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Monday, February 22, 2010

Several Aunts

The original St. Peter and St. Paul church
in Castle Grove. This building was destroyed
in a tornado and rebuilt in 2007.

Seven Haigh sisters: Back row (left to right) Eva, Jocie, Ethel
From row (left to right) Florence, Myrtle, Addie, and Ruby. Edith
is missing.
In my second volume of poetry, Some Distance, I wrote a poem titled "Several Aunts," dedicated to some of my parents' aunts, and another poem "Swiss and German Matriarchs," a kind of broad testament to the numerous great-aunts I remember while growing up. These Iowa women were strong German, Swiss, and English females of the first generation, daughters of immigrants who often outlived their farmer husbands, sometimes marrying again and again, accumulating in the process property and occasionally wealth. Over the years of several children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren (for many lived on for a very long time, one still surviving today) some became grand matriarchs whose power throughout extensive families was seldom questioned.

Below I have reprinted the poem "Several Aunts":

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.

I don't remember much about these women. I met most of them only a few times. They were, after all, my parent's aunts, women whom they themselves had known as children but, as with most distant relatives, began fade into the background as my folks grew older.

I recently tried to pry out information on these powerful figures, some of whom even put fear into my own somewhat formidable Mother. But Lorna Caspers Messerli is now 84, and her memory is quite selective. Although she remembered some of these aunts quite distinctly, others were names only.

Accordingly, I pieced together some of the information from church records, census information, and the memories of my own uncles and aunts, particularly Paul and Benita Messerli, Robert Messerli, Mary Messerli Klaus, Donald Caspers, Duane and Ann Caspers, Myron Zumbach, my sister Pat Messerli Thieben, Adeling Haigh Reed's daughter Maeola Dean, and Edith Haigh Orr's daughter, Donna Mae Welterlen.

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.

Church records show that both Anna and Menno were born in 1898.

Menno Moenk died in 1937.

The death of Menno must have made life very difficult for Anna and her children. Only recently did my Mother reveal that for two years, Anna, her two daughters, Lillian and Grace, and their son Garrett (the elder son, Andrew, was sent to another family), came to live with them, a seemingly beneficial situation given that Anna Fahrni Caspers, my Mother's mother, had also just died.

For my Grandfather it must have seemed that he were trading one Anna for another.

The relationship, however, at least from my Mother's view, was not a pleasant one, with Anna using my Mother and her sister Carol almost as hired help, while buying ribbons and other small trinkets for her own two daughters.

My uncle Don suggests deeper problems: "Anna's case was, well, quite tragic. After her husband Menno's death she had what today we would describe as a mental breakdown, and she spent some time in St. Josephs, an insane asylum in Dubuque. She had that scary kind of look about her that suggested she was still mentally unstable."

"Every lunch for months she cooked potatoes, carrots, and ham," my Mother reported, without needing to remind me that working all afternoon and evening in the fields necessitated heavy meals described as "dinners." "Once in a while my father would bring home a chicken or a piece of beef. But for the rest of the time Anna would keep to the regimen."

Confirming my Mother's recollections, Don also described their supper-time fare: "Every night she put a big black pot in the center of the table filled with what I believe must have been turnips and spices. It was a kind of turnip goulash which she probably kept on low boil for weeks at a time."

One day, my mother recalls, Anna was about to beat her for small infraction, but her brother Edwin picked up a broom and threatened her if she dared to touch her. "He protected me," my mother reminisced.

Eventually, Tobe found another farm for them nearby, and they moved on. Perhaps he had also grown tired of their repetitious diet.

After writing the above, I spoke with my Uncle Duane. Duane was a newborn when Anna came to stay at the Caspers house, and he was only two when she moved out. But he remembered Anna well, since later in his life he was sent to work on her and her sons' farm one summer.

When I suggested to him that his brother and sister had found Anna difficult, Duane responded, "Well she was truly a wonderful woman, but she had such a difficult life."

"Really?" I queried. "You mean because of Menno's death?"

"Most certainly that, but also Menno himself. He was a mean drunk and often beat her brutally. He was also what you might describe as a 'womanizer.'"

"I didn't know that," I said.

"Well, you know how he died?"

"No, I've never been told."

"He was out one night, obviously with another woman. He came home late, driving his car into the yard, with another car just behind him. 'Pop, pop,' two shots! He was dead."

"The husband of the woman he was seeing?"


I think I can now postulate why Anna had a mental breakdown.

Anna died in 1957 in an automobile accident in the West where she was visiting her brother, Herman. Herman and his son were also killed in that accident. Don named the location as somewhere in California, Duane as Portside, Arizona, but I was unable to locate such a place in that state.

