for Vicki and Dave
This is our mother and father. They are not smiling, gazing here into the future. It is 1946. They cannot know they will have much to be happy about so they wear gray suits—she with a hat with its hint of a veil and a corsage, he with a tie. Though he stares directly at us, his shoulder is turned toward her as if she holds his left hand in her lap, which we are not allowed to see. She, she is turned slightly to the southwest if behind them is due north. It is their wedding picture. You can tell there is affection between them but not for the world. She is thirty-three and he is forty. Each has been disappointed by love.
Here is a full-length shot of Karl, our mother’s father, slightly stooped, his fists jammed into his pants pockets to hold the tremors to a minimum. The sun is in his face, though he grins in our grandmother’s flower garden through which he shuffles as if to ward off the Parkinson’s. No one would know he’s over six feet. Big ears and a protruding lower lip, he knows something we do not. Always. He chews White Owls and you cannot beat him at checkers. We will see him later in the basement of the First Methodist Church in Pittsfield, Illinois standing behind a 50th wedding anniversary cake. He will be without open collar. Alta, whom he will not have been allowed to touch for the middle third of their marriage, will have dressed him. They will have, however, learned to love each other despite their anger. For the meantime he looks her right in the eye. He knows something, all right. He's always had her number. When we are kids we wear his cigar bands as though they are the insignia distinguishing us as agents of some mysterious order. In this overly exposed snapshot he wears his white hair. As one who knows, he is the White Owl. He will pass away with dignity, peacefully, in his sleep. His wife will be at his side.
Now here we have Alta at seventy-five, still radiant, a studio portrait, of whom her son-in-law, our father, once said, “She’s a high flying babe who never landed.” You know by her smile she buys big presents but would wrestle a bum for a quarter. You can hear the choir from three blocks away when she’s in town on a Sunday morning. She sang opera as a girl out of St. Louis when Karl, the grocer, snagged her off the tour. Therefore her God is song and entire congregations of Methodists have heard—if not seen—God. They think she is wonderful and so do we though they cannot possibly know the extent of our awe. When she came to live with us, a trial separation from her husband, she came to cook and clean. The house became the flower garden she left behind, the store, and the restaurant. How could our mother, with her father’s temperament, match her? Our mother would listen. And listen. And listen. Her mother was her mother.
Meet Amos in a rare pose without Grace, taken perhaps in the basement of the same First Methodist Church to which Karl and Alta belonged. Amos owned the other business in town—Moorman’s—having moved there off the farm for a better way of life in which there was time for the Bible, Zane Gray, his fellow Masons, and his wife, whom he would attend with the enthusiasm of a cabin boy and call “Kid” even into their eighties and who herself remained active in Eastern Star. He has the stern look of a man who will go far, having from so far away come, the deep lines in his face the mark of one destined for study, contemplation, and wisdom, while by day he tills a huge garden, makes wood, feeds the stove, and runs his bird dogs. He has the visage of a man who on the wall of his den there is an elephant gun. And there is.
One needs not know her name to see the resemblance—this daughter of Providence. With an innocence that caused her to gasp in the midst of her “story,” her soap opera, how she bore five children was a wonder. And that blond-red pair of halos wound and pinned above her head each morning, waist-length braids that once—visiting her house on a weekend, ready for bed—we got to unravel, help her brush twice one hundred. Absent from the portrait is her chair. Gone too to cedar chests are the elaborate doilies, the shawls, the sprawling white tablecloths she crocheted on her lap where she would lay the needles down in order to reach, to hold each face as we leaned, in turn, for a kiss. “How you wuz?” she would greet us, a playful chuckle as much an exclamation of how we had grown as it was a test of English. Grace, who as a young farm wife had an accident, who the last time she drove a car was her first, who “busted the barn door to boards,” winked Amos, whose mutual love of language would have her, she of the faint heart, out of breath, as if he knew her soft laughter were her calisthenics. Now, three decades after her death, as if leaning into a Degas, a memory comes to surface. As circumstance would have it in that small house, a grandson burst in upon her dressing before her mirror, nude. I tell you the way she did not flinch was pure Grace.
—Karl Elder, Howards Grove, WI