Aunt Eva’s Hands

This is the first photograph that I ever saw of my grandfather, Ralph James.

He is standing next to his older sister, Eva, in her kitchen in Flint, Michigan, sometime in the 1950s. Their youngest brother, Bill, who is visiting from Virginia, stands beside them.

If you knew my father—and to a lesser degree, me—you would instantly recognize the man on the right as our ancestor. That smirk, the way he pulls down his chin and sets his jaw, is exactly how my father smiles when a camera is pointed at him or after he says something he finds particularly witty. The half-moons under his eyes reflect back to me every night when I look in the mirror. His one bony knuckle at the base of his middle finger is my one bony knuckle.

It’s easy to understand why this photo was special to me when I received it. But I’d like to tell you why it’s still special to me a decade later.

As I mentioned, I had never seen my grandfather before receiving this photo. At the time it was taken, Ralph James was father to 4 children, none of whom he had custody over. His eldest daughter lived with her mother, Ralph’s first wife, in Iowa. Ralph’s younger children—my father and his siblings—were taken by the courts when they were small.

As an adult, Dad didn’t know much about Ralph. He knew Ralph was from Council Bluffs, Iowa, because Aunt Eva, the woman in the photo, had maintained a distant relationship with him as he grew up. Its with that information that I started researching the rest of the family.

Over the years, I’ve found out Ralph’s father, Noah, had also been an alcoholic. Noah spent his meager income as a cabinet maker getting blitzed, forcing his wife to scramble in order to feed their eight children. The kids went hungry often. Newspaper articles informed me that Ralph’s first wife had divorced him twice for domestic abuse. When I told Dad that, he said he did remember Ralph getting rough with his mother. A cousin recently told me that Ralph’s eldest daughter traveled to Flint about the time that this photo was taken. When she returned from that trip, she decided to never talk to Ralph again. In 1972, Ralph died penniless, forcing my dad, who had remained estranged from him, to pay for the burial.

The more research I did, the worse Ralph looked. Arrests, abandonment, blame. There were so many reasons to believe he was a broken, miserable soul. I convinced myself he was a loser, and he very well might have been.

But take a look at the photo again.

Find Eva’s hands.

See how tightly she’s clutching Ralph’s waist? See how my grandfather’s hand rests on his brother’s shoulder? There was love there.

As I mentioned, I know that look on my grandfather’s face. I’ve seen it on my dad’s face; I’ve probably made it myself.

Actually, I know I have. It’s the face I make when I’m proud. And that’s why this photo has remained special to me over the years. In that moment . . . with his family . . . Ralph James, my derelict grandfather, was proud. He was wanted. With this image, there is a possibility in my mind that he was more than the papers I’ve dug up on him and the stories I’ve heard. Oh, he made unforgivable mistakes, absolutely. His decisions or his lack of making decisions very much shaped my father’s life. And my own. Thankfully, it turned out positively for me and my brothers. Because of Ralph, my father set a goal to be present and reliable, to swear off drinking. A goal Ralph could never manage in his 66 years on this planet. Though, I should mention, toward the end he tried to fix things with my dad. He did try.

But back to the photo and that smirk on Ralph’s face. Back to the fierceness with which his sister clutches him. The camera captured them in dual acts of defiance. Their eyes speak volumes: “Yeah. Go ahead and take my picture. Let people judge me. Who are they to me, anyhow? My family still stands beside me, and the world can’t possibly know what we’ve been through.”

Henry Ford’s Brain

It seems like at the end of every episode of Finding Your Roots or Who Do You Think You Are? each guest tells the host or the person holding the camera that they have a different sense of themselves after finding out they are Arcadian or they are related to William the Conqueror. It’s my favorite part of the show because I came to those same conclusions, although there were no cameras to capture it. I felt that same inner light when I learned who my people were and how I got here. A certain kind of relief comes with the knowledge that who you are isn’t entirely your responsibility, that the chapter you are writing of your life isn’t the first in the book.

