Trani and I had a great time with our cousins. It feels a bit odd to put it that way, given the circumstances, but 'tis so. We gathered in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, for the funeral of my aunt, the last of her generation still with us when she passed away on the tenth of October in Wilmington, North Carolina, eleven days shy of her ninety-fifth birthday.
I last saw Aunt Margaret (1922–2017) in the summer of 2014 at a cousins reunion hosted by Rae and Gary at their home in the deer-infested Cleveland suburb of Avon Lake, on the shores of Lake Erie. She still referred to me as Little David, no matter that I was bearing down on my sixty-second birthday, and she remained a fan of the Cubs and Bears to the end. Her memory was a bit in and out. So was mine. That did not keep us from sharing some fine memories over a happy hour glass of wine during a riotous weekend of food, drink, and reminiscence.
Avon Lake 2014. Left to right: Trani (brother), Candace (Trani's wife), your oft humbled scribe, Aunt Margaret, Rae (cousin), Gary (Rae's husband), Bella, and Little Lynn (cousin). Glenn (Lynn's husband) is behind the camera.
Aunt Margaret was raised in Croswell, Michigan, and had a BS in home economics from Michigan State University. A position supervising operations in the Colonial Room at the Illini Union brought her to Champaign, where she met Uncle John (1925–2008), Mom's brother, who was at the beginning of a distinguished career as civil engineering professor at the University of Illinois. A few years later Aunt Margaret put aside her career when the dashing young couple began a family. I think it is safe to say she was not exactly a stereotypical "stay at home" mother, if there is such a thing. She was active in her church, served on the boards for Champaign-Urbana Children’s Theater, Cunningham Children’s Home, and the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Guild, and was involved in many social groups. I imagine she was a force to be reckoned with in all her endeavors.
Aunt Margaret was very much a social creature who enjoyed entertaining, ever the gracious hostess. Her love of good food was legendary. My cousin Susan, daughter of Mom's other brother, related that Aunt Margaret taught her how to cook when she was a grad student at the University of Illinois, showing her how to use whatever was at hand to prepare simple and delicious dishes that looked like they required considerably more effort and skill than they did.
I pilfered much for the preceding paragraphs from the obituary. That sort of thing passed beyond my notice as a young fellow, and it was not my nature to inquire. I suppose I was too busy reading and poring over baseball box scores in the paper to give it the thought it merited. I knew nothing about Uncle John's career beyond that he spent almost all of it as a professor at Illinois, with a 1977–78 stint as a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Civil Engineering at the US Air Force Academy thrown into the mix. From his obituary I learned that he co-authored AIR FORCE DESIGN MANUAL, PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES FOR DESIGN OF HARDENED STRUCTURES, a standard text for planning and design of structures to resist the effects of nuclear weapons ranging into the megaton class.
Somewhere along the line I picked up that his work dealt with how structures responded to nuclear explosions but no more than that until he talked about it during my visit sometime around 2001 or 2002. It turns out that from the mid-1950s until 2002 he was associated with the Defense Department's nuclear weapons effects program dealing with behavior and design of structures subjected to nuclear blast effects. The old-timers from the program had been recruited to dust off their memories to ensure the records accurately documented how it all went down and what was learned. No doubt a martini or two among pals at happy hour was integral to the process of memory stimulation. If my recollection is accurate, Uncle John offered this by way of example: The Defense Department contracted with private firms to provide building materials for the structures to be tested. Sometimes those firms, acting out of patriotism, delivered materials that went beyond the specifications requested, not knowing that this would skew the results of the tests. I suppose this kind of thing happened in the 1950s, difficult as it is to conceive today.
a debonair young couple
Another memory from that visit in the early 2000s is of attending church one Sunday. During the sermon the minister asked that all those who had personally accepted Jesus as lord and savior rise and acknowledge this. I was unsure what to do. I did not want to be a source of embarrassment or unease for my uncle and aunt, but I was not comfortable affirming something that was not so. Some members of the congregation rose. To my surprise, Uncle John and Aunt Margaret were among a sizable number who did not. The minister repeated his call several times during the sermon. Each time more people stood, but never everyone, and never my uncle and aunt. When we returned to the car after the service, Uncle John was fairly furious, saying, "There is no place in the church for mass hysteria." Over lunch he related a story from his childhood, when he and Granny attended a community service one evening at Shady Grove Methodist Church (the family attended St. John's Lutheran Church, where my grandmother was a founding member). The minister made a similar call, and Granny declined to respond, just as Uncle John and Aunt Margaret had. Uncle John was as puzzled that night as I had been at the service earlier. As they walked home, he asked his mother why she did not stand when the minister made his call. She told him that she did not like to make a promise in the evening that she might not be able to keep in the morning.
