Pops checked the squirrel stories with Grandma Bonnie yesterday, even though he knew most of them himself already. And she confirmed that Howard would indeed feed him by hand before they left Freeport.
The picture is from a funeral home in Freeport, where Grandma Bonnie and Howard made arrangements for their final resting places. Apparently, as the sign behind them indicates, the owner of the establishment was also a Squirrel Guy, and published stories in the local newspaper about his regular interactions with his furry little friends. Here they were, supposed to be making choices about their final passing, detailing their wishes, flower choices, marker preferences, a sobering experience for any human, I would imagine. And yet, Howard kept trading laughs with the owner about their squirrels, long past the decision-making. I can just see Grandma’s frustration with it, lips taut, the sigh, and shake of her head. Howard could make a friend anywhere.
One of the things we always did on our trips to Freeport was take Grandma and Howard out to eat. Though their favorite spots changed from time to time, soured when menus changed or quality floundered due a change in management, we were most often treated to a “Best I Ever Ate” kind of meal. There was The Oasis, The Beltline, Spring Grove (which boasts an enormous banana split), and several others. They also had their favorite chain restaurants in places like Culver’s and Appleby’s, though they ordered their staples nearly every time they visited.
Saturday nights meant Mamalena’s Family Restaurant and Pizzeria, a place they found after playing music in Lena.
“Take the blacktop,” Grandma Bonnie would tell Pops from the passenger window as we loaded into our car to follow them. The blacktop. Neither the highway, nor the gravel roads. The drive to Lena, IL, was about 22 minutes, 18 or so if you took the highway. But they enjoyed that drive through the country on a two-lane paved road where you could think, look through miles of fields in either direction, feel the hum of the car beneath your feet. Taking the blacktop let you discuss some of the larger truths that existed outside the four walls of your living room without the distraction of crazy drivers weaving in and out of traffic around you. Corn doesn’t look so good this year. Not enough rain this spring. Weatherman says it’s callin’ for a bad winter. Look at that. Storm last week must have took the roof right off that old barn. You know, I think my cousin is buried in that cemetery.
I’m sure they enjoyed the drive to Mamalena’s just as much as the food they ate when they arrived, watching the leaves change, the crops grow, the roadside farm stands.
It was a rarity for them to miss the Saturday night broasted chicken at Mamalena’s over the course of that decade, and Howard would rave about it every Sunday to his son on the phone, where they would chat about which youngster might be the next Palmer or Nicklaus, or which old fogie would find a temporary fountain of youth in his golf stroke. The staff at Mamalena’s knew them so well that menus became unnecessary, and waitresses found no need to make note of their requests. Grandma Bonnie’s eating habits were much like the rest of her…no-nonsense. I never saw someone clean chicken bones like her, though Pops is no slouch himself. As my mother says, “They’re so clean you could sell them.” Stacked neatly to one side of her plate, they would be dry and white in mere moments, and may as well have been pulled from a bin in science class. Not a speck of skin, tendon, or meat left, the meal was gone before you’d sipped your water. She asked for an apple once when we stopped there for lunch, and before I even realized it, she was placing a single stem back on the plate. That’s the way Grandma ate, nothing wasted, nothing left. Stem and a few seeds. A byproduct of learning how to scrimp with her three boys in tow, alloyed with her fortitude at a young age on the farm.
Howard took a bit more time with his food, but his one-liners never stopped.
“How’s the tea?” Mom might ask.
“Well, it’s not Stumpwater,” he would say, and the interested chuckles would carry around the table.
“The hell is Stumpwater?” Pops would take the bait.
“Well, uh,” Howard would start, chewing a quick bit of potatoes, “Stumpwater is when a tree gets cut down, and, uh, all that’s left is the stump. After a bit of time that stump rots out in the middle. You know, goes hollow. And then, well, uh, when it rains a couple days, that stump, it, uh, fills right up with water and sits a couple days.”
“Stumpwater,” Pops would confirm.
“Stumpwater,” Howard would echo, eyes smiling. Grandma Bonnie would be shaking her head through the whole thing.
“Ugh,” Mom would say, her lip curled. “You never really drank Stumpwater, did you Howard?”
He would finally make eye contact with the group, a smile near the corner of his mouth. “Well, uh, you know, sometimes, uh, it’d be mighty hot down there in Arkansas in the summer.” We’d be suspended by his story, waiting for it. And then he’d finish.
“Well, you know, we’d, uh, skim the bugs off first,” he’d chuckle to the hoots and groans at the table.
“He always said that one of reasons he liked Freeport so much was because he never got into any fistfights,” Grandma said earlier today.
I laughed hard when I heard this from Pops, taken by surprise because, although I knew a little about the rougher ways he grew up around a bunch of rowdy brothers, I never saw Howard in a way that made me think of him as a willing participant in barroom brawl.
“Oh, yeah,” Grandma told my father, “he was missing two teeth when I met him. Got ‘em knocked out in a fight about pool in a bar.” Pops chuckled in disbelief, Grandma wheezing a laugh, which melted to a business-like jab. “And I made him get ‘em fixed. I didn’t like that,” she said. “He always said in Arkansas things were so depressed. No work, so, lots of fighting. Freeport wasn’t like that.”
Looking back, it’s easier for me to imagine the scene than I first thought, as I just heard the story yesterday. Come to think of it, Howard could have easily gotten himself a little too much attention with that witty tongue of his, and the country boy deep down inside, the one who spent so many years in a place where fighting was a way of life, probably wasn’t quick to back down from a skirmish in a bar. It solidifies the fact that I only knew one small slice of the man who spent so much time, in so many places, around so many different people. It also propels me closer to the varied experiences of his youth, where I learned so much more when he agreed to sit down to an interview with me during their time in Freeport.