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.

When I knew her, Katie lived in the town of Monticello, quite near to my Grandfather's house, so I would see her fairly often on visits there.

My Mother remembers her as working for a wealthy family, "rich people, with a nice house." "She worked for the Stolher's (another local Swiss family)," reported my Uncle Don. "They were quite rich. Legend has it that when the Stolher daughter got married they laid a red carpet from the door of the house all the way down to the Congregational Church in the middle of town."

My mother remembers Katie's house as being spotless, the tables all covered with white linen tablecloths. Both my Mother and her Brother also remember that Katie was regularly visited by trucks selling food and other items, and would offer them candy bars and other sweets bought from these traveling peddlers. Duane's wife Ann remembered the trucks: "They were owned my McNast and McNamara and sold powder for lemonade, Jello, little toys, candy bars, and such stuff." "Sometimes she gave us sacks of food when we visited, which would last our family for a week," recalled my Mother.

Lorna also remembers Michael, Katie's husband, as being a "heavy drinker." "One time I crept upstairs and opened the door to a small cupboard; it was filled with liquor bottles!" Don describes him more graphically: "He was an alcoholic. I lived with Katie for a year, and one night I came home to find Mike chasing his wife around the table with a butcher knife. I commanded him to stop or I'd go for the police. He quickly calmed down."

My Uncle Duane confirmed Mike's alcoholic consumption and also a fact my Sister had mentioned, that he was a heavy smoker of cigars.

Katie was one of those German women and men, like my Grandfather, who greeted visitors by taking everything from the refrigerator and cupboards and displaying the food upon the table. "Please eat!" ("Essen! Essen!" I can hear her) was the first thing that she (and my Grandfather) said the moment you entered the house. When we visited with my parents, she always insisted that she should fix us dinner or lunch. We seldom took her up on the offer, but as kids we appreciated the bounty she threatened to set before us.

Later on my visits to Katie I had to remind her each time that I was Lorna's son, whereupon she disappeared for a few moments before returning with a full dish of candy, from which, she insisted, I should select some "treats." It was hard to turn her down, but also difficult to sort through the long strands of hair intertwined with the candy which appeared to have been the same dish offered me the year before.

Yet Katie was so overjoyed by any visit to her that, once, I insisted my Sister join me. I was sure to Pat she seemed like an old witch out of some horror film, Katie's appearance having deteriorated after so many years. But the joy we afforded her, and the perpetual offer to cook up a meal on the spot, always gave me a great sense of pleasure.
I had hardly expected my Sister to remember this Great Aunt, but, much to my surprise, Pat responded: "Grandpa Tobe used to take me all the time to her house. Her husband smoked cigars and she always gave me a cigar box full of little 'treasures.' I used to love to visit her. She was a very loving lady!" I can't imagine when those visits might have occurred; perhaps when I was overseas in 1964. I don't think, in all my visits to Katie, that I ever saw her husband. He died in 1965, when Pat was only 12 years of age. But her description of the woman is right on target. As Duane reiterated, "She was quite a gal."

Duane attended Mike Tobiason's funeral. "Despite his various abuses of himself and Katie, he'd given a lot of money to his church, the Wayne Evangelical Lutheran. So the minister went on and on about what a good and kind man he was." My Uncle Myron leaned over to him and whispered, "I better go check to see who they got in that casket!"

Lena Casper(s) Mardorf

Lena was married in the same church, to Gerhard Mardorf, on February 9, 1928.
The 1930 census suggests that Gerhard and Lena were both born in 1904.

The Mardorfs were important people in the life of their church, related, apparently, to the first pastor of the Castle Grove chapel, Rev. C. Mardorf, who was born in Germany.

I do not remember ever visiting Lena, although I am sure I must have encountered her at Casper family reunions or, from time to time, at my Grandfather's house. My Mother remembered her only as a woman "who had to have everything her sisters had, particularly her younger sister Margaret. If Margaret got a new coat, Lena had to have one too."

They shared brothers, who also seemed to be quite competitive. Accordingly to my Uncle Don, Gerhard's brother Carl was always able to get out of Gerhard how much he paid for hogs, but he never revealed the amount he himself had paid. Was he buying the same pigs at a lower price and selling them for more?

Don lived with Lena and her husband for a summer in 1941. "They were terribly stingy. I always put a quarter in the church offering (my Uncle later became a Methodist minister, his brother Edwin, a Presbyterian one), which they thought was terribly extravagant compared with their dimes and pennies. And yes, Lena was awfully jealous, particularly of her sister."

