Families I Have Known
by Richard S. Russell
Family values have been much discussed of late, leading me to spend some time thinking about families I have known.
I’ve spent the 2nd half of my life in Madison, Wisconsin, working mostly for the state. But during the 1st half I grew up and went to school and college in Eau Claire. 522 Niagara Street. TEmple 2-5610. The big old elm out front is gone now, but the sidewalk still has the cursive letter “R” that I drew in the wet cement right after Pop and I had laid it down.
We kids were in and out of each others’ places all the time, so I was completely familiar with the kitchens and living rooms of the Borums, the Boettchers, the Houses on the corner, the Andersons kitty-corner across the intersection, and the Drabants next door to them. Homes without kids were less familiar, but friendly and welcoming all the same. One nice lady didn’t have any children at home, but she DID have the 1st TV in the naborhood, and half a dozen of us showed up there every week to watch “Davy Crockett”. Same deal with our baby-sitter, 2 doors down, whose family invited ours to watch Mary Martin starring as “Peter Pan”.
About the only house on the block where we DIDN’T feel welcome was right next door to ours, where old Mrs. King lived. Rumor had it she was a witch. I suspect my mom overheard that comment at some point, because one fine day she told me it was time to go meet the nice nabor lady.
We didn’t spend long in Mrs. King’s front parlor -- maybe 10 minutes (which can SEEM long to a squirmy young boy) -- but we had some milk and cookies (in retrospect, goodies that were probably supplied by my mother), Mrs. King told me how much I reminded her of her own little boy (probably in his 50s by then), she didn’t pinch my cheek or pat my head (thankfully), and I realized that she was just a regular person (albeit hard of hearing and a bit musty). We never talked again after that, but a couple of times she waved at me from the front window, and I waved back. I candidly reported to my playmates that she wasn’t a witch, and that was that. And, had push ever come to shove, there was one more house on the block where I knew I’d be safe.
In the house on the other side lived the Kohlhepps, who ran a local family grocery store. Donnie Kohlhepp was quite a bit older than I was, so he wasn’t a playmate, but I still remember that he came to Pop when he needed to know how to tie a Windsor knot for the high-school prom.
A couple of blocks away lived Joe Hulwi, who I think was between me and my 3-years-younger sister Mary in age. Joe’s parents were both profoundly deaf, but Joe was not, so he grew up interpreting for them. I understand that lately this has become a common situation in the families of Hmong and Hispanic immigrants, and has caused some friction in situations where the elders expect that the younger generation will respect them for their worldly knowledge. For Joe, it just meant mixing adult responsibilities in with being a kid.
My friend and classmate Hugh Robertson always wanted to fly. He was an Air Force junkie and mainly responsible for converting our Boy Scout Explorer post into Air Explorers when he got the local Air Force recruiters to serve as post advisors. Hugh and his mom lived on Water Street. I think his mom was some mix of American Indian and black, which was pretty unusual in Eau Claire at the time. Hugh never talked about his dad but he was tight with the 2 Air Force sergeants.
As I got older, I became more attuned to the “no dad” situation, my own father having died when I was 15. My fraternity, Alpha Kappa Lambda, held a father-son banquet every year, and I’d attend in the company of AKL’s faculty advisor, Dr. Roy Saigo, who wasn’t all that much older than I was. Roy’s own upbringing had included a stint -- along with his parents and siblings -- as a guest of the US government in a Japanese-American internment camp. At the same time, a couple of his cousins were here in Wisconsin, at Camp McCoy, training for combat duty in Europe as part of the 442nd Infantry Regiment -- the Nisei Brigade -- which became the most decorated unit in American military history, including 21 Medals of Honor. It ended the war with a casualty rate of 314%. I learned this more from Roy than from the textbooks and lectures I got as a history major.
AKL brother Larry Roberts attended with a guy also named Roy. One day I asked him how come he didn’t call Roy “Dad” or “Pop” or something similar. Turned out that Roy wasn’t his original father. That guy had run off when Larry was still a little kid, leaving his mom in a pretty awkward situation -- not divorced, not widowed, but a woman alone trying to raise a small boy. Roy was a co-worker at the dairy plant who started out by being helpful and ended up moving in. They never bothered with the fuss and expense of doing a formal divorce and marriage, but Roy was for all intents and purposes Larry’s REAL father.
Another AKL brother was Wally Lane. Wally’s mother lived in Shanghai, and there was no way Mao Zedong’s government was ever going to let her out of the country, nor was Wally ever going to take the chance of visiting her. Wally lived with his guardian, an artsy older woman from Eau Claire who had somehow come to “inherit” him. I never did get the full story on that, since I didn’t want to be nosy, but I’m sure there WAS a story to it.
