In yesterday’s mail here at my P.O. Box in Long Beach, I received a large, manila envelope from stepmother Nancy, from up in the Wisconsin snow country, which contained the typed memoirs of my late Aunt Erma, one of my dad’s sisters, which she wrote in February 2003, before she passed away.
In her memoirs, Aunt Erma described life for her and her family, especially when she was very young and growing up.
Some of the things she and her siblings endured during their early years, I had heard bits and pieces from my dad during his life, and also in his memoirs, also dictated during his later life and then transcribed by Nancy.
The memoirs describe how, my grandfather Fredrick, father to my father and Erma, died in a tragic fire in October 1921, when she was only three weeks old, and my father was just under two years old.
The fire occurred when grandfather Fred, who worked for the Post Office, was home during the lunch hour, and while attempting to heat the home up, dumped a small can of what he thought was coal oil, into a stove to stock up the coal in the stove.
Unbeknownst to my grandfather, the young man who recently filled the coal oil fuel can at the service station, had a degree of mental retardation, and inadvertently filled the can with gasoline, rather than coal oil.
When the gasoline hit the flame in the stove, it exploded and burned my grandfather severely. He lived for two days after the fire, before dying.
My surviving grandmother, whose maiden name was Julia Belle Rolfe, really struggled to try to raise her three children, my Aunt Lil, my father and my Aunt Erma. She was gone a lot of the time, and worked as a ‘midwife’ for a doctor, taking care of mothers-to-be and staying after the baby was born.
Grandmother Julia, who had but a fourth grade education, did the best she could, but eventually, neighbors reported her to the State authorities, and as a result, the three children were taken away from her and sent to the State School (orphanage), up in Sparta.
What happened to them after that for many years is truly sad, and something I won’t elaborate on here, as it brings on too many tears, even 60-80 years after the fact. What I will say is that, long after that, my brother and sisters and I were extremely blessed to have both my father and mother as our parents during our growing years.
As I read through page after page of Aunt Erma’s memories, I laughed out loud a number of times, at a lot of things she recalled about her life, including several references to her memories about ME.
Often when my brother and sisters happen to be together for family time, and get around to talking about some of the things that happened to us during our growing up years, invariably, my sisters Barb and Sue bring up about how I usually was at the root cause of our getting into trouble with one or both of our parents, especially at the supper table.
During those times when fingers are pointed in my direction, I normally shrug my shoulders and feign innocence, all the while showing a slight smile, as if their insinuations may be a little bit true. All that I ever did own up to, was pulling the kitchen cupboards off the wall over the sink and breaking all the dishes, glasses and cups inside. TWICE!
My little sister Sue did it, too, after my second time, as she, like me, tried to climb up on the sink by grabbing the cabinet door handles and pulling herself up. After the third time, my father drilled holes all the way through the kitchen wall and installed long bolts completely through the wall, so it wouldn’t happen a fourth time. That and he went out and bought the old melamine (what we used to call “melmac”) dishes, glasses and cups to put in the cabinet now.
The cabinet never came off the wall again.
Some of Aunt Erma’s recollections of me, which my brothers and sisters, I know, have all received a copy of, too, lend a bit of collaborating back-up to my sisters’ accusations.
Here is one of Aunt Erma’s recollections: “I helped with Evan’s 3 kids, did housework and baked pies for the restaurant [which my father owned, and Aunt Erma work in, as did my grandmother Julia]. Once as I was making fudge candy, little Lance climbed on a chair and was watching me. He was almost three and as the candy started boiling up he shouted “Auntie Erma its ‘gozing over.’” He was so cute but into everything.”
She goes on, “Another time, he wouldn’t eat all of his supper and wasn’t supposed to get dessert, which was a pumpkin pie I had baked. During the night, my Mother heard sounds in the kitchen and investigated. There he was with the refrigerator open sitting on a stool and with his feet in the refrigerator dipping all over with a spoon eating the rest of the pie. He was determined to get his share.”