I definitely started my own research looking for my place, trying to find out where I belonged, and I quickly learned that I owe my entire existence to Henry Ford. Before the auto industry, my foreparents were scattered in Upstate New York, Ontario, the boot-heel of Missouri, and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

My New York relatives, the Wilsons, were the first to settle near Flint. They were farmers who were pushed out of the Rochester, New York, area due to a population boom and a land shortage. Thomas Wilson moved his family to New Lothrop, Michigan, using the money he received fighting and being injured in the Civil War. By 1920, all of his grandsons were employed in the factories or in auto-related businesses in Flint.

The Harburns, my Canadian family, immigrated to Flint in 1919. Having been farmers of flowers in Hensall, Ontario, they moved to Flint to become the official florists of the Ford Motor Company. It was just after Teddy Roosevelt and his conservationist movement took hold in the United States. The auto industry was getting flak from residents of the city for polluting the Flint River. Ford Motor Company hired my family to refute the conservationists’ claims. The Harburns were given a deal on a small white house just a little downriver from a car plant and grew the flowers for the company’s corporate events. The company hoped to prove the purity of the river with my family’s success. Unfortunately, it worked. Growing up, I only associate that river with stink. Swimming there was always considered a feat of daring; eating fish from there was downright nuts.

My Missouri folks, the Romines, had been struggling for decades to make a living by farming near Parma and Malden. It was the Depression when my 2nd great-grandfather moved up to Flint because of Ford’s promise of jobs. Once my 2nd great-grandfather was established, my great-grandfather followed, leaving behind his young family and marrying his second wife. Abandoned by her father, my grandmother left her own family in Missouri to find her dad. This abandonment was the end (thankfully!) of a long pattern in the Romine line.

The Jameses had been living in Council Bluffs, Iowa, since the 1870s. All but two of the eight siblings stayed there. My grandfather followed his older sister to Flint in 1941 after going through a bitter divorce and being fired from his job as county engineer in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). His sister owned several bars in Flint, and he was made a bartender in one of them. That’s how he met my grandmother, who worked as a cook in a restaurant that catered mostly to factory workers.

Henry Ford. As far as I know, I have no relation to him, but he was absolutely responsible for putting my grandparents in the same place at the same time. Before learning this, I’d never thought twice about cars or the role the grubby factories we passed along the highway played in the history of my family and virtually every other family near me.

Writing this for Amy Johnson Crow’s #52Ancestors.

Photo is of my grandmother, Bernice Wilson, posing in front of the family car c. 1932.

The Woman Who Died More Than Once

If my father heard me tell you that his mother died twice, he’d rock back on his heels, dip his chin so the tip of his cotton swab beard glanced off his sternum, and declare that she died all of three times. He would not elaborate. As you can imagine, these stories are not pleasant to recall; he rarely brings his mother up in conversation. Growing up, I don’t remember ever hearing her name.

Our differing sums can be attributed to absence. I forget about the first time my grandmother died because it happened before I was born. Unfortunately, all of this means you must rely on me to tell you stories of which I only hold shards. I will do my best.

In 1951 my father was 7 years old and his brother and sister, the twins, were 6. They were sitting or playing or napping in a house across town from the courtroom in which my grandparents slouched. A stoic judge restated the charges of The State of Michigan v. James and Romine, which I imagine includes public nuisance and several counts of child neglect. The case ended with the word guilty and three swift knocks of a gavel. Later in the week, a social worker came to the house, gathered the three children’s belongings, and drove them to three different houses full of strangers: foster families. And on his third or fourth night in the new house when my dad was lonely and confused and crying, his foster mother peeked into the room and told him that she was all he had, his mother would not be back. That was her first death.

The other deaths begin with phone calls placed to my father from strangers claiming to be relatives. The first one happened in 1983 and went something like this:

“This is your niece. My name is Karen*.”

“What can I do for you, Karen?”

“I thought you should know your mother has cancer. They caught it late. Things aren’t looking too good.”

“Thanks for telling me. I’m sorry for the people who care for her, but I do not count myself among them. Goodbye.” Dad hung up believing that was that.

The second phone call was less abrupt. It happened in the summer of 1989.

