The cemetery tour

Dad and I finally took the cemetery tour as planned the second weekend of July. We talked several times during the week leading up to our Saturday departure to finalize the logistics and our itinerary. Dad took his car to be detailed and to get the tires fluffed up in preparation for the 400 mile drive, very considerate of him given that the inside of the windshield was so coated with tar and nicotine one could hardly see out. At least there was no overflowing ashtray to contend with, newer cars no longer having such features, and which (thank God) necessitated Dad lowering the window every time he smoked a cigarette.

At dinner Friday evening Dad allowed as how he wasn’t too keen on taking this trip, even though he did want to visit the cemeteries and see his old haunts one more time. It seemed the physical and mental preparation of getting ready and actually making it happen were almost more than he could deal with, even though about all he took was a change of underwear, a toothbrush and a carton of cigarettes packed into his well-beaten  leather duffel bag that he and Mom had bought in Mexico many moons ago. Additionally, I was planning to do all the driving, my daughter Liz and son-in-law Justin would feed us dinner and put us up for the night in very comfortable accommodations, so all Dad really had to do was ride along and navigate.

Despite our apprehensions, (not unfounded, as it turned out), we set out on a glorious Wisconsin summer morning in Dad’s sweet-riding although much-maligned Cadillac, heading for the coulee region of western Wisconsin from whence my parents hail. I had thrown in a hiking pole (not a cane!) just in case Dad would acquiesce to using such an assistive device while stumbling around on uneven ground in cemeteries. He did not acquiesce, nor did he fall at any cemeteries. We drove along companionably, commenting on the beautiful weather, the lovely rolling countryside, the farms, the traffic, the good road, politics, Mom, the family–that is, our usual topics of conversation. Almost every town we passed sparked some memory in Dad about various shirttail relations, where he bought his first dental chair, high school football games, etc.

Menomonie was our first destination. Dad was born in Menomonie on December 17, 1933 in what I had been told was a nursing home. The building is still there, a large Victorian house that appears to be very well maintained or restored, and according to the sign out front, still serves women’s health in some fashion. We rolled through Menomonie past the UW-Stout campus where both my grandfather and my sister Kate had gone to school. I learned that Grandpa had never graduated from high school, but eventually went to Stout to become an Industrial Arts teacher. He taught in different towns around Wisconsin (Sheboygan and Wausau come to mind) and taught welding at a naval base in North Carolina for a couple of summers during World War II. Dad remembers sorely missing his father, whom he loved and respected greatly, during those summers when he was working out of state. As we drove through downtown Menomonie, Dad gleefully recounted how in high school he and his buddies would sometimes drive from Elmwood to Menomonie to drink beer illegally at The Flame. On at least one occasion they had even done so right before a Spring Valley vs. Menomonie football game, and despite being pretty blitzed, the Spring Valley boys had won, and no consequences for the drinking ensued. “Can you even imagine that happening today?” he laughed. Of course not. Today such behavior would be met with underage drinking tickets, court appearances, fines, suspension from the team and maybe from school, community outrage, parental dismay and embarrassment, possibly community service and AODA evaluations–all a huge overreaction to normal adolescent acting out and to no real avail, in Dad’s opinion.

We continued our journey on to Elmwood, a sleepy little burg of some 800 souls located in the coulees about 12 miles from Menonomie. Dad lived in Elmwood while attending high school in neighboring Spring Valley, and it is where my grandparents still lived when I was a child. I fondly remember visiting their home in the summers and at least once for Christmas. It has not changed much.

Elmwood house

Grandma and Grandpa Pence’s Elmwood house today

As we drove through the streets of Elmwood, Dad pointed out his grandparents’ and parents’ homes, the storefronts downtown and the establishments they had housed, the Catholic church, and he regaled me with tales of his youth. Especially memorable was the time he and a couple other lads had “borrowed” someone’s big wagon, pushed it all the way to the top of the big hill that descends into town on the road overlooking Butternut Park, whereupon they decided, as only 12-year-olds would, that riding it down the hill into town would be a grand idea. They hopped on and pointed the wagon downhill. They soon picked up speed and lost control, ending up “ass over tea kettle” in someone’s vegetable garden, unharmed but in deep trouble with the lady of the house over the ruined vegetables.

