My grandparents, Alvie and Marguerite lived in Bluffton, the seat of Wells County, just south of Ft. Wayne. Their home was a three-bedroom ranch on Stodgill Road among a typical strip of ranch houses, the kind that sprung up on the edges of Midwestern towns after World War II, the kind with deep front lawns and no sidewalks. They’d had it built themselves. They paid for everything upfront, with Alvie meeting contractors and lumber company deliverymen, paying them on the spot with cash – money carefully saved from his career as a postal worker.
Their home had a lush lawn that Alvie tended with the professional determination of a golf course greens keeper. During childhood visits I often sat on his riding mower in the garage, pretending to drive or puzzling over the heavy roller the mower pulled around the yard to make the lawn as smooth as a floor laid with deep shag carpet.
One morning when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, Alvie took me to the bowling alley where his buddies met for coffee and a few frames. While he was in the restroom his retired friends enlisted me in a practical joke. They prepped me with the answer to a question. When Alvie returned, one of them asked, “Kurt, are you a Republican or a Democrat?” I responded as prompted, “Democrat.” I still recall the hoots of laughter and the scowl on Alvie’s face.
It was prophetic. I am a Democrat to this day.
My father told me once Alvie disliked FDR for the New Deal, for growing government and making people dependent upon it. When I pondered that as a young man, I figured it must have been easier to cast such judgments when you had a safe, government, Post Office job during the great depression.
I recall Alvie’s disapproval of comic books and wasting time and his narrowed eye and menacing growl when I said once I didn’t like the food served at dinner. I ate it.
He was raised in a German Apostolic farm family, the third youngest of fourteen children. Their rural community spoke a Swiss-German brogue. At church, men sat on one side of the aisle and women on the other. Once as a child he was so frustrated with having nothing of his own and no way to have fun, he stole a chicken from his own parents’ farm, sold it to a huckster wagon and bought something for himself alone. Alvie left school at sixteen as all the kids in his family did, but after a year away, convinced his parents to let him go back. He graduated high school in 1924, left the farm and moved to town, got a job at a gas station, bought a motorcycle, left the Apostolic church and became a Methodist.
As a child I tried to imagine him on a motorcycle, but the portly 60-something-year-old man with wire-framed glasses that I knew didn’t seem much like the motorcycle type. More like the type to disapprove of them.
But he wasn’t always a sour puss. There was ice cream after dinner at his urging. On occasions he’d rope a sheet of plywood to the back of the lawn tractor and pull us kids around the yard. At a Meyer family reunion in Bluffton he caught me reaching for a third Orange Crush from a galvanized feed trough filled with ice and bobbing soda pop bottles. He nodded and winked, “Aw, go ahead. Who’s counting?” Fishing with him in the tall grass along the Wabash at the end of Stogdill Road, I threw a rock in the water, lost my balance and fell in, or as Alvie put it, “You forgot to let go of the rock.”
He took me home, put me in the bathtub, and as he scrubbed the river mud from my hair made me promise not to tell Marguerite what had happened. “She might not let us fish anymore,” he worried.
When my father visited his parents on Stogdill Road in the years after he graduated college, sometimes Alvie would offer to show him something in the garage. Once there, Alvie pulled a bottle of Manischewitz wine from a workbench hiding place and they passed it back and forth.
For some-40 years Alvie had doggedly worked and methodically saved for retirement, but cruel- ly, by the time retirement arrived the tremors of Parkinson’s arrived with it. Still, he and Mar- guerite took a train trip across Mexico. It was the first of what they hoped would be many trips. With a gentle palsy in his hands and mild shuffle to his gait, he was an easy target. A pickpocket stole his wallet. Later, not feeling well and needing a doctor, they couldn’t find one. That helplessness scared Alvie out of traveling again, though he’d saved his whole life to do it.
He would later tell my father, “I should have spent more of my money along the way and enjoyed life, instead of saving it all for retirement.”
Alvie corresponded with doctors near Jacksonville, Florida where groundbreaking work was being done on Parkinson’s. He had two surgeries in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was sedated, but kept awake as doctors drilled a hole in his skull. They put a probe in his brain and moved it about, looking to touch a place that would still the tremors in his hands. It didn’t work.
In relentless steps the Parkinson’s stole his quality of life, the ability to function independently and perhaps even his will to live. As his condition worsened, he and Marguerite often took slow, plodding walks near the Stogdill Road house. She would steady and support him with her arm wrapped tightly around his. On one such walk he told her, “I wish I had two tickets to heaven.” Marguerite asked, “Why two?” He replied, “Because I don’t want to go alone.”
But he did go alone.
Parkinson’s drove Alvie into near silence and a wheelchair. The last time he spoke to me I was eleven years old. He was lying flat on his back on my parents’ bed where he’d been laid to nap during a holiday gathering. This was a time when he seldom spoke, and when he tried, I usually couldn’t understand him. But as I covered him with a blanket, he said in perfectly clear diction, “You’re a good boy, Kurt.”
I had so often recoiled at his repulsive infirmities, I felt unworthy of the compliment.
With his muscles so weak he sometimes choked on food. Marguerite would force her fingers into his mouth to clear his windpipe. Early one morning as she fed him, he began to choke, but this time clenched his teeth so she couldn’t get her fingers into his mouth.
And that’s how Alvie died; he choked to death in a wheelchair while Marguerite tried to save him.
I had never seen my father cry. But at Alvie’s funeral in the Bluffton Methodist Church, when the minister got to the part that reads, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” I heard a chilling wail of sorrow rise up and fill the sanctuary. It was my father. Seeing my dad cry, made me cry. But even though I was a young boy I understood I wasn’t crying for Alvie, because I didn’t fully understand what death meant. I was crying for my father.
My dad told me later, “Funerals are not for the dead. They’re for the living.”
Alvie in the 1920s.