“This is your Aunt Loretta,” a woman said by way of a greeting.

“I didn’t know I had an Aunt Loretta.”

“Yes, well, this is her. Your mother is sick and she’s asking for you. She doesn’t have much time left.”

“You must be mistaken. My mother died years ago.”

“No. She’s had cancer before, a couple of times in fact. But she never let it kill her until now. Will you come?”

“I’m sorry, but there has been a mistake because my mother has never once wanted to see me.”

“Well, there’s nothing I can do to change that, but I’m telling you now that your mother is dying and she wants to see you.”

Dad didn’t go.

Two years ago, I connected with Karen’s daughter on Facebook. We got together for dinner one night. I was nervous; she was the first relative on that side of my family I had ever met. I wanted it to go well. I wanted her to answer questions I’ve had simply with her presence. At some point, I started describing my dad, her grand-uncle, but she stopped me mid-sentence. She told me she’d met my dad at a wake, Dad’s mother’s, in 1989. He never told us he’d gone.

My mind reeled to think what I was doing that day. I would have been 15, preoccupied by marching band practices and pool parties at friends’ houses. But even if I hadn’t been a self-absorbed teenager I still would not have known of his loss. He kept his family secrets. I resented his attitude then; I always felt like he was withholding himself. Now I understand that it was protection. It was my father’s determination to leave his past behind, to give his sons a less complicated family life.

I know facts about my grandmother now. I know her name was Mary Louise Romine. She was born in Parma, Missouri, in 1918. She was the oldest daughter of Clayton Romine and Elizabeth Lewis. She moved to Flint, Michigan, sometime around 1940 and eventually became the head cook of Higgins Restaurant on Corunna Road. She died on November 18, 1989, near Otisville, Michigan. I’ve been given pictures of her. She is the woman on the far left of the picture in the polka dot dress.

She is the woman who died not twice, but three times. She is the woman who profoundly hurt my father, but she is also the woman who directly shaped my father’s attitude toward his own family, made him want the opposite of what he had. She is a key reason I had a stable and loving childhood, and for that I begrudgingly thank her.

*names of living people are changed

Car Folk

When I first started renting cars to drive back home, my parents and my brothers would scoff at the foreign ones. I quickly became the car rental agent’s worst nightmare because I would only rent during holidays—read in: the busiest times— and I would have to refuse the Jettas and Bugs they offered me. “I’m sorry, sir,” I’d say, “but could you please yank that nice family out of the Buick? You would not believe the amount of grief I will get if I drive this Camry into my parents’ driveway.” It was a pain, but it saved me from a lot of grief.

My parents and brothers are car folk, and judging by the recurrent theme in these old family photos, they weren’t the only ones in my family. Car folk are pretty common where I’m from. Flint, Michigan, is, after all, the birthplace of General Motors. Every adult I knew growing up was either a “shop rat” or had a job related to the auto industry. Shouting obscenities to the obvious outsiders driving Volkswagens and Subarus was an everyday occurrence. While watching TV once, I remember asking my mom why there wasn’t a cake of Lava soap and a stiff bristled brush next to Roseanne’s kitchen sink. Where did the Connors scrub the oil from their fingernails?

Looking back, it’s obvious that the auto industry was inherent to the economy, the culture, hell, even the religion of Flint, but I didn’t get it when I lived there. To me, cars were like washcloths— just things, identical but for color, that I used when I needed and then immediately forgot.

But I get it now— my ancestors’ desire to be photographed with their cars, my hometown’s fierce loyalty to an industry that took as much as it gave. These pictures of my grandfather, my grandmother, and my great-granduncle were taken at a time when cars were the newest things under the Sun. My family was still basking in the afterglow of the conveniences their automobiles afforded them. No more isolated farm lives for them. New possibilities were springing up like tulips as far as they could see.

Not only that, my relatives knew the people who made their sleek and shiny status symbols. They were family, friends, and neighbors. Cars weren’t just machines; they were products of the community.

