I knew Freeport. A little bit, anyway. More of an acquaintance than a friend. Shards of story my Pops had shared about growing up there. The Pretzels. That was their high school mascot. I would compete many times against them over the next few years in sports like baseball and football. The Freeport Pretzels. A nod to the Germanic settlers who flocked to the area in the mid 1800s. As well as the (had to look this one up) Billerbeck Pretzel Company that bloomed shortly after they settled the area. If you paid attention in history class in Illinois schools, you’d know that Freeport was the site of the 2nd Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858. And if you traveled there in search of the exact location of this debate, you’d find a small, triangular-shaped section of pavers, surrounded by a cluster of trees, flanked by park benches, and a monument with life-size statues dedicated to the two men. Cross the street you’ll encounter a red building with the words Union Dairy Farm on the front. It’s an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. Stop there. You’ll thank me. It’s origins date back more than 100 years, although this exact location is probably 20 years younger than that. Nostalgia will tug at your sleeves while you enjoy a sundae in a glass dish at the tango red counter, or an enormous banana split in a metal trough. Probably next to a farmer in overalls.
Freeport is a city of about 25,000. Metropolitan, by Hardy standards. Rural, by Rockford’s. The houses, like the trees, are often large and old and sprawling. Stretches of farmland roll through the hilly landscape, speaking to the history of its people and the timeless Stephenson County vista. Newer landmarks dot the authentic town to draw visitors and cater to residents. Generations Brewing boasts a microbrewery where you can get Pretzel City Amber, a decent beer for the enthusiast. Family-run markets and farm stands can still be found with regularity. Campgrounds, quaint eateries, and historical landmarks populate the area, easily overlooked by the untrained eye. Jane Addams was born and buried in Cedarville, about ten miles away, where Grandma Bonnie’s sister, Hazel, lived. Old water towers, steam trains, vintage theaters in Victorian buildings. This is how Freeport lives in my mind. Vast stretches of shades of greens and browns, neighborhoods where streets become a tunnel, created by mighty trees that reach to touch the leafy fingertips of their stoic neighbors over the roadway.
I remember the day they moved into Knollwood Estates, a collection of manufactured homes that boasted quiet, clean living, a community pool, and friendly residents. Although I have a feeling Grandma and Howard could make friends anywhere they went, no matter how prickly the neighbors would be. Their neighborhood was simple, a crisscross of streets with names like Roundtree and Fawndale and Vista. Grandma was a bundle of nervous energy, a tired mess underneath, going through the motions even though she wouldn’t admit it.
The layout of the house had changed, shrunk slightly, and the species of trees outside were different. But small, recognizable staples were packed up and carried along for the journey that made it feel like home: the jar of Maple Goodies that forever sat on her coffee table. The glass bowl of mints. The orange patterned couch. Grandma’s and Howard’s recliners at one end of the family room, flanking a small table between them, set with a heavy, intricate, chandelier lamp that sent sparkles about the walls and ceiling when the sun shone just right. The sign that read their names in fancy script came with them as well.
It was a cool day, and it had rained a lot in the days leading up to the move, the grass sloshing under my feet as Pops and I walked around the home, searching for an access panel under the house to try and relocate a cable wire for them. There was a large wooden porch in back, a garage that would house a single car. Howard had sold the large Lincoln before the move. And Grandma could bang on an upright piano off the kitchen whenever we came by. There was an extra bedroom that would serve as their new music room, and it didn’t take long for Howard to set up his old-timey microphone, grandma’s keyboard, and hang pictures and instruments and other memorabilia on the walls.
A picture of him as a young man, rifle in his hands, tropical foliage in the landscape behind him.
A news clipping about a hole-in-one he’d had as a younger man.
Photos of Howard’s family from his marriage to Betty. Everyone smiling.
It was a happy little place, once everything was in upacked. Perfect for the two of them.
Maybe it was me growing up, my eye sharpening, but I noticed new things all the time. They had both changed over the decade together in Hardy. Not dramatically, but it was noticeable. One thing I haven’t mentioned much of is Howard’s fashion sense. It tamed fairly quickly after those first meetings in Rockford, and though he’d settled into a routine of more neutral colors, a sweater around his shoulders or on a nearby chair, the style suggested that he could fit into any golf course threesome at the drop of a hat. Gray slacks. Yellow polo shirt. Visor or baseball cap when we went out to eat. He’d slowed a bit, natural for his age, but still maintained that sharp sense of humor, and offered regular rhyming riddles whenever they occurred to him. Sometimes they were song lyrics. Other times they were bits of lines from old tv shows. Often they were his own creation altogether.
Grandma had undergone her own transformation. She seemed to be shrinking. I was also growing taller, so perhaps that was more of the case, but the frailty of old age was definitely setting up shop. Though her strangulating hugs and feisty punches at my arm certainly suggested otherwise. Once all was settled in the house, they both seemed content, Grandma rocking in her recliner, feet straight out, toes pointed like a satisfied little kid, letting out a sigh that said, “We’re home.”
I imagine it was hard for Howard to leave Arkansas, where he’d spent so much of his life. But if there was any place for him to spend the next ten years, it was Freeport. Wayne mentioned this week in an email how much his father had loved his time there. And with the history that surrounded the town, the laid back disposition of its residents, the bit of treasure that always seemed to be lurking around every corner, Howard probably enjoyed for, if nothing else, the adventure.
What I didn’t know was how Grandma Bonnie felt about living there. I’m sure there was comfort in her familiarity with the old town. Perry and Dorothy had already left their home in Hardy and moved to Florida by then, so the decision to head back toward her roots probably calmed her some. Her sister, Hazel, as I mentioned, would only be a few minutes away from her now, and they would develop a delightful bond in their old age, enjoying each other’s company every Saturday evening. But, the truth was, her life had been anything but comfortable in Freeport, the city where she’d spent many years with her first husband charging in and out of her life.
I would assume Grandma played a big part in deciding to settle in Freeport when they’d decided to move to Illinois. It had to be both curse and blessing to pass some of those houses she’d lived in, relive some of the hardest memories of her life with startling regularity at unexpected times. But Grandma would never let on much about those kinds of troubles. They were far beyond the scope of her rear view mirror, I suppose. And her chuckle was never more than a few feet away. I have to speculate quite a bit here, my mind far away from all that as I carried boxes back and forth from truck to house, completely in the dark about what her life, and my father’s, had been like in Freeport. And I would continue to stumble through the dark about it for another decade yet, until I finally started doing some searching for the answers to my many questions about my grandfather.