The original St. Peter and St. Paul church
in Castle Grove. This building was destroyed
in a tornado and rebuilt in 2007.
Below I have reprinted the poem "Several Aunts":
for Rose, Katie, Alice, Margaret, Anna, and the Lenas
silver is the last upon
a sad opportune panicked
into the fast walks hard
out of skin, nails
getting against an exact itch
gone off wrists to kill,
crow-sick, groused and meet the scent
despite any papered
down especially to mount
complete as porcupine
an anchor into cool quiet ribs,
linen, bone-forgot, real shoes
run back to carry horizontally
this velocity of latticework, slabbed
after side & straight
away to take the cake.
This is, of course, a rhythmic sense of their beings, a linguistic reconstruction of their quick and furious movements as they fought their way through their lives, loving, contending, surviving.
These are my Grandfather's, Tobias Caspers', sisters.
Anna Casper(s) Moenk
On February 1, 1922 Anna Caspers married Menno Moenk in the Saint Peter and Paul Lutheran Church, on the edge of Monticello, Iowa, what is called Castle Grove—the church where her brother, my grandfather Tobe was confirmed and in which Tobe married Anna L. Fahrni in 1920; my own parents were married in the same church in 1944.
Catherine (Katie) Casper(s) Tobiason
Five years after Anna's marriage, Catherine Caspers, the second eldest of my Grandfather's sisters, was married to Michael Tobiason in the same SS Peter and Paul Lutheran church in 1927. Michael and his family (his father, George, a German immigrant), evidently, attended the Wayne Township Evangelical Lutheran Church in the same county.
Lena Casper(s) Mardorf
Lena was married in the same church, to Gerhard Mardorf, on February 9, 1928.
Margaret Casper(s) Mardorf
Margaret still lives today. She was one of my Mother's favorite aunts, and one of the few matriarchs with whom I've actually spoken as an adult. I wish I could have talked with her more often, but probably have now missed the opportunity.
On January 4th, 2010, having just completed this essay, I called my Mother, who told me that the day before my Uncle Duane had visited, with the news that he had gone to visit Margaret over the weekend, flowers in hand, only to be told she had just died. "She was the last one," sighed my Mother. "Yes, I know," I commiserated, "she was the last of the Great Aunts." And suddenly I felt that the word "great" was not just a statement of relationship, but was an evaluation as well.
I never knew my maternal Grandmother, who died soon after the birth of my Uncle Duane in 1937. Anna Fahrni, of Swiss ancestry, was the daughter of Fred and Mary (Nieman) Fahrni. Her husband, Tobias, died years later in 1969 and was buried in the same Castle Grove cemetery with Anna, despite a second marriage to a simple German woman, Emma, the Grandmother my siblings and I knew. We children used to joke—although we were terrified by its implications—that if Emma had remained in Germany she'd have been one of Hitler's strongest supporters.
I knew the aunts of my Father's side better, in part because of the peculiarities of family interrelationships, resulting in the fact that my Grandfather's sisters would appear at family reunions on both my Father's and my Mother's side.
Lena Freda Messerli Zumbach
John's older sister, Lena was born on October 3, 1894, and married Albert Zumbach (born 1891) on November 5, 1915. Lena, the daughter of Frederick Messerli and Mary Meyer, was born in the neighboring Jones County, the location of Monticello, the home town in which most of these aunts grew up. They had four sons.
Rose Elizabeth Messerli Zumbach
Like the Caspers sisters, Lena and Rose (born 1899) married brothers, Rose (known in our family as Rosie) wedding Louis Zumbach on October 3, 1920.
Alice was born on March 27, 1906.
These Messerli and Casper(s) aunts were seen by many of the younger generation as "keeping secrets." Both my father and mother once suggested that the Aunts "knew something about the family history that they weren't telling."
Born in 1888, Addie was the "leader," so my Aunt Mary reports, of the Haigh sisters, clearly a outgoing and forceful woman.
The seven sisters decided to go
Back to the place they used to know
Through the ditches and up the ravine
They went to Polly Plat so green.
Continuing in this doggerel marked by its emphatic end rhymes, Addie describes the sudden and surprising appearance of a young Holstein cow, which "did lend / A bit of commotion / And changed all our notions."
Olives, cake and tomatoes.
While Addie did litter
The table with fritters.
But the poet goes even further, characterizing a couple of her sisters through their comic-like frenetic motions:
It was funny to me
Why one, two or three,
Had to run round the table
Until they felt able
To sit down at their ease
And think as they pleased.
The poem ends, however, joyfully, with "A blessing" on all their good times. My Uncle Bob summarizes of all the Haigh sisters: "They sure did have a lot of fun."
Edith Blanch(e) Orr was born on August 28, 1899. On May 10, 1911, she married Edward Orr in Hopkinton, Iowa. Together they had two daughters, Donna Mae Welterlen and June, and two sons, Joseph and Frank.
Ruby (born in 1892), so Mary tells me, was one of my Grandmother's favorite sisters, and even as a young woman, Ethel stayed with Ruby to help out with chores.
Eva Beatrice Haigh
Eva (born in 1898), who my Aunt Mary notes, "loved wearing black slacks topped with a red blouse," must have been attractive, given the fact that she married four times! Now that I have seen her photograph (see below) I realize she was a true beauty, looking away from the camera—so different from the direct stare of the other sisters—at someone or something out of the picture frame.
Florence (born in 1900) married Lloyd Sheppard, a farmer south of Manchester, Iowa.
Myrtle was born on April 21, 1904, and married Ora Sickels in 1925. The couple had three children, Harlan, Helen, and Kenneth.
Josie (born in 1908) and her husband Jack Lewis also lived in Manchester, where they had two sons, the youngest of whom, Johnnie, drowned at age 10 in the Maquota River.
Swiss and German Matriarchs
a pretty foot must be where
tigers are remembering
the tall avenues of lindens
lazy like a star backwards
against the leaves,
laying out dresses in a silent
distance of fear
to find such luxuriance
in so many bushes.
a minute's long to balance
the preparedness of history,
seducing acquaintances to sit
without screens or spreading blankets
upon beds to sort
their beans from behind
the kind of yellow fog that accompanies
the consumption of morocco books to keep
sharp as nail figures in.
On a trip back to Switzerland to attend a Fahrni family reunion several years ago, my Father and Mother also looked up details of the Messerli family and discovered their Great Grandfather's family homestead. When they returned they also reported having met Fahrni's in Switzerland who had married Messerlis, as well as related Zumbachs, Tobiasons, Zimmermans, and even Caspers. "What were the Caspers doing in Swizterland?" I gasped. "They were there," my father simply repeated. It seemed beyond belief, to me, that the families who had intermarried in Iowa had done the same thing in Switzerland, each without the other's knowledge! It seemed like kind of genetic perversity.
Los Angeles, January 10, 2010