When Thelma heard that I was interested in our family’s stories and photographs, she told my mother to have me come talk to her. She had many old photographs she told my mother. Although I had never been eager to enter Thelma’s houses, she was the only remaining connection to the generation of my paternal grandparents, which made me especially interested to hear her stories and to see what photographs she might have.
When I was a child, Thelma
and her husband, Leo, who was the brother of my paternal grandmother, lived on
a ramshackle farm between my hometown and Bonaparte. Thelma acted as shepherd for my father’s family, gathering
his siblings and their children, at the farm for holidays and other
events. The lane to the house,
which sat perhaps half a mile from the highway, went down slope to cross a
creek on a wooden bridge and then climbed again to a muddy parking space that
faced a chicken house positioned between barn and porch door to the house. When you stepped from car to mud, you
heard a chain run, links clanking across a narrow sidewalk, as it was pulled
fast taut by Leo’s dog. The dog
strained against the chain and barked and snapped. The chain’s reach caught the dog short of your ankles if you
approached the porch door by walking across the mud of the parking space. The narrow sidewalk from porch door to
the well pump was the dog’s domain.
The smells of dog and fear
mixed at the entry to the porch with the odor of sour milk. A metal milk can stood inside the door.
From the porch, you stepped-up
through another door into Thelma’s kitchen, where the smells of doghouse, pig lot,
and chicken scratch persisted but competed with fried chicken, baking bread,
and cooling pies when the family came to Thelma and Leo’s farm.
“Oh my! Come in, come in!” Thelma said when you
opened the door to her kitchen.
“Don! Put that bag over
here,” she said to my father, who carried a paper sack that held our plates and
Tupperware bowls of food for the family gathering. Thelma’s loud voice—her words quick, yet distinct—rises in
my memory like the sound her chickens.
“Cluck! Cluck cluck cluck cluck.”
She rocked back her head then threw forward her face to speak. “Cluck! Cluck cluck cluck cluck.”
A faded, pale photograph
from a family gathering in the late 1940s, more than a decade before I was
born, shows Thelma’s high spirit.
Her face, turned from the photographer, was nearly in profile. She was speaking and smiling. At family gatherings, Thelma watched
the running children, clusters of men, and milling wives; and she added to
every conversation she could hear.
When we visited Thelma and
Leo’s farm, men were ushered from the kitchen to the living room, which smelled
of must, dust, and tobacco spit.
Leo chewed tobacco and spat into a ten-pound coffee can that sat beside
his chair. The living room was
jammed arm-to-arm with furniture that was covered loosely by slipcovers. Crocheted antimacassars clung to the
chair backs. A woodstove kept the
living room hot, kept the fragrance of farm and tobacco spit wafting through
the room on rising waves of heat.
Leo sat in a chair by the
window. He sat with knees wide and
his arms rested on the chair’s arms.
He spoke from the side of his mouth, keeping his teeth clenched and a
tobacco wad under his lip. His
low, monotone utterances were thick, like gristle. I couldn’t understand him, but he wasn’t speaking to
me. “Yeah, I know,” my father
would reply to Leo, who leaned over the chair arm to spit into the coffee can. As he straightened, Leo offered another
twist of words in a tobacco juice mumble.
“Yeah,” my father replied and huffed a slight laugh. I realize now that Leo was humorous,
although I never heard the humor.
His teeth-clenched quips were often followed by chuckles among my uncles
at family gatherings.
Leo was a lovely and late
baby. His mother Mary gave birth
first to two boys, John in 1873 and William in 1875, and then two girls, Minnie
in 1881 and Lottie in 1885. Leo
was born in 1896. At two years
old, he sat on the lap of my grandmother Minnie for a photograph. Dressed in a blouse that had a high,
ruffled neck, the nearly 17-year-old Minnie stared wide-eyed at the
photographer. Minnie—ready to calm
the child’s motions—rested her hand on her lap beside the toddler’s shoes, but
Leo was still, his head steady, his parted hair swept in forelocks across his
forehead. Leo’s eyes were locked
beside the photographer, looking toward another who was more important. Leo’s very sensuous lips were pursed.
When I was a child, Thelma
and Leo were old in their 60s.
Thelma was big, and her heavy bosom sagged in the front of her
buttoned-up dresses. Leo was small
and seemed swallowed in the bib overalls that he always wore. I wish now that I had cared
enough to learn how Leo met and courted Thelma Daniel. They married on the third of December
1922 and had a daughter Helen soon after.
The young family sat for a formal portrait—Thelma and Leo side-by-side
touched knees. Leo held the baby
Helen with both hands at her waist.
The young baby’s head hung slightly to the side, toward her mother,
whose voice I am sure was stilled only for the photograph.
For this photograph in the
1920s, Thelma and Leo dressed in a manner that I had never known them. Leo wore a dark suit and a thin tie,
and Thelma had a satiny dress with a round, lacy collar set well below her
sturdy neck. The bright collar
seemed to glow from the confident light of Thelma’s oval face. Leo was then a handsome man. He held his sensuous lips together, not
quite in a smile, not quite in a grimace.
Leo was not as comfortable here as Thelma, who may not have known
discomfort—at least not until her daughter Helen married a near-do-well
drinker, and Helen’s health decayed in early middle age, leading to her early
death. In the 1920s photograph of
the young family, Thelma looked directly at the photographer—her gaze was
assured and I wonder how she acquired her assurance—while Leo looked off to the
side of the photographer, as if distracted by all but the child in his hands.
Thelma and Leo gave up the
farm in old age to settle in a big, worn house at the edge of town. Their new place, situated at the base
of Cemetery Hill and across the street from the Nazarene preacher, had a back
lot for Thelma’s hens. I had been
in this house few times, although this is where my father lived for several
months, perhaps even a year, after my parents divorced. I had not visited Thelma’s house when
my father lived there, and I could not imagine my father there; my father was
easily angered by household mess, especially the kinds I could create as a
child and later as a teenager, and Thelma’s houses held scatterings of garbage.
It was more than a decade
after Leo’s death and after my father had lived in her house, that I went to
visit Thelma to hear stories and see her photographs. I was apprehensive about
visiting her. At family gatherings
when I was child, my mother would caution me about Thelma’s food. “There is dog hair in it,” my mother
said. Before we ate, my mother
would put her hand on my shoulder to pull me close, and she said quietly as she
nodded subtly toward the spread of food on the table, “That’s Thelma’s if you don’t want to eat it.” I worried that Thelma would give me
food when I visited.
When I knocked on her door,
I told her who I was. “Come in,”
she said—her voice still as high and sharp as I remembered it. We sat in a tight sitting room at the
front of the house that held it seemed the same furniture and antimacassars
that I remembered from 30 years earlier on the farm.
“Are you Don’s boy?” Thelma asked me. I realized not only that I was distant to her but also, as she talked, that her memory was thin. I asked her about my grandmother and whether she recalled stories that Leo had told her of times when he and my grandmother were children. Thelma didn’t recall. She thought she remembered cousins of mine—she wondered whether they were my cousins—but mostly she knew that Frieda had come that week to take her to the doctor. She had photographs, she said, but was unsure where they were. Thelma lifted a stack of papers here and there within arm’s reach as if thinking she might have recently misplaced the pictures. “I’ve got ‘em,” Thelma said.
She found the photographs in the days after my visit. Thelma called my mother to let her know that I could have the photographs, and my sister went to pick them up. That was in the 1990s not long before Thelma died.