July 13, 2010

Family Stories

Aunt Cheryl is a photograph of a smiling, statuesque, blonde in a wedding dress on my Grandma Elaine’s wall. She was my father’s older sister and she died of leukemia nine years before I was born. Dad and I sat in the Runza near my folk’s home, eating ice cream after a particularly violent movie and talking about things. Dad went to college at Oklahoma University for a couple of years. He’d decided on OU because their out-of-state tuition was the same as Nebraska’s in-state tuition and also because that’s where Cheryl had moved with her husband, Gene. I suppose it may also have had something to do with the fact that Oklahoma was several hundred miles farther from the small town where Dad grew up, but that’s just speculation.

“When did Cheryl die?” I asked.

“Christmas Day, what was it, ’70, no, ’71.” Dad doesn’t talk about Cheryl much, but when he does it’s not with any particular sadness. More often than not, he’s laughing about something she and Lana did.

There’s a story he often tells about the crescent shaped scar on his forehead. They were all down the street playing at Lana’s house. She and Cheryl must have been seven or eight. Dad was four. They were all playing around the swing set, one that included an old two-seat glider, the kind of swing two people sit in, facing one another.

“Come closer,” they told him, “come closer.”

“And WHAM! They hit me in the head. I had blood all down my face so they told me I couldn’t play with them no more and sent me home. When they went inside and Lana’s mom asked ‘What happened to Roger?’ they told her ‘He was shot by Indians.’ So Lana’s mom went out looking for me, but I’d already walked home. Mom didn’t drive then, so Lana’s mom had to drive us to the hospital to get stitches.” He’d tell it with a big grin on his face and a laugh, even though he’d been the one bleeding. Dad never was bothered by a little blood, even his own. Fifty-five years later he carries the scar from the round end of the metal pipe the glider was made of, but not a grudge.

My Dad is a big man. (Possibly bigger because he’s my Dad.) He’s six foot three and built like the linebacker he was in high school. He has big hands and broad shoulders and extra weight ‘round the middle. For decades he played basketball four or five times a week and if he never quite got rid of the extra padding, he did get impressively powerful calves in compensation. About a decade ago his knees finally went and the basketball with them. He may now be slowly losing the war with his weight, but he still comes across as a large man, rather than fat. He also has a full head of reddish-brown hair, now liberally sprinkled with salt, but showing no signs of retreating.

His older brother, Doug, is built along the same lines. He’s a slightly taller, balding, and immeasurably harder-lived looking version of my father. Cheryl had the same tall frame, though a bit more refined than her brothers. All three children took after their father in that respect, rather than their petite mother, my Grandma Elaine.

I’ve seen other pictures of Cheryl, of course, most often with Lana or Susie or some of the other cousins or girlfriends. Grandpa loved to take pictures and Dad has inherited the huge collection. He’s been slowly digitizing them over the years, before they fade away to nothing. I’ve even seen the photographs from Cheryl and Gene’s wedding, but it’s usually that one photograph from Grandma’s wall that I think of when I picture Aunt Cheryl.

“I guess they didn’t have bone marrow transplants back then,” I said to Dad between crunchy bites of ice cream cone.

“No. She went into, what’s the word, recession?”


“Yeah, she went into remission once, but it came back.”

“I transferred back up to UNL my junior year, when OU raised the out-of-state tuition rates because they were getting too many out-of-state students. That woulda been in ’70. My buddy Scott and me went down there for the Oklahoma-Nebraska game next year and we visited Cheryl and Gene. She’s lost all her hair and we’d tease her about that. She had a wig, but she pulled it off to show Scott like ‘See!’ I went home for winter break and Mom and Dad were already down there. Cheryl said she didn’t want me and Doug there. She didn’t want us to see her like that. Then we got this call that she changed her mind; she wanted to see us. So we borrowed this big Cadillac and me and Doug and Sue and Steve, and I think Boomer was born by then, we all went down. But when we got to the hospital, the room was empty. I guess they’d tried to call us, but we were already gone. Finally a doctor showed up and told us she’d died.” He recounted it all matter-of-factly. These were all just steps in the progress of events, absent of emotion. I hadn’t expected otherwise. My family is like that - matter of fact.

“Is Cheryl buried in Valentine?” I don’t remember ever having visited her grave any of the times I’d been to the Valentine cemetery with my parents or Grandma.

“Yeah. We stayed at Gene’s and then drove back to Valentine the next day. Mom and Gene drove up together. The funeral home in Valentine flew down and Dad flew back with the body.”

“What kind of funeral home has a plane?”

