BY KATE WEXELL (staff writer)
I’ve never believed in heroes. The idea of men in capes with supernatural abilities was never logical. Idolizing an imperfect celebrity was never appealing. This was an undebatable axiom in my universe until a summer day. I was riding in a tawny minivan through the Illinois countryside. The roads were made of thick gravel and heatwaves sizzled above the ground. The path winded through empty acres that weren’t inhabited.
Suddenly I stopped as we passed a river overgrown with honeysuckle and ravenous mosquitoes. On one side of the road was a soy field and on the other was a small schoolhouse from the 1800s padded with brick. My grandmother leans over to me and whispers, “This is where I grew up.” I imagine my own home in the posh, industrialized suburbs of St. Louis seated on half an acre. My head replays the constant sounds of sirens and vehicles passing by while I sleep. Then I contrast it with the meager rooms present before me with no sound but the river and rushing wind.
“What was it like?” I asked her.
She gets out of the vehicle to survey the land. The world appears blue, yellow, and lush with wild clover. I watch her look around. My grandmother stands barely five feet tall with short straw-colored hair, round blue eyes, strength in her muscles, and a small figure. Her skin is tarnished with sun and years of burning from yardwork and motorcycle rides. Yet her body is built to keep pushing on like she’s always engaging her survival instinct.
“To tell you that, I’d have to start from the beginning,” she said.
Once, there were Swedes. They farmed the land through the summer and prayed at church when the work was done. Eventually, they caught wind of the great American Dream. “The Swedes are out there. They’re already prosperous and plentiful in Illinois,” they were told. Small children were sent across the seas to make a new life.
One day, a twelve-year-old girl named Signe was sent on a ship to Ellis Island. She reached New York and set across the country for Moline. Eventually, she married a Swedish garbage collector. Raymond Peterson lived in a three-room house on stilts with his wife and a motherless son after Signe’s death. Their home was small and tried to survive the river’s flooding. At some point, Signe had taught her son Laverne how to cook. They passed down the broken Swedish dialect — somewhere stranded in between English and the native tongue — and a pauper’s feast. He came home from school each day, threw himself across the bed, and cried over his dead mother. Soon, he left to live in the dead town of Nakoma with his Aunt Violet and Uncle Sig. Laverne graduated eighth grade before coming home. There wasn’t enough time in the world for a twelve-year-old boy to become a surrogate mother.
The sun rose over the city and lanterns were blown out. The children clambered to school while Laverne left to do laundry. His days were spent scrubbing clothes and peeling potatoes instead of writing equations on a chalkboard. He bought blood from the butcher to beat into palt and cream to churn into ostkaka. When they could purchase pork, he ground it with potatoes and slid it into intestinal casings before boiling it in water as bologna. At breakfast, they poured coffee into a saucer to cool it down.
Meanwhile, Betty Jane Rachel Nimrick was the first caesarian baby born in the Quad Cities. Her mother’s bones wouldn’t separate and her babies would be pulled from her womb with broken necks. Betty went to school in Girard and graduated high school. Her days were spent playing in Cable Creek surrounded by mean children gaining sun-freckled skin. One day, a classmate told her that she could get rid of her freckles if she wiped a poopy diaper on her face, and she tried it in a vain attempt to become more beautiful.
During high school, she grew more plump and the kids called her “Porky.” She started saying that nobody would want “Fat Betty.” So she married at eighteen to the first man who looked at her and was soon divorced.
Soon, Laverne grew up. He graduated from carpentry school, but was drafted at the start of World War II to Fort Benning, Georgia. When he arrived, he enlisted for parachute training since it paid $50 more per month. After completing training, he went to maneuvers camp in Kentucky before being given one week at home. Laverne was told he’d be deported for the war, so he drank all night on his last day and missed his train to Chicago in the morning. At seventeen, he was saying goodbye to his family for what could be the last time. So when he was sent from the east coast to England, he was made to peel potatoes in the ship kitchen.