"Oh, and she always dyed her hair jet black," my mother added.

"They were very proud of their son, Dean, who played the accordion," remembered Don. "And we'd have to listen to that terrible squeeze box night after night. Dean was killed in a car accident, which, even way back then, when no one spoke of such things, was rumored to be related to drugs."

Duane agreed: "Yep, he shot up some heroin or cocaine at the local bar and tried to drive off. I visited him in the hospital. Every bone in his body was broke."

Duane shared with me another family tragedy, the fact that their other son, Frederick, a classmate of his, also died in a car accident, just after Christmas in 1974.

Lena died November 16, 1999.

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.

Margaret Caspers was married in the Saint Peter and Paul Lutheran Church to Carl Mardorf, Gerhard's brother, on January 12, 1929.

It may seem strange that two sisters should marry two brothers, but my Father once explained it away by saying simply "That's what they did in small towns in those days." Two Messerli sisters married two Zumbach brothers as well, so it is apparent that these Swiss and German women preferred to stay in close family settings.

Interestingly, Margaret was confirmed as a Caspers and married as Casper, while Lena was married as a Caspers, a confusion that still exists in my family today. My uncles for example were all confirmed as Casper, my mother as Lorna Mary Caspers.

In the 1930 census Carl was estimated to be born in 1906, Margaret in 1908, which suggests she was 21 at the time of her marriage.

My Uncle Don attended her 101st birthday celebration last year, reporting: "She was laughing as I came in. 'What are you laughing about,' I asked. Margaret asked me, 'Do you remember the name of the Jones County Sherrif?' I did not. 'How he loved to dance. He and I would dance every weekend, with Carl's blessing. What fun we had.'"

I recall as a child hearing a story of a tornado hitting Margaret's and Carl's farm, and my Mother confirmed that Carl died in a storm. Don, so he tells me, visited the farm the day after, reporting that he saw straw driven into the corncrib and a privy up in a pine tree. "Carl was out trying to get in the horses and, according to Margaret, was lifted along with the whole barn up into the sky. He came back down with the barn roof falling atop him, his head alone protruding out from under. Margaret found the strength somehow to lift the entire roof off his body.

"They must have had shoddy embalmers in those days because at the funeral a bit of muddy water dripped out of Carl's mouth. Someone quickly wiped it away."

My Uncle Duane was at the funeral as well, and confirmed the dirty liquid issuing from the corpse's mouth. "You know it wasn't just the roof that killed him, he was drowned. I don't think they even embalmed him."

Margaret had two children, Jane (who married a minister, Ludy Lechner) and a son, Dale, who worked for years at Collins Radio in Cedar Rapids before returning to the farm where he was born, dying there in 2007. I recently found a beautiful picture of my Mother and Father's wedding, my Aunt Carol, obviously the bridesmaid, and my Uncle Paul, the groomsman, standing beside them. "But who was the flower girl?" I asked my Mother. "Oh, she was a Mardorf, Jane Mardorf."

After Carl's death, Margaret remarried Alva Stadtmueller, with whom she had a daughter, Rose (Kumpf). My Mother recently mentioned, and Duane agreed, that Alva was a quite lazy man—abusive, as we would describe him today. He made Margaret do all the plowing, combining, and other tractor work. When she was finished she had to come back to the house and cook his supper. I can just imagine that strong-willed woman sitting high on the seat of her Oliver. Duane is quite proud that that tractor still remains in the family, he having purchased it at auction for his son Andy.

I remember visiting Margaret only one time, when I was very young. I have no memory of the occasion, but I do recall the house was full of adults and children, so it must have been a rather grand gathering.

The most memorable event of the evening is that someone—I remember it as another child, but may have been a hired woman or another aunt—cut herself severely in the kitchen with a knife. From my childhood vantage, I recall a lot of blood, and an ambulance being called. But no one has ever been able to confirm these impressions.

For some inexplicable reason—perhaps the weather was severe or Margaret was an incredible host—almost everyone stayed the night: something that had never happened in our family previously! Although the house was a large one, there were simply not enough beds to put everyone up, and a number of us children slept on pallets put out on the porch. I am sure we thought it was great fun!

At my Grandmother's funeral in 1997, Margaret came up to me and, after I reintroduced myself, admitted that something had long been on her mind. All these years, she explained, she had been worried about that night, so long ago, when I had been asked to sleep on the floor. She'd thought about it, so she reported, many a time. "But, you see," she protested, "there just weren't enough beds!" I assured her that absolutely no harm had been done, that as a child I probably thought it was an exciting adventure to sleep on a porch. She seemed somewhat reassured, but still a bit uncertain about that far-away evening. I was and still am astonished to know that such a trivial event had been troubling her these 47 years! I wanted to kiss her for simply confirming my vague, childhood memory.

