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Part 12: This Is All I Know

A Serial in 12 Parts

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In the end it was my great-aunt Helen who went the distance and got the old family house in Edwardsville to herself. In her final few years there she stayed inside and kept the blinds drawn. Sometimes she spent whole days in her favorite spot at the dining room table, playing solitaire and watching TV through the parlor door. She had no company but her dog Babe.

He was a foul-tempered, badly behaved schnauzer, but she regarded him with unfailing love. She was never happier than when she could chatter about his doings. In one letter to me she wrote: "The postman just came & Babe had a fit I'm surprised you can't hear him bark. He's so loud & runs back & forth around the house. I have barricades over most doors so he is confined to the dining room kitchen & back bedroom. I still have Valentine candy I never opened as he is right there & shouldn't have chocolate."

She paid little attention to the condition of the house and was indifferent to the fate of the gardens, which were being conquered by bindweed and kudzu. "I can't plant anything," she wrote. "I just enjoy what comes up." She cleaned the house at rare intervals. The kitchen filled with garbage bags, and there were towering stacks of magazines in the parlor.

The carpets and rugs were all stained with dog droppings and urine. Whenever visitors managed to talk their way past the front door they were shocked by the state of the place. They'd sometimes ask Helen what her mother Agnes or sister Hilda would have thought. "They enjoyed doing housework," Helen said. "I don't."

Sometimes she did venture outside. Second Avenue had been transformed. The farms and open fields were gone, and across the street was a big truck lot where rows of semis squatted in a waste of floodlit asphalt. Next to the lot was a metal-finishing shop; on the other side was a drive-through hamburger stand. Next door to the house was an agricultural-chemical supply company that kept big tanks stacked in pyramids on its loading docks. At the far end of the block, a red light blinked gravely at the tip of a radio tower.

Usually Helen went out the back gate and crossed beneath the power pylons to First Avenue. Her friend Irene lived there, alone in her old family home just the way Helen was. Other times she got in her car and drove down Troy Road. South of town, Troy Road led into a jumble of strip malls, auto parts dealers, chain restaurants, cell phone franchises, and fly-by-night computer repair storefronts. Helen's destination was the Kmart. She was always fretting about the reports she heard on CNN regarding Kmart's finances. "They are in trouble all over," she wrote in a letter. "I hate to see them go." Her car was just mobile enough to get her there and back again: it was a 30-year-old Chevy Malibu. She bristled whenever anybody told her to replace it. "I don't care to have a new one," she said. "I'm sentimental about things."

Helen went into the hospital in 1998. The diagnosis was stomach cancer. She had no illusions about her chances. She was in her 80s and had been extremely frail for several years; she knew that any operation would probably kill her. Her only concern was to find a new home for Babe, and after she succeeded in getting a friend of a friend to adopt him she settled down to wait for the end.

She passed the time in the hospital by complaining. She ruminated endlessly over past wounds--particularly her mother's forcing her to drop out of school and Marty's refusing to go away. She talked about Marty constantly. She told everybody about his infidelities and betrayals and his abysmal treatment of Hilda; she smiled when she remembered how Eugene had beat him up. Once she described the time 40 years before when he'd tried to kiss her, and the memory got her so angry that the nurses rushed in to find out what was wrong. She even blamed Marty for the poor condition of the property--particularly the picket fence, which was the original turn-of-the-century cypress and rotted. "That man went in and out the gate ten times a day," she said. "He wore it out."

To distract her, visitors began talking about how much the house had meant to them. At first she refused to believe them. It had never occurred to her that anyone had cared about the house at all. She listened openmouthed while people reminisced about the games of "movie stars" on the front porch, the solemn dishwashing after dinner, and the group peach peeling on high summer afternoons. When someone described running frantically to retrieve the white sheets from the laundry lines before the trains passed, she laughed out loud. But when people asked her to talk about her favorite memories she got angry again and said that nobody ought to care about those times any longer.

One night after the last of her visitors had departed, she asked a nurse for paper and a pen. She wrote at the top of a page: "I will tell you of our family."

She didn't bother to tell a connected story; she just recorded what she'd seen of her relatives, or what she'd heard about them, as they rose up in her mind. There was her grandfather and his hotel in Pierron, with "fit entertainment for man and beast." There was the brass foundry where her father worked. There was a cousin Herman who "had beautiful brown eyes and dimples."

There was an Uncle Emil who was going to be a druggist but "couldn't stand the stinks" and became a grocer instead. Then there was her uncle Frank and his horrible eczema, which mysteriously went away: "he met a doctor who suggested he try and rid himself of it, which he did." Another cousin "ran a store, went broke and became a very good salesman. He had the gift of gab and that's what it takes."

After a few pages she came to her own generation: "Clarence was the only one of us who finished high school. He worked at the Radiator Mfg. Co., then sold Real Silk Hosiery before going to Chicago to earn his fortune and lady love.

"Pearl Bilyeu finished eighth grade before going to N.O. Nelson to work as a packer. There she met Cecil and married.