Maybe I should provide a word about the family line-up before proceeding to drop even more names. My mother had two older brothers, Uncle George and Uncle John, both civil engineers. They grew up in the ancestral family home in Irmo, South Carolina, in the same house where I grew up. Uncle John and Aunt Margaret had two daughters, Rae and Little Lynn (youngest of the cousins, thus always "Little Lynn"). Rae's husband is Gary, whose last name happens to be Matthews, but as far as we know his North Carolina family is no relation to my South Carolina family. Rae and Gary have a son and daughter, David and Megan. Lynn is married to Glenn. Bella (see photo above) is the third member of their family. Uncle George and Aunt Johnnie Mae had two daughters, Susan and Mary Ann. Susan and her husband Clarence have a daughter, Elizabeth. Uncle George and Aunt Johnnie Mae passed away too many years ago, Mom in 1997, Elaine my sister in 2000, and Mary in 2006. The rest of us carry on.
We visited Aunt Margaret's home in Croswell during the great adventure trip of my childhood when Granny and I traveled by train from South Carolina to Terre Haute, Indiana, as close as we could get to Champaign-Urbana by rail. I must have been twelve or thereabouts. During our three-week stay we played croquet in the backyard and made road trips to St. Louis, where I visited a zoo for the first time, and north to Croswell and briefly across the border into a small Canadian town whose name I do not recall. On one of these trips Uncle John, mild-mannered and as lovely a man as you could ever hope to meet, became mightily agitated at the prospect of paying a toll on a toll road he had not intended to take. Funny what we remember, n'est-ce pas? And annoying when trifles and minutiae, or worse, sports statistics, stick in my mind while French vocabulary wafts away into the aether.
My other memory from Croswell is of knocking around with a boy my age named Peter, son of Aunt Margaret's brother. We made tunnels through the bales of hay in a huge barn much bigger than anything at my home in South Carolina. This Michigan farm was a real farm. And we built a tree house. I think I remember this correctly. Most likely Peter did most of the building while I looked on and followed along. I was no more of a practical bent then than I am now. Ah, but I digress.
Many summers Uncle John and Aunt Margaret loaded up the big Buick, put Rae and Lynn in the back seat, and set them to singing "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt" while they journeyed south to the farm in South Carolina. I use the word "farm" loosely. My sense is that it was not much of a farm when my mother and uncles were young and my grandparents eked out a meager living there, much less by the time I made the scene. There were some 220 acres of fields and woods, with Hollingshed Creek running along the western edge. Around the house were three pecan trees, an oak, and a motley assemblage of old sheds, barns, stables, and a chicken coop. A wisteria vine grew on a frame just back of the house and served as jungle setting for imaginary adventures.
Granny had her garden, wonderful flower beds that I was too dimwitted to appreciate, and maybe as many as a couple of dozen cows. She sold a cow or some pulp wood when the house needed upkeep. Built in the late 1800s, the house must have been the work of my great-grandfather. I do not know if he and other relatives did the carpentry or if they hired it out. At any rate, the carpenters seem not to have been the most accomplished lot. You could place a ball on the floor at one end of a hall or room and it would roll to the other. I doubt a single window or door frame came with a right angle. Not that we gave any thought to that while growing up. It was just home, and it was fine.