Then the day came when he and the other Red Devils attached his parachute to himself and made his first jump. He was sent on a plane across enemy lines at three in the morning on June 6, 1944. When he reached the ground, he’d signal the call while sneaking along hedgerows in the dark in order to regroup. While doing this, he would shoot haphazardly at the German soldiers and parts of his mind were slowly locked away.
Laverne become the troop leader and kept a notebook with the names of his men. He had a diagram of the Rhine River and where they were meant to land on the next page. In his last jump, he thought he was going to hit the river. He started loosening his gear to be released from the equipment before the current brought him under. Instead, he landed on a road.
On the ground, he was shot on his hand grenade. The grenade exploded and shrapnel was blown into his groin and arms. He lay on the ground bleeding. When Laverne tried to lift his head, he would blackout. He could never tell how long he was blacked out, but he grew more thirsty and the nights passed by. His canteen was just out of reach. When he eventually reached his canteen, it spilled over and he watched the water run out. Sometimes the Germans would come by and prod him with their rifles. He brought a photo of his mother and his sisters in his pocket because he knew he would die, but they stole it from his body.
Finally, a medic came by. Laverne gave him the gun and said, “Go shoot the bastards.” The medic left him and instead he was taken as a German prisoner of war. They put him on the back of a pickup truck and they drove for hours before arriving at an old farmhouse. The soldiers laid him on an open box spring mattress. He could see out the window and hear the planes fly over top and shoot. Sometimes cows and horses in the fields would drop. At one point, the Germans told him that they were moving. He had the option to stay or go with them, and he decided to be left behind.
He heard the American planes fly over and a medic signaled to them that a missing soldier was in the farmhouse by holding up a Red Cross helmet. Laverne was taken to a medical tent at the English Channel and tried to clean his wounds. He was sent on a boat to France and ate his first food in a week. At that moment, he discovered that his wounds were filled with gangrene.
In France, he stayed in a hospital for months to recuperate. When he could walk again, he would walk with the soldiers down the street to a church. In the church, he met a mother and her daughters. Every Sunday they started going to their house where the women served him tea and pastries. One of the daughters fell in love with him, but Laverne was placed in another company. He was out playing baseball, and his commander called him, “Pete! Come here!” He was told that the French girl had gone to the top-ranking officials to make sure he’d be safe. After that, he wasn’t allowed to see her again.
His company was supposed to go to the front lines, but they called Laverne out of the company due to his injuries. He was moved again, but the war ended before he saw any more action. When he arrived home, he and his friends were drinking and drove their Model-T car into a ditch. Laverne was thrown out of the vehicle and the car drove over the top of him and broke his femur. He spent about the next year in the hospital.
At this time, Betty was visiting her dad in the hospital who’d been diagnosed with cancer, and she was told by an aunt to visit Laverne. She stumbled into his hospital room, anxious with a swollen belly from the child of her adultering first husband. After her daughter was born, Laverne got out of the hospital and asked, “Can I take you and little Dyann for a ride?” They drove around the countryside together and began a relationship. Laverne didn’t know if he could have children after the grenade exploded in his pelvic region, and Betty wanted a father for her child.
Quickly, they married and lived in an old garage. After saving, they finally bought an old schoolhouse. Soon, their first daughter was born, and then their second, Sharon Ray Peterson.
“What was the area like, Grandma?” I asked her, “Growing up during the Civil Rights movement in the 60s?”
She pursed her lips. “My childhood was just like all the other kids. We didn’t live in an area with different races of people, so everybody was very equal. Even though there were families who had a lot more money, you never felt that when going to school. Everybody was on a level playing field.”
“And this house? It used to be an old schoolhouse?”
My grandmother nodded. “We never had AC. Our furnace was a coal furnace, and my dad had to shovel coal into the furnace every morning until he finally put in a hopper. It wasn’t until after I left home that they changed to electric heat. There were two hoses in the basement: one for cold and one for hot. They sat open in the middle of the room, so there was no privacy. That’s where you took a bath. It went to a drain on the basement floor. That’s all we had. We were lucky that we didn’t have to go to an outhouse as the other children did. Our toilet didn’t flush, but it went into a septic tank.
