April 30, 2011 - Cedar Rapids, IA
Jeanne and I were traveling west on I-74, somewhere in Illinois. At the pre-arranged time, my colleagues at WRAA in Luray VA, where I often co-host a Friday morning public affairs radio show, called me.
J. D. Cave, another co-host said: “Weren’t you just on a road trip to Michigan for Granny’s memorial service?” “Yeah” I replied, “Michigan two weeks ago and now we are driving to Iowa. I feel I’m on a Midwest driving yo-yo.”
Granny’s memorial service, responding to her death November 9, 2010 at the age of 101, was simple and unadorned. She would have been pleased.
April 15, 2011 - Motel Near Rochester, MI
Frinks gathered from Louisiana, Texas, Maryland, Virginia and, of course, Michigan at a motel near Rochester Mi, where our family lived for 79 years until the death of our matriarch. For sixty three years the Frink family core functioned out of a one-bath, two-story, forest green frame home, firmly rooted on the southeast corner of Fourth and Oak streets. It was sold earlier this year; but it didn’t pass from the family until Jeanne, Sister Jane and I removed many dozens of black garbage bags stuffed with a century of collected memories.
Son Geoff and wife Connie filled a rental trailer and the their family van with Granny’s antique furniture and removed the treasured pieces safely to their home in Maryland; someday, God willing, the wooden tables and chests that Granny herself refinished will pass to her great grandchildren.
Friday evening Jeanne and I, son Chris (Baton Rouge), Geoff and Connie (Montgomery County MD), Jane (Bay Co. MI), two children of my late brother Jim - Brad, Dallas and Jennifer (Lufkin TX) - gathered for a reconnecting, raucous, two-generational Frink beer and pizza party in the motel breakfast room.
Saturday dawned gloomy. Sheets of cold rain raged out of the west. At 11 am, our band of Frinks (including Allan, my white-bearded, stooped brother, resident in a rehabilitation center after hip replacement surgery) formed at grave site.
Avon Cemetery has remained a center piece in my life. I was three years old when father Wayne, Granny and infant Allan and I began living two doors away, in a rented home on 3rd Street. To this day, the cooing of mourning doves invariably returns my spirit to my hometown cemetery; there, over 70 years ago, I first heard that haunting sound.
A cemetery crew had dug a small square hole in the earth next to my father’s grave; a concrete container had been placed in it. A glitch to the morning proceeding soon emerged: The metal box containing mother’s ashes was too large to be dropped into the concrete crypt.
Our sons and nephew set about to defuse the glitch. Geoff’s tool box was in his vehicle; in it were a hacksaw to saw off a corner of the box, and a large screwdriver to pry it open. Within was a smaller box containing Granny’s remains. “You might know that there would be comic screw up with a Frink operation, even in the cemetery,” Chris laughed.
Granny’s memorial service in the sanctuary of the First Congregational Church was filled with warm memories of our mother and grandmother. Her four grandchildren present each remembered Granny in different ways. “She made me a lifelong Tigers fan,” Chris said, as he described the months in 1968 when he and Geoff lived with her in the green house on 4th and Oak. It was a year that Granny’s beloved Detroit Tigers won the World Series, while I ran for Congress a few miles away in Pontiac.
“Granny taught me about family. After my father’s death eight years ago, I pledged to call her every Sunday afternoon. I did until the last Sunday before her death. Dad’s death was very difficult for me and I turned away from some family members. Granny helped me through that difficult time, helped me accept and forgive,” said Jennifer. Her brother, Brad, remembered the seemingly endless board games played and the puzzles Granny would help assemble during long sojourns at the Jim Frink family longhorn cattle ranch in East Texas. Brad told a story: “One time we had a calf that was rejected by its mother. Granny fed it from a bottle. We named it Victory, because it lived against the odds. Whenever Granny was outdoors, Victory followed her around like a puppy.”
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I listened to the stories of my mother’s love of her grandchildren and their adoration of her.
We called in Chinese food for our last reunion meal Saturday evening in the motel breakfast room. We were a happy bunch, proud of our blood ties and pleased that we had come together to celebrate the life of our matriarch.
“Let’s do this every year; let’s all get together again,” said Jennifer, the wiry Lufkin, TX night shift police patrol woman, expressing the camaraderie that had enveloped our geographically far flung Frinks. Sunday morning most of us headed home by plane or auto. Brad, on the other hand, flew a Detroit-Chicago-Madrid-Geneva marathon for a series of business meetings in the Swiss city. Wherever we were dispersing to after our memorial to her, Granny had drawn us together and rekindled a passionate family spirit among her children and grandchildren.
2 May, 2011 - At the Rebers' Residence - Iowa Fallls, IA
Two weeks later and an 1100 mile trip in our aging Mercedes Benz sports coup we are spending two days with our famously good friends Glo and Dick Reber in Iowa Falls, IA.
Family brought us to Iowa. Jeanne is a devoted member of a tight-knit clan of McConnells that after WWII began gathering during the principal holidays—Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Her grandparents, Leslie and Pearl, for many years holiday-hosted their four adult children, spouses and their expanding next generation in a tiny home in Cedar Rapids; as a result, Leslie and Pearl’s grandchildren are as close a passel of American first cousins as could ever be imagined.