But why had we stayed over, I wanted to know, forgetting to ask.

My Mother has no memory of the visit.

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.

Margaret was buried in the same St. Peter and Paul Cemetery which had meant so much to my Casper(s) and Messerli families.

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 was one of my Grandfather's pallbearers, and after the burial we were joined by the mourners for a dinner in the SS Peter and Paul Lutheran Church basement.

Evidently Anna had no living sisters, although my Uncle Don recently revealed that there was a sister who died at birth. She did, however, have a cousin who we once visited in South Dakota, Augusta Simonsen.

On a trip in 1957 to South Dakota to visit my Uncle Lloyd and Aunt Joyce, we drove almost to that state's border with Wyoming, where Augusta had a large sheep ranch. In Iowa, where farmers raised pigs, cows, chickens, corn, soybeans, and some other grains, we'd seldom seen a sheep, so we children were amazed by the place.

Augusta's home, in which she now evidently lived alone, the farm tended by a few hired hands, was less a rambling farmhouse than a kind of endless maze of connecting buildings, some, I seem to recall, built out of redwood. The kitchen was enormous, and the dining room held a large, preset table, with a white tablecloth and glistening glassware. My Mother recalls a double staircase.

We stayed overnight, each housed in our own bedroom, and I remember my brother David and I walking from room to room to room, in rapt wonderment. Every room was sparsely appointed with a bed and chair. And there seemed to be dozens of bedrooms to this house!

I remember this relation as being friendly and, I suspect, rather amazed at seeing us. But I recall little else about the experience, and I cannot call up her face.

Anna's closest woman friend, it appears, was Mary Fahrni, the wife of John, Anna's brother. "We visited their house many, many times," notes my Mother, "and Mary and John often came to help with the harvesting and corn husking. She and my mother would cook up big meals for all the farmers and their wives who helped."

"Mary had a lovely living room in which no one was allowed. I never saw another person in it." It reminds me of my own Mother and her repeated warnings that we were not enter that sacred domain.

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.

I never knew my Grandfather Messerli, a hardworking farmer, John Peter, after whom my father was named. He died of meningitis in August 1946, about a year before I was born. His wife, Ethel Irene Haigh (born in 1903), was the major influence upon my life, a true matriarch, who, after John died, married Forrest Jones, owner of the local car dealership in Manchester, Iowa. When he died, in turn, she married the town jeweler, Jim Nelson.

I remember attending the funeral of Forrest as a young boy, where I suddenly began to sob uncontrollably. Forrest's daughter by his first marriage was mentally ill, and, in retrospect, it seems that a few of her irreverent comments made during the funeral set me off. Her words not only somehow troubled my young sense of order, but made me comprehend that my Grandfather, the only Grandfather on that side of my family I had known, was not there to hear them.

My beloved Grandmother, of whom I have written elsewhere, was a terror to all her daughter's-in-law, for whom, like many a mother-in-law, would never be good enough for her sons.

My Mother, who lived on the farm with Ethel for more than a year when my Father was in the Air Force in World War II, had an somewhat tense relationship with her, feeling that she had been treated a bit like a hired hand, an emotion that certainly must have been further aggravated by the fact that she and her sister Carol had had to help raise their own brothers after their Mother, Anna, died, and that Lorna had suffered, as I observed earlier, that similar feeling of indenturement with Anna Caspers Moenk.

Recently my Mother described some of her activities on the Messerli farm that might have led to this feeling: "For several weeks, I remember, I had to help haul large rocks from the fields to the front door. I can't recall why we were bringing them there; perhaps Ethel was creating some new stone-paved entrance; but I must say they were very heavy rocks. Every day I also had to bake a cake."

One wonders, in retrospect (see below) about the relationship of Ethel's rocks with her sister Addie's later collection, and a possible connection between another of her sisters, Myrtle's early baking difficulties and my Mother's evident skill.

When she wasn't working on the farm during the summers, my Mother lived with three elderly spinsters while she taught school nearby in a one-room schoolhouse. "My father showed me how to light the fire, and I would go early every morning and warm the place up. The sisters were good women, and I enjoyed my time with them, although I had to spend most of my evenings correcting student papers."

One might also add that my Mother, at the time of her stay with her strong-willed mother-in-law, was still a teenager of 19 years of age who had had no real childhood. Three years later she was a mother, I the new baby.

