Wonderland: A Memoir
Growing up in the American Midwest in the 20th century wasn't always a cakewalk, especially with a large and locally notorious family. For a girl with one foot in the past and both eyes wide open to the future, this is a chronicle of there and back again along with the quicksand that's always underfoot, whether we know it or not.
There were always more of them in the late fall, especially nearing Christmas. Sometimes they were waiting for the office to open in the morning, but usually they drifted in around dusk, on their way home after a long day. Often older cars or a pickup scabbed with rust were parked beside the curb that bordered the immaculate lawn and flower beds, a tired-looking woman with a child or two waiting in the cab.
The men were soft-spoken, with downcast eyes, dressed in worn overalls, often-washed flannel shirts and scuffed workboots that spoke as much about them as did their words. Fedoras, almost shapeless with wear, as common then as baseball caps now, were held in their hands, fingers slowly moving around and around the brims, as the men gained access to the inner office, past the waist-high dispatch counter.
It was a utilitarian place, linoleum floor, bulletin boards on two walls, file cabinets, with two desks – one obviously clerical, neatly arranged with typewriter, adding machine and telephone - the other, further back in the large room, quite obviously not. The second desk’s scarred oak surface was nearly obscured by paper in all shapes and sizes: letters, bills of lading, ledgers, books -- all held in place by paperweights, a wood-rimmed ashtray with four pipes resting in its glass bowl, and crowned by a brass green-shaded banker’s lamp. A large oak swivel chair was behind it, and two smaller ones at each side.
He motioned the men in, greeting them warmly and shaking their hands, always remembering their names even though it may have been a while, and they would sit down beside the desk, while he listened, the chair shifting slightly from side to side. Usually they needed work, or money, or a place to live, and he never let them leave empty-handed. When they rose to leave, they had a spot on one of tomorrow’s work crews, or a loan to tide them over, or the key to a house. There was a renewed confidence in their walk and a look of hope in their eyes that he’d somehow managed to dispense as well.
I would wait in the dark hallway until I heard the outer door shut and his sigh as he leaned back in this chair, and then I’d creep out quietly, always hoping to surprise him. He’d swing around and glower at me from under his bushy eyebrows, and then laugh and scoop me up to perch on the desk, my favorite spot in the world, beside my favorite person in it. He was a wizard, my grandfather, and the magical wonderful things he did for everybody seemed to emanate from that exact place.
He settled in the small Michigan town in the 1920’s after a tour of bridge-building across many of the rivers of the Midwest. After completing two bridges across the local big muddy, he’d married my grandmother (the very respectable daughter of one of the town’s founders) and settled down, opening a moving and storage company. What began with one truck blossomed into a Mayflower franchise, with many trucks, cavernous garages and a large payroll, which eventually included his sons. Americans were on the move, he said, and he was right. He bought real estate and owned quite a few houses in the town and small farms in the surrounding county, some as wise investments, and some he held the mortgages on because his lending guidelines were a little different than the bank’s. A man’s character and determination were Grandpa’s measuring sticks, not financial statements or the cut of a suit.
He bought a property near the end of the town’s Main Street, a zoning gray area between the end of the retail emporiums and the stately Victorians resting uneasily on their foundations, their tall windows like wary eyes, watchful of the commercial encroachment that wouldeventually swallow them up. The large two-story house that began its life as a lumber baron’s showpiece, along with its weed-choked grounds and dingy outbuildings, comprised the entire block. When the logging business waned, the house was sold and renovated into an inn, then turned into a notorious speakeasy and gambling club. Rumors were that feminine entertainment was available on the upper floor. Prohibition’s end and the decided lack of support from the city fathers closed it down, and until Grandpa came along, it was the town’s white elephant. He razed the outbuildings, and on the Main Street side of the block, built two large garages, a warehouse and an office with a glass storefront that proclaimed “Wixson Moving and Storage”. On the Ash Street side of the block was my grandmother’s domain, the old house restored to its former glory, with its porches, lawns and flowerbeds. These two worlds were connected in the middle by an outside tunnel and an interior hallway which led into a back pantry and kitchen, the heart of the house. The lifeblood of the family and the business flowed through these arteries. Family and friends were constantly coming and going here, and I spent more of my childhood in this wonderful house than in my own. My grandmother created an oasis of warmth and comfort and was a bastion of propriety while my sometimes unorthodox grandfather provided security and safety, not just for his own, but for anyone in need of it, and everyone in the whole town knew it. They repaid him not just in dollars but in many ways – baskets of brown eggs, still-warm loaves of bread, or bushels of apples would often be left on the front porch in the morning, or fresh-plucked chickens and a bottle of elderberry wine would appear before suppertime.
