Good Night Irene

Yesterday afternoon, my husband and I were on our driveway cleaning up from the yard sale we had this weekend. We looked behind us and saw a familiar figure cutting through our backyard. He had his head down and was making hurried, deliberate steps our way.

From a distance he appeared to be the 93 year old neighbor man we have known for 8 years who lives on our block. As he approached though he was almost unrecognizable. His always slender frame was now reduced to skin and bones. His face had an ashen hue to it and his eyes, once bright and lively were now replaced with a lifeless stare.

Bill and his wife Irene have always been some of our favorite neighbors. Bill owns a big tractor snowplow and plows everyone’s sidewalks on the block. They grow a huge garden in their backyard and deposit bags of tomatoes on our doorstep. When we are out walking we always stop by to visit them if they are sitting on their porch. They dole out Dum-Dum lollipops to the kids and invite them to sit on the large porch swing. Then they love to regale us with stories about the “olden days” and we love to hear them. I have heard the story about how they met no less than 10 times. Bill used to date Irene’s younger sister but then Irene stole him away from her. Irene tells me her secrets about how they had the perfect marriage. Irene has taken my kids into the house on several occasions and played piano for them while Bill takes me to the back room to show me his WWII memorabilia. He was in the Coast Guard and stationed in Hawaii during that time. He has several medals and plenty of photo albums that he has proudly showed me. He always takes out a picture of Irene in a bathing suit from that time and whistles.

As Bill sauntered over to us yesterday I said, “Hi Bill, How the heck have you been doing? I haven’t seen you in awhile.”

He stopped and looked at me and said, “Well, you know Irene passed away last month.”

I didn’t know.

I quick grabbed him and gave him a hug and felt his jutting spine beneath my hand. I told him how sorry I was and how much we adored Irene. He just nodded his head. I asked him if his son was at the house with him but Bill said his son lives too far away and has only been able to make it up a few times to handle all of the paperwork.

Bill started to tear up then and he threw his arms up in the air and said, “I’m all alone now” in a jagged voice.

He abruptly started to walk away again and we asked him if there was anything we could do to help out. He just shook his head and muttered, “I’m just all alone now.”

My husband and I watched him walk away in his old straw hat, his jeans cinched at the waist and his flannel shirt draping on him. We were paralyzed and didn’t know what to say or do. I wanted to run to him and tell him just to sit down with us but inside I knew his pride would have denied him from doing that. I just stood there in sadness for a long time watching that 93 year old man walking down the street alone. The same street that I have watched both him and his wife walk down together many of times.

Later last night, I looked up her obituary online and discovered that Bill and Irene would have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary this coming Wednesday, May 1st. On Wednesday I will be paying Bill a visit with some chocolate chip cookies in hand. I hope he invites me in and I hope he pulls out those photo albums.

I hope he pulls out that picture of Irene in her bathing suit and gives a whistle.

Good night Irene, good night Irene. I’ll see you in my dreams.

It’s Not About Blood, It’s About the Important Stuff

I grew up next to an Indian reservation. Seriously, our next door neighbors land was considered reservation land. The community I grew up in consisted mainly of Oneida Indians and I was constantly immersed in their culture and learning about their history.

Even though I was born here, my parents were not. They grew up in small towns in southwestern Wisconsin. After my Dad earned a degree in Civil Engineering, he moved my Mom and sister to northeastern Wisconsin where he landed a job designing bridges and highways for the state.

We weren’t exactly welcomed into the community with open arms at first. Even though our land wasn’t zoned as reservation, our neighbors didn’t believe that white people should be living on it. They didn’t let their daughter play with me but she and I found a way around this. We would meet at the barb wire fence that divided our land and we would sit across from each other and talk through the wire barrier. Her parent’s ill feelings toward our family must have waned in later years as I remember her coming over and roller skating on my driveway with me from time to time.

The neighbor's horses were always getting into our yard. My Dad having grew up on a farm rebuilt their barb wire fence for them

The neighbor’s horses were always getting into our yard. My Dad having grew up on a farm rebuilt their barb wire fence for them

During the summers when I was 4 and 5 years old I attended summer school at the community building. I wasn’t actually supposed to be able to attend as I wasn’t Oneida Indian but they let me anyway. I’m sure there were craft projects and games but the thing I remember most was the time slotted for learning the Oneida language. Most of what I learned has since been forgotten but I can still count to 10 in the language.