After the War, my Aunt Carol also went to live for a while with Ethel.

Unlike the Caspers, who were German, the Messerlis, like my Mother's Mother, were Swiss in origin. Indeed my Great Grandfathers, Messerli and Fahrni had been close friends back in Thun, Switzerland, and had come to the United States together to escape the Swiss Constitutional Military Provision of 1874, settling on neighboring farms.

Two of the Messerli sisters of that second generation married into another local Swiss family, the Zumbachs, whose offspring are still today a major agricultural force in Delaware County, Iowa.

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.

Lena, so my Uncle Bob shared with me, is the one responsible for our lives, for she played cupid to her Brother John and my Grandmother Ethel, inviting them over for dinner to meet one another.

My aunt Mary remembers that, although they lived on a farm, they had a servant, Marie, to help Lena with the cooking and other chores. But my Uncle Myron told me that, in fact, Marie came to live with them as an "orphan kid" of seven or eight. "Lena was awfully nice to her," he added. I am sure she was, but today I think we might question the labor of such a child. In those days the orphanages often sent children out into farm communities to help them better assimilate into family society. But one fears, as playwright John O'Keefe has shown us in his drama Reapers (see My Year 2005), that this practice often exposed these children to hard labor and even sexual abuse. It is clear, moroever, as my Uncle Duane explains, that most children were put to work, often at other farms, as early as age twelve.
My Uncle Bob suggested that Marie Short first came to live with them for a while before transferring to Lena's.
My Grandfather John loved to play cards and, accordingly, numerous card parties were held at Lena's house. On the way to one such party, Mary recalls, it was so foggy that her father had to stand on the car's running board just to see the edge of the road: "That's how important card-playing was."

At the end of these card-playing afternoons and evenings, Lena would serve big meals, with sandwiches, cake, cookies, and other treats.

Lena was also very close to her sister Rose. "We only lived a couple of miles away, and in those days you didn't go very far, so we spent a lot of time at my Aunt Lena's," recalls Myron.

Like most of the Messerli sisters, Lena was a very large woman. She died in 1964, four years after her husband, of a stroke.

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.

Mary reports that when her brothers—my father and uncles—visited they put away their children's toys, fearful that they might be broken. Were my father and his brothers Paul, Bob and Lloyd roughhouses?

Nonetheless, when Mary came to visit, Rose would "always buy me a new dress," which seems marvelously generous, unless you know that she was the only granddaughter of 13 male cousins.

Rosie was also a very large woman, at least in girth. In our family she was an object of loving humor for what was known as the "Rosie reach." If, while sitting at table, she wished for something at the other end, she would always say, "Don't bother," as she stood up and leaned forward, grabbing the dish from improbable distances.

According to my Uncle Duane, Rose was a wonderful pie baker, and on some nights when he visited, she would bake a different kind of pie for each of her four sons and their guests. "That's all you'd eat," Duane explained, "Just the pie. But it tasted great!" Not exactly what you'd call a balanced diet.

"When my Brother Louie got back from the War," remembers Myron, "my Mother baked up thirty pies just to make sure he got enough. She also made the best dressing in the world."

Rosie not only baked up a good desserts, says Aunt Benita, but she sometimes ate two desserts at a single sitting, especially when she traveled.

"She was the best Mother in the world," concluded Myron.

Myron married my Mother's sister Carol, which meant that my father's cousin married my Mother's sister, thus linking us to Zumbachs on two sides of our family tree.

My first cousins were, consequently, also my third cousins and, because of the intermarriage of two Messerli sisters to two Zumbach brothers, were probably related in other ways as well. Yet the three of us never got on with the five or six Zumbach siblings, who perpetually taunted us for being "city slickers!" It was all in mock. We agreed: we didn't like the farm one little bit!

My Aunt Carol was the true storyteller-historian of the family, and would have been a remarkable source of history about all of these Aunts, the Caspers, the Messerlis, and perhaps even the Haighs, if she weren't now in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Evidently the Zumbach women, even if they just married into the family, remain attractive to the Messerlis. My Uncle Bob—and I report this as a loving and accepting nephew—is currently "seeing" (as my Mother would put it) Velma Zumbach, formerly married to the now-deceased Louis, Jr.

Alice Messerli Kiebler

Alice was born on March 27, 1906.

My Aunt Mary reports something I had not known, that Aunt Alice had lived with her mother (Mary Meyer Messerli) for the 13 years she dated Gottlieb Kiebler before marrying.

