Grandma Died

Early in the spring the year I was five, Daddy and I made the long trip from Milwaukee to Door County, leaving Mom and Suzie and Ron at home. We left on Friday night after he came home from work. I remember watching the tops of the trees passing quickly past my view as I lay on the back seat of the ’49 Chevy, Daddy silent as he drove to the place that had been his home until he got the job in the steel mill in Milwaukee, met my mother, and moved for good to the big city. Before he was married, from Monday to Friday he lived in a boarding house on the North Side of Milwaukee, with a family named Schultz. Every weekend, he drove back “up north” to be with his folks. So he was used to the long drive in the dark, going home.

I didn’t feel well, but I knew I was going to see my Grandma Bahlert. When we got to Old Stage Road north of Baileys Harbor, we turned right and drove the half mile to the narrow driveway on the right. We turned in and were greeted by Auntie Irene and Uncle Erdreich. We were going to stay at their place, on a narrow road off the big highway, shaded by giant pine trees, willows, and elms. And I remember my Grandma Bahlert as she opened the door when we walked up the steps of the little cabin Uncle Erdreich had built for her and Grandpa, right behind the big house. I see Grandma’s towering, slight figure, when she looked down at me: “my little Mary.”

Grandma was sick, and Daddy wanted to visit her. I expect I was a special gift to her.

I remember the old-fashioned furniture, the Victorian era glass-faced cabinet filled with old china treasures, in the front room. Furniture pushed against the walls was crowded into the small space. I can’t see Grandpa in my memory, but he was there, too. I loved them both then. I love them, now.

When it was time for bed, Daddy took me over to Auntie Irene’s house, a few yards away, and after Auntie Irene had covered my chest with Vic’s Vapor Rub and flannel cloth for the fever I had, he lay with me for a few minutes on the sofa in the front room, pulled out for a bed. Then he walked back to stay the night with Grandma and Grandpa.

I couldn’t get to sleep. I tossed and turned. I cried. Auntie Irene always loved all of us, the little ones in the family, and so she kept an eye on me, talking all the time, I’m sure. Finally, she announced that she was going to get my Daddy so I could fall asleep. All these years later, I can still hear her voice. With my back to the room, I heard her go out through the door off the kitchen. Daddy came to spend the night with me on the couch. I’m sure he fell asleep before I did – he always did!

After Daddy and I returned to Milwaukee on Sunday night, I was still sick. I stayed home from school all that week with the measles.

I have a vivid memory of a phone call coming to our house, a few months later. It was evening. Daddy was sitting in his chair, across from the black and white television, next to the archway that separated the living room from the dining room. The heavy black phone in the hallway to the kitchen rang, and Mom got up to answer it. “Frank?!” she called from the hallway. Daddy got up from his chair, walked to take the phone from her.

In a few moments, Daddy came back to the living room, sat in his chair.

Grandma died.

Daddy  sat in his chair and cried, tears running down his cheeks.  I can see his face, even now. And Mom, standing off to the side, watching him, and me.

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