My sister Kathy was born in Indianapolis six weeks before my third birthday. “Kathy’s a Hoosier,” was announced from time to time in our family as if Indiana were an exotic place like Bora Bora. As a young girl, Kathy blushed when identified as a Hoosier, not sure if she should be proud or embarrassed.
The place of Kathy’s birth and Dad’s short stint with American Airlines constituted the entirety of family lore for our year in the Hoosier state. It seems that nothing else worth mentioning occurred there.
Years later, Mom spoke of Dad’s high expectations for his position, an American Airlines Agent, when they prepared to leave Columbus. His uniform would be as impressive as a naval officer’s dress blues including the flat cap with a golden medallion. American Airlines was determined to make traveling by airliner glamorous, like sailing on the Queen Mary and other ocean liners. Planes were flagships with four star admiral’s pennants emblazoned below the cockpit window. Cocktails served before surf and turf dinners by attractive stewardesses emulated shipboard elegance.
Although she never said as much, Mom could not have been happy about leaving Columbus, her parents, friends, and St. Augustine’s parish for a new city where she knew no one. At 22, she had a active two year-old boy and recently discovered she was pregnant. Yet she yielded to her husband’s enthusiasm for a position that he considered a great opportunity in this new industry.
I am sure Mom’s mother grumbled about her only grandson moving away whle her dad was stoic, but I later learned that Grandmother Calvert was exasperated. A college degree was what she believed her sons needed to rise in business and the community. Uncle Bill was dutifully taking classes at Ohio State, and Grandmother had spoken with an Ohio State dean she knew about night school after Dad insisted he would not become a full-time student even though many veterans were paying tuition with the GI Bill. I also suspect Grandmother was sure that her daughter-in-law needed her guidance in raising her grandson as a proper young man who could navigate Columbus society.
Dad envisioned building a career in the aviation industry as air travel rapidly expanded in the years after the war. He plunged into the training manuals and safety regulations. He mastered checking the passengers’ names on the manifest, filing requests for seats by windows or on the aisle, and reassuring first-time flyers, and sending a fully loaded plane to the runway for takeoff. He told Mom that he was offended that he was expected to load bags into the plane’s luggage bay as well as check in passengers, but brushed it off and said he said it was like starting in the mail room in a corporation and rising to the executive suite. Dad was confident. He savored the idea of achieving success without spending years in college.
Mom surely missed her family and old friends. She wrote to her folks and friends frequently, but responses were slow. As her pregnancy progressed, she was cooped up with me in a small apartment while Dad worked long hours on varied shifts and pursued his ambitions for advancement. It’s likely that he detailed his frustrations with Mom in a running monologue when he came home as he did in later years, but I doubt that he recognized her boredom and loneliness.
In a few months, Kathy was born and Dad passed out cigars to his boss and co-workers. The miracle of new life in the form of a cooing pink baby undoubtedly stirred Dad’s enthusiasm for a while. I suspect I was jealous of the attention Kathy attracted and further burdened Mom’s patience.
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Decades later, while visiting her when she was in her seventies and had suffered more than one stroke, I asked her why they left Indianapolis. Did he become discouraged about his prospects at American Airlines? Did he give up and totally lose interest in his work?” I wanted to ask if he was drinking or depressed, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.
She dismissed these questions with a wave of her hand. Instead she simply said, “I went to your Uncle Bill Stephen’s farm.” I knew her dad and mom had moved there to run the farm while Uncle Bill worked the night shift at the railroad at the Columbus yard. He made the two-hour drive to plow, plant, and harvest crops.
I was mulling this over in shocked silence when she added, “I don’t know why your dad quit American, but he didn’t stay in Indianapolis long. He went back to Columbus and stayed at Grandmother’s. After a while he found a job. I can’t remember the company.”
My parents had separated? I had never heard about this before. When I tried to question her further, she pressed her lips together and shook her head definitively. The subject was closed, and there was no one else to ask. That night, I pondered this new information for a long time before I drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, I rolled over intent on dozing for a while. Then I thought about Mom’s acknowledgement that she went to the farm with Kathy as a baby and me a four-year old without Dad. This new fact jolted me awake.
As I lay in the warm bed, a scene from those days broke through the surface of my memory. Mom was in the driver’s seat of her dad’s pre-war car struggling with the knob atop a black metal rod that rose from the floor. Her face was contorted as she jerked the gearshift around to find reverse so we could back away from a store. I knew this was a true memory, probably the earliest I’ve excavated from the depth of my hippocampus. There were no snapshots from that time, and Mom ceased driving when we left the farm. A moment like the madeline that brought Marcel Proust’s memories flooding back in Remembrance of Things Past.
More memories came to me that morning. I recalled following Grandpa around the barnyard doing the chores. He let me throw handfuls of feed to the chickens while they clucked continuously and pecked rapidly at the grains of feed. I screamed with delight at the strutting birds.
When he leaned over the rail fence to pour buckets of slop in the hog troughs, I stood back as the mud-covered beasts squealed and grunted and shouldered their way to the trough. From my eyes, the hogs looked huge, nothing like the pink piggies in my picture books. I was fascinated by these animals rolling in the muck and enjoying the filth. Quite a contrast to Mom’s insistence that I wash my hands before meals.
When the first calf was born on the farm, Grandpa asked me to name the new addition to the herd. “Gene,” I declared, probably because I was a fan of cowboy actor Gene Autry. The calf was a red Guernsey, and Grandpa always took me to the pasture to point out Gene on subsequent visits to the farm.
One warm afternoon, Grandma, Mom, and I sat on the front-porch swing shelling peas from Grandma’s kitchen garden. No one was talking when we heard a car on the county road and then the mile long lane to cluster of buildings on the hilltop, the farmhouse, barn, corn crib, and chicken coop. We all stared until a car emerged from the trees and approached the barnyard.
“It’s your Uncle Bill Calvert,” said Mom. As the car came to a stop in the barnyard beyond the tiger lilies lining the white picket fence, Mom gasped, “No, it’s your Dad in Bill’s car.” When Dad opened the gate, I ran to him and clasped his legs. He picked me up, held me at arm’s length, and gave me a big hug.
He held me as he mounted the two steps to the porch.
“What brings you here? “Mom said in evenly from the swing.
“You, Irene. We need to talk. I’ve missed you terribly.” Dad looked only at her.
Grandma set aside her peas. “Michael, we need to check on the rhubarb and cucumbers,” she said. Taking my hand she led me off the porch. I tried to resist, but she had a firm grip and pulled me toward the garden.
Mom and Dad walked slowly down the lane, Mom looking straight ahead with her arms crossed, while Dad turned toward her gesturing. Dad stayed for supper and helped tuck me into bed.
In the morning, I rushed downstairs where Mom was washing dishes, “Where’s Daddy?”
She dried her hands, squatted so we were face to face, and said, “He had to leave, but he’ll be back next Saturday. She smiled and wrapped me into her arms.