It made for a full house when Mom, Granny, Elaine, Trani, and I were joined by Uncle John, Aunt Margaret, and Rae and Little Lynn. We somehow made do with one bathroom. Trani and I shared a room. Rae and Lynn must have bunked with Elaine, unless maybe one of them shared the bed with Granny or Mom. Uncle John and Aunt Margaret slept in a room that we referred to either as Uncle George's room because it was his as a boy or as Uncle John's because that is where they slept during summer visits. Trani drew a blank when I asked if he remembered which it was. A crack ran down the middle of the bedroom door on the outside. It seems that Uncle George was in his room studying and did not want to be disturbed. Uncle John wanted in and pounded on the door with some force, hence the crack. That is the story I seem to remember, at any rate. I never paid particular attention to these stories when I was young. Now I think it would be nice if I had.
I recall playing cards and board games, clambering about the wisteria, running and romping through the yard in the gathering dusk amid the flickering of fireflies as it grew dark. Most likely there were hamburgers cooked on the grill on occasion. I imagine there were times when I slipped away to read science fiction because that is what I did. Often Uncle John found a fix-it project that occupied an afternoon, a new door for the wash house, or some such. He used lumber stored from time immemorial in what we called the tractor shed. When Uncle John was a boy they called it the Ford house because that is where the Ford automobile was parked. Mostly we watched while Uncle John did the fixing up, keeping him company, maybe handing him a hammer or a nail when he asked for it, waiting while he contemplated the next step with the words, "Let me see, said the blind man."
Other memories. The grown-ups consumed mind-boggling amounts of coffee and we all guzzled iced tea. Uncle John smoked Benson & Hedges and enjoyed a martini at happy hour, while Aunt Margaret and Mom relaxed with a gin and tonic. I have a vivid image of Aunt Margaret settled in on the couch stripped down as far as was decent and fanning herself, not at all taken with the heat and humidity of Southern summers in a house that did not have air-conditioning. And I hear her voice commenting on this or that, referring to herself as "your Aunt Margaret." The cooking of green beans was a minor bone of contention between her and Granny, whose technique was to cook the heck out of them, while Aunt Margaret, in Granny's opinion, wanted them raw. As a boy, I knew beans as Granny cooked them. That is how it was done. Today I prefer them more as Aunt Margaret might.
At vacation's end the Illinois contingent piled back into the Buick and headed up the driveway for the trip back to Illinois. We lingered waving goodbye as the car made the turn onto the road and disappeared. Those moments were among my earliest encounters with melancholy. I hated to see them go.
I flew to Tulsa Friday the 20th to join Trani for the drive to Champaign on Sunday. We pulled in to the Country Inn & Suites at about 5:30. Most of the others had already arrived, Rae and Gary from North Carolina, David and Megan from Chicago, where he lives and she happened to be visiting for the weekend, Susan from St. Louis, and Elizabeth from Indianapolis. Lynn and Glenn were at the hotel next door because it accommodated guests of Bella's heritage. Ann Marie, my aunt's niece from Michigan, and her son Bob pulled in from Port Huron later in the evening. As you can see, we are all over the map. No wonder we do not get together often.
The reunion with Susan was especially nice because she and I could not remember when we last saw one another. It has to have been almost thirty years ago. She is a lovely woman, a French teacher, who looks as I remember her. You might think I would have kept in touch, maybe cadged a few visits to St. Louis for some French practice. You might think.
In Champaign I met the next generation, Elizabeth, David, and Megan, as adults for the first time. It was a pleasure, no surprise there, given their lineage. They come off as quiet, poised, and intelligent. I would love to know them better. I think of my nieces and nephews, Dan and Rachel (Trani's son and daughter), Jennifer and Warren (Elaine's). The whole crew is pretty cool. Among other things the weekend served as reminder of my good fortune when it comes to family, a lottery where I hit the jackpot. I found myself contemplating, as I do on occasion these days, what I might have missed by never having found a family of my own. It is not as if I planned anything, just how it all fell out. What could have happened did happen. A passing thought from time to time.
Rae and Lynn showed themselves to be their mother's daughters indeed when they arranged three splendid meals in settings that lent themselves to reminiscence and getting caught up. We steered clear of politics, discretion being the better part of valor, with the exception of my slip-up while en route to Destihl Restaurant and Brew Works for dinner Sunday evening. Susan chauffeured Lynn, Glenn, Trani, and me, with Glenn riding shotgun, the rest of us in the back. As we approached an intersection where it seemed we should make a turn, Glenn asked what I thought, right or left? Without thinking I replied that I have always considered myself a man of the left and was happy to see the remark met with approving, or maybe just understanding, chuckles. The appropriate turn, for the record, was to the right.