We drove up that hill and out of town to the mission church that stood high on a ridge overlooking the town. To my surprise, Dad remembered the kind priest that had served that rural parish and his own time as an altar boy there. That was the first time I can recall him having anything good to say about the Catholic church and its impact on his youth. That was our first cemetery stop at the Farm Hill Catholic Cemetery, where my maternal grandparents, Irene Katherine and Homer Orville Pence, and my uncle, Richard Homer Pence, are buried. We looked and looked for Dad’s maternal grandparents, James and Katherine Golden, who he figured had to be buried there, but we never found their graves. I remember visiting the Farm Hill cemetery before, probably with my grandmother to see her parents’ graves, and then again when we buried my uncle’s ashes about eight years ago.

farm-hillYou can see what a glorious day it was.

The next stop was not far away–another rural cemetery, this one for the Methodists. That is where Dad’s paternal grandparents are buried. This cemetery sparked no memory in me, and the gravesite is much older.

pence-gravesOrpha Alice and Cassius Webster Pence–those are names you don’t hear anymore.

From the Methodist cemetery we continued on to the town of Spring Valley, where my parents’ long journey together began. Dad showed me the corner by the bank where he saw my mom for the first time, his paternal grandparents’ home, which perches along with other old homes that are so overgrown now as to be almost invisible from the street on a steep hillside overlooking the downtown. Dad and his parents lived in that home for four years while his mom (Irene) took care of her father-in-law (Cassius), who became paralyzed after suffering a stroke. Seeing his grandfather lying helpless in a bed in the dining room for four years and watching his mother care for him left a lasting impression on my dad. We saw the high school that Dad graduated from. As far as I can piece together, he was on some kind of work and learn program at the end, where he worked at a lumber mill (?) in the morning and attended school in the afternoon. The principal, after some escapade that my dad and his friend “Punky Bud” had pulled, told Dad he “would never get a job except with a pick and a shovel.” Dad delights in telling that story and employs a thick, Norwegian accent when imitating the principal. Having grown up around a lot of “towheads” in the Spring Valley area, Dad developed a deep appreciation for Ole and Lena jokes and is a skilled ethnic joke teller.

Spring Valley experienced many devastating floods of the Eau Galle River during its history, the worst of which occurred in 1942 when my dad would have been eight years old. Although he didn’t live there at the time, the disastrous flood really shaped the town’s identity. When construction of a huge earthen dam was completed in 1968, thus ending the threat of further flooding and destruction and creating the Eau Galle Recreational Area, some wit remarked that the only problem with the dam was that they built it on the wrong end of town. Dad tended to agree, but nonetheless, now on this trip 65 years later, he waxed nostalgic about his years spent there .

pence-autoThe Pence Auto building where my grandpa Homer and his brother, Lyle Pence, owned a Ford dealership still stands on the main drag.

From Spring Valley we wound our way north on some back roads toward River Falls, where Dad attended college for two years before going to dental school at the University of Minnesota. The roads have all changed, so we just followed our noses and eventually drove into River Falls, which also bore no resemblance to the place Dad remembers. He finally recognized North and South Halls, the only two old buildings he remembers being there, which now squat among many newer ones. His old boarding house was gone. The growth and transformation of River Falls amazed Dad, as did the traffic on the Interstate as we approached Hudson, Wisconsin and then the Twin Cities across the St. Croix River.

By the time we got to my daughter Liz’s house in Mahtomedi, Minnesota, Dad had had quite enough for one day, and it was only about 3:15 in the afternoon! We had had a lovely drive, reminisced much and enjoyed a beautiful day together. For this, the two of us are thankful and relieved. Mission accomplished. The great-grandsons greeted Grandpa Bill enthusiastically as we drove into their driveway.

What happened next is the subject of another post–I know, that’s a cheap trick, but this one has gone on way too long already and it’s overdue for publishing.


Great-grandkids to the rescue

Dad hasn’t been giving me much new material lately. Most of our conversations re-hash already well-worn territory: how Mom is doing (content, but not making much sense–“about all we can hope for”), how he’s doing (anywhere from “if I were any better, I’d be sick” to not doing much due to a bad case of “the black ass”–depression in Dadspeak), what’s happening around the lake (new neighbors from Illinois were up, old neighbors had a big gang over the Fourth, mowed the lawn, made some cigarettes, didn’t go to see Mom yesterday, but going today, gotta buy some groceries and visit the poisoners, Paco rolled in dead fish, when are you coming up next?), etc.  I’m hopeful that our upcoming “cemetery tour” will lift his spirits, and provide plenty of opportunity for him to reminisce and for me to register more of his vernacular.

We did provide him recently with some “jollification,” to borrow a word from my sister Mary. My husband and I gathered at the lake with our two kids, their spouses and children for a few days of fun, northern Wisconsin style.

