A couple of weekends ago my brother Mike took Jana and me and Barb up to Dubuque to have a quick visit with one of our favorite people, Sister Aunt Carolyn. We call her SAC for short. We came up with that acronym many years ago. The order of the letters made sense because, after all, she was a holy sister before she became an aunt to a collection of unholy nieces and nephews.
It was a beautiful fall weekend in Dubuque, a city on the Mississippi known as the San Francisco of the midwest because of its amazing hills. We drove up in the hills to Eagle Point Park on the last weekend it was open for the season. We went all the way to the top, surrounded by that amazing autumnal palette of colors as the leaves were getting ready to separate from the tree branches. We looked across the river to see Illinois and Wisconsin, looking equally as beautiful as Iowa. We watched a barge go through the lock and dam on the river, its containers empty now, but headed back down the river to gather more coal to bring upriver before the season ended. Or maybe it was headed downriver to be parked for the season…I don’t really know; I’m just surmising here.
From there we headed back to SAC’s apartment to pick up some furniture she had for Mike and Barb. But on the way we went by the cemetery where SAC’s mom and our grandmother was laid to rest in 1981. Grandma Thirtle (as we called her) is buried on one of those beautiful Dubuque hills next to a pine tree.
I remember when she died in January that year and we headed out from Omaha to go to her funeral. Grandma Thirtle lived with us for several years when we were young. Since Grandma Piskac had died in 1965, Grandma Thirtle was the grandma we knew and remembered and made good memories with. I thought that when Grandma Thirtle died she must have been very old, as in my mind’s eye she always was old. But there on the gravestone were the dates of her birth and her death: July 19, 1908 and January 26, 1981. She was only 72 when she died. And here we were standing by her grave with her daughter Carolyn, who will be 77 next year. SAC is a really young 76-year old! And it just struck me that if she is 76, Grandma must have been much, much older than that. But she wasn’t.
I said a quick prayer to myself and kept myself from crying. I have often wondered about the life my Grandma Thirtle must have experienced in her younger days. And then we went back to SAC’s apartment.
She has some wonderful family pictures on her wall. One of them was so familiar as I have the whole album of originals in my possession. It is a wedding picture of my own mom and dad, George and Jeanne Prescott, taken on September 17, 1955, in St. John’s Cathedral on the Creighton campus here in Omaha. They are so young! They would go on to have the seven of us – George, Jana, me, Susan, Mike, Sally and Cathy – from August 4, 1956, to December 7, 1964. And then on March 27, 1966, my dad would sit by Mom’s bed in the hospital as she took her last breath. Still, that wedding picture makes me smile.
It was another wedding picture on SAC’s wall that brought out some stories:
June 30, 1931, in Omaha, Nebraska, was the day my grandma, Beatrice Chicoine, married my grandpa, Robert Thirtle. She is just shy of her 23rd birthday, and there she stands in her youth, a smile on her face, standing between her new husband and her own mother, my great-grandmother, Cora Chicoine.
I have never in my life seen a picture of my Grandpa Thirtle until this moment. And I have never seen a picture of my Grandma Thirtle as a young woman. And there she is, happy, radiant as a new bride. What must she have been thinking on that day in her white dress, white hat upon her head, holding onto a bouquet of flowers with a new gold band on her left ring finger?
Was she thinking that when her own daughter got married some 24 years later that she too would stand in a picture smiling, while her siblings looked on? Was she thinking that she would have five children of her own? Was she thinking of the possibility that two of them would precede her in death? Was she thinking that the man to her right would cheat on her and abuse her and cause her to flee with her children for their protection? Did she know that her own mother would be her strength and protection from this man? Did she know that life as a divorced Roman Catholic single mother would be as hard as it was? Did she know that she would inspire such love and loyalty from seven grandchildren who lost their own mother, her daughter, at such a tender age? Did she know that she would be the model for one of them in nightly prayers?
I have never seen a picture of my grandmother so young and happy and with her whole future ahead of her. And I am so glad that on June 30, 1931, she didn’t know about that future.
But there is one thing about this picture that is very familiar to me about my grandma and that is her smile. I can see that smile in my mind as we stand in her kitchen making chocolate malts. I can see that smile in my mind as she lets us take the salt and pepper shakers out of her hutch and lets us play with them. I can see that smile in my mind as she sits at the old piano and coaxes old tunes out of it as she plays from memory. I can see that smile in my mind as she teaches us how to play pinochle and canasta. I can see that smile in my mind as we ride the bus together to go downtown to shop at Kilpatrick’s and Brandeis and have a piece of pie at the lunch counter.
I can remember putting flowers on her grave that cold day on the hillside in Dubuque in 1981. We had gone into a florist shop to buy roses. When the clerk heard us say what they were for, she thought it was wasteful to put perfectly good roses on a grave on a sub-zero day. But we knew better.
And 33 years later, I am sure Grandma is smiling. And that is how I will always remember her.