Sunday, July 27, 2014

Helen, Part VIII: Grandmother

Michael D. Lacopo and Helen Strukel, Elkhart, Indiana, 1982

As Helen (Timmons) Strukel entered into her senior years, she was finally in a good place. She continued her clerical job at Long's Lock Shop in Elkhart, Indiana. She shared her home with her brother-in-law, "Bars" Strukel, with whom she shared a mutual, meaningful affectionate relationship. Two of her daughters lived locally, and she had grandchildren to spoil. By 1982, a third daughter would be added to the fold.

Unfortunately, I did not have the benefit of growing up with Helen as a grandmother. I was fifteen years old before I met her. Biologically she was my grandmother, and a bond between us formed very quickly. This was borne out of my role as a budding genealogist, as I was constantly nagging her for information. Although I look back now with amusement, I would often ask her questions of long-dead relatives of which she had no answers. And after ferreting out the information and sharing it with her, she would usually respond, "Oh yeah, I knew that." Helen helped me hone my skills as an interviewer by learning what tactics did NOT yield information.

But there are bonds that form between a child and his grandparents that are forged from infancy. The maternal grandmother that was an integral part of my upbringing was Rosie Arreda "Rita" (Dobyns) DePrato. When I think of "my grandma," I think of holiday dinners, birthday cookouts, and watching passing trains in her back yard in Osceola. Even now, when I want to make sure my writing is true to the memories of others, I ask about "Grandma Helen." She truly did become a grandmother to me quickly, but childhood reminisces of her just do not exist. For that I recruited my cousin, Lisa, who was born in 1970 and whose childhood was greatly influenced by Helen. I wanted her to relay some of her memories of Helen as a grandmother, which she did so graciously for me.

"Grandma Helen and I had a routine, one that never wavered. If I were spending the night with my Grandma, I knew it was going to be a good weekend. My mom would drop me off at her work just off Main Street in Elkhart at Long's Lock Shop. I don't know what she did there, but I assume it was to make keys for customers that walked in. The shop was a ten-year-old's dream. Lots of hidden rooms and places to explore. The "guys" were always working in the back of the shop, and I did not like going back there. They scared me. Noontime would soon come and Grandma and I were off to start our afternoon. We would head to Mishawaka to explore K-Mart at the corner of Grape Road and McKinley Avenue. After making some purchases it was off to eat. I never remember going anywhere else except Jenny's Smorgasbord. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet and for me that meant an unlimited supply of mashed potatoes. It was later that our family learned that Helen's daughter Carol lived only a couple blocks away." 
"After dinner it was back to Grandma's house to start our evening activities. Her house was small with just three bedrooms, one bath, a kitchen and a living room. Her washer and dryer were in her kitchen as there was no laundry room. That was odd to me. The kitchen also had the most unusual red indoor/outdoor carpet." 
"Grandma and I would settle in by putting on our silky pajamas. I don't know if I just purposely forgot my pajamas, or just insisted on wearing one of hers, but either way I wore one of her pink silky nighties every time I was there. We would prop ourselves up at the kitchen table and paint our nails on those Saturday nights. Grandma Helen had the nicest nails. They were always pretty long, but I did not like the yellow color. I know now that was from consistently wearing nail polish and never going without." 
"After our nails were beautifully polished, we would retire to the living room. She would fire up the television, and we would spend the next two hours enjoying new episodes of Hee Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show. I can't believe I really liked those shows, but I only have fond memories of them, so it must not have been too bad. After dinner, but before Lawrence Welk, we played Yahtzee. She played a mean game of Yahtzee and taught me the game well." 
"Grandma would lay out our favorite candy to snack on: those orange circus peanuts. You know, the ones that made your teeth squeak when you bit into them! I cannot eat them today; they are so unappealing. When it was time for bed we would go into her room, and I would jump on the exercise machine for a couple of minutes. It was definitely not exercise, as it was one of those bands that connected to an arm, and once you placed the band around your backside and turned it on, it would shake your fat away. I loved that machine and could just stand there for an eternity letting it shake my back side along with my pink, silky nightie!" 
"Once I had cuddle into my bed with Grandma Helen, she would pull out a collection of National Enquirers. We would read all about the up-to-date Hollywood gossip and who was dating who. I truly believed everything those magazines said, and I think my grandma did too." 
"Once I could no longer keep my eyes open, Grandma would massage my face with her nails to put me to sleep. She would make swirly patterns around my forehead, down to my cheeks, and on to my lips. This got me every time. She had the most unusual way of sleeping - one arm straight up in the air. I am not really sure what that was about, but it was funny to me." 
"On Sunday morning we would enjoy cups of coffee with lots of cream and sugar, and peanut butter toast. If I were lucky, there might be time to sit outside on the porch swing before my parents came to get me. That was my childhood, always the same, never any different. It was our routine, and I would not have had it any other way." 
"Grandma Helen was very ornery. She loved to tell jokes and pull practical jokes on people. She loved to laugh. She would often take out her false teeth, or just slide them onto her tongue while speaking, mid-sentence, just to catch me off guard. I thought it was so gross but so cool at the same time." 
"Freshly cut keys, circus peanuts, The Lawrence Welk Show, silky jammies... to this day if I encounter any of these things, they stop me in my tracks. I think back to a time when I got to live the best childhood, with the most amazing grandma ever."

Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel holding Lisa Moore
Sandra (Miller) Canen at sink, Dianne (Strukel) Moore seated
Elkhart, Indiana, c1978

It is interesting to note the similarities in childhood memories that Lisa and I share with different grandmothers. Or does every child of the 1970s have grandparents that watched Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk? Did they all shop at K-Mart and eat at buffets? Did they all play Yahtzee and read the National Enquirer?

But my grandmothers were substantially different in several ways as well. Rita wholeheartedly embraced her Roman Catholic faith that she converted to upon marrying Raymond DePrato in 1939. The woman would break out her rosary and say a novena for anyone that needed divine intervention. And interestingly, although Frank Strukel had insisted that his unborn child be adopted by a Catholic family, religion played a relatively small role in their lives after their marriage. Helen would not convert to the Catholic faith until the 1980s.

Helen definitely had a slapstick sense of humor. From sliding out her teeth to sticking out her tongue to poking and prodding and tickling and giggling, they are all traits shared by my extended family. Although Rita could laugh, she was far more restrained. There was always a sense of decorum that one must maintain, regardless if it be in public or in private.

And so, when my family reunited with Helen's in 1982, I was privileged enough to gain a third grandmother.

Unfortunately, that was a very short-lived privilege.

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