“I have tried to do what was best for my children, which, among other things, required that I somehow make money any way I could – selling cars, writing ads in Boston, teaching writing at a university a thousand miles away from my family,” Kurt Vonnegut
Toni worked to help get me through grad school, so I didn’t struggle financially early in our marriage like Vonnegut, but often family took a back seat to teaching and research obligations necessary to earn tenure.
When Kurt Vonnegut’s 18 year-old daughter Nanette went away to college, the novelist wrote her this note:
You should know that I as a college student didn’t write my parents much. You said all that really matters in your first letter (unless you get in a jam) – that you love me a lot. Mark wrote me the same thing recently. That helps, and it lasts for years. I think I withheld that message from my parents. Either that, or I said it so often that it became meaningless. Same thing, either way.
Most letters from a parent contain a parent’s own lost dreams disguised as good advice. My good advice to you is to pay somebody to teach you to speak some foreign language, to meet with you two or three times a week and talk. Also: get somebody to teach you how to play a musical instrument. What makes this advice especially hollow and pious is that I am not yet dead. If I were any good, I could easily take it myself.
Midge, gave me advice on manners and Vic on using tools (it didn’t sink in) but, for the most part, they taught by example. They were good providers economically and spiritually and stayed married, so I grew up with a sense of security. Vic played sports (ping pong, basketball, wiffleball) with me and a variety of card games, while Midge read to me and was family historian – all things I’ve tried to pass on to Phil and Dave. Most important, in a jam, I could count on them. One time I was sparring with boxing gloves against Chuck Bahmueller and then had to get Vic at Fort Washington’s commuter railroad station. Backing our Buick out of the garage, I nearly ripped off the front fender. I didn’t get into trouble for it.
I’m distributing my Nineties Shavings to Steve McShane’s students because they’ll be interviewing people who were teenagers during that decade. Phil and Dave were in their twenties by then; both lived with us for a time, married, and obtained jobs (something I worried about more than if they’d succeed at college). They took our advice to lay off cigarettes and tattoos and played on a softball team with me.
Kristin MacPherson interviewed her parents Suzanne and Donald Rettig. Born in 1946, Suzanne grew up in Hammond. She told Kristin:
My father, Adalbert Clemens Doescher, liked to work with his hands. Coming from the army, everything was in order. The garage was neat and everything had its place. My dad made everything last. We joked about his uses of duct tape. He mowed the lawn with an old push mower even though he had a gas mower. The neighbors asked when the Smithsonian was going to come pick it up. He put together a tricycle with a basket and a bell that had bigger wheels than other kids’ bikes. I was embarrassed that it was not brand new. My dad built bird feeders and as we worked in the yard and heard a bird chirping, he’d say, “That is Jenny wren singing to you, Sue.” Or, “Jenny is scolding you, Sue.” He was a man of integrity, kept physically fit, worked very hard, and finished what he started.
My mother, Phyllis Paxton Krick, grew up in Decatur, Indiana. Her dad could only send one daughter to college, older sister Barbara. Phyllis worked at the Drake Hotel before getting married. When I was six, she’d hand me a basket of laundry, a step stool and asked me to hang the clothes on the line. She’d send me to Blyte’s to pick up a fewgrocery items. We’d catch the bus to downtown Hammond. Edward C. Minus’s had a big candy counter, and my mom let me select a couple candies. A uniformed elevator operator with white gloves took us to the second floor to the hat department. There were dressers with mirrors and stools for trying on hats. We’d stop at the Carmel Corn store on Hohman Ave.
On Sundays after church Phyllis would cook a roast with delicious gravy and potatoes. The table was set with mother’s china. A centerpiece consisted of flowers in the summer, gourds in the fall, candles and pine braches in winter, and chicks and Easter eggs in the spring. My dad discouraged dinner chit-chat but welcomed conversation during dessert. He’d show us how his parents saucered the coffee when it was too hot.
Suzanne at 6 and 10 (top middle with dancers)
My parents built a brick ranch in Munster with a big living room fireplace. My dad was particular in the way he built a fire and had these long wooden matches. My brothers and I took turns lighting the fire. I’d imagine Indians dancing around the flames. We’d play Old Maid. My brother Alan would cry and cry when he was the old maid. It got so bad he bent the corner of the card. For three years I took dance lessons at the Indiana Hotel on Hohman Avenue. My instructor was Violet Milon, and an assistant played a baby grand piano.
In high school I rebelled against my parents’ strict ways. I’d sneak out to go dancing at Madera’s in Whiting. I was not into academics and decided to go to Hoosier State Beauty School in Hammond. Before I finished, I got married. My dream was to have a 5 or 6 children and raise a family. We had a daughter and three years later adopted a little boy. We often had boys from the Carmelite Home for dinner. My husband opened Don’s Pizza in Crown Point. Within 3 years I was a single mom. My parents were there every step of the way. I worked at department stores and was an aide at St. Anthony’s nursing home before becoming a para-professional working with special needs kids. I also worked part time at Carson Pirie Scott. Today, I have 5 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren, attend a Bible study and visit women in a nursing home or who have lost a loved one. My joy is in helping others.
Born in 1941, Kristin MacPherson’s dad Donald Rettig, one of seven children, grew up in Crown Point. His father Wilbur worked at a title company, drove a taxi, and kept the books for a bowling league. His mother Margaret worked part time in the kitchen at the Kaiser/Dunn Bowling Alley. Of Italian ancestry, Margaret was famous for her cinnamon streusel coffee cake. Donald told Kristin:
My mom loved Dean Martin and Perry Como. There was always a pot of spaghetti sauce or soup on the stove and noodles drying over the chairs or homemade ravioli scattered over the dining room table. There was always the aroma of food in the air. I will never forget my mom wringing a chicken’s neck and nailing it to the garage to clean it. We had the biggest garden in the neighborhood. Everyone helped. Mom canned tomatoes, beans, and beets and make pickles, jellies and jams. At Easter there’d be a lamb cake and at Christmas containers of cookies were on each step going upstairs. No one ever left our home hungry.