"Hilda Martindale had three years of high school and didn't like it so quit.

"Eugene had a lot of jobs, depression time and you couldn't hardly find a job so he took anything. He was our handyman, gardener, plumber, etc.

"Helen (that's me) finished 2 years high school. Went to work after Pop died. Made dresses until I retired after 47 years of work. Long time, huh!"

Underneath she wrote: "This is all I know."

After Helen died at the end of '98, a realtor was called in to appraise the property. He wasn't sanguine about its prospects. The house suffered, he wrote, from years of poor or nonexistent maintenance, from "functional obsolescence" and from "economic obsolescence." By functional obsolescence he meant its old-fashioned design; by economic obsolescence he meant the neighborhood, which had been rezoned for commercial and light industrial use. He thought it extremely unlikely that anybody would want to live in the house even if it were thoroughly rehabbed. He estimated its fair market value to be $50,000--chump change in Edwardsville's booming real estate market. "In my opinion," he concluded, in the traditional language of his trade, "the Highest and Best use for this property is for a parking lot."

About a year later, my wife and I went back to Edwardsville. The house was locked and shuttered and there was a For Sale sign out front. The interiors were empty. The furniture had been donated to Goodwill; the old clothes and the plastic jewelry and fractured dishes and cracked silverware had ended up at a church rummage sale; and the heirlooms and mementos had been divided up among relatives and family friends. Everybody had wanted the framed photo of Eugene that had stood on the mantel, but it was nowhere to be found. A joke went around that Bosh had taken it.

The backyard was cheerless. The windows on the porch were broken, and the ancient hand pump by the kitchen door had rusted shut. In the gunmetal gray light the whole place had a forsaken look, like a photogravure from an old history book, a pioneer homestead abandoned at the edge of the wilderness. I had a hard time believing that anyone had ever lived there.

We spent that night in the town of Alton on the Mississippi. We came in after dark on the river road, just as snow was beginning to fall. The town was heaped up along the valley slope in terraces of sooty brick. Our bed-and-breakfast was at the top of the ridge, an old mansion half hidden in a fan of ancient trees. We were the only guests. Our bed was warm and the night was supernaturally quiet. My wife slept as she always does--like a lion recently shot by a tranquilizer dart. I was more restless. Sometime after midnight I got out of bed and stood for a long while at the window.

The wind had picked up, and snow was cascading westward across the treetops. In the distance were dim lines of roofs, more trees, blurred hills, and a moon that was beginning to show through the clouds. I was thinking of how little I really knew about my family's history and how hard I would have to work to nail any of it down. I felt as though it was already too late. The truth had already slipped irreversibly out of reach, the way the wind was gathering up all kinds of odd crucial scraps and hurrying them away for good, blowing them out past the last lights and scattering them on the river.

While I poked around the house, my wife had set out to collect some more tangible mementos. She'd brought a set of gardening tools with her, and she'd excavated every root and bulb she could reach in Eugene's gardens. His prized tulips proved to be too deeply buried for her to rescue, but she did manage to collect a big shopping bag's worth of earth-caked, odorous salvage.

After we got back to Chicago, she planted the best of the bulbs and roots in her garden and gave the rest to neighborhood friends. By spring the corners and parkways all around Ravenswood were spangled with Eugene's zinnias and snapdragons and bee balm. But there was one root she saved, and we planted it along one of the local railway corridors as a memorial to Eugene. When we went by there again in the fall the corridor was a rich tangle of weeds and prairie wildflowers, and at the spot we remembered was a frail white aster in bloom.

The Protestant cemetery on the outskirts of Edwardsville is always referred to in my family as "the new cemetery"--distinguishing it from the old Catholic cemetery on the opposite side of town, where Bosh and Agnes and our earlier ancestors are buried. The new cemetery has a small chapel built in the austere modernist style that's been popular for church architecture in the last several decades: a stark A-frame of blondwood, steel, and clear glass, unadorned and sparsely furnished, looking less like a place of worship than a NASA waiting room.

The family gathered there four years ago on a clammy morning in the middle of March. As we waited for the service to begin I heard coats discreetly being unzipped, coughs muffled, laughs decorously smothered, and the ceaseless chirping of cell phones. We were like a crowd of travelers waiting out a fog delay in an airport lounge. Through the glass behind the altar we could see slow veils and billows of mist drifting through the trees, and all around us were drips and gurgles and taps of water: heavy rains had fallen the night before, the first soaking rains of spring.

Beside the pulpit was a card table on which framed photos had been set out. There was my grandmother Mary as a child, on the stoop of her elm-shaded Ravenswood brownstone; Mary as a stylishly plump teenager with a pageboy cut; Mary and Clarence in riding duds, sprawled in the roots of an immense old tree in Lincoln Park; Mary with salt-and-pepper hair, standing languidly in front of blurry mountains and looming national forests; Mary in her decades-long widowhood in the Florida Keys, a white-haired and fiercely tanned retiree, cheerful and alone.