Another incident she recalled, “When it was the day before Mother’s Day, Evan brought home a three-tiered big beautiful cake decorated with red roses in honor of his Mother, wife and sister. Of course we were all excited about it and decided to hide it away from Lance under the sink. Someway during the night, he found out where it was hidden and got up while everyone was sleeping and ate every one of the roses.”
Well, thanks a lot, Aunt Erma, there goes my cling to innocence with my brother and sisters. I can just hear my sisters shout out as they were reading Erma’s memoirs, “See, it’s true what we have been saying about Lance being behind our getting into trouble all the time!” Finally, they have their confirmation, after all these years!
Aunt Erma and Uncle Bern raised five wonderful children, and in 2000, celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary, which I had the honor to photograph for them.
When grandmother Julia Belle passed away some 50+ years ago, she was living with and being cared for by Aunt Lil in Riverside, Michigan. I remember vividly the following night, very late, when my father arrived back home from Michigan with our station wagon. In it was the body of grandmother Julia, which my father had journeyed to Michigan to bring back, to the funeral home in nearby LaFarge, where the service was to be held a few days later.
We kids had all been sleeping when my father arrived home, with grandmother. I remember waking when I heard the car come into our driveway, and crept down the stairs from the bedroom I shared with my brother upstairs.
When I silently peeped my head around the doorway, I saw and heard my father sitting at our yellow kitchen table, his arms down on the table his head buried in his arms, wailing in his grief over his mother. My mother was standing beside him, her arms around his shoulders, her head on his, also crying. I think he cried for twenty minutes or so, it seemed. I had never witnessed my father crying like that, so hard and for so very long.
That memory of that scene, so long ago, has never left me, and never will.
How many of us could drive the body of our deceased parent, lying directly behind our seat, several hundred miles, to bring them ‘back home,’ for the last time?
Grandmother Julia Belle Rolfe was buried in a tiny cemetery, located on a knob,
in the wooded hills of western Vernon County, Wisconsin, only a few miles from the Rolfe family homestead, her grave located between two tall cedar trees that my father planted there, shortly after her death.
Grandmother Julia’s grandfather, Albert Harland Rolfe, originally from New York, and later from Painesville, Ohio, established the family homestead, there at the head of Jug Creek, in a log home, shortly after coming back to Vernon County after serving and being wounded in the Civil War.
My great great grandfather Albert Harland Rolfe, served in Company K, Sixth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was part of the renowned “Iron Brigade” of the Army of the Potomac of the Union Armies, consistenting of the Second, Sixth and Seventh Wisconsin Voluntary Infantry, the Nineteenth Indiana Volunteer Infantry, the Twenty-fourth Michigan Volunteer Infantry, and the 4th US Artillery.
Grandfather Rolfe served in the Civil War in the eastern battlefield arena, serving in many of those horrible battles that students of the Civil War are familiar with, including Brawner’s Farm, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Richmond, St. Petersburg and Five Forks, from April 1862 until he was finally wounded on April 1, 1865, at the Battle of Five Forks, a few miles south of St. Petersburg, just nine days before Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.
When my wife and I were blessed with the birth of our third child, which turned out to be a boy, his first and middle names became: Andrew Rolfe.
American History, and more specifically, Family History, has long been important to me, personally, and as a field of study, something I have devoted literally years of study to in my lifetime.
Family is more important than anything, I believe. And that is what I miss most about serving down here on the Gulf Coast during my mission. I sincerely hope and pray that I may soon be reunited with my family back in my home.
Until then, they remain ever in my thoughts and prayers.
Thank you so much, Aunt Erma, for helping provide some needed laughter and special memories for me to enjoy this week and in the future, while my mission proceeds. I pray that you and your brothers and sisters, including my father and mother and your spouse, Bern, are having some good times up in heaven, talking about some of the fun times you had together when you were all on this side.
I’ll catch up with you folks some day, on down the road a piece.