Welcome back, correction tape! Grandma Bonnie grew up in Moline, Wisconsin, where she learned to yodel in high school. Pops found this out for me last weekend, as he didn’t know the story either. It’s one of the stories we’d never asked about. Maria, Barb, and Joanne Ruef were three sisters from Switzerland who attended school with Grandma. Their parents spoke no English, and were kind to her, she remembers, but the three daughters spoke fluently. Best of all, they had a piano in their house.
There’s a cheese parade every year in Moline (because, of course there is), and Grandma had heard the three sisters yodel in performances for it.
“I heard ‘em do that with their voice and I thought, well, I can do that,” Grandma says. And so she did. She spent many days over at their house, playing the piano, singing, and learning to yodel. Pops asked if ‘Chime Bells’ was the only song she learned, but Grandma said no.
“I learned a few of them,” she said, “but ‘Chime Bells’ was always my favorite.”
Our days visiting Hardy were numbered, even if we didn’t know it. Howard’s son, Wayne, had moved to Iowa, and for the first time since their marriage, Bonnie and Howard had the opportunity to move to a location that would provide fairly easy access to visit both sides of their families. I’m not sure the exactly year they moved north, but if I was to guess, I would say about 1993. Arkansas will always be a place of wonderful memories, some I’ve managed to try and capture here, and others that are more fuzzy, and perhaps don’t even warrant a telling. But, in honor of a farewell to my experiences in Arkansas as a kid (as well as a really long day at work today), I’ll finish this portion with a few snippets.
There was the time Howard drove us to a freshwater spring, the first time I understood how a thick canopy of trees could hide the suffocating heat of the sun. Like two different worlds as I wove in and out of the shards of sunlight, the boiling clearings, the chilly shade. The stabbing pain of the cold water on my ankles, freezing me in my tracks a couple steps into the water. Shivering, shaking, even in that heat, being reminded that I was out of my element when I turned around to see Howard, socks off, pants rolled up to his knees to reveal stark white calves, wading out into the stream, pulling crawfish out from between the rocks to show me. The childish grin between his cheeks.
“Saw him crossin’ the road,” Howard told me as he opened the back door of his huge white car. “Figured I better bring him home ‘fore he got hit.” I shivered thinking about the large, flattened shell I’d seen on the road a few blocks from their home. There on the floor of the backseat was a cardboard box. Inside, its front legs attempting to climb up the side, was a turtle. Not large. Not small. It ducked its head inside the shell when I looked in. I hadn’t bit on the snake, but Howard was still game for getting me a pet. Pops and Howard had rescued him on their drive home from golf.
“Can I bring him home?” I asked my folks. My mother’s eyes said no, but her smile said yes. We would indeed bring the turtle back to Rockford with us that summer, in a small cooler where he proceeded to defecate for the entire trip home. And, by the way, in case you don’t know, turtle poop stinks. I would, in fact, name the turtle…Howard. I wish I could say he survived many years as a loyal pet, but, he didn’t. He did however, entertain me for some time, nibbling lettuce leaves, tomatoes, and crickets I caught in the basement.
We made one trip to Hardy for Christmas, flip-flopping our normal summer excursion for a winter one. I can remember the smallish tree they put up for the holiday, shorter than Grandma. Cooler temperatures than I expected. I’m fairly certain that it actually snowed, to the amusement of everyone in the neighborhood. Cold walks down country roads. A simple gift exchange. What I remember most from that trip was my sister getting sick. She’d spiked a fever, and had been complaining about pain in her back. It didn’t take long before my mother realized something was definitely wrong, the sweet concern in her eyes hardening to bulky uncertainty. I remember her frantic hands. Whispering with Pops away from us, thinking we couldn’t hear. She just didn’t have the things she needed. Didn’t have the right medicine. Didn’t have the right clinics or doctors. Didn’t even have a thermometer. Although someone nearby did, and for that, my mother would be endlessly thankful.
Lorraine had a thermometer, and made it possible to speed up the process of making our predicament a full-blown emergency. Kristy’s temperature had almost hit 105 by the time we jumped in the car and fled to the hospital. Everything was wrong. Kristy’s fiery personality had dulled. The roads were too numerous and narrow. Hospital was too far. The trees rushing past as I sat next to my sister made my stomach swirl. The damn slow way that the hospital workers operated and spoke. Scary words like ‘spinal meningitis’ floated around us. My mother, a nurse, rife with coworkers and friends whom she trusted to take care of my sister, was 500 miles away from them. A doctor in Jesus sandals with thick, gnarly toenails that curled around the edges of his toes like eagle talons didn’t make us feel any better, even though he was supposed to.
Hepatitis A. That’s what it turned out to be, though we wouldn’t be sure until she got home. Treatable. Muscles tense on the drive back to Grandma’s. Don’t move, they’d told her. Do not waste any energy unless you need to. Pops carrying her to the car. It was a long trip back north that year, marred by uncertainty and the fear of real sickness, which manifested itself, and also dissipated with a painful shot in the butt for everyone she’d been in close contact with…including Grandma and Howard.
I often smile at the things that deserve no story, but have a corner of my memory for Arkansas:
Buying baseball cards at the drug store.
Kristy sitting on a bee on a bench on Main Street. Screeching like a hawk.
Listening to outdoor old-timey music at some sort of open-air venue, surrounded by tall dark green trees. Night creeping down from above.
The rabbit that jumped perfectly straight up in the air about five feet high.
Flashes of story. Holding on, but retreating ever so slightly into darkness as I get farther away from them. In distance. In age. Tethered to one another by setting and character. Howard. Grandma Bonnie. Pops. My mother and sisters. Perry and Dorothy. The magic of how we all aligned to be in that place, where we spent a few weeks over the course a few summers, is hard to wrap my head around. But the simplicity of having experiences I’d never had, meeting people I’d never met, juggling amusement with boredom. That’s what I’ll take from Hardy.
That, and all genuine laughter it brought into our lives.