“We got a black-and-white TV when I was four or five. We didn’t get to watch TV very often, but Friday night was Rawhide, and Sunday night was Lassie. We didn’t watch Saturday morning cartoons because we got up in the morning and we were expected to help with chores. We hung clothes on the line, carried baskets out, cleaned the house, and baked meals. Sometimes we had chickens, and we always had a garden.
“Since we didn’t have our own field, we farmed the roadside. We had a cow or two, and it was our job to move the electric fence between different parts of the ditch as the cows would eat away the grass. We would move them in the areas bordering the farmer’s field. When we weren’t farming, my sisters and I would can fruit and we’d display our produce in the county fair.”
We walked around the perimeter of the house and I saw old markings. The bricks were weathered and full of memories. The house had been around for at least a century. Families had lived and grown here. I thought back to her parents. “What were your parents like when you were a kid?”
She looked at me with a bit of hesitation. “My mother was strict. Really strict. My mother was a sugar bear. She could be very kind and loving and good. She could be a teacher and instruct her daughters how to cook and clean and sew: all the things a wife needs to do. But I remember before I was even old enough to go to school,” she paused, “she put a chair in front of the kitchen sink for us to brush our teeth. We didn’t have running water in the bathroom. She put toothpaste on our toothbrushes for us, and I brushed my teeth first. My mom always said to wet your toothbrush. I thought I’d be helpful and wet my sister’s toothbrush for her, but when I did, the toothpaste came off. I got a licking for that. As a little kid, those things really stick in your mind, because I wasn’t being bad. I thought I was being helpful. Eventually, you learn those little things and it all formulates in your mind about how to adjust and it makes you who you are.
“She did a lot of braiding. She would stand at the kitchen sink where she could wet the brush, and pull our heads back before yanking. Then she’d shout, ‘Get your head back here,’ when you tried to pull away. If you didn’t put your head back, she’d whack you with the brush. But sometimes she’d oink like a pig so you’d move before shouting it. It was like a game.
“Dad was a typical dad. He didn’t interact a lot. I remember seeing pictures of us sitting on his lap, and I remember that Dad used to take us under his arm and jump over the whole couch with us. Sometimes he’d put us up on his feet like an airplane. I was always pretty balanced because I’d stand on my head as a little kid. But the dads always went off to work, so I wouldn’t see him often.
“Sometimes my mom would pack Dad’s lunch in a metal lunch box that buckles. She’d put candy bars in the bottom of his lunchbox, and when he’d come home from work, it was like Dad was bringing a treat. We’d be excited, and all three girls would put dresses on to greet him. But when we found out it wasn’t Dad bringing a treat, we realized Mom had been doing it to make him seem special.”
“My dad was a heavy equipment operator. Eventually, he opened his own business. He bought his own dump truck and CAT so he could do hauling and grade work. He was excellent with grading yards and was one of the best in the area.”
“What happened next? When you got older and went to school?” I asked her.
“Kindergarten was only six weeks, and there were no buses, so my mom didn’t have a way to get me to school. So I started first grade at the Cambridge Elementary School at age five, so I was very little. My mother should’ve held me back because I was still writing everything backwards.
“One of my best friends was Lynn, who was short like me. During recess, we would run for the sake of running. One night, we had a sleepover. She slept with the window open, and in the morning we got up to do exercises and go horseback riding. That’s just how it was back then. We didn’t hang out closely because everybody was friends with everybody in our class.
“There were no sports for kids until seventh or eighth grade. Then, it was only for boys, so in high school, we had the Girl’s Athletic Association where we played a bit of basketball against each other. By high school, I became the head baton twirler. Then I went out for cheerleading because there weren’t other options for girls. Because of that, I was really popular with the kids at school. During school voting, I would normally win for Homecoming Queen, Carnival Candidate, and Sock Hop Princess. I tried to treat everybody with kindness and had an easygoing personality. I looked at everybody equally as my classmates, rather than as who was popular or not. Other people looked up to me for cheerleading, but I never viewed myself that way. I just enjoyed staying active.