Monday morning, the 23rd, Trani keyed the funeral home's address into his smartphone and we headed out. The weather was much as it had been the day before all way from Tulsa to Champaign, dreary and gray with intermittent rain. Perhaps fitting for a funeral. We followed the phone's directions and found ourselves in the middle of a cornfield that the beast claimed was our destination. After a few choice expletives, Trani called the funeral home to find out where we went wrong. Fortunately, nothing in Champaign and Urbana is all that far from anything else. We were only a few minutes away. At the funeral home the woman who gave Trani directions told me this happens about once a week. The City of Urbana considers the funeral home's address to be S. Philo Road even though the street sign says Philo Road and the sign for the road through the cornfield says S. Philo. The systems used by FedEx and UPS take their drivers to the cornfield. Another marvel of the 21st century.
The funeral home turns out be only a few blocks from the house on Vawter Street where Uncle John and Aunt Margaret lived at 2207, if my memory serves me well for a change. The procession detoured by the house on the way to the mausoleum where the funeral was held and Aunt Margaret was laid to rest with Uncle John, who was adamant that he did not intend to spend eternity in the cold, wet ground.
Lunch after Monday's funeral was at Sun Singer Restaurant Wine Bar (named after Swedish sculptor Carl Milles' statue The Sun Singer in Robert Allerton Park near Monticello, Illinois). I was seated at one end of the table with Susan, Elizabeth, Ann Marie, and Bob. At some point Ann Marie told us about living in Anderson, South Carolina, for fifteen years before returning to Michigan after the death of her husband. She liked the South, was active in the community, and got to know people, but she felt she never really made friends with the possible exception of one woman. She was always seen as an outsider, a Yankee, or as Rae chimed up from mid-table, a damn Yankee, one who comes and stays. A bit later, after the conversation took a turn to another subject, Ann Marie took my hand and said she hoped she had not offended me with her remarks about the South. I was touched and assured her that while I am from the South I am not of the South and was in no way offended. I was not surprised to hear that she encountered that sort of thing when she first arrived but would have thought that it would change with the passage of time. Maybe that is only a reflection of how long I have been away. I certainly found Ann Marie to be engaging and affable, no reason she should not have been accepted other than sometimes people and communities are just that way, a characteristic I suspect is not restricted to the South.
Susan and Elizabeth are teachers who needed to be in class on Tuesday, so they headed out after lunch, as did David, Megan, and David's girlfriend, who had driven down that morning for the funeral. That left eight of us of us for our third feast in twenty-four hours, this one at Black Dog Smoke & Ale House in the old train depot in downtown Champaign, where a young woman with stunning blue hair served us some pretty fair barbecue.
We all packed up and hit the road Tuesday morning after one last rendezvous for the complimentary breakfast in the hotel dining area, parting with vows to rendezvous again sooner rather than later, words we have all uttered before. The weather turned fair that day as Trani aimed his car southwest to Tulsa. We arrived home for an early dinner with Candace at India Palace, then settled in to watch Game 3 of the World Series, rooting for the Astros.
Robin's Roast, Jenks, Oklahoma
I went into the store with Trani on Wednesday, at mid-morning strolled across the bridge to Jenks for an espresso and journal session at Robin's Roast, and at day's end joined him and his crew for their weekly track workout at Holland Hall, the school when Candace teaches math. They did their workout. I ran on my own because I am not in their league. After a warmup lap with Trani and his pal Terri, I did two loops around the school grounds and parking lot, some laps around the track on the outer lane, another loop around the school, and a final lap on the track, pushing some of it for a faster pace than I customarily run. I was pleased to find that I loosened up and felt good on that last lap. After an abortive try for a burger and a beer at McNellie's on $4 burger Wednesday where we found the place packed, we returned home to polish off the Indian leftovers and take in Game 4 of the series.
Thursday I flew home to Portland, all flights coming off like clockwork, in my door by 5:30, with a nice collection of new memories and fond recollection of some old ones. Brother, sister-in-law, cousins, the next generation, already I miss them all.