Wayne was kind enough to send me a picture of the old sign that Grandma and Howard had sitting outside their homes in Hardy and Freeport. Howard freshened it up over the years, painting over the part that read “Hardy” once they moved north.
Freeport provided a whole new world of adventures for Howard and Grandma. They settled in quickly, taking advantage of the pieces of town that appealed to their favorite past times. New golf courses with names like Wolf Hollow and Park Hills. New restaurants and shopping centers to explore. Shopko. Homemade pies at The Beltline Cafe. It makes sense that Grandma enjoyed her time returning to Freeport. Her parents are buried nearby, and she could visit them regularly with my folks when they came to visit. Hazel would be close to her again, as I mentioned in an earlier post. They began their own traditions. Thursdays, she would take Hazel to the store to get groceries. The store names changed over the years, as did their stature, but their laughter remained energetic and steady. Shopko became Walmart. Hazel’s walker becoming as common as her purse. On Saturdays they would eat dinner together at Hazel’s apartment, and Grandma would dust for her (she hated dusting). Then they would enjoy watching musical acts together, flipping the tv channels until they found The Lawrence Welk Show on PBS.
My Grandmother was a stand-up comedian compared to Hazel. A larger, more rigid woman than Bonnie, Hazel was all business, and not afraid to speak her mind. But there was comedy, even in that. The way her somber presence set her forehead and eyebrows like a parking lot and wheel stops, begging to be challenged. There was amusement in her seriousness, which tickled my father and Bonnie both, Howard loving the opportunity to get her going.
“Now Hazel, I don’t think that there’s a rose next to the porch,” he would start, looking at a picture of her old home, challenging a story she’d told, trying to get her goat. Her eyes would swell, fist extending a single index finger with which to jab her response. And Howard would smile behind the photograph like a little boy while she came at him with barbed words.
“Of course, it is,” she would bark at him. “I planted that myself, Howard,” she would say. “You don’t think I know what a rose looks like?!” She knew what he was doing, but loved to argue back at him just as much as he enjoyed teasing her.
“Well, if you say so,” he would say sigh in his casual way, moving on to another picture.
I believe there was something beyond the simplicity of being nearer to family that brought Grandma back to Freeport. A short, 35 mile drive from Rockford was nice, but I think it was more than that. Something in the earth itself. There’s something comforting about the slightly varying elevation of rich, fertile earth to most Midwesterners, whether they want to admit it or not. In my own travels across this country, I have often been stunned by places that boast real elevation changes, the highways that carve their way through valleys and mountains in the rural Northeast, the narrow roads that trace the edges of cliffs in the Pacific Northwest. The unbelievable angles of streets in parts of downtown Seattle. The hilly farmland in Stephenson County around Freeport is nothing like these natural wonders, and certainly cannot match their majesty, but, as much as it aggravated me as a kid, I feel the pull of its simple brush strokes, it’s endless horizon, now that I’m older. Simplicity. Definitely representative of its name. America’s Heartland. It stunned me, years later, when I realized it, on a road trip with Pops, feeling at home in a place I’d never even been.
The music continued, too. Not just for family and friends, but Grandma and Howard continued playing together, mostly in places like church basements and nursing homes around Freeport and its smaller surrounding towns. Lena. Pearl City. Baileyville. They would play for an hour or two, running through a set of those vintage, familiar songs that the older crowd could sing, hum, or tap their foot to. Howard would get the older ladies riled up, much like he did with Hazel, making up birthday songs on the spot, using their names and simple descriptions of the clothing they wore to personalize it. Always the showman. Always listening. Watching. Looking for something he could use to get a laugh.
“Grandma couldn’t read music,” my father reminded me this morning on the phone. I’d remembered hearing that a long time ago, and thought about including it, but I didn’t want to mention something so startling without knowing for sure.
“Yeah,” he continued. “She still has her old music book she used when they played. I’m sure she’s still got it. All she had was the key Howard wanted her to play it in. It was penciled in at the top of the page. And she played the rest by ear.”
Which oddly seems to make perfect sense for this duet.
A man who could hold a room captive with stories and songs improvised on the spot with nothing but his playful wit, backed by his wife, who played the piano, but couldn’t read music.
A whole different kind of perfect.
Although the video below doesn’t include grandma at the piano, and it’s actually from a few years later, during their time at Heritage Woods, it’s another moment frozen in time by Howard’s son, Wayne, who I have to thank for many of the details I’ve included through the first 17 days of this project. A huge thanks to Pops, too, who has pestered Grandma so much over the last week that she now answers his phone calls with, “Whaddaya need to know now?” and chuckles.
I have always love the song itself, whether I heard it through the two of them, or someone else. And I even love the mannerisms of Grandma and Howard, Bonnie shaking her head, reaching for her throat when she misses the note she wants, Howard’s head bobbing playfully as he strums. The way she signals him with the flipflap of her wrist. There never was much subtlety with Grandma, which added to their comedy as a musical team.
A whole different kind of perfect.