Babi and Dĕda
I recall the farmhouse in Shueyville ringed with sweet fruit. Behind was a garden with sun-warm strawberries and pale yellow-orange ground cherries in their papery husks. To its left of the house, by the workshop with its blacksmith’s anvil and well-worn, well-tended tools was a berry patch, while off into the fields to the right was an arbor with a pump where, even on the warmest days, one could lounge with a book under cool leaves and pluck the dark grapes. And in front, outside the chain-link fence, stood a cherry tree that provided a fine perch for a boy fond of both tart fruit and elevated perspectives.
The house was roomy with a large front porch and another on the side between the kitchen and the summer kitchen. The main door into the living room was not far from the door into the parlor with an etched forest scene on its glass. The parlor had such ornaments as a Victrola, a pump organ, and large photographs of the previous generation on the wall including great-grandfather’s posthumous portrait.
Though it boasted bourgeois amenities when built, the house was largely unimproved since. On the wall the wooden party-line telephone (operated by what must have been one of the smallest local companies) rang with its codes of longs and shorts. Connections were made by an operator. An indoor pump in a small room off the kitchen filled a large container from which the thirsty could always get a cool drink using a dipper. Babi was a wizard with the huge wood-burning iron cook stove. In the basement, roughly cut from the earth, were shelves of preserved food. Very likely the visiting grandchildren found the outhouse and chamber-pots the most dramatic variation from life in Glen Ellyn.
My sense of difference as a child visiting Shueyville reflected a number of gaps between my nuclear family and the Kopeckys: the passage of generations, suburban vs. rural cultures, issues of economic class and education, but surely it was language that interposed the greatest barrier. Though I think my grandparents were never really comfortable speaking English, I learned no Czech apart from the “jak se maš – dobře” ritual and a few words for foods: maso [meat], chléb [bread]. I remember my grandmother in her last years asking “co” [what]. As a child I was amused to find the Czech word for milk was “mléko.” Meanwhile, neighbors and relatives often fell into speaking what they, as descendants of 19th century immigrants, called Bohemian, and my grandparents tuned in to Czech programming on the local radio station.
We ate chickens that had been freshly slaughtered and plucked in a bloody basin. I recall an oddly shaped object that I learned was a sort of sausage made of a stuffed pig’s stomach. There may be no cuisine quite so emphatically meat and potatoes as Central Europe’s, but we had also the garden produce and baked goods: pies, poppy seed rolls, koláčes, and a dark cake-like gingerbread topped with whipped cream. (Cream, in fact, was used even in cereal, but a favorite child’s breakfast was “hash,” made by breaking rolls into bowls of sweetened milk and coffee.) Babi adhered, I think, to some version of the plan that makes Monday wash day, through the week to Saturday baking day, so it sometimes happened that a marvelous and excessive array of baked goods would appear all at once. Sorghum syrup from the Bowersox place up the road had not only a unique taste but also a remarkable odd painting of a woman on the gallon can.
Nearby was the little church we sometimes attended; the one room schoolhouse where our mother studied and then taught stood just beyond the property. When the gas station was operating it was a pleasure to get a soda there, and Uncle Bill would drive us children to a store in Swisher with a delightful selection of penny candies (later we would buy Mad magazine there). The whole compound was filled with fascinating objects, from the tools in the shed (grindstone, forge, sickles, and scythes) to the old car (which had shades for its windows and capacious storage pockets on the doors), and, of course, the animals (unruly roosters, indifferent hogs, a few big-eyed expectant cattle with tags clipped to their ears). Inside the house were boxes of old comic sections from decades of newspapers, providing the extraordinary, almost illicit, pleasure of reading the continuing stories (like Mandrake the Magician) one episode right after another. There were also old pulp magazines, all with lurid covers whether the theme was horror, cowboy or science fiction, as well as cigar boxes full of old soda and beer caps and nameless exotic gewgaws, charming in their mystery.
