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I spent last night polishing a family heirloom to send to my son. It’s was set aside for him years ago before college. Back then it wasn’t the sort of artifact he had any use for. It still isn’t. But one hundred and forty-five years ago filled with ice chopped from a frozen Smokey Hill River, it kept the Robb family’s butter cold on the supper table.
Before dementia took hold of my Mother twelve years ago she sent us her Grandmother’s silver-plated butter tray. A cow with a crumpled horn graces its summit. Inside the dish my Mother had placed a curling photograph of two little girls standing beside a little old lady on July 21, 1933. It was Lotty Robb’s 81st birthday. The girls, aged five and seven, nearly reached the shoulders of their tiny grandmother. On the back of the fading photo my mother wrote that their’s was “the cutest grandmother that ever was.” Great-great grandmother Robb’s 1874 wedding gift was to be given to my son, Robb. Now it’s his cow.
In a household rich with family treasures ready to burden the next generation I have something that takes up little room - memories and stories. The lion’s share of them were passed down to me by my Mother. Many of them served as her way to prepare me for a complicated world. When I asked her why a kid would cry after being called “queer” she told how her best friend married such a man. The story was told with candor, delicacy and without judgement. My Mother found people interesting and their lives instructive.
When my Dad took a new job in Minnesota and her sister followed her husband to Louisiana leaving Kansas behind, I began learning a great deal about the Robbs. They were my Mother’s favorite subject. After leaving Kansas the guilt-ridden sisters refused to abandon their recently widowed father who was now in an old folk’s home. Every month from 1963 until my Grandfather’s death in 1972 they took turns driving to Topeka to spend a week with him. Every other month my Mother would freeze a week’s worth of dinners for us before leaving for her turn. She spent the better part of her week talking to her Dad and came home bursting with stories about the Robbs.
She was a doting daughter, but she was not supine. She told me about an argument she had with her father over sexual etiquette. She had mentioned to her father that one my Dad’s best college friends had been familiar (wink, wink) with young ladies. My Grandfather harrumphed to her the wise words of his fellow officer in the Great War, later to be blown to bits in a foxhole they shared. First Lt. Seibel had told Second Lt. Robb that married women were the best sexual partners because if they got pregnant no one would get in trouble.
Upon hearing this my Mother laid into her father. Hadn’t he considered the terrible consequences that might result from such a pregnancy - like the breaking up a family? I don’t know how many boys have had such conversations with their Mothers but I had a great many of them.
I learned about my Father’s sad, alcoholic cousin whose well-to-do family only grudgingly accepted her marriage to the only fellow kind enough to date her in high school. I learned about the close friend whose cheating husband divorced her for a younger woman only to have the new wife chase after her husband’s son-in-law. I learned how our neighbors lost a son to a negligent but powerful Corporation and how they fought the goliath in court while the company made sure the newspapers reported that they only cared about making money off their dead son.
A few months before my father died in 1987 I gave him a tape recorder and asked him to tell us about his life. He turned it on to test it and recorded himself saying, “This will be interesting.” When I retrieved the recorder after his death those four words were the only ones he had recorded.
Today, to make amends, I write stories about the past down in dribs and drabs. They are likely to be more popular than my grandmother’s grand piano. I’m always on the lookout for more. Yesterday I got a letter back from my only remaining living aunt. She was replying to my request for the story about how my Uncle Frank reacted when his best man, my Dad, broke a promise to keep the honeymoon getaway car hidden. A number of young women from the Kansas wedding party were eager to slather it up with wedding tomfoolery. Uncle Frank repaid the favor by absconding with my Dad’s car keys and leaving him stuck in Wyatt Earp’s old stomping grounds with no way to get out of Dodge.
Harry Welty is a local eccentric and perennial candidate for public office in Duluth who also pontificates on his blog: www.lincolndemocrat.com.