My relatives were proud of their beautiful machines and what owning them meant. You can see it in my grandfather’s straight-backed posture as he sits on the hood, in my great-granduncle’s reach toward a fender as if it were his son’s shoulder, and in my grandmother’s cocked hip and tilted gaze.

Being carless in the city these past thirteen years has helped me appreciate them as my relatives did. I love the novelty of driving now. I appreciate having a trunk to put my groceries in when I have one, and the added bonus of being able to drive them home, too. I appreciate being able to have a conversation while traveling without worrying about the thirty sets of strangers’ ears that are listening. Carrying keys in my hand connects me to my family, my past. And now when I walk into the rental agency, I request the American car up front knowing the tremendous role my family and my hometown played in history.

Get Well Soon

Everything hurt—chewing, coughing, breathing even—so between the nurses’ questions about pain levels and decreasing dosages, I occupied myself by staring at the television. The Streets of San Francisco was on. Steve Keller was chasing a bad guy across a parking lot. Rosalyn, my wife, must have gone down to make a call, and I was alone when Albert walked into my room.

“Look at you. That contraption you’re in makes you look like a robot. You ain’t auditioning to be the next ‘Six Million Dollar Man,’ are you?” He was talking about my back brace. He stopped a few feet short of my bed and waited for a reply. His bell-bottomed slacks cinched below the volleyball of his belly and pooled at his loafers. He looked ridiculous.

But instead of telling him so, I dryly said, “You should have called an ambulance” and moved my eyes back to the tv.

“You know why I didn’t.”

“They’re medics, not policemen. All they would have asked you to do is point to where I was.”

Albert had been in and out of jail since I was the size of a quarter: theft, public intoxication, child neglect. He didn’t like policemen, so after watching me fall off the roof, he got in his car and drove until he found someone else to deal with me. Yet another example of my father’s problems taking priority over my well being.

“I’d have had to file a report, wouldn’t I?”

“People don’t know about your record unless you tell them, you know. I can’t believe you just left me there. What if I’d died?”

“Stop being over-dramatic. You were breathing. You hadn’t broken anything. Rosalyn was only down the street, so I went and got her. I figured she’d want to ride with you.”

I had been re-roofing the house. Albert was there helping me as part of a reward system we’d worked out. He started calling me about five years ago to apologize and ask to be a part of my life. I eventually gave him the chance to prove it. He sobered up; I started acknowledging his presence. He managed to stay out of jail for a year; I invited him to dinner, and so on. It had taken him three years to work up to being my assistant carpenter.

“You should have forgotten yourself for a second and called a damn ambulance.”

“You only fell fifteen feet. And you got here, didn’t you? Besides, you’ve always been good at taking care of yourself.”

“No thanks to you, Dad.” I sneered. “I had to learn to take care of myself because my parents were too lit to feed me. You know, I was talking to Carol a few weeks ago and she told me this cute story from when I was young. Seems she found me on a kitchen counter one morning chowing down on some dry spaghetti noodles. When I asked her how old she thought I’d been, do you know what she said?”

Albert was so silent that, even through my anger and the pain medication,  I registered the tinkling of a commercial jingle playing on the television. I’d never brought up the bad years before; he didn’t know how to respond.

“She said I was five months old. Have you ever heard of a baby so young being able to climb onto a countertop? I must have been pretty motivated to get up there, huh? Bet I was hungry, and I bet I had to learn real quick that in order to stop the hunger I needed to climb counters and open cabinets. So, fuck you, Dad, for teaching me the hard way that I only have myself to rely on.”

I don’t know if it was the anger, the concussion, or the medication, but a wave of nausea overtook me. I grabbed the bed pan. When I finished, I saw the back of him turn out of my room. It was just like him to leave when someone was holding him accountable for something.

 
*****
This story is very loosely based on family folklore.

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*Respectful and constructive criticism is always appreciated.

Cupboards Filled with Cookie Tins

This is Part 4 of my series of interconnected short stories about my grandparents’ wedding day. You can start from the beginning here, but you don’t have to do all that reading to follow along in this story.

