Monday, March 11, 2013


Today is the 10th anniversary of my grandma's death. 

I don't have a lot of introspection about this "milestone".  It somehow feels like much less than a decade, and infinitely more.  It's still a bit of an open wound for me and everyone else in my family.  After she died, I went home and wrote a long account of the experience, but I think I'd rather do just about anything than read it again.  There's no need to as it's all part of the architecture of my brain now.

Some people are just bigger than others.  She somehow managed to be highly relevant to everyone she knew, a detail that was never more evident to me than when I turned around at her funeral to see my dad's old friend, Big Don, dressed like a Guns & Roses roadie as usual, crying openly on the grass.

Her life is an interesting piece of Americana lost to the contemporary world, along with those of all her peers.  Her mother was born outside of Deadwood, South Dakota, around the time when it was at its rowdiest peak of now-cliched wild western danger, to a French mother and a Scottish father.  In her early twenties, she (the mother, Rose Emma) went off with her sister to participate in a land race whereupon they staked a couple of claims in Vermillion, SD.  Soon after, she met Tom Monaghan and returned with him to the family parcel in Percival, Iowa.  My dad's favorite stories are about Tom's father, Ed, the "Irish wetback," who almost got sent back to Ireland in the 1870s when his ship was quarantined in New York Harbor, containing as it did more sick people than healthy.  Certainly disappointed and probably figuring that another few weeks in that floating deathbox would be the end of him, he and some conspirators jumped ship and swam in, stealing onto the beach and into the streets, bypassing Ellis Island all together.  He deprived me of those records, but I understand.  Ed worked at some manual labor jobs for a few years before striking moderate wealth in something to do with the railroad, at which time he sent home for his wife and daughter, and resumed their family in America.

The reason my dad likes him so much is because he was a large, brutish man who drank and cursed like 19th century Irish dudes are supposed to, and because he survived having a house fall on him, unlike some witches we know.  Apparently, Ed wanted to pick his first Percival home up and move it over a few acres, but when he was underneath the raised structure, the supports failed and the house came down.  Ed wasn't killed, but he was physically pinned for a few hours.  The local papers dramatically retold the story of his herculean survival.  My dad can't get enough of stories like this.  I'll look for the articles on chroniclingamerica soon.

My grandma was born in 1920 and used to joke to me that she didn't bother to "get born" until the 19th Amendment came along and straightened things out a little.  She was the tenth of eleven children between Rose Emma and Tom, and caught and nearly died from scarlet fever as a child.  Her lungs were scarred by this experience and she lived the rest of her life with fluid in her lungs and a rattling cough.

The one in the middle, sticking her tongue out.
Home was a five-bedroom Victorian house built by her grandfather Ed not long after the old house fell on him.  He had come into more money and required a more luxurious domicile to house his large family.  The house was fancy, compact, and cute, with a scalloped roof, widow's walk, gingerbread detailing and spindles that had been turned by hand on the site.  As far as I know, it's still there.  My dad threatened to buy it the summer after she died, and I barely survived the life-rending disappointment when he changed his mind.  The house is hours from city-slicker civilization, an isolated and vulnerable white speck in a sea of soybeans and corn.  He didn't want to deal with it, but I had already sold myself on holding court in there for the rest of my life like a mid-western Little Edie Beale, wandering glossy wood hallways with a scarf tied around my head, making up dances, regular stuff. 

8th grade
My grandma didn't care about all that and if I cooed over the beauty of the house in photos, she would tell me what it was like to clean it with six filthy brothers tracking mud and grass all over it and having to beat those rugs and do that wash. 