Alice was also a large woman, but in this case she was taller than her other sisters, while Gottlieb was quite short, a little cigar-smoking man with a bushy mustache. I remember that on one visit he jokingly sat on Alice's lap.

Mary tells me that she was the flower girl in their wedding and my Uncle Paul was a groomsman.

Like her sisters, Alice was a good gardener, and whenever they would have the family out for dinner, they would take a tour of her gardens.

Alice was also an excellent cook, and, following suite with her sisters, the dinner invitations were usually followed up with card games. Paul and Benita tell me that they later continued these games with Alice and Gottlieb: "They were sharks when it came to playing cards."

I remember also, and Mary confirmed this, that Alice and Gottlieb, who were childless, had a pet Chihuahua dog, which they treated somewhat like a baby. Duane reports that there was a strict order in that house. "First Alice took a bath, then the dog, and, finally, Gottlieb!"

My Mother tells me that Alice was also something of a packrat, keeping a towering pile of newspapers under their dining table. "When she died, we found her cupboards filled with egg cartoons. But we had still be careful in going through these scraps, for she had hidden money away among the garbage."

Gottlieb was such a fabulous figure in my mind, this little man sitting upon my great aunt's knees, that I stole his name to write several underground pieces about how a German visitor might perceive the American poetry scene: "Gottlieb Casper reporting," imaginatively marrying him to the wrong side of the family (see My Year 2003).

Alice died of ovarian cancer.

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."

That may be so, for they were certainly recognized as women in control. Like characters out of a Gertrude Stein fiction, Anna, Katie, Margaret, Alice, and the two Lenas were hard working Swiss and German farm women who, when compared to the next generation's more suburban sensibilities, appeared to be absolutely fearsome. Women, they showed me, could be powerful beings, especially compared with their silent, unimaginative, and frankly boring, hunkering farmer husbands. Given the often terrifying events I just reported, however, their secrets, if they kept any, must have concerned the previous generations.

My Grandmother Ethel's sisters, on the other hand, were of English origin, and seemed much more domesticated than these other aunts. Their fascination for me was their very names—Adeling, Edith, Ruby, Eva, Florence, Myrtle, and Josie—and their personalities seemed, much like my Grandmother's, to have less in common with the intensity of the German and Swiss women than to a kind of open eccentricity.

Excluding my Grandmother, I remember only four of the eight sisters, Ruby, Florence, Myrtle, and Josie, who all, at one time, lived in the town of Manchester, where, after her husband John's death, my Grandmother resided.

Adeling (Addie) Elizabeth Haigh Reed

Born in 1888, Addie was the "leader," so my Aunt Mary reports, of the Haigh sisters, clearly a outgoing and forceful woman.

Addie's daughter, Maeola, retells the story that one time, when their parents, Joseph and Emiline, were away, their house caught fire. As the eldest, Addie immediately took over, ordering her brothers and sisters each to "carry something of value as they ran outside." Addie's brother Merritt took up a lantern. Each of the sisters chose their favorite object. Fortunately, two "heavy-drinking, poker playing men from next door," characters that Addie had never liked, chopped a hole in the roof of the house and put out the fire quick.

Even as young women, the sisters remained close. In 1941, for example, they gathered for a picnic on their old homestead, now owned by a man named Mr. House. The spot they chose was a favorite of their childhood, a place they had nicknamed "Polly Plat." What happened on the occasion is memorialized in a poem Addie wrote, beginning:

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."

Her sisters Florence and Josie simply ran with "Ruby in red / Two leagues ahead" trying to shoo the cow off. The more sensible sisters Ethel and Eva went to get the owner, Mr. House.

Eventually, they had their picnic:

We had wieners, potatoes,
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."

Maeola remembers their large Christmas dinners, held each year at a different sister's home, with more than twenty people attending.

Later in her life Addie often led her sisters on nature hikes about her Hopkinton farm.

Addie also had her quirks. Her daughter writes: "My Mother was a great believer in turpentine as an antiseptic. Since we did not live near a doctor, it always did the job of healing wounds and scrapes, but it sure did hurt. I had a little dog named Tippy, whose paw had been treated by my Mother with the stuff. After that one time, whenever Tippy smelled turpentine she ran and hid under the kerosene stove to escape."

Beginning in 1948, my Aunt Mary recalled and a newspaper article confirms, Addie collected rocks with the intention of making a vast rock garden. Although she apparently did not ask her friends for specimens, she soon began receiving them from everywhere, and eventually had samples from all over the world, including New Guinea, Japan, North Africa, and the Canary Islands. Her most cherished collection consisted of 14 rocks from the Holy Land (Jericho, Egypt, Galilee, Byblos, Syria, the Dead Sea, Lebanon, and—so a newspaper relates—the Acropolis), rocks brought back by Maeola and her husband from their trip. Who else would might have taken up such an unusual hobby?

