Sunday, February 17, 2013


This is an excerpt from a much longer piece I wrote about my grandparents for the 2012 edition of the Polk Street Review. To read the full version, stop by The Wild bookstore on the courthouse square in Noblesville and purchase a copy. The book is filled with short stories, poetry, photography and essays from Noblesville folks.

                                              Alvie and Marguerite in the 1960s, as I knew them in my childhood

I never understood Marguerite.

I never satisfied her stern, disapproving stare and pursed lips, rarely broke through her long frozen silences and rarely grasped her perplexing view of the world. 

On the first day of school after Christmas friends gushed about special gifts from their grandparents - new bikes, TVs or a trip to Disneyland. What did my grandmother buy me? Socks and underwear.

After my grandfather, Alvie died, on rare occasions Marguerite stayed at our house in Tipton for a few days at a time. No sooner did she set down her suitcase she’d tie an apron around her waist and go about cleaning our house, emptying trashcans and dusting. If you could see it only as an expressive of the German work ethic she was raised with, it was generous and helpful. But to us it said, “You’re house is dirty.” I don’t think she meant it that way. But that’s how it felt.

I recall at age eight or nine, Marguerite standing over me in a JC Penny’s, disapproving as I tried to buy the Monkeys second album with my birthday money. She knew I had their first album and so read the song titles off the back cover, asking after each, “Are you sure you don’t already have that song on the other record?” It wasn’t enough to simply say, “You’re wasting your money on childish music,” it had to be a protracted standoff, and for the thin-skinned child I was, a needless humiliation in front of other store patrons. 

During our summer visit, my sister Cindy remembers a forced haircut (without our mother’s permission) and a forced diet. No snacks allowed between meals and you got only what you were served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, whether you liked it or not. We were dumbfounded. The kitchen in our own home was open anytime for a handful of saltines or a cup of Kool-Aid.

As best I can figure, Marguerite had a bleak childhood in the unforgiving flat landscape of northern Indiana during the first World War. She grew up in a tiny town southwest of Bluffton called Poneto. It was barely eight city blocks nestled against a rail line to its west, connecting Ft. Wayne to Hartford City, and to the east was just a small farm field away from an electric Interurban line to Bluffton. Her maiden name was Myers and she would marry a Meyer. She had one sister and three brothers. One of the brothers was mentally ill and committed suicide. Her parents divorced and her father, Guy Myers, moved to Lansing, Michigan.

My father recalls a childhood visit to his grandfather, Guy in Lansing in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s. Guy was working in an auto factory and “shacking-up” with a woman.

There are many, many stories about my grandfather’s upbringing and family yet almost none about my grandmother’s. She just didn’t talk about it.

Guy Myers was an adopted child. His birth parents are unknown. A rumor of shadowy origin suggests that Marguerite had some Mexican or at least “south-of-the-border” blood. She never spoke of this except to deny it once to my mother and on another occasion late in life, when someone admired a beautiful Mexican waitress in a restaurant, Marguerite offered proudly, “Some people think I might have Mexican blood.”

At a Bluffton social gathering 20 years ago I sat next to a distance cousin named Julie. She was the granddaughter of Marguerite’s sister. I asked, “Have you ever heard anything about an ethnic secret in our grandmothers’ family?”

“YES!” she replied emphatically, grabbing my wrist. “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Hoped you’d know.”

But she didn’t.

While on vacation in Acapulco, my oldest sister, Jama sat in an ocean-side restaurant watching a group of elderly local women as they talked and ate. They had the look of mixed-race women from Central and South America - that mix of Spanish and native ancestry. Jama told her partner, “That’s my grandmother. Every women at that table could be Marguerite.”

When Marguerite finished school, she took a job as a maid, or “hired girl,” as was said in the 1920s, for a well-to-do family in Bluffton. It was apparently during that time she met a young Apostolic man who worked at a gas station and rode a motorcycle, my grandfather, Alvie.

But in my childhood, I knew nothing about any of this.

In Marguerite’s stern exterior and rigid insistence on what was proper, I read an urge to be not only accepted, but also to protect some community notion of what was acceptable. There seemed so little room to maneuver within those rigid expectations, why even try? And so when I was with her I felt I didn’t measure up and eventually didn’t really want to.

When I was 13 her Christmas gift of socks and underwear gave way to checks for $50. I figured she was softening. But once, later in high school, after I’d been dating a girl for a couple months she gave me puzzling advice. “Don’t let yourself get too serious about this girl,” she warned. “When you get to know a person too well you discover their faults and it’s disappointing.”

Later when I dated a girl who was diabetic, she again warned me not to get serious. “If you marry this girl and have babies, they might not be normal.”                                        (at right, Marguerite in the 1920s)

Did she have any idea what it meant to be young and in love? I thought not. Where was the tenderness and warmth? Instead, just warnings and advice that would leave you all alone if you dared take it.           

When I was in college the $50 checks at Christmas turned into $500 checks. By the time I graduated they went up to $1,000. Her generosity only increased her mystery.

In college I wanted to study a semester in London, but my parents refused to pay for it. On a whim I called Marguerite and asked to borrow the money from her. She quickly and easily said yes. When my father found out, he put an end to her loan and loaned me the money himself.