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Nelson had wanted his brother’s shop in Flint– the one he helps out at– to provide the flowers for today, but decided to ask his sister, Jennie, to fill the order instead. Her shop was much closer. She and Merrill ran the large greenhouses just over on Coutant Street in town. His brother got his flowers from Merrill, so either way Nelson was still supporting his family’s small empire of dirt and bulbs.

Can you imagine committing yourself to the same plot of land for 54 years?
Jennie Harburn jumped from one family of florists to another when she married Merrill Bump in 1927. The Flushing Florist still stands today in my hometown.

He imagined his sister earlier this morning, her hair hanging loose and inches above her narrow shoulders. The bob she wore remaining perfectly quaffed despite the hard labor required of her job. Every day, she wore her uniform of a simple white cotton blouse and a powder blue A-line skirt around the shop–presentable, but easily washed when the inevitable dousing of water or dirt occurred.

Nelson knew his older sister’s routine. She surely would have helped her husband with the day’s load and it would be a large one today being so close to Mother’s Day. She would put the flowers he had purchased in the space behind the driver’s seat, so she could check on them from the passenger’s seat, making sure they didn’t tip on the ride over. Then she and Merrill would fill up the truck with the rest of the orders. Knowing Jennie she hummed a hymn as Merrill drove them to each stop, and, eventually, to Minnie and Fred’s home tucked back from the road where Nelson stood now.

As Nelson walked closer to the kitchen, the combination of smells of the flowers, whatever was cooking in the oven, and his own nervousness made him feel sick to his stomach. He stepped through the narrow threshold of Minnie’s kitchen, the cloying aroma of flowers fell away to a thick smell of ham. He saw the backside of a man, Minnie’s father, stooped over the oven door, basting the ham with either pale maple syrup or dark pineapple juice. Nelson said hello and then wondered if he should start calling the older man Pawpaw like Bernice did.  But, Mr. Porterfield . . . Pawpaw being 74 with ears to match didn’t hear him. Nelson knocked on the counter to announce his arrival in the room. Pawpaw turned his head to the left, gave a quick nod to Nelson, and went right back to ladling juices over the ham using a large wooden spoon.

“Grab me a knife, young man, would you? Before my daughter walks in and insists each part of this hog go into separate tins!” In order to hear himself, Pawpaw tended to shout. Pawpaw? Mister Pawpaw? He felt absurd even thinking about calling another man Pawpaw.

“I was just wondering, sir, if you had any preferences on what I should call you. That is, now that I’ll be a part of your family.”

“Yes! It’s the second drawer to the left of the sink!” Pawpaw said, pointing to the only drawer that was ajar in a horizontal row of identical white drawers.

Nelson opened the drawer further to find long, thin cracker tins wedged neatly into one another in order to fit the space. None of the tins had lids, but every last one of them was full to brimming with silverware, sorted according to their use. It looked like one of those children’s games where a picture is cut up into squares with one piece missing and you’re supposed to move the pieces around until the picture is whole again. The empty space in the drawer contained a small rolling pin. He found the carving knife in a tin along the left of the drawer.

Steep cupboard kitchen popular in the 1930sAfter carefully handing off the knife to the other man, Nelson looked around the rest of the large kitchen. He’d been in the house twice before—to plan for the wedding and to bring his and Bernice’s parents together to meet—but he was struck again by the conscripted order of the room. He knew if he were to open the steel cupboards he would find a similar display of perfectly aligned coffee and cookie tins spaced evenly apart. He knew this because his mother had asked Minnie about her caliber of cleanliness when they had visited. Minnie just said it was the only way she could think of to “ward off her husband’s tendency toward clutter” and looked over at her husband with a playful air. To which Mr. Wilson, in his low growl of a voice, responded, “Don’t let her fool you; she’d never tolerate being married to an untidy man.”

Minnie’s smile stretched to her dimples as she said, “It’s true. Fred comes back behind me and cleans up what I missed.” Then she placed her hand on his forearm and moved the conversation toward the new pastor of their church. Later that night, after the dishes were washed and the playing cards were put back in Fred’s rolltop desk, after the Harburns said their thank yous and their goodbyes, after they got in the car waving to their hosts on the porch, Nelson’s mother leaned back toward Nelson and marvelled out of the corner of her mouth about the time and energy it must take that couple to maintain the pristine condition of the old porcelain sink or the perfect bunting-shape of the tea towels on the rack underneath it.