Whenever I wandered down Main Street to the bakery for fresh cherry tarts, or for a coke at the drugstore soda fountain with its black and white tiled floor and slow-turning ceiling fans, people would smile and greet me, and sometimes I would hear them whisper, “Ken’s granddaughter, you know”, and I would feel so proud and lucky that, indeed, I was. My problems were never too trivial for my grandfather. In the middle of a busy day, he accompanied me to the back garden to bury my kitten that had been run over on the street that morning. When my first front tooth was loose, he tied one end of a string to it and the other end to his office door. He gave the first surprised customer a moving discount for the dental assistance. When my mother was too busy with her committees to go to the park, he often filled in as the best swing pusher there. “Hold the fort”, he’d yell to his secretary and off we’d go, any protests at his absence cheerfully ignored. People became accustomed to the sight of the large man with the immaculate grey suit and fedora, cigar clenched between his teeth, mingling with the ladies and baby carriages on the park benches. Always by his side was Chum, a large black-and-tan German shepherd, who was was much more well-mannered than I was. Chum guarded my grandfather, his domain and all who dwelled therein, and always maintained his dignity, even when called upon to herd unruly children along city sidewalks.
Every weekday at noon on the dot, lunch was served and my grandfather would appear from the office, stretch his 6’4” frame, snap his red suspenders, kiss my grandmother and greet whoever else was on hand. People dropped in frequently, knowing this schedule, and enough food was always available, no matter how many arrived. There was a swinging door between the kitchen and dining room, a leftover from the speakeasy days, with its peephole still in place, and the door would busily swing to and fro as people came and went.
I often spent afternoons in the cavernous living room and front parlor, with its high molded ceilings and dark mysterious Persian rugs. In one corner, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined the walls, and it was here I met Robin Hood, Ivanhoe and Joan of Arc for the first time. Frequently grandpa came in to greet them again and read to me, and I could feel his deep voice rumbling in his chest as I sat in his lap, my head resting against his vest, swinging his pocket watch as I listened intently.
The best part of this house was all the nooks and crannies – a tiny rounded door under the back stairs that looked as though it had been made for gnomes but was really a closet, window seats and dormers everywhere, and a long, curved staircase in the entry hall with a gleaming mahogany banister, perfect for sliding if my grandmother wasn’t in the vicinity. The ultimate spot, however, was the spooky basement with its steep crooked stone stairs, brick walls and low ceilings. This basement had something truly unique, an underground passage that ran from the house out under Main Street to the river. An old dinghy rested on the bank at the mouth of tunnel, and perhaps bootleggers had used it to smuggle in booze from a boat on the river during Prohibition. My cousins and I discovered this leaky boat one rainy afternoon and thought we’d set sail for Treasure Island. (Grandpa had introduced us to Long John Silver, another old friend of his.) My grandfather caught wind of this scheme before we launched, and from that afternoon on, the river passage was declared off limits. Somehow he was always one step ahead of us. He would fire our imaginations and let us run wild with our fantasies, and magically save us from disaster in the nick of time. He was Tolkien’s Gandalf and he was invincible, and because of him, so were we.
Christmastime was the most special of all. For three weeks before, my mother and grandmother started assembling their annual baskets dragooning everyone in the household into service, even me. Some were destined to hold a holiday dinner with all the trimmings, others had clothes, toys and special gifts. If there was any family in need, my grandfather knew. “Tom’s son needs a winter coat,” he’d say, popping his head into the kitchen, or “Joe Miller broke his leg, so put in an extra ham,” or “the little Stewart girl should have a doll”, and those things went into the baskets or boxes, too. From firewood to mittens, fire engines to socks, mysteriously he knew who needed things and made sure they had them. On the morning of Christmas Eve, he would dispatch one of his trucks with two men to distribute the baskets, and we wouldn’t see them until dusk.
That evening, all the family, including many out-of-town relatives and guests gathered at the house, every room aglow with lights and candles. Everyone was dressed in holiday velvets and glitter, children running excitedly everywhere as adults talked and laughed. The long dining room table and sideboards would be laden with food, and the huge crystal punchbowl of Grandpa’s special rum eggnog needed frequent replenishing. This was not a family that did things by halves, and eating and drinking were two of their favorite pastimes, which led invariably to loving and fighting, which always spiced up the holiday festivities, especially for us children, who did not lead sheltered lives. Nooks and crannies made excellent hideaways, as did the hidden world under long tablecloths. My cousins and I would listen with glee to the grownups’ transgressions and usual chastisement when grandpa discovered their sins.
As the evening progressed, the excitement and anticipation grew. Then sleigh bells were heard outside, over the voices. Everyone rushed to the windows and the front porch, and there he would be. Santa Claus, his voice booming “Merry Christmases”, wore the bright red suit and had a snowy beard just as we imagined. His sleigh was pulled by horses (my uncles explained that reindeer were best in the air) with silver bells jingling on the reins and a mountainous sack full of presents and candy sitting on the seat. All the children ran to the sleigh and Santa laughed, greeted us by name (he was magical) and gave us candy canes while my uncles would carry the huge sack up to the porch. Then Santa would jingle his reins, say he had many more stops to make, and the horses trotted away, while he called “Merry Christmas” again in the frosty air. It was pure enchantment and we all believed in Santa (for had we not made his acquaintance?) long after our peers were disillusioned.
My grandfather gave me the gift of his magic and his love, and I was not alone. His generosity and belief in people’s innate goodness affected many lives forever in that small Midwestern town, and memories of him live on in many other hearts as well. He was Gandalf, Robin Hood, and King Arthur-- he was all those and more; best of all, he was my grandfather. Hardly a day goes by I don't think of him or something he taught me.