That Christmas money helped fund three more trips to Europe in the ‘80s. But though she approved of the first trip, she didn’t approve of the others. She told me it was a frivolous use of the money. Was she bothered that I was traveling with the money she and Alvie had saved for their failed dream of travel during retirement - though I hadn’t really earned it? It made me wonder why she didn’t travel and live out their dream on her own. Why did she just sit day after day in that apartment on Wayne Street, play cards with her cronies, go to church and eat dinner once a week at the Dutch Mill?

The travel I bought with that money change my life – expanded my view of the world. But there came a time when Marguerite’s influence changed my life even more profoundly.

When I was in college at Ball State, Marguerite once told me to keep an eye out for a young girl she knew, who was also studying there. “She’s such a nice girl. I play canasta with her grandmother.”

I shuddered to imagine the kind of girl Marguerite would find a good fit for me. If Marguerite liked this girl, there must be something wrong with her.

Six months later on the first day of a distance running class the instructor called out that girl’s name. I craned my neck to see what homely Bluffton girl would raise her hand.

But the arm raised high was attached to a slender, blonde, blue-eyed knockout. We ran together a few times, but nothing came of those first few meetings. Two years later Marguerite mentioned the girl again - said she’d bumped into her at the grocery store in Bluffton and that she had asked about me. I was going to Ft. Wayne the next weekend to visit college friends, so I called her and asked her out. On the date I discovered the girl had neither bumped into Marguerite at the store nor asked about me.

We married a year later in Bluffton.

Marguerite had done the most significant thing anyone ever did for me in my life, and she did it with a strategic lie.

In 2001 I published a novel and traveled the state promoting it. One night I gave a book talk for the historical society in Hartford City. There I met an elderly woman who knew my grandmother. She was a schoolgirl when Marguerite was a young newlywed. Living close to my grandparent’s first house, the woman and her girlfriends played near their back porch and looked up to Marguerite. She said they often sat in the kitchen while Marguerite cooked. She described my 20-something grandmother as lighthearted and fun, singing while she cooked and prone to easy laughter. Marguerite would bake them the cut-off trimmings of piecrusts, smeared with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and serve it with lemonade.

My sister, Jama doesn’t remember a fun person prone to easy laugher, but she does remember a woman she learned to make peace with.

“I don’t recall her ever saying, ‘I love you,’ or giving me hugs but she encouraged me and showed tenderness in the advice she gave me as an adult. She was stern and firm, but also generous.”

Jama was painfully shy as a child, and was afraid of Marguerite. As she grew, Jama became a standout student and exceptional athlete. Marguerite regularly encouraged and complemented her. In college in Arizona and later living in California, Jama wrote Marguerite a letter every two weeks and made the drive up to Bluffton to visit whenever she was back in Indiana.

During Jama’s marriage, Marguerite read between the lines of the letters that arrived in her Bluffton mailbox, sensing something wasn’t quite right. She responded with letters asking Jama about her marriage: “Does he come home right after work? Does he treat you well?” It was concern and sympathy, sent from a woman who often had a hard time showing it.

Marguerite spent her last several years in a nursing home, and much of the time didn’t really know who anyone was, but often pretended to. When she died my parents were in China. There was no easy way to reach them and no way for them to get home in time for the funeral. My siblings all gathered in Indiana and we went to Bluffton where I stood in for my dad, greeting old family friends alongside my uncle Gene. When the time came, Gene, my brother Tom, my two young sons, and I acted as poll bearers.

Later, my uncle Gene shared with me a photo album found among Marguerite’s things. In old black and white pictures taken in the 1920s, Alvie was young, handsome and looked Great Gatsby-ish with thick, long hair on top, razor-smooth on the sides above his ears. A far cry from the feeble Parkinson’s patient I’d known. And Marguerite was a lovely, happy flapper of sorts. In some photos they sat together on the running board of a Model-T and in others hugged each other lovingly and suggestively, up to their necks in a lake on a long-gone sunny summer day.

The look in their eyes was unmistakable. If you’ve seen someone in the early bloom of love you know that look. There was a giddy, electric expectation in their smiles, a candle-like glow behind their eyes, like every breath was taken with a bird flapping its wings wildly in their throats.

That’s how I would like to remember them.

In my childhood Marguerite so often made me feel like an outsider, unwelcome and unwanted. After looking into those hopeful, loving faces in black and white, I wanted to understand her, wanted to know how that happy, eager young woman became so cold. That young woman never would have let the kind of child I once was feel so isolated, like I didn’t measure up, like I wasn’t good enough.

The photos made it clear that she had known all along what it meant to be young and in love. And in her own manipulative way she found the woman who would be the mother of my children.

What happened in the intervening years to harden her? Some of it I know now and the rest I can guess from my own journey through adulthood and marriage to parenting and into mid-life.

After Marguerites death, what at the time seemed like a staggering sum of money arrived in the mail. It was especially meaningful because my wife and I were living on one teacher’s salary. It was my cut of Alvie and Marguerite’s life savings. Money earned during the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, money that was supposed to fund their retirement travels we used instead to restore the front of our Victorian-era home on Cherry Street and rebuild its missing porch. From the first warm day of spring to the last useful day of autumn that year, I climbed scaffolding, swung a hammer and flung a paintbrush, turning Alvie and Marguerite’s money into a restored 1890s home. A fitting tribute.

Marguerite and Alvie in the 1920s

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