And today standing in the middle of it once again, Nelson thought, the towels, the sink, the whole kitchen looked as if it hadn’t been used since that day months ago, except for one glaring difference: the cutting board on the hoosier bowed under the burden of plate upon plate of cakes, cookies, and tarts.

The Corsage

Start at the beginning of this story: Ties.

Read Part 2 of this story: The Jitters.

++++++ PART 3 ++++++++

“Oh, Nelson, there you are,” Minnie said, as if he’d been hiding from her all morning. She held out the corsage for him, and he took it.

“Good morning, Mrs. Wilson.”

“I thought it would be nice if you pinned it on her. A break in tradition, of course, but so is your seeing Bernice before the ceremony.”

“She’s calling it an elopement,” he said to ease the sting he sensed in her voice, “but I suppose it’s not really one if everyone already knows about it, is it?”

Minnie ignored the question. Nelson cleared the smile from his face and looked down at the flowers in his hand. He immediately regretted mentioning it. Their decision to be married in Indiana must have been the reason for Minnie’s countenance in the window. Probably she’d prefer their wedding take place in the Baptist church in town. A church as full of flowers as friends and their pastor presiding over the ceremony. Certainly, that’s what Minnie would prefer. Nelson looked back up at his fiancee’s mother and was surprised to find a small smile on her face.

“We spent all morning on Bernice’s hair, Wilma and I. It seems to be as stubborn as she is. Of course she wanted to look in the mirror and fuss over it herself, but I stood between her and the mirror so Wilma’s work would be a surprise. She’s nervous, Bernice is, she’s never been one to want attention, not like her sister. Well, you know that, of course, otherwise you would have decided to keep the wedding here . . . Look at you! You look fine, just fine. That vest, is it new? Seems like I would have seen it at church if it weren’t.”

The Durant Hotel, largest hotel in Flint at the time, named after the founder of General Motors, William C. Durant.
The Durant Hotel, largest hotel in Flint at the time, named after the founder of General Motors, William C. Durant.

“It is new, yes.” Nelson said, slightly disappointed that his hand-me-down vest was noticed but not his tie.

“Are you hungry? I’ve made a cake, Wilma’s whipping up eggs for us now, the dear, and Father just brought over a ham that would put the chef at The Durant to shame. He seems in better spirits today. He has his ups and his downs, you know. It was hard enough to lose my mother; seeing him dowse about in his grief all day may be harder still. Some days I have to pull him by his shirtsleeves out of that house of his. Of course, having him right next door keeps him from loneliness. I feel like a pest to him, but I do have to shake him about from time to time or he’d sit by the fire with his bowie and his twigs till services come Sunday.”

“It’s good that you do, ma’am.”

“Oh, Nelson, thank you for saying so. But, we’re to focus on happier things today, aren’t we? We should get you in to see everyone. Your family came by this morning with impressive zinnias and hyacinth, and Bernice’s bouquet? It’s gorgeous, just gorgeous. Between the flowers and the ham, my nose just doesn’t know what to follow. Now what’s taking her so long?”

Nelson followed Minnie into the house. Minnie continued down the hallway that led to the bedrooms—he assumed to check in with Bernice—leaving him in the parlor for a moment alone.

Jennie had indeed come by. A smell of the flowers had nudged him at the door, he had thought it was Minnie’s perfume. So it was a bit of a surprise to see the parlor erupting in vases of flowers—on top of the china cabinet in the corner, the side table next to Fred’s favorite chair, the low buffet along the window displaying all the pictures of the family, any flat surface had a vase. Some even had two or three. For a room so full of fresh flowers, the smell was not cloying. Probably because it was early May after a cold April. In a month when the flowers were more mature, the pollen would absolutely saturate the room, even now the sweetness was strong enough to make him pause.