Addie reported that her Grandmother had also loved rocks, and she found them a perfect expression of "God's creation." When she was not working with her rocks she studied birds. "Everybody should have a hobby when they are young," Addie insists, "which will be of much interest when they are older."

Addie was clearly a strong-willed woman. My Aunt Benita relates that Addie stayed with them for a month. "She was very disciplined and would drink only one cup of tea each day out of the fear she might become addicted, even though she absolutely loved the stuff."
Addie's son Ray was a Navy man, reported Bob (himself a retired Major General in the Air Force). "He later married a Mexican woman in San Diego, which in those days, as you can imagine, was quite a topic of discussion back in Iowa."

I don't think I ever met Addie, but I certainly wish I had.

Edith Blanch(e) Haigh Orr

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.

Edith's daughter, Donna, reiterated how much the sisters enjoyed one another's company, noting that once a month they gathered at lunches, talking and eating. "My mother loved to cook and bake rolls and bread. Everyone who stopped went home with a loaf of bread and some sweet rolls. ...The morning she went to the hospital just before her death she had her kitchen ready for baking the next morning."

Family gossip has it that Ed Orr stopped by my Grandmother's farm one morning and attempted to make a "sexual pass." Ethel told him never to come back and reported the incident to his son Joseph.

Ruby Allen Haigh Richardson

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.

Between Ethel's second and third marriages, moreover, she spent at least one winter with Ruby and her husband Amos Richardson in Arizona.

Ruby married Amos on June 17, 1914; they had four children, Walter, Richard, Marva, and Betty.

Ruby died in Hopkinton, Iowa, in 1983.

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.

Her first husband was John Johnson, with whom she had one son, Howard.
The second was Emmett Powers, of whom little is remembered.

Mary recalls visiting her in a Manchester, Iowa, duplex, where Eva and her then-husband, Fred Fry, lived on one side and Emiline Haigh, her mother, on the other. Fred, a rather sickly man, raised rabbits to be killed and eaten, not a pleasant livelihood in the heart of beef and pork country.

Fred died after the couple moved to Arizona. There Eva met Joe Welson, whom she also married. She died of cancer in Arizona.

Florence Ruth Haigh Sheppard

Florence (born in 1900) married Lloyd Sheppard, a farmer south of Manchester, Iowa.

My Aunt Mary remembers staying with them whenever her parents went to Chicago to sell steers. They also took the Messerli family dog, Elmer, who was a pest to any chicken farmer, for he "sucked eggs." The Sheppard's kept no chickens on their farm.

Lloyd died one day of a heart attack while mowing the yard. Upon discovering his body, Florence let out a scream so loud—it was reported (by whom is more vague)—that it was said it could be heard on the next farm.

After the death, Florence left the farm, moving into Manchester. But her husband's death affected her so deeply that she was never able to regain her composure. Although Ethel took her regularly for therapy in the nearest institution in Independence, one day Florence inexplicably hung herself in her own basement.

Myrtle Beatrice Haigh Sickels

Myrtle was born on April 21, 1904, and married Ora Sickels in 1925. The couple had three children, Harlan, Helen, and Kenneth.

My Mother reports that one time Myrtle baked a cake that, evidently, burned. I presume this must of been when she was quite young, because instead of simply tossing it out, she buried that cake in the back yard. Was it out of embarrassment for having attempted it or not having achieved the proper results?

For a time they kept a Manchester store, their daughter Helen later running the beauty shop near Ethel's home. I recall being sent to the dime store while my grandmother got her hair done at that shop. And I vaguely remember Myrtle; I think for a time she worked as a waitress in a nearby cafe.

Ora died in 1967. Myrtle died of Crohn's disease some years later.

Josie Marie Haigh Lewis

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.

I recall a couple of my grandmother's visits with Josie, with whom she had some very strong differences. At one point, after Josie had moved to a trailer park in Cedar Rapids, I remember a visit to her with my Grandmother (I have no understanding of why I invited to join in that trip, since I lived in a suburb of that city. Perhaps I was being returned home via a sisterly visit.) After a short conversation, we left, my Grandmother whispering over her wave of goodbye: "Can you imagine a sister of mine living like that!"

I presume it was the location of her abode, not the condition of her trailer that had provoked my Grandmother's disdain.