When I was 4 years old my Mom began working at the local nursing home. On her days off she would bring me there so I could visit with the residents. Many of them became my good friends and they told me such great stories. Unfortunately, I don’t remember any of their tales but I know even as a small child I was entranced by their history and what they shared with me. A lively old coot taught me how to swear in the Oneida language. I remember one of the sayings perfectly “Get-Get-Oh-Dah” which in family friendly terms means “chicken poop.” I guess my memory really only remembers the “really important stuff.”

My Mom and I began attending the local church when I was 7 years old. It was a small church and there were only a handful of people who attended that weren’t Oneida Indian. Every week we sang a few hymns that usually consisted of “Old Rugged Cross” and “He Has the Whole World in His Hands,” but then there was an allotted time devoted to singing three Oneida hymns that were sang in their language. They would hand out the booklets of the songs and even though they were in a language not our own it was pretty easy to sing along. The words mainly consisted of syllables but when you strung them all together it was pure magic. Every week I couldn’t wait to hear this beautiful music sung in words that I didn’t know the meaning of but could still understand that they had powerful message to them. There were two men who sat in the back that had deep bass voices that would do the underlying chants to the songs that reverberated through that small church and created a spectacular sound.

I’ve seen many powwows in my day. The community puts one on every year. Of course there is the delicious food offered at these events consisting of fry bread, Indian tacos and buffalo meat but then there is the actual dancing. The people get dressed up in the costumes that their ancestors would have worn hundreds of years ago, form a large circle and begin shaking their body and lifting their knees in a way that propels them forward slowly in an enchanting way. This mesmerizing dance is coincided with chanting. I have practiced this dance and the chants so many times in the privacy of my own home that I think if they ever needed a fill-in I would be a shoo- in.

The Oneida Indians getting ready to perform at the last Packer game we went to

The Oneida Indians getting ready to perform at the last Packer game we went to

My personal heritage is German and Norwegian but I grew up surrounded by the Oneida Indian culture. I know just as much about their history as I do of my ancestors’ backgrounds. I may not have Oneida blood in me but I know how to swear in their language and that is the “really important stuff.”

Reading to the Ladies

The summer is coming to an end and school will start on Tuesday. Along with this will come an end to the daily “reading to the ladies.”

In our neighborhood there are two elderly ladies who have houses side by side. One of them is 89 and the other is 96. They are sisters. The 96 year old has lived here for 70 years. She was widowed in her 40’s and has lived alone since then. The 89 year old has never been married and spent her adult life living in Chicago until 20 years ago when her sister with whom she always lived with died and she came back to the area to be near family.

When we moved here 8 years ago both of the ladies were in fine shape. They mowed their own lawns, tended to their gardens and canned large amounts of vegetables. Through the years their health has deteriorated and we have had to wait patiently for them to return home several times from extended hospital stays. Today they both still live at home but have caretakers who live with them and tend to their care and the housework.

These are two of the sweetest ladies I know. They have watched our family grow and have become a part of our family. We visit with each other and help each other out. My kids think of them as extra grandmas.

This past March, when visiting with the 96 year old, she told me how lonely she had been. All she can do at this point is really just sit and watch television.

That’s when I got an idea. My 7 year old daughter, Iris, loves to read. Being in 1st grade at the time, she didn’t have any homework after school. My kids loved visiting the neighbors but didn’t go every day so I established “reading to the ladies.” Once the 89 year old got wind of the kids reading to her sister she wanted in on it too!

Iris and my 5 year old son, Bency would go to the ladies’ houses every day after school and read to them a few short stories, visit with them and then come home. This has continued throughout the summer almost every day. Iris enjoys doing this because she LOVES reading to people and the ladies enjoy the company of the kids. The caretaker for the 89 year old is a Polish immigrant, speaks broken English, loves to cook and loves my kids too. She is always making up homemade cookies for the kids and fresh popped popcorn on the stove to send home with them after they are done reading!

Once school starts, I’m sure there will be homework so they will only be able to go on the weekends. I’m going to try to keep this going as long as I can because the summer of “reading to the ladies” will always be a wonderful memory!

The Polish caretaker, the 89 year old, the 96 year old, and my husband Alex at one of my kid’s birthday parties