My mother’s sisters would come over to play cards. They’d speak Italian and laugh for hours. We’d sneak under the big dining room table in hopes they’d drop some change. After bedtime we’d peek through the floor grate and watch them.
At the age of 7 I worked at my grandfather’s store. By age 9 I was setting bowling pins for 10 cents a game. In eighth grade I won a contest selling the most papers. With the $500 my mother bought a new freezer. At Petri’s Bakery I learned to fry donuts and ice cakes. From there I went to Sauzer’s Waffle Shop and in 1959 into the Marines. After I returned to the Region, I spent most of my life in the food business: Don’s Pizza in Crown Point, Pizano’s in Gary, the Supervisor’s Club in Hobart, Griffith Meat Market.
Don Rettig and parents; below, Evergreen and daughters (Louise, back left)
Juanna Nelson interviewed her mother Louise Barnes, born April 4, 1963, in Belzoni, Mississippi. Her parents, Oscar and Evergreen Barnes, moved to Gary after Oscar’s brother found work at US Steel. Oscar lost both legs in a train accident and used the money from the settlement to move his family up North. Juanna wrote:
My grandparents lived on Gary’s West Side, and Louise went to Ivanhoe starting in kindergarten and then Edison Middle School and West Side. One day Louise got into a fight after making fun of a girl who wore a wig. Louise had never seen anyone with fake hair before. Louise joked that it was normal to get into a fight one day and then be friends with the person.
Oscar would often take the children fishing with him. He brought back the catch for Evergreen to cook. Evergreen’s favorite meal was cornbread and rabbit cooked in gravy. Evergreen taught her girls many recipes, including for pig feet, which Louise dislikes. Although without legs, Oscar drove a car equipped with a special attachment. He worked at a thrift store and received a disability check to support the family. Oscar did drink a lot, especially at family gatherings. With ten children in the house, there seemed to always be a birthday to celebrate.
At West Side Louise played softball and performed in school plays. She had quite a few rebellious adventures. Once she skipped school with two friends and ended up at a small party and witnessed alcohol, cocaine and marijuana out on tables.
Before graduating, Louise became pregnant with her first child. Her mom kept the baby while she finished school. A short time later I was born in 1982. Louise still lived with her parents, as did my dad, Milton until they moved into a home in Aetna. They had four more children together, all girls, but never married. Milton eventually moved to Florida and wanted Louise to join him, but she chose to stay close to her family. Oscar and Evergreen have since passed away, and Louise lives in Indianapolis but frequently visits family in Gary and has no regrets.
Morrscherice “DJ” Fentress II wrote that her mother, Morrscherice Fentress Sr., was born on November 29, 1972 at Gary’s Northlake Methodist Hospital. Her dad, Alan Borom, was a steelworker who married DJ’s grandmother Charity right out of high school. They had four kids in 11 years – Drake, DJ’s mom, Pamela, and Tyrone - and then divorced. Charity found employment at Bethlehem Steel as a truck driver and moved the family to Michigan City. DJ’s mother told her:
Drake, the oldest, was, wild, free-spirited and fun-loving. Pamela was a sweetheart but bossy, like she was everyone’s mama, but would give you the shirt off her back. Tyrone was laid back and a comedian with a good heart. I shared a room with my younger sister. Our bedroom had a colored TV with a VCR, cable, two day beds, and a walk-in-closet. My mom wanted everything clean and was on the case as soon as one of us said, “Done cleaning everything.” We rotated chores: washing dishes, mopping, sweeping, vacuuming, dusting, cleaning, and taking out the trash. I learned to cook at 11. Great-grandmother Duckie Borom taught me to prepare pineapple cornbread muffins, sweet potato pie, pizza cornmeal biscuits, potato salad, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, and so many more family recipes.
We went to zoos, on camping trips (I hated them with a passion), and family reunions. At Indiana Dunes where we had fun splashing in Lake Michigan, playing beach volleyball, climbing the dunes, building sandcastles or just lying in the sun. Twice a year we visited relatives in Atlanta. We also vacationed in Florida.
I was a perfectionist when it came to looking my best. In school jealous girls tried to bully me. They’d say, “You think you’re better than us” or “You think you’re so important.” It was not my fault their boyfriends liked me. I started whopping butt until they decided to lay off the bullying. My favorite subjects were math and biology; my least favorite was history. Mom wanted us involved in extracurricular activities, so we took up sports. I worked at Saint Anthony’s, at Ponderosa, and at a restaurant making fruit salads.
I began dating at age 17. Pamela and Tyrone had to tag along, if the guy wanted to go out with me. I learned about sex mostly from my great-grandma. She’d say, “Boys are no good, they just want to use you for your body, and when they are done, they keep it moving to the next fine thing that walks their way. If you want respect, you have to respect yourself first.” Basically, she advised saving yourself for your husband. She believed education was important to obtain before you settled down.
My husband, Lawyer Dubois Fentress III, dressed very nice, was handsome, and a very smooth talker. He was determined to marry me, and so we rushed into marriage. My first child, Lawyer (Jalil), I had no clue how painful the delivery would be. Then came Morrscherice DJ Fentress II, Morrscherice Elizabeth Fentress III, Forgiveus Two, Morrscherice Omega Alpha Fentress IV, Morrscherice Alpha Omega Charity Fentress VI, and Yyie Fentress. Watching them grow up and have children of their own has given me great satisfaction.
Morrscherice great grandparents; Fentress family