“One of my favorite classes was home economics. It was very strict and structured, so it reminded me of home. Everybody was there to learn. Our teacher knew if you were dedicated to your work, so you were either in or out. It made it a lot easier to pay attention and get things done. I was also in Library Club. You were chosen due to your grades, so during study hall, you would get to help other kids check out books in the school library. But probably my favorite class was P.E.
“I lived in the country, so I didn’t have friends who lived down the street. So for fun, I would bounce a ball off the chimney of our house, or I would swing in the backyard. I’d ride my bicycle up and down the road. Sometimes, my sisters would go roller-skating with me, but otherwise, I always played by myself. I never had a vehicle. I wasn’t allowed to go out with friends during high school.
“During high school, I went to the school dances and all the football games because I was a cheerleader. As soon as the game ended, I would have to go home. The latest I was ever out was 11:30 on the night of my senior prom. My parents would let me visit my boyfriend on Sunday afternoons. But I couldn’t go on outings with other girls. I had a few guys who tried to date me.
“When I was sixteen, I started dating a boy named Danny about halfway through my junior year. We would just go to his parent’s house on Sunday afternoons. After about a year, we were named Homecoming King and Queen. He was a football player and I was a cheerleader. He was mean to me. He hit me. One day, we were on our way to a school dance. I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup or have pierced ears, but I put on clip-ons. He thought I was trying to impress somebody, so he ripped off the earrings and threw them out the car window. He learned these controlling behaviors from his dad. My mom smacked me a lot, so it was just normal.
“You think you’re in love because there’s no way of knowing. Of course, when you start dating somebody steady, everybody else backs off. I just thought I wanted a country person who liked sports. Danny was a good-looking guy. He was a little short, but so was I, and he was a farm kid. We were a matched-up pair.
“After we graduated, I lost a lot of weight because I had my tonsils taken out. I continued farming the roadside. I even had okra. That summer, my mother was head of the junior home economics contest at the fair. During the fair, she wanted me to come up with her. I had talked to Danny on the phone. I was only allowed about three minutes, and he was going to cut hogs with his dad. I told her I didn’t want to come out. She insisted that as soon as she left, Danny would be out there, and I told her no. He was cutting hogs with his dad. So she called me a liar. I argued back with her, and so she beat me with the wire part of a flyswatter until my back was bleeding.
“I ran out the front door and headed west down the country road. A farmer picked me up and gave me a ride into Cambridge. I was upset. Here I was, seventeen, going to get married later that year, and I felt like I should have a little more freedom to say I didn’t want to go to the fair. My mom called Danny’s mother, so she picked me up and took me home. When I showed his mother my back, she unleashed on my mother. Today, you could have DCIS called for this behavior. But back in the day, my mom could be mean at times. They stayed and barked it out. I proved to my mom that Danny was cutting hogs with his dad.
“Later, I sewed my wedding dress. There was no proposal. Danny wanted to get married in the middle of our senior year of high school. I received an engagement ring in his dad’s field. I got married six days after my eighteenth birthday because that was freedom. That’s how both of my sisters had gotten their freedom. Even during my rehearsal supper, I had to drive straight home after because my mother only allowed me to see Danny once a week, even though I was marrying him the next day. I think a bit of it was that she didn’t want to lose her last child. But she would never say that. She would never tell you how she felt, and instead she just controlled you.
“We got married in the Catholic church. I turned Catholic for him, because I thought it was important for us to be of the same faith. We didn’t even go to our party. Our reception had the typical cake, punch, and coffee. But after eating the cake, we changed our clothes and left. We just took off in the car and left to Florida. Danny and I spent our wedding night in a motel.