The male relative closest to me in age is my cousin Greg. Greg’s mom, my Aunt Mary, had died a horrible death from cancer when Greg was still little, and my folks doubted that my dad’s brother Sherwood would ever remarry, since he had been so obviously in love with her. But within a couple of years he had found a lovely woman to share his life, and she became my Aunt Barb. She and Uncle Sher had 2 more kids -- Jane and Kay -- and nobody who saw the 5 of them together would ever have guessed that Greg and Barb weren’t blood relatives.
Kay, who’s at least as Wonder Bread white as I am, married a black man. Their kids are never going to have to worry about working on their tans. Occasionally, looking at them all smiling at me out of family pictures, I’m struck by the fact that, for most of our country’s history, their marriage would have been illegal somewhere in the United States.
My own mother’s attitude toward black people was an odd mix of admirable and exasperating. She’d say things like “They have such beautiful teeth.” and “They’re wonderful entertainers.”, and Mary and I would just roll our eyes at the blatant stereotyping. Yet Mom never had a mean bone in her body. Even her stereotypes tried to find good things to say about people.
At the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, where I spent 25 years as an analyst, there was a good guy named Roger Sunby, a supervisor a couple of years older than me. Roger was reaching the point in life where he and his wife could retire, move to a smaller home on a lake, kick back, and enjoy themselves. Unfortunately, their son committed suicide, leaving behind a couple of small orphaned kids. So Roger and the missus, the children’s grandparents, signed on for another couple of decades of parenthood.
This isn’t unusual in ANY society. The people we most often turn to when times are tuff are family, friends, and nabors. The government’s there to provide a safety net when those 1st options aren’t available or when -- as in the case of the sawmill shutting down or a tornado ripping thru town -- everybody else is in the same boat. But “family values” prominently include the concept of “help”.
There were probably gay families all around me as I grew up, but it wasn’t the sort of thing people talked about. Looking back, I realize that one of my grade-school classmate’s “Uncle” Roger showed up for school functions along with his dad, even tho I never remember meeting his mother.
I do remember another situation, tho, when I was driving school bus during college. A bunch of AKLs were hanging out at Bill Mooney’s Bar and Grill on Grand Avenue, celebrating a legal victory that Kip Crandall had scored suing the insurance company of a driver who’d run into him on his motorcycle. Kip’s lawyer was celebrating with us, and he got a little soused. It came out that he was gay. The part I found interesting was that he was married, and his teenage son rode my school bus. I often wondered how he and his wife worked things thru. The kid seemed OK, as far as I could tell.
With the advent of the 20th Century version of the Gay ’90s, there’s been a lot more openness about gay relationships, and we straight folx have discovered something we’d previously been kind of oblivious to. Businesses have long catered to gays and lesbians because they’re supposed to fit in the demographic group known as DINKs -- double income, no kids -- and therefore supposedly have a lot of spare cash and free time. And, indeed, childless couples are the kind of gay family I’m most familiar with. But surprise! It turns out that a lot of gay couples DO have kids -- offspring from earlier, failed attempts at straight marriage, or artificial insemination, or adoption, or the “just kinda happened” sort.
I muse about how such a family would have fared on the Niagara Street of my youth. There wouldn’t have been a problem with the kids, of course. They would have gotten along the way kids always do, since they don’t know “better”. And I like to think that, if we had somehow started whispering about how odd it was that Pat had 2 dads, Mom would have arranged another milk-and-cookie session so we could get to know them. Maybe, maybe not. It was the 1950s.
Half a century later, I still hope that I’ll be learning things until the day I die, but I’ve reached a point where I have a few conclusions that I’m willing to share.
The 1st is that families come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. I’ve seen ’em. They result from odd combinations of choice and chance. Pick your aphorism: “Blood is thicker than water.” vs. “You can pick your friends, but you’re stuck with your relatives.”. There’s some truth to each in pretty much every family -- often simultaneously.
The 2nd is that most people in this world want essentially the same things out of life: a decent home; 3 squares a day; good health; the company of family and friends; a fair shot at the good things in life; fun; a chance to leave a lasting mark (hopefully a good one); and to neither get nor give any grief. Who needs the hassle?
The 3rd is what government is good for. It’s to do things FOR us, not TO us. We hire government to make our lives easier, not harder.
In my experience, every family has been able to figure out for themselves what their values are. I can’t imagine that we’d EVER need the government to do it to us.
Let alone with a constitutional amendment.