Cleaning with her mother, mid 1930s
She attended grade school in a one-room schoolhouse and probably high school in Nebraska City.  She was the first of her siblings to bother to stay in school long enough to graduate; her brothers were all farming, one sister had been married off and the other had joined a convent as soon as she was old enough to go. 
Graduation 1938
Education was important to her parents, and she told me her father supplemented she and her sibling's schoolhouse education in their cellar using a chalkboard he had ordered by mail for that purpose.  He focused on math and language, primarily.  Unfortunately, he died in 1941, at which point they almost lost the farm, and five of his sons and one daughter trundled off to war, leaving my grandma and her mother to handle things on their own.  Rose Emma gave more than most to the war effort, with six children overseas and German POWs sent to work detail on the farm.  Almost as soon as he enlisted, the youngest boy was killed over the Pacific in 1941.  Straight out of a novel, he was 18, charming, and the shared favorite of a clan of contentious siblings.  My grandma said she felt sick to her stomach for a year every time she heard a plane flying overhead, and years later, her sister the nun recited to me from memory the contents of the letter that came to her at the convent to tell her of the death.  He was the only war casualty in the family.

My grandma remained in Iowa until, at age 26, she was told by a doctor to get her wet lungs out of the midwest or die.  So she moved to Sante Fe, where she lived with a girlfriend in an adobe house in the old part of town and worked in a typing pool.  

Far left, like you couldn't tell.

...until she met a dark dirtbag named Dale Benz on a blind date and was swept away to Arizona.  I don't know how she and my grandfather ever stood each other, but then, I don't know how my parents ever did either.  Vast differences in personality and goals seem less important when you're young. 

They moved to Arizona in 1949, and my dad was born the following year.  For some reason, a doctor had told my grandmother that she was barren prior to her pregnancy.  This was the blow of all blows to her because she so desperately wanted a large family.  "I always loved a crowd," she said.  This fear was compounded by the fact that she was already 30 and skating the precipice of old maidness.  She was so distraught by the thought of never having her own children that she said she went to church almost daily to pray to St. Jude, begging for children and wearing the finish off his toe.  Jude is my father's middle name.

My grandmother, her sister in law, my uncle, and Rose Emma in 1960
My grandmother loved children.  She delighted in playing with us, and was able to patiently take seriously all of the things that other adults seemed to dismiss.  We would very seriously embark on our crafting afternoons in which I glued plastic jewels and sequins to paper plates, and made wall art out of doilies.  We drove to craft stores all over town looking for the perfect supplies, but ultimately, our favorite resources were the dirty barrels filled with old buttons and trimmings at the local SAS store.

She would tell me stories about life on the farm, when her dad went out to work before dawn and returned after dark, or about learning to drive on the deeply rutted dirt roads, and about fleeing from the moccasins while trying to play in the ditches and "criks" in the summer.  Years later, on a pilgrimage to the old house the summer after she died, my cousin and I walked those dirt roads and peered into the wet ditches, looking for the snakes.  With disappointment and relief, we found none.  I can't think of many things more satanic than a swimming snake.  The roads and the fields and the house and the yard and ditches, trees and flat horizons in all directions felt like a hallowed place to me.  It was quiet and breathless for me to imagine her there as a young person.  Funny to think how many people have passed through that area not knowing what it is.

Somehow, her being gone still feels like the worst thing that has ever happened to me, because it's all still there.  It's a tripping hazard.  I feel disappointed and deprived, like a cosmic cheat has been committed in an area that I never thought was a vulnerability.  I have dreamt of her two or three times a year with total consistency since she died.  In every dream, she's alive again.  I'm always so surprised to see her, like finding a ring in the grass, there you are!  Usually, the dream-me exclaims and tries to ask how this can be, but she's always busy, shuffling around in her house, waving away my questions and putting me to work to fix or plan something.  She's always in her house. 

My cousin had a dream about her in which she was flitting about her living room in a great, loud party, drinking and talking and laughing.  My cousin started to cry at the sight of her in the dream and my grandmother said, "What? I'm fine! Look at me. I'm fine!"  Then she leaned in and advised her on a matter in her life, which turned out to be true.  I'm sick with the self-pity of missing her.  I can't imagine it any other way.

My three grandmas. 1920 on the left.
She looks alarmed in this pic, but she's actually just talking shit to my dad.

No comments: