My dad’s father had died quite young of tuberculosis, soon after my dad graduated from high school. An immigrant from Norway, as a young man it seems he had been a bit of a dreamer; poetic, musical, a man who made violins as a hobby, and was the only photographer in the small Wisconsin town where my father grew up. He and my grandmother ran a grocery store with the help of their children. A large photo portrait of a handsome but sober-faced man was all I knew of my Grandpa Hanson. When my youngest sister Ruthie was barely four-years-old, my dad’s mother took the train from Milwaukee to spend her annual two-week vacation with us in Knoxville. Since we were her only grandchildren and she lived with her widowed daughter who had no other family, she didn’t really have anyplace else to spend her yearly vacation, except with some of her many brothers and sisters– but she saw them frequently, as they all lived near Milwaukee.
Dad decided to take Ruthie with him to meet his mother at the train depot in Newton, a half-hour drive. Ruthie was surprisingly excited by the notion that Grandma would be coming on the train, even though she could barely remember her a whole year after her last visit. Grandma Hanson was not at all like our fun-loving Grandma Fish. She seldom laughed or smiled and was one of those people you simply couldn’t tell a joke to–she just wouldn’t get it and would only grumble about bothering her with “such nonsense.” Children she thought, should be seen and not heard and furthermore, they must be raised with an iron hand if they were to amount to anything. She had no time for fun, reading stories, or singing naptime lullabies. We were all surprised that Ruthie was so anxious to go along on the trip to meet her at the train.
It all became clear shortly after Grandma had detrained and been settled in the car with her luggage. Crestfallen, Ruthie sulked until Dad gave in and asked her what was the matter. “She wasn’t ON the train,” she wailed, “she was IN it!” Mystery solved. Ruthie had been looking forward to the spectacle of our dour, German grandmother, arriving astride the train, her coat flapping in the breeze and clutching her suitcase with one hand and holding on to her hat with the other!
My Grandpa Fish died during my freshman year in college. This was my first experience with the death of a much-loved relative and I took the train from Iowa City to Newton where my dad met me and drove me to Knoxville. The funeral was to be in a church in Perry, with his burial in a cemetery near Des Moines. I have strong visual memories of the funeral but no recollection at all of returning to Iowa City and my room in Currier Hall. I remember Pat, my first college roommate, being solicitous and comforting. She had experienced that sort of loss and seemed much more like a wise older sister than a girl my own age.
As a college student, I could often beg rides to Knoxville on weekends and holidays with some of the other hometown students– it was mostly the guys who had cars in those days. When rides could not be arranged, there was always the bus or the train but inconveniently, neither went directly from Iowa City to Knoxville and I always had to impose on someone to meet me and deliver me back to the depot for the return trip. When college friends from northwestern Iowa invited me to their wedding, I was obligated to make elaborate arrangements in order to attend. I would take the train from Iowa City to Des Moines where my two uncles (Mother’s brothers who now farmed near Clear Lake) would meet me, pick up my cousin who was attending school at Drake, and take us to the farm. After an unexpected outing, involving attending a wrestling match between Verne Gagna and one of the murderous bad guys (I believe he called himself The Mighty Atlas), I stayed overnight with my Grandma Fish and my uncles delivered me to the train depot in Mason City. From there I rode a most primitive train– more of a trolley with hard wooden seats and wide-open windows. It moved at a snail’s pace through some of the world’s best farmland and after numerous stops, deposited me in Spenser where I spent another day and night with my most recent roommate and her parents before taking a bus to Sioux City. From there, I caught another bus that took me through part of the Loess Hills to the bride’s hometown of Mapleton. I’m reluctant to admit it but I remember nothing at all about the wedding and reception. The portion of the trip in that wonderful and unexpected old wooden train car remains crystal clear in my memory, along with my first glimpse of the Loess Hills. You see I had never heard of the Loess Hills and the bus driver, like a good tour guide, explained to me and the rest of his passengers, just what they were, how they had been formed, and why they were so fragile and needed conserving. And I remember not at all how I got home after the wedding.