He imagined these flowers hanging on the walls in the church, wreaths on every pew, every pew full of their family. He imagined the bouquet in Bernice’s hand. And then he remembered the corsage Minnie had given him at the door, still in his own hand. He placed it on the table with the pictures, moving two vases of flowers aside and picking up the photo nearest him. It was of the family, back when Bernice, Wilma, and George were still in grade school.

Minnie, on the bottom right of the picture, looked pretty in a way young mothers tend to be—self-assured, ready for whatever’s next, necessary. Wilma stood in the back on the left, her hair draped and pinned creating a veil over her left eye. George’s thin eyebrow cocked at exactly the same angle as his father’s beside him. His hand rested self-consciously on Fred’s shoulder: a pose that would never occur without the suggestion of a professional photographer.

And his Bernice, in her circular glasses set askew on her nose, her mouth pursed, her head angled slightly to the right toward her younger sister. Shoulder-to-shoulder, the sisters looked as if they may have been haggling for the center of the portrait a few moments before the picture was taken. It occurred to Nelson that this was his first look at his bride on their wedding day: a modest picture of an 11-year-old girl with the same unblinking look that had flashed on her face when he first suggested she marry him.

circa 1922
The Wilsons, circa 1922

 

The Jitters

The first chapter of this story can be found here: Ties.

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The sedan sputtered because of the series of divots the spring storms pounded into Potter Road. He’d need to check the suspension before setting off for Indiana later. But once Nelson had passed the Conoco station and turned left onto Dillon, he heard the engine ease back into a sturdier rhythm, and he relaxed his grip on the steering wheel.

Conoco Station, Flushing, Michigan, circa 1929 - source: gaspumps.info
Conoco Station, Flushing, Michigan – source: gaspumps.info

Pulling into the driveway, he saw his soon-to-be parents-in-laws’ faces in the front window. The morning sun illuminated them. Minnie was saying something to her husband, Fred, her chin pointed toward her shoulder, but her eyes looked directly out the window at Nelson’s Chevrolet rolling to a stop.  She wore a red cardigan, and a skirt with a vaguely floral pattern of red and light green. Her hair was twisted back into a loose bun; she’d obviously been cooking recently.

Minnie’s right hand held the lace curtain to the side. The glare off the window blurred the line between her cuff and the curtain. To him, it looked as though her sleeve dripped with lace, like the overstated frocks Queen Victoria wore in her portraits. He imagined Minnie with a crown and a choking collar, but the image didn’t hold. Although she didn’t look too friendly just then, he knew Minnie to be down-to-earth, not at all a queen.

Nelson’s stomach lurched as he pressed down on the brakes. He could gauge Minnie’s tone of voice by the way Fred was standing behind her and to her left frowning: she was getting her way about something. Fred’s already arched eyebrow curled even higher. His eyes moved from Nelson’s car, past the houses across the street to the manicured Michigan fields of young soybeans and corn. Nelson was sure Fred was thinking of his fields, of the quiet, hard work of the farm to be done after the percussions of this morning. Nelson had always felt he had that in common with Fred: an appreciation for action over words.

Nelson jittered out of the car much like the engine of his Chevrolet sputtered. He checked the front wheel, patted the hood twice—all to prepare himself to be the center of attention for the day. It was a role he was not comfortable with; a role he would usually avoid. He looked up at the window again to smile or wave—a conscious decision to start the day out well—but saw that his fiancee’s parents had disassembled their tableau in the window and that Wilma and her husband, George, were seated around the dining room table. A pink and thickly frosted cake sitting between them. No sign of Bernice. He wished she’d been waiting for him on the porch. He felt like he needed her as a buffer, having never been around her family before without her. No occasion to until today.

He heard the side door open. Footsteps on the stoop. Minnie, holding a corsage of lavender zinnias and lilies-of-the-valley, was the first to greet him.

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The folklore of our family members meeting their in-laws can give great insight into all of their personalities. Do you have any good stories about these occasions in your family tree?

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Read Part 3: The Corsage.

