and wooden banister. There was nothing to absorb sound.
Brad didn't trip her. How could he? He was at the bottom, an innocent witness, watching as this huge Amazon came crashing down the stairs, limbs flying, potty bowl somersaulting, and stairs thundering. Bobby got a few bruises but nothing more, and thankfully the potty bowl didn't break, which was far more important to Brad than his sister's limbs. Mildred got all excited, running to her daughter, examining her for broken bones, and wiping up the mess. Brad skedaddled, heading for the back porch and some fresh air.
He thought that Bobby behaved even worse to him after that, ordering him around more than ever. She was driving him nuts. He began plotting ways to get her out of the way, but she was too big and too powerful. How was he to know that in three short years he would get his wish?
Chapter Two"There was plenty of oil," Mildred would claim for years afterwards. "It was all the other stuff. If everybody had cooperated, there wouldn't have been a problem." But whatever she thought, her opinion couldn't alter the situation. The oil, if there was any left, surely wasn't pooled in vast underground lakes as in Texas. The refinery that had brought her and her family to Falls City was closing. Bill had lost his job.
Veterans were flocking home to grateful businessmen, anxious to give former soldiers the priority they deserved for the jobs that were available. There would be no work for Bill Buettner in Falls City; the family would have to move.
At four years of age Brad didn't mind. In fact, he was glad. The house they lived in had those noisy wooden floors and stairs, and when it rained the tin roof on its back porch was noisy too. Everything rattled. Besides, there was that muddy parking space in the front. His friend, Jimmy, pushed him into that mud one Saturday just after Brad had taken his bath. When his mother saw the result, he had to go right back into the tub. From then on, Brad was suspicious of both Jimmy and the parking space. In addition, the move would finally get him away from a kitchen where he had accidentally pulled the radio off the counter, smashing it against the floor, and shattering its case into dozens of pieces. It still worked, though, so his father put the cover back together with Scotch tape. The radio sat on the kitchen counter for years afterwards, its yellowing tape forever reminding Brad of his crime.
Nonetheless, Brad had had some good moments in Nebraska. Much to his sister's chagrin, he once took over her piano recital. She was on stage playing the piano, her curls flying and her fingers dancing. Brad recognized the song. She had practiced it for hours, allowing him to learn the words. So as she played, he began to sing. And not softly. He sang out loud enough to draw the attention of the whole audience. It was the only time that he ever upstaged his sister.
As far as Brad can remember, Bobby never did anything wrong. According to Mildred, she had the bubbling personality of Miss America and the angelic idealism of Mother Teresa. She loved school and came home every day full of stories, as excited as if she had just returned from Fatima after seeing an apparition. Mildred would gobble the stories up, giving Bobby cake and laughing with her. One of the few times Brad saw them unhappy together was when his mother told Bobby that they would have to move. Bobby had loads of friends in school, and she was upset at the thought of leaving them.
Of course, Brad had no inkling of what was actually going on. He never dreamed that the move was an act of desperation, that if his father didn't find work soon, there might not be enough food on the table. Moving was merely another change in his young, simple life, no more significant than finding someone to play with other than Jimmy Miles, who had made him take that extra bath.
In any case, there was absolutely no choice. The family had to go and the only question was where. Actually, there were just two possibilities. They would move to a place where his parents knew people, and that meant either Sheboygan, Wisconsin or Joliet, Illinois.
Brad knew Sheboygan, and he didn't want to go back. His father had driven the family there last winter for Grandma Buettner's funeral. It had been a windy, icy trip, during which Bill had had to fight the elements from the time he pulled out of the frozen mud in front of the house in Falls City. The elements won halfway there, driving the Plymouth off the road and into a roadside ditch. They were miles from a town and blocks from a farmhouse. Bill left the car, pulled down the brim of his fedora, and bent into the wind. His overcoat whipped about. As he disappeared into the blowing snow, Brad worried that he might never see him again.
When the family finally arrived at the funeral home, everyone was wearing black, including Brad's grandmother, lying in her casket. Brad remembers, probably incorrectly, rosary beads hanging from the walls, making the area around the coffin claustrophobic.
He also noticed that people in Sheboygan talked in a funny, sing-song manner and used strange expressions. A sandwich was called a lunch, and every remark ended with, "An' so?" Thus, even though his relatives treated him as one of their own, at age three Brad found them uncomfortable. "It's a good lunch, an' so?" How do you answer that if you don't like spicy bratwurst? As Brad grew older, he would find Sheboygan homey, fun-loving, and always welcoming, but at that time, all he wanted was to go back to Falls City.
As the family was preparing to move from Nebraska, Brad's father had written his Sheboygan friends about finding a job there but had received no encouragement. The lack of opportunity in Wisconsin dictated their destination. Soon all of the furniture, including Brad's beloved scooter, a three-wheeled scoot-along that he sat on like a tricycle, went into storage, and the '36 Plymouth headed for Joliet to the home of Grandma and Grandpa Riffel. Without expressways, the trip would take as long as the one to Sheboygan.
The Plymouth had a gear shift that took up the floor next to the driver, so Brad could never ride up front. This didn't bother him as long as Bobby kept to her side of the back seat, but all too often she strayed over to his side. Or was it that he strayed to hers? Whoever was at fault, his mother would tell him, never Bobby, that he had to share. So Brad glared at Bobby to keep her away from him. She sometimes obliged, especially when she was busy babbling on and on about some nonsense with their mother. At least then Brad was free to peruse the countryside as they drove. He could look out his side window but not the rear one which was permanently fogged up, due to some defect that Brad didn't understand. Bill could only see what was behind him by using the small outside mirror on his left.
When they finally got to Grandma's, their reception was cold. There wasn't room for four more in the house, and there wasn't enough food either. Grandma Riffel gave Brad a sour look, and he began to think that maybe Sheboygan wouldn't have been that bad, after all.
Excerpted from Growing Up and Finding Her by Brad Buettner Mary Buettner Copyright © 2011 by Brad and Mary Buettner. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsFrom the Authors....................ix
Part One Death....................1
Part Two Chaos, Then a Gun Insult, Then a Friend....................71
Part Three Love....................307