There were four generations of blood-related McConnells, one divorced-from-a-McConnell, a McConnell widow (with her new husband) and two spouse genders of McConnells of various generations. Collected together in greater Cedar Rapids were Leslie and Pearl’s two remaining children, Shirley and Dale (the youngest), assorted grandchildren, a dozen (mas or menos) of great grandchildren and one great, great grandson.
The extended McConnell clan gathered in Cedar Rapids (or rather Hiawatha, a suburb), not in a tiny residence, but in a five bedroom, multi-bathed, two story home of Midwestern grandeur. Julie, the honorees’ daughter and her husband Dale and their two daughters and son took in the gathered clan like—well, long lost relatives. Friday evening was the first mass meal (boxes and boxes of delivered pizza, bottled water, iced beer and “pop”—Midwestern for “soda”—contained in two, four foot long coolers on the back deck) at Julie and Dale’s home. Their cheerful generosity continued with lunch Saturday and a brunch Sunday morning.
Saturday evening, after the dinner in Shirley and Paul’s honor (expertly executed by culinary students at a local community college), Jim’s wife, Jill (our sister-in-law) stood to speak and said: “I felt welcomed into this family from the moment I arrived. That sense has stayed with me all these years.” Clasping her hand and standing with Jill was Patti, Jeanne’s brother Jack’s widow. She shook her head affirmatively, as Jill described the deep sense of belonging that envelopes those dragged into the clan by marriage. Two full days of McConnells extended and it was all joyful, even while remembering and telling tales of our dead.
Julie and Dale’s brunch, of various bottled juices, egg and sausage casserole, sweet buns, mixed fruit, potato casserole and endless coffee was the occasion that began the re-scattering of the clan. Jeanne and I were among the first to kiss and hug farewell to the McConnells in reunion. Later in the car, as we drove the 90 miles to Iowa Falls over the flat, fertile Iowa plain, dotted with occasional farm houses and silos, I said to Jeanne: “We’ll never see many of them again.” “True”, she said, “One of the reasons it was important for us to be here.”
15 May, 2011 - Jewell Hollow, Page County, VA
All times with our best-of-friends the Rebers are filled with easy chatter and delicious food, prepared by the three cooks (you can guess who the odd man out is.) Our times together and friendship go back forty two years, to Washington D. C. and a large home on Broad Branch Ave., where lived four Iowa Capitol Hill “girls”, Jeanne, Glo Reber and her two sisters, among others. Tales of that time won’t be repeated here.
The Rebers returned to Glo’s ancestral home in Iowa Falls, remodeled it lavishly and now split their time between it and their home in Sarasota. We spent two days dining (Beefeater martinis beforehand for the men) talking, in the familiar way that only old and solid friends can. After meals, Dick and I repaired to the basement for cigars and more conversation.
We had one excursion. We visited the community college (Glo is on the foundation board) in the village of 5,000. Most interesting was a stop at the college’s very large equestrian training facility. Students can get an associates degree in equestrian management and then flee Iowa Falls to go manage horse operations of very rich people in Virginia, Kentucky and Florida and wherever rich people with lots of horses can be found.
Monday evening, under the influence of the Chicken Kiev-ish dish Dick had prepared and the requisite Beafeater’s martini, I promised to stay with our friends in Iowa Falls another day (Dick was to make his specialty gumbo.) Alas, I awoke ready to return to the highway. We drove out of Iowa Falls by 11 a.m.
Jeanne and I enjoy driving; we also enjoy long road trips. During our voyages to Michigan and Iowa (separated by two weeks) we drove our 2003, Mercedes Benz C230 supercharged coup a total of 57 hours.
Sunday, April 17, our last evening in Michigan, we spent as guests of our beloved former neighbors on the St. Clair River, where we lived for six years beginning in the mid-eighties. Carol and John Erickson remain great friends despite the void that our 21 year ago exit from our river home created.
Monday morning we awoke to a snow storm; an inch of the precip was already on the ground. Carol prepared us a breakfast, and was even thoughtful enough to provide us with a handful of small bottles of water for the road. I brushed off the car and we were underway by 9 a.m.
As we drove down I-75 south of Detroit, I said to Jeanne: “I think we should keep on 75 to Dayton and not take the Ohio turnpike. We don’t know what we’d encounter in the mountains of Pennsylvania.” And so we did. My decision turned a normal Southern Michigan nine to nine and a half hour trip into twelve hours; even for us, driving twelve hours in a day gets to be longish.
The upside of the Dayton-Columbus-Wheeling-Morgantown-Berkley Springs to Jewell Hollow twelve hour drive was that, while Jeanne was at the wheel, I studied our courtesy AAA road atlas (given out at AAA’s annual VA. General Assembly reception). I discovered that we could drive to Iowa and back without paying $100 in tolls, round trip.
Jeanne and I get along during long hours in our car. She is taciturn. No Chatty Kathy, she. I often sleep while not driving. Jeanne and I are both good high speed drivers. More states now have interstate speed limits of 70, which means we can rocket along at 75 without fear of dreaded speeding tickets. Even a 65 limit (plus five above) keeps us moving at a reasonable pace.
During our two motor trips to the Midwest, we clocked over 3,300 miles. Our spring travels took us to our families. The first to celebrate the life of my late, selfless, family-building, 101 year old mother; the second to honor the 65 year marriage of Jeanne’s vivacious aunt and uncle and reunite with the entire Iowa McConnell clan. Life is good.