Ties

Flushing, Michigan
May 1934

Nelson remembered to slow down before he came up on the Wilson’s house. He swerved between the patches of loose dirt to avoid kicking up dust. Starting this particular day out with dust on his clothes wouldn’t bode well for what was to come. He drove his Ford dressed in his finest clothes—a crisp, gray tweed suit he had bought with his first paycheck from the plant, a navy vest inherited when his younger brother stopped boxing and found that his clothes no longer fit, and a brand new tie.

He and his fiancee had discussed the necessity of a frugal wedding, but he just couldn’t bear the idea of walking down the aisle without something new. A keepsake of his life before marriage and family.

A few days before, he had driven down an entirely different street for Bernice. It was after a morning shift at the plant. He had stopped by his brother’s flower shop. He was helping his mother and sister-in-law unwrap the newest shipment of flowers from the farm when he mentioned his want of a symbolic tie. They tried to convince him he needed a woman’s touch.

“Bernice will be disappointed if the tie didn’t match exactly.”

“Men just don’t know how to dress themselves anymore.”

“Your mother and I can find you a deal and anyway it’s slow here.”

It was five days before Mother’s Day, just before the rush. After several minutes of debate though, he pinned up the argument with “Honestly. You two make it sound as if I’d show up to the church in just my stocking feet if you didn’t go with me.”

“It’s not far-fetched. Your brother nearly did,” Elsie said, cackling as she reached for the list of the day’s orders, and Nelson knew the subject was settled. They wouldn’t insist, and he was glad for that. He was 33-years-old; he’d soon be the head of a household. Making the purchase himself would be the first act he’d commit for the sake of his wife. Besides the proposal, of course.

The Harburns traded employment from one definition of plant to another when they moved to Flint.
A few of the Harburn men traded working with plants to working in a plant when they moved to Flint. Flint City Directory, 1931

He decided to drive the six blocks from the flower shop to the clothing store. Driving felt more formal to him and formality was what the occasion called for.  He sidled his car in between the other Fords along Saginaw Street, turned off the engine, and joined the spattering of people on the sidewalks. It was a Thursday afternoon and the first day of the year so far that the light breeze didn’t carry a twinge of moisture in it. The office workers from the bank were enjoying their lunches sitting on the benches scattered throughout the park across the street. The people and the flowers in the beds beside them pointed in the same direction– facing the sun, letting it nourish and warm them. These were the unwitting audience members of his processional.

"To suit every man's needs."
“To suit every man’s needs.”

He walked straight into Crawford & Zimmermans to the display of neckties. They were folded elegantly in six vertical lines across the broad plain of a cedar table. Each line of ties pointed with their ends in opposite directions, right then left then right again, as if ties could show modesty. The effect made the customer’s eye following the arrows to the finely-made suitcoats and felt hats that surrounded them.

Nelson thought a scarlet tie with a white maple leaf pattern would be best. The colors and pattern represented his native country. The maple leaf further added a sense of stability and growth he thought appropriate for one beginning his husbandhood. But there was a solidity to the tie with cream diagonal stripes trekking across a navy field that reminded him of the stars and stripes. He quickly decided since marriage was a commitment to the future, never the past, the navy and cream tie was the better choice.

He folded back the ties atop the navy blue one, plucked it from the series, and carefully reset the pattern to cover the gap he’d made. His decision was over before Mr. Crawford’s son, who had been occupied by a somber, walrus-mustached customer, could even make a salesman-like suggestion. When Nelson looked up, young Crawford was standing on the other side of the table from him.

“Ah, a man with aim, I see.” Mr. Crawford held out his hand to take the tie. “May I interest you in a homburg or a navy kerchief to match, sir?”

“No. Just the tie presently, thank you.”

Nelson smirked, more to himself than to Mr. Crawford, both his heels left the floor for a split second. Quick and concisely done, he thought as he opened his wallet and gave the man three coins, and this is how it begins.

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It’s funny how the little things in life can signify such momentous occasions. Are there any similar stories like my grandfather’s marriage tie in your family tree?

Read the next ‘chapter’: The Jitters.