Some of the family

Some of the family

Dad absolutely loved seeing his three great-grandsons and found them highly entertaining, if a bit too loud at times. Of course, he has given them nicknames: Bouncing Benny (4) and his brother Jumping Jimmy (15 months) and Wild Willie (18 months).

3 Williams

The three Williams: Great-grandpa Bill, Grandson Bill “Buster”Pence, Great-grandson Willie Leazer

Four-year-old Ben especially amused him with all his activity–“busy as a one-armed paper hanger,”or more salty, “a two-peckered goat in a sheep pasture.” Ben was fascinated by Great-grandpa’s collection of meticulously built radio-controlled airplanes, which are all now moth-balled and suspended from the garage ceiling in special hanging brackets. Ben declared that he would like to fly them and was pretty sure he was up to the task, completely dismissing my admonition that it’s “very tricky.” “Why is it tricky, Grandma?” Great-grandpa Bill managed to satisfy Ben’s curiosity by taking him to the RC-flying club’s flying field to watch some of the members fly their planes. Ben loved watching the acrobatics, clapped with glee and cheered as Mr. Wally brought his plane in for a successful landing. On the other hand, when Mr. Rusty crashed his plane in the tall grass and brought it back to the staging area in three pieces, Ben couldn’t understand why he had done that, still not believing that it really is very tricky.

RC-flying field

The gang at the flying field

So, for a few days Dad had something to think about other than how bad he feels about Mom not being at home anymore, his best friend dying in June (that contributed greatly to the black ass) and life just generally not holding much allure anymore. The cemetery tour was Dad’s idea and is something he has been wanting to do for a while. He wants to pay his respects to his ancestors, visit their graves, take a nostalgia tour of the places he lived as a youngster. We had planned to do it a couple of times over the past year or so, but he reneged both times. Originally, he wanted Mom to go with us, and postponed once with the hope that she would be able to go at some point. He finally accepted that that was impossible. The second time he backed out, he said he just couldn’t go (anywhere) without Mom. I think this time we will go because he really wants to do this before he dies, and I think he is getting ready to die. Part of the cemetery tour includes another quick dose of Bouncing Benny and Jumping Jimmy, which I hope will provide Dad another respite from the black ass.

Weather reports

Winter has come early to Wisconsin, especially to the northwoods. “God’s country” or the “Garden of Eden,” as Dad calls it. I call it “God-forsaken” in the wintertime. When I called him during their first major snowstorm a week or so ago, he reported that the weather was “still and clear–still snowing and clear up to your ass.” On the other hand, if the weather in the southern part of the state is foul, and up north it’s sunny and mild, he tells me they “have an ordinance against” temperature extremes/snow/sleet/rain/hail/fog–take your pick. While he does get a little cabin fever by the end of winter (which didn’t come until May this year), he doesn’t seem to mind just hunkering down in front of the fire and reading the hours away with breaks to check the weather forecast on T.V. Nonetheless, a visit from one of us kids is always a welcome break from the tedium of being “Mama’s little helper.” Last winter I never even made it up there. After the big car accident on Christmas Day, at first I was just a tad leery about driving, period. Once I got my nerve back, the weather just never cooperated. I’d plan to drive up, Dad and I would both study the weather forecast and agree that it wasn’t a good idea due to extreme cold, predicted snowfall, bad roads, etc. I think in addition to the weather being really awful, he just didn’t want me on the road and vulnerable to the vagaries of other idiot drivers again so soon. So, we talked on the phone a lot–largely about the weather.

Watching the weather forecast on T.V. plays a huge role in Dad’s daily routine, and I must admit, I don’t like to go to bed at night without having watched the weather report on the news. And, yes, I know I can go on-line at any time and get an up-to-the-minute forecast. It’s just not the same. The weather people are our friends. Dad even has nicknames for them. The local news programs he watches are broadcast out of Green Bay, and the meteorologists (Dad would never call them that) are “Bright Eyes,” “El Greco,” and “Miss Goodbody.” Except, I believe that Miss Goodbody has moved on to another job and is no longer on the air. That was a sad day for Dad.

Oftentimes, my first awareness of bad weather in other parts of the country where family members live comes from Dad. He really does keep his finger on the weather pulse. “Jesus Christ, it was minus 12 in Denver yesterday! Whatever happened to global warming?” Or, “Christ Almighty, have they been flooded out yet down there in Johnny Reb country? God must be really pissed off at the Baptists.” Or, “Geehovies, it’s over a 100 degrees in Houston! Thank goodness, we got an ordinance against that up here in God’s country.”