The minister mounted the pulpit. He was a young man in an expensive, poorly fitting suit. Somebody said he'd just arrived in town and was still ill at ease in front of strangers. But as he spoke the familiar words his confidence grew and his voice took on a rich, rolling, backcountry cadence: "Now is Chrayst rissen from the day-ed, and become the first fruits of thaym that slay-ept ..."

After the service we left the chapel and walked down to the grave site. Ancient headstones loomed up in the fog on either side of the path, huddled together like a village skyline. The path led down a steep slope through the trees into a secluded little valley. The rains had churned up the soil, and there were gouts and smears of fresh mud trailing across the path, the orange, clayey mud of the Mississippi River valley.

You could tell none of us lived in the country from how gingerly we picked our way down, and from how many times we stopped to scrape clots of mud from our shoes, wincing with distaste as though they were animal droppings.

The family plot was on the valley floor, beneath a gaunt old pine, right where the clusters of headstones ended and the path trailed off into a wide meadow. We gathered in a ragged circle. I read the familiar names: Clarence Sehnert, Eugene Sehnert, Helen Sehnert, Earnest C. Martindale, Hilda Martindale. No ornamental headstones, no epitaphs: just names and dates on a jumble of plain markers. I wondered if any stranger inspecting the markers would be able to work out how everyone was related to one another.

My uncle Bob came forward and laid the urn containing Mary's ashes on a blanket spread out next to Clarence's marker. No one spoke, but there was an involuntary rustle in the group, like the anticipatory flutter in a flock of pigeons. Then the tree above us emitted a loud creak: we looked up to see that the wind was stirring and the fog was beginning to unravel.

We started back up the slope. I found myself beside an elderly woman bundled in a thick worn coat. She was having some difficulty on the uneven ground. I gave her my arm and introduced myself. She looked at me carefully and then shook her head. "No, sorry, I don't remember you. You must forgive me. But there were so many children in that house over the years."

"That's all right," I said. "Were you a neighbor?"

"Heavens yes. We lived across the train tracks from them all my life. I knew everybody in that family. Even old Bosh. Long before your time. Did you ever hear them talk about him? He was quite a character. Every weekend he'd get all duded up and promenade into town to shoot pool. The whole neighborhood would watch him go by. And everybody'd say, 'Come quick, come look at that old drunk in his Sunday best.' Meaning no harm, you know. He'd just laugh anyway if he heard us. And then he got so sick in the end. He had a horrible death, just horrible.

"And I knew Eugene, too, but Eugene, he didn't like to have anything to do with girls. When we were walking home from school my girlfriends and I would always tease him and say we were his valentines, and he'd get all red. Sometimes he'd throw stones at us and sometimes he'd just run away."

The pressure of her hand on my arm was as light as a bird's nest. She said, "But Helen was my special friend. My dearest friend. After her mother Agnes died, Helen and I started traveling together. We went everywhere. She could afford to do it, you know, because she was such a skinflint. I think she saved every penny she ever made, back to all those dreadful old shirt-factory jobs in the Depression. We went on bus tours all over the place, to Nashville and Kansas City and New Orleans."

Then she laughed and looked sideways at me. "But one thing about Helen, she was a complainer. You never heard anybody go on like her. No matter where we went, all the way there and back, she'd be on about everything. The food was too spicy. The beds were too lumpy. And the service--you'd think there wasn't a waitress or a chambermaid with a civil tongue in her head between here and the Mississippi delta."

She fell silent for a moment. Her eyes were fixed on the muddy path rising before us. She said, "Of course, the moment we'd get home, I'd barely put my feet up before she'd be knocking on the door again, clutching some magazine and showing me a big color picture and saying here, here, here's where we ought to go next."

We reached the top of the ridge. She hung back as the rest of the party drifted on toward the parking lot. She turned to me, but her eyes didn't quite meet mine, as though I were blocking her view of something else. She said, "Helen and I were inseparable. You know people got so used to seeing us together they called us Mutt and Jeff. And in all those years we only had one fight. I knew these two men at work and thought Helen and I should double-date them. They were all right, I thought. Eager beavers, I guess you could say. Kind of dull, but eager to please. They were perfect gentlemen. They took us to a fancy place for dinner and then to a movie, and I don't think Helen said six words the whole night. I could tell she was hopping mad. And sure enough, just as soon as we were alone she told me never, ever do anything like that again. She said if I did, she swore it would be the last I'd ever hear from her for the rest of her life."

She shook her head. "And I believed her, too. I never did do it again. It was just her and me from then on."

Then she turned away, and looked back down into the valley. She said, "And now there she is. I wish I could visit her more often. But I'm an old woman, and I can't be expected to hike up and down a hill like this just to go see some grave."

The wind strengthened. In the valley below us, pale shafts of sunlight were drifting across the grave site and moving out into the swaying meadow grass. She said, "I never will understand why they picked such a remote spot. But wasn't it just like them?"

Read the complete series at leesandlin.com.

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