“I don’t know. I guess it was some buddy of Dad’s, someone he knew in Valentine with a plane. I think the last time I saw Gene or any of his family woulda been in ’73. This buddy of mine and me were driving across the country in my Roadrunner. We stayed with one of his relatives in Las Vegas and then drove over to Oklahoma on Route 66 and saw Gene and his family. They were real nice folks, real nice, but strange. Like his mom had this boyfriend. His dad was dead. This guy was like lawyer of the year in California in ’58, and now he was living in this shack out on a lake in Oklahoma during the summer that didn’t have no electricity. And in the winter he’d live with the mom. Well, when we came through that last time, he wasn’t dating the mom no more. He was dating the daughter. He’d bought her this fancy car and was taking her out and stuff. Real strange,” he said, shaking his head with a sort of bewildered grin.

I suppose in 1973 that was strange. Today it’s just the plot for a soap opera.

I got a letter from Gene years ago. He’d read in the Valentine newspaper that the granddaughter of Elaine Sanford had won a bunch of medals at a district academic decathlon competition. (Only in small town newspapers do they publish news about the athletic and academic achievements of the grandchildren of life-long residents, even when said grandchildren have never living in the town.) He sent me a letter to say congratulations, that my Aunt would have been proud of me. I wrote him a thank you note and that was that. We’ve never met.

“When did you meet Mom?” I asked. I knew they’d been set up on a blind date by Mom’s sorority sister and her boyfriend, now husband. I met them once, at my Grandma Elaine’s funeral in Valentine. We’d finished our ice cream ten minutes ago, but Dad didn’t seem in any hurry to head home.

“That would have been January of my junior year.”

“And when did you guys decide to get married?”

“Oh, ‘bout a year after that. I think we told our families at Easter. We were going to get married in August, after I graduated from summer school.”

“But Dean had to go to boot camp for the National Guard,” I recounted. I’d heard this story before. They’d changed their plans so my mother’s older brother could be there. “So you moved the wedding to June and then Dean was sent early and gone anyway.”

“Yeah, but it was nice, ‘cause then we got to live together in Lincoln that summer while I took summer classes. Your mom weighed a hundred and three pounds when I married her. I think I weighed around two-hundred and forty-two. By the end of the summer I weighed two-hundred and seventeen.”


“Well, I was playing basketball every day at noon. I’d get out of my classes and go over to the Coliseum with a bunch of other guys. They didn’t have air conditioning. So I was exercising and sweating a lot.”

“Why didn’t you guys stay in Lincoln another year after you graduated so Mom could finish college?”

“Well, I had a job waiting for me in Valentine,” Dad said with a shrug, referring to the family business. “Business was good at that time and I had a job to go to. That’s probably what we shoulda done, but at the time Mom was going for archeology.”

“I know. That’s so much cooler than accounting,” which is the degree Mom ended up getting years later, after almost a decade of night school.

“But what do you do with a degree in archeology? She’d come down as pre-med, then switched.”

“Yeah, but that was her mother’s dream.” Grandma Del had dreamed of being a doctor, but then she’d gone and eloped at the age of seventeen. It had been semi-miraculous they had allowed a married woman (gasp) to finish high school at all. She’d pushed that dream onto her oldest daughter, but it hadn’t stuck.

Dad nodded. “We bought that house on Cherry Street,” the one where he’d lived during high school. The one with the pool in the back that the other high school girls had come over to swim in. Remembering that made him grin. The house on Cherry Street is still there, though the pool's been filled in.

“Mom and Dad had moved out to the Red Barn and put in that double-wide. We probably shouldn’ta bought that house, but that we got a real good deal on it. We didn’t need that much space. Then when a buddy a mine came and said he wanted it, we sold it and moved out to the Red Barn, put in a foundation and a house on the other side from my folks. Then one day, we been married five years, and Dayle walks in and says ‘I want children.’” He holds his big hands up in the air then slaps then down on his thighs as if to say “Whatcha gonna do?”

I laughed. “That sounds like Mom.” Brandon and I were both meticulously planned, right down to the spacing of our births. Afterward, Dad was sent to the doctor to ensure there wouldn’t be anymore and that was that.

I’ve long thought the fact that my parents waited to get married and then waited five years to have kids has helped ensure their marriage has been so stable. They knew each other as adults and they knew each other as a couple before they threw kids into the mix. So now that we’re long gone, while they haven’t gone back to the way it was before I’m sure, they weren’t shocked to finally meet the stranger they’d been living with for twenty years.

Dad often tells me that most of his high school classmates got married the summer after they graduated. “And it wasn’t just ‘cause they wanted to,” he’d say. His buddy George, who runs a concrete business there in Valentine, already has grandkids in college. I think George is still with the mother of his children, but not all of them are. Some of them have two or even three families by now.

Meanwhile, our family has only grown by one, my sister-in-law April, in the past few years and shows no signs of expanding further. Sometimes I think it’s a pity. My folks would make excellent grandparents and I’m now their only hope for that. At this age, my Dad was the father of two. But we’ve been a family of adults essentially since I learned to drive. Even when we still all lived in the same house, we all had different jobs and different schedules and made our own decisions.

“Thanks for the ice cream and the movie.”

“You’re welcome. I figure I won’t have very many more chances to take you out and to the movies. At least not for a while.”

“Nope,” I agreed.

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