My Grandmother was the most interesting woman of these sisters, at least from my viewpoint, that of what I selfishly imagined was her favorite grandson. (At a post-funeral dinner with several of my twenty first cousins, each of them confirmed similar feelings. She had made each of us feel special.)

Let me say simply that she was enormously vital, absolutely filled with an energy that she conveyed to all her grandchildren, particularly to me, since for three years before my brother's birth, I had her to myself.

This vitality, her absolute love of life, stayed with her throughout most of her 94 years of living.

I've written about her elsewhere in these volumes, and I am sure I will speak of her again, so I will not say much here.

Later in her life, Ethel worked at a nursing home at nights. I remember joining her once in her long night shift, during which she was called time and again into various rooms to help patients to the toilets or to urge them into sleep. Some walked the halls with their insomniac fears, crying out or moaning.

Finally, in the early morning, as we walked back to her home, a house in one of the loveliest sections of that charming town of Manchester, Iowa, she nearly howled out:

"Douglas, don't ever let them put me in a place like that!"

In her last years, after she had fallen twice in her own home and had suffered, evidently, an unreported heart attack, that is just the kind of place into which the family put her. All her children were now themselves too old to care for her; my father was beginning his slow death from prostate cancer.

I loved my Grandmother deeply, but I lived far away in California, and had no easy way to visit her, let alone remove her from the fate she had so feared that early morning years before.

I try to remember her instead in her little backyard, weeding out the flower garden, tending to the beautiful roses, hydrangeas, lilies, and other plants she so loved.

I quote her daughter, Mary: "She gave me my love of birds, flowers, and all things of nature. I remember one time, after dark, we walked out into the oat field and laid down on our backs and looked up at the stars. No words were exchanged, just the beauty of it all."

Los Angeles, November 1-3, 2009; November 8, 2009; November 26, 2009; December 3, 2009; December 5-9, 2009; January 1, 2010; January 5, 2010

When I had the idea to write the essay above, I planned only a short piece centered basically on my own admiration for these women's great strength. I had thought of most of these aunts as fairly happy beings and, accordingly, like Tolstoy, presumed there were no significant differences between them with regard to family life. I gradually discovered, however, that many of these great aunts were not at all happy at home, and, as Tolstoy proclaimed, each was unhappy in her own way. Never could I have imagined these seemingly solid Iowa folk as being involved with drugs, family violence, sexual abuse, insanity, suicide, and even murder! With just a few questions addressed over time to my Uncles and Aunts came these mostly loving but sometimes lurid revelations.

Did I sense that something was amiss, even as a young man, given, when I look back at that 1982 poem, my word choices of "panic," "wrists", "nails," "crow-sick" "kill," "grouse," etc.? And there too was the recurring baking of cake.

The second poem in the same volume about the aunts, "Swiss and German Matriarchs" was even more violent, balancing its lyrical passages with the frightening consequences of living:

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.

Suddenly, while working on this project, I discovered that in some strange ways these families had played a role also in my personal life. Reading through church records, I supposed that my Aunt Anna's husband Menno Moenk was related to George Moenk, also of that Castle Grove church, a farmer who married the daughter of the wealthy businessman, Anna Balster. The Balster's store, consisting of three buildings in nearby Scotch Grove, stocked hardware and implements, groceries and dry goods, and housed the town Post Office.

I have to presume that the Scotch Grove Balsters were related, in some way, to the Balster family in my hometown of Marion, Iowa. The Marion Balsters owned the city furniture store. As a child, their son, my age, used to wait for me on my way home threatening me and sometimes beating me up.

The Wayne Township and Castle Grove churches were also filled with Poppes; according to church records one Poppe married a Moenk, another a Tobiason, and yet another a Zimmerman. At the Suburban Restaurant in Marion, where I worked summers, one of the Zimmerman granddaughters worked as a waitress. At that same restaurant I also worked alongside the dishwasher Eddie Poppe—a relative to these churchgoing Poppes—who dressed in tight denims and an open white shirt, sporting slicked-back pompadour hair—the very model of a 1950s, early 1960s "greaser." Like the Balster kid, he also often threatened to beat me, but Eddie's throat-holds and crotch-grabs were frankly quite harmless, and to my way of thinking were much more homoerotic than frightening—although he might have attacked me if he'd known that—or, perhaps, introduced me to something I wasn't ready for.

In short, I had had somewhat abusive relationships with the relatives of the same families who married my Great Aunts! The thought of all these unbelievable interconnections continues to haunt me. Yet anyone who has read other volumes of
My Year will recognize that my whole life has contained a series of such connected events.

Los Angeles, January 10, 2010

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