Dĕda’s death, on his way to feed the hogs, was only hearsay to me, but I recall attending Babi’s funeral in the Czechoslovak Society of America hall not far from Sykora’s Bakery and Polehna’s Meat Market on 16th Avenue in Cedar Rapids, the shops that sold the solid rye loaves and the natural casing frankfurters that Uncle Bill for some years to come continued to think essential for the good life.
In films from the ‘thirties like The Pharmacist or The Barber, W. C. Fields plays a small businessman in a provincial town where his cynicism, self-indulgence, and bickering family come into conflict with the prevailing petit bourgeois proprieties. When I see these films, I think he may have been living in Spencer.
The Seatons aspired to rise above the local small yeoman norm. Thus my grandfather dealt in horse insurance and speculated in land. He owned a hotel, and, later, real estate and insurance businesses. (I recall the substantial Seaton Real Estate sign with neon elements in front of Gammy’s house.) They traveled to Florida in the ‘twenties, and Eva Letta’s social circle held ladies’ luncheons whose menus were duly reported in the local newspaper. His Masonic activities (Dad said, “When I was a boy, to be a 32nd degree Mason seemed the highest goal in the world.”) and hers in the Order of the Eastern Star and the Daughters of the American Revolution, their adherence to the Republican Party (including his holding county office as Holmes did after him), all these are consistent with the ideal caricatured in Babbitt.
Gammy was very fond of cards, of canasta in particular, and bridge, both so popular in the 1950s. (She lamented that she could no longer find whist players.) She played intuitively, declaring that some fortunate individuals, including herself and Dad, were blessed with “card sense.” She thought make-up essential to a lady and, in her later years, went about oblivious in a cloud of perfume. She delighted in brooches and earrings and other costume jewelry and had her hair done in a rather artificial way. All these things, which could annoy Mom with her frugal farmhouse values, reflected Gammy’s sense of genteel respectability.
But she had been born, as we often heard, at a farm on the Turkey River in northeast Iowa and moved by wagon to Clay County. She recalled Native Americans begging at the door. The same restlessness (in the notoriously rooted Midwest) is reflected in the great-uncles and Libby going to Montana and, in the next generation, Walter, Eddie, and Richard moving to California, not to mention our generation’s scattering. She liked “Mother Shipton’s Prophecy” and quoted lines from some other verse declaring “Ioway” to be “where the West begins.” Her D.A.R. application indicates the revolutionary fighter who provided her bona fides was her great-great-grandfather.
I recall walking the streets of Spencer alone or with James at quite a young age. We were expelled from the theater for boisterously cheering Robin Hood. I remember thinking that the sun on concrete became so hot to my bare feet that it felt cold. I went around Spencer with a little notebook making a collection of drawings of automobile trademark insignia – DeSoto, Pontiac, Studebaker – Gammy claimed a family relationship with the Studebakers and had a reunion photograph as evidence. Clay County took great pride in its county fair. There were freaks and exotic dancers on the midway and, in the penny arcade, a device that, when the handles were turned, gave the patron an electric current sufficient that one couldn’t let go of the machine, a rare sensation indeed.
Gammy’s élan vital carried her through three husbands – she kept up some real estate trade, I think, into her old age – she frequently traveled between the Midwest and California. She enjoyed her cards, rewriting her will (I was paid at least twice for typing it), exaggerating her age, and recalling the past. For many years she subscribed to the Spencer newspaper. She would turn at once to the obituaries, sigh, and exclaim, “He was a grand old man; I knew him well.” But she found the friends of her generation mentioned ever more rarely, and eventually hardly at all. At the last, in nursing homes, she became paranoid (“The doctors are trying to hurt me.”), absconded, headed for Spencer, but her Spencer was long gone.
Her image now comes to me among lovely undulations of ribbon candy, boxes of peanut brittle, the odor of horehound drops and generous rouge amid decks upon decks of playing cards.