“When we got home, we moved into a three-room house. We lived there until Danny was called to service during the Vietnam War. He was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood. After a certain number of weeks, I could go down to see him, so I moved out there. He only left the base two or three times when I was there. I could go on base a couple nights a week to see him. The place I lived only had a kitchen and bedroom along with a shared bathroom. After paying rent, I only had about $33 left each month to spend, so I didn’t eat much. When Danny got off the base, I would bake cookies or make cowgirl stew.
“Then he went to Fort Polk. I went home during that time and worked at the county fair. The other workers wanted me to come to Springfield with them, but instead I went to Louisiana to be with Danny. I ended up getting a room at a guesthouse on base, but you could only stay for a week before you had to leave for at least three or four days. So I would leave and sleep in my car on those other nights. Eventually, they found out what I was doing and let me stay.
“In the front of the guesthouse, there was a barber shop where the soldiers would go. I got paid for collecting their money when they came in. Every day, I would go to the commissary and get a big box of cornflakes. I would walk twice a day to get a pint of milk and so I ate cornflakes every day. I would see the other girls going to the pop machine, and I wondered where they were getting the money to buy it. I always wondered if the barbers would bring me back crackers from lunch, but they never did.
“Then he was sent to Fort Benning for officer training. We could go to the base on Wednesday night for a full chicken dinner. There were mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, fried chicken, and beer even though you couldn’t drink beer back at home in Illinois. At nineteen, it was very cool. All the time, you were so hungry, and you could have this dinner once a week for almost nothing. After that, he got orders to go to Vietnam, but his parents got him out of it due to medical injuries he sustained as a kid. He’d been kicked by a horse and had brain surgery.
“When we were first living together in Columbus, Georgia near Fort Benning, we lived in a trailer. The oven in the trailer didn’t work, so I baked pies in a dutch oven for Thanksgiving. I would sew rugs out of burlap. We stood in the doorway watching a gunfight one night. Then I got a job at Holiday Inn, followed by Waffle House. I was assigned a shift at eleven one night. I was the only person working. There were a few guys in a booth, and I was fixing their food. Suddenly, a few men came in and split up. One was near the other customers, one was near the exit, one was near the phone, and one was near the cash register. I asked if I could help them.
“Two of them pointed guns at me and told me to open the cash register. I had enough thought to realize I needed to be able to describe them. I gave them all the dollar bills in the drawer and threw my tips in the register. At the payphone, I called the police. Then, I tried to dial home to my parents and Danny but my hands started shaking so badly that I couldn’t dial the phone.
“When I was about twenty-one, we moved back to Kewanee in Illinois at his parent’s farm. I got a job at the post office in Kewanee. He was lazy. Danny would lay at the door with his work boots on so he could jump up if it looked like his dad was coming out. I’d set an alarm every hour during the night, get on the tractor, and water all the hogs. I would fill a metal bushel basket with corn and heave it on my shoulders to feed the cows for him. Eventually, his parents kicked him out. We lived in a house after that.
“At this time, we would go dancing and partying most nights. One night, my classmate, Daryl Wexell, invited us to his twenty-first birthday. Then he started coming to our parties and invited his younger brother Gail to our parties. Gail was engaged to be married to a girl named Paula. When I was at the post office, I would be assigned to walk around to the collection boxes in Kewanee. Most nights I would see the same girl walked around town. It turns out that she would check to make sure I was working before she would go to sleep with Danny.
“Soon I learned he had been doing this while we were in Georgia, Louisiana, and Missouri. Even at Fort Polk, I had seen a pair of underwear in the vehicle that didn’t belong to me and I’d always wondered about it. Paula actually told me herself that she had been cheating on Gail with Danny, so that’s when I filed for divorce. Of course, Gail became a shoulder to cry on. The day I got divorced, he took me to supper and a drive-in movie. I was working so hard and walking all day for the post office, so I fell asleep during the movie. He viewed me as a dud of a date, but he didn’t give up on me.
