A Friendless Proselyter in Iowa

Last week I got a lengthy email from a priest in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He had read my book, The Home for the Friendless and told me that two of my childhood friends mentioned in Part 4 were boys he had known well. I often wondered what happened with those two rowdy brothers and I soon found out. One of them became a priest and was Spiritual Director to the Cedar Rapids priest before his ordination. What a treat that was to hear about the 12-year-old I threw hand grenades (gourds) with when we played war in our garden.

The priest told me even more that threw me back in time. He said that he shops at a Hy-Vee Grocery Store across the street from where our house once stood. This modern store probably took the place of Tom Combs’ homey old corner grocery that had a gas hose sitting on a platform above the cars. The gasoline drained into car tanks by gravity and no pumping was required.

During our exchange of letters, my new friend, the priest, wrote this note:
“I have always wanted to write about my own great grandmother who was born in Iowa in the 1870′s. She lost triplets up in Canada when the nurse gave medicine to the babies instead of to my great grandmother. All three of her babies died.”

Stories give birth to stories just as women give birth to children. When the grieving parents moved back to Iowa they were thrust into another story that was even more dramatic than the first one. When the priest read my book he was reminded of his own life which proves that one family’s saga is a link in a chain of families with stories to tell. If you’ve ever sat around after dinner with guests who started sharing tales, you know how storytelling can go on and on.

What is the most inspiring kernel in your family’s story that you have not told or written down yet?

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Thanksgiving in the Tavern

Thanksgiving in the Tavern

The most out-of-the-ordinary Thanksgiving I ever had was at the Uptown Village Café, a family tavern in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My Auntie Marge and Uncle Al owned the café in the late 30’s and 40’s, and they always kept it open on holidays because many of their older customers practically lived there. Uncle Al made hot toddies for his patrons every year so they could celebrate with old friends.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1950, my new husband and I were the out-of-state relatives, so it was decided that Thanksgiving dinner would be in the tavern even though we were surrounded by customers laughing, drinking, and playing shuffle board. The waitresses used card tables to extend one of the booths almost out to the shuffle board game where three happy old men were in the middle of a noisy, hot competition. Instead of the shuffle board surface being on the floor, it was like a long, miniature bowling alley on legs. The polished oak surface was so beautifully slick that the shiny steel discs shot across it like greased lightning.

After our makeshift dining table was prepared with napkins, wine glasses, plates, and utensils, the relatives claimed their assigned seats, and the buttery golden turkey, trimmings, and side dishes were placed in the middle of us. What a scrumptious sight and smell. Uncle Al wanted to do everything right, and with no forewarning, announced, “We have never had a Thanksgiving dinner in this tavern before, so I feel we should give thanks to God for this memorable event. Denny, since you’re a preacher’s son would you do the honors?”

Denny was accustomed to leading a group in prayer, but not in a tavern. He hesitated, unsure of what to do next because the mix of dance music, beer mug clinks, laughter, cash register dings, and steel discs clanging against each other on the shuffle board were not a churchy soundtrack. Denny was comfortable being a preacher’s kid but I had never seen him so flustered. He took a slow, deep breath and said, “Everyone…please, let us bow our heads.” It gave us time to pull ourselves together, which was all the time needed for the beer-drinking patrons to take notice.

My head was bowed but my eyeballs were straining sideways to see why everything was suddenly hushed in the tavern. The radio had been shut off, steel discs were no longer sliding, and all nearby patrons stood silently in place, with heads bowed.

Denny waited a moment with eyes closed and then said loud enough for all to hear, “Dear God — on this exceptional Thanksgiving Day, we ask that you be with us in this tavern. Bless the hands that prepared the food for the nourishment of our souls and bodies. We thank you Lord for our many blessings — and may we live in peace and harmony. Amen.”

Ever so slowly, things came back to life in the tavern, but Denny couldn’t stop grinning. He leaned closer and whispered, “Honey, that was so weird.”
Uncle Al must have read my husband’s mind and said, “Denny, what would Reverend Auchard say about you giving thanks to God in a tavern?”
“Al, my dad would say ‘Amen and halleluiah’ to that.”

Do you recall a noteworthy, oddball, or uncommon Thanksgiving? If so, share it with us now as a Comment.

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Going to bed at 7:30 was crazy. It wasn’t even dark. But that’s the way they did things at the Home for the Friendless in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Home was an ancient brick building where my brother, sister, and I lived while our parents tried again to work out their problems. On our first night there, I bathed, brushed my teeth, put on nightclothes, and climbed into bed in the hot and stuffy dormitory.

Mrs. Stone, the monitor, shook her finger and said, “No more talking. Just stay quiet and go to sleep.”

“But it’s still light outside,” whined one little girl.

“Shhh.” As Mrs. Stone turned to leave, she stopped to add a warning. “If you get up during the night, don’t drink any water or you’ll wet the bed.” Then she disappeared into her apartment near the bathroom sinks.

Even though I was there with other girls whose families had problems, I felt terribly alone. It was miserable being separated from Dad and Mama and relocated to a strange place. I had pretended it was normal so my little brother and sister wouldn’t be scared. But that evening I couldn’t comfort them because they were in their own dorms. I knew I wouldn’t see them very often, and I already missed them so much I felt sick.

After flopping on top of the stiff sheets, I watched the last of the daylight spill over our beds from the windows. I felt abandoned. What were Mama and Dad doing while I was trying so hard to doze off? Were they arguing again or going to the movies? I got all twitchy, lying there thinking and waiting for cool air to arrive.

I could hear roller rink sounds from several blocks away. The organ was playing “Take Me out to the Ballgame,” and I could hear hundreds of skate wheels humming on the rink floor. The mingling of steel wheels and music in the air hypnotized me. I began to imagine how different things would be if I were a magician. I would soar back to the past and live with Mama and Dad again so we three kids could be cozy under one blanket and go to sleep after dark like normal people. It was not normal for my brother and sister and me to sleep during the daytime, in three different beds, in rooms filled with kids we didn’t know.

When the sun finally quit for the day, a kindhearted breeze wafted through the screens to cool my skin, and I finally drifted into slumber. I dreamed that I was flying with my brother under one arm and my sister under the other, and I was brave enough to fly wherever I wanted without asking permission.

It was fun zipping wherever I wanted to go, though something kept my flights from turning out right. It dawned on me that I had left Bobby and Patty behind, so I made a graceful U-turn back to the Home and into the boys’ window. Bobby was too scared to join me because he had forgotten that I knew how to fly. I grabbed the back of his pajama top anyway and whooshed into the nursery to scoop up Patty, but she was sound asleep. I fluttered above her, calling her name softly so as not to wake the other little kids.

My plan was to float through my parents’ window with Bobby and Patty and say, Surprise! But I didn’t know where they lived or if they remembered who we were. Mama and Dad were always moving. Why couldn’t they stay in one place for a while? It would make flying to them a whole lot easier.

Instead of gliding into my parents’ house, I found myself trapped inside a huge room that was inside another room that was inside another room. I got so airsick that I had to abort the flight.

I awoke tangled in my sheets. It took a while for me to go to sleep again, and then once more I was flying. That time we three kids made it to the great outdoors and were surrounded by blue sky instead of wallpaper. I loved the sensation, so I floated for a long time, holding Patty by her middle finger and Bobby by his thumb and kicking as fast as I could to stay up … until I saw telephone wires ahead. I dove under them and zoomed up, up, and away into wide open space only to find more telephone wires high above the earth.

I never did make it to freedom with my brother and sister that night, but since I didn’t know where freedom was, I decided it was a whole lot easier just to wake up.

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