Monday, July 28, 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 cuddled 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.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Helen, Part VII: Another Strukel

Helen Strukel, c1980, Elkhart, Indiana

With the Elkins marital debacle behind her, Helen Strukel settled into her routine life in her little bungalow home on Jay Dee Street on the outskirts of Elkhart, Indiana.

I did not have the fortune to meet my grandmother in the 1970s and to know her while I was growing up, but this was apparently a decade of routine. Helen continued to work at Long's Lock Shop in Elkhart, Indiana, and she maintained the same residence she bought with her late husband, Frank Strukel, prior to his death in 1968. There were no more husbands and no more relationship fiascos, and the "man of the house" duties fell to Helen's brother-in-law, Charles Strukel, who took up residence at the Jay Dee Street address in the late 1970s.

Charles John Strukel went by the nickname "Bars." It was a nickname that he carried as early as his teenage years while working for C. J. Conn in Elkhart and playing on the city baseball leagues. In a 1939 newspaper article from the Elkhart Truth praising his ball-playing prowess, even Charlie stated he was unsure exactly why the nickname had stuck, but it was likely due to his insatiable habit for munching candy bars while out on the baseball field.

"Bars" Strukel was born 15 August 1919 in Coal Creek, Colorado, a mining town very near to where his brother Frank would be born three years later. The two youngest boys of John and Rose (Stupica) Strukel, they were just children when the family moved to Elkhart, Indiana. Although not native Hoosiers, Elkhart would be the only home they would remember. Like Frank, Bars was drafted into service during World War II. But unlike his little brother, his life circumstances were quite different. 

In March 1942, Charles Strukel had married his teenage pregnant bride. Five months later he was a father to a baby boy. And two months after that, he was inducted into the United States Army from Toledo, Ohio, and sent away from home and his young family for training. Although like his brother Frank, Charles was sent overseas, much of his active duty was done in England, and he did not see combat like his brother. Back in Elkhart, Indiana, by 1946, Charles's military service had ended. So had his marriage. He remarried in 1950, and became a father again in 1956 and 1962, but that marriage too ended when his children were young. His ex-wives both remarried quickly after their divorces, and Charles's children were raised by stepfathers. He unfortunately failed to forge a strong paternal bond with any of his children and like Helen, he entered into the 1970s unmarried with the full intention of remaining that way.

I do not know how the living arrangements came to be that Charles moved into the Jay Dee Street address, but in "Bars" Strukel, Helen was able to gain the companionship she needed with the perks of additional household income, maintenance help with the house, and a reminder of the husband she had lost too early in life. And although the relationship was platonic, they were well suited for each other. My relationship with Helen and Bars began in 1982: she was 65; he was 63. And I was a mere child of fifteen. But it was easy to see that they both had a similar sense of humor: teasing and blunt with a deadpan delivery so that often you were left wondering if they were being serious or not. Had I been older, I am sure I would have appreciated their humor more, as it certainly bordered on bawdy and crude. It is not surprising then that the only picture I have of "Bars" as a younger man is in knickers and bows posing with a man in drag. The story behind it is unknown, but nothing regarding the circumstances would seem shocking or surprising. Neither of them would fit the mold of a prim and proper cookie-baking Grandma, nor of a scholarly gentleman quietly studying the Sunday paper. They were real people. They were fun. They were relatable, reachable, and down-to-earth, and for me it made slipping into this family without the benefit of a childhood spent knowing them as easy as slipping on a pair of well-worn, comfortable slippers. 

Charles John "Bars" Strukel (right)

A perfect example of Charles Strukel's sense of humor involved a brief tale he would tell of his military service in World War II. He would relate how the Nazis cut off his tongue because he refused to speak after they had captured him. He would illustrate this by just barely sticking out his tongue to indicate the stub they had left behind. Of course, this was all foolishness, as he never fought in Germany, and his tongue was totally intact. But he said it seriously enough that my 43-year-old cousin asked me if I was also going to write in this blog about Bars' torture at the hands of the Nazis after I had discussed the military service of his brother Frank. His delivery was flawless enough to keep a great-niece believing his tall tales long after his death.

But for Helen Strukel, this time of her life was dedicated to home, work, and family. In her youngest daughter, Dianne, she had a best friend, and she adored the grandchildren she had provided her: John in 1966, and Lisa in 1970. Her older daughter, Sandy, who also lived in Elkhart was surprised by the birth of her only daughter, Michelle, in 1979, after seventeen years of marriage, thus giving Helen another grandchild to care for locally. 

Helen's sons, Ted and Jerry Miller, had left California and had settled in Portland, Oregon, where they together ran a marine with their father, Eldon. No less important were the three grandchildren she had by her sons on the west coast, but her ability to be much of an influence in their lives was minimal.  Ted had a daughter, Laura, in 1968. Her son, Jerry, adopted two children: a daughter, Karen, in 1964, and a son, Robert, in 1966. It would be interesting to know what went through Helen's mind at this time. Did she think about discussing the other side to adoption with her son, feeling the torment of not knowing what happened to the daughter she gave up for adoption two decades before? 

This was the life that Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel was living when her missing daughter surfaced in 1982. After a miserably failed first marriage, a second marriage cut short by death, and a third marriage that was an enormous mistake, Helen had finally found the peace and happiness that had often eluded her in the past. 

The final piece of the puzzle that would make this happiness whole was soon to be found. 

Or should I say it was to find her?