“Within five months, he begged me to marry him. I already knew his mom because we used to have cookie parties. For years, my friends had been telling him that he needed to meet me. Sometimes we’d go drinking and dancing. Every week he would go with me to church and ask me to marry him. Finally, I agreed and he walked up to the preacher to ask if we could be married that Wednesday. He didn’t discuss this with me, so I turned to him and his explanation was that he bowled on Tuesday and I bowled on Thursday, so we had to be married on Wednesday.
“Like a fool, I said ok. I worked the day of my wedding. I barely had enough time to do my blood tests for our marriage license. Then I was back at work by six the next morning. We lived in a three-room shack. He was cuddly at first. Things can really change,” she laughed. “One day we were helping his dad farm, and I looked at this space on the hillside overlooking the river. It was covered in blue flowers, and I told him that’s where I wanted to build a house. He told me to talk to his dad, and his dad said we could have the land.
“During the process where we were working on the house, I would lay on the ground where the concrete floor was being poured and notice that I didn’t have any energy. I always had energy. So that’s when I realized I was pregnant with your dad.”
She finished telling me her story, and I knew the rest. My grandmother went on to become a manager at the post office and take on every job she could in her new town of Bishop Hill. It is an old Swedish colonial town that was just being renovated to become a state historic site when she moved there. She and my grandfather slowly built their house from the bottom and it still isn’t finished. The old wooden boards are made of sweat and the dirt from their hands. Holes are in places where they shouldn’t be, but the walls are painted with memories.
We headed back from her old childhood home. When we did, we passed the tall brick buildings where she gave tours as a young mother with two small boys that she’d pull in a wagon. We enter the house and I see the stairwell going to the basement. It is covered in a collage of photos from the past five decades. My father growing up a scrawny farm boy being taught by his father how to work in the fields. He and my uncle in their military uniforms. The herds of horses living in the pasture. My two aunts at 4H competitions. My grandmother smiling through it all.
The pictures on the walls tell a story about a woman who gave everything to her family and a town that wasn’t hers. She worked long hours at the post office to come back and care for her four children. I remember stories about her handling her small babies while running around the county delivering mail. Encouraging them to live a life that she wasn’t able to. Driving my father to school until he could ride his motorcycle and graduate with an appointment to the Air Force Academy. Even when he turned down his offer, she cheered him on as he was the first person in our family to receive a college degree.
When there were no more children, she gave her soul to the church to run food pantries and deliver sermons. When it wasn’t church, it was running stocks for friends or serving as a band booster board member for my cousins. When it wasn’t school, it was helping to run the village. As the state of Illinois offered less and less funding for her village for the historic museums, she took over as treasurer to organize projects, write grants, and petition the state.
I reflected on the purpose of her life. “Are you happy with your life, Grandma?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “I missed out on so much of life. Getting an education, having a loving marriage. But there was never anybody to teach me how to value myself. I had to navigate life alone.” Then she looked at the photos. “But I live for my family.”
This is the dilemma of the blue-collar life. While I know that I don’t want to experience the same controlling behaviors my grandmother faced or be doomed to loveless marriages, she had no way of knowing about the world outside her town. It was a generational curse where women weren’t told they could be anything more than be wives and mothers. Children and girls weren’t taught how to speak or stand up for themselves and were told to be complicit. Freedom could only be achieved through fulfilling these duties and becoming bound to another type of tyranny.
While my grandmother never quite escaped this cycle, she has continued to make the best of her circumstances. She never stops working and doing things for other people. Though she’s had to endure a life of dull jobs, my grandmother immediately becomes a leader in the environments she’s placed within and tries to be kindhearted to people she encounters. When I visit her, she never stops cooking for her guests or making sure all the chores are getting done. When she’s done, she turns to her tasks for the village or the church. She tries to become responsible for the happiness of the world without considering herself.
So while she believes her life hasn’t gone as it should have, I believe my grandmother is an inspiration for how to keep living even through the tragedies of life and how to make the most of opportunities given through serving others.