A Parent’s Pain

October 26, 2010

Jon Duane

Jon Duane

The summer before my fourth grade year my brother Jon was born with a congenital heart defect. It was devasting for my parents.

I remember during our family devotions we kids would pray “please fix the hole in Jonny’s heart.” My father always cried. One day, my older (and wiser) sister suggested we phrase our prayer differently.

When Jonny died on October 26, two months after he was born, I remember riding in the limousine with my family to the cemetery. I remember my father holding my hand and in his nervous emotion, he rubbed it so hard it began to hurt.

A parent’s pain can be so great.

Decades later, in the late 90s, my mother Carol became ill with ovarian cancer. It was devastating for her mother—my grandmother—Ruth.

For three years Ruth watched helplessly as her daughter fought a cancer that invaded her body all the while enduring treatments that stole her dignity and sapped her strength. At my mother’s funeral, I remember the painful anguish in my grandmother’s eyes.

“Children are not supposed to die before their parents,” my grandmother said. A parent’s pain can be so great.

In 2005, I watched my sister and her husband face the horror of losing their 20-yr-old son. They have struggled through days darker than anyone can imagine.

No, children are not supposed to die before their parents.

But sometimes they do. It has happened in families throughout all of history, including Ruth and George’s ancestral families.

We remember Olga, daughter of Carl and Sophia Larson (George’s parents). She died of a brain tumor when she was only 32.

We also remember Carl, son of Rudolph and Eliza Hooge. He was Ruth’s father and died when he was only 36.

Here’s something I didn’t know— Rudolph and Eliza lost other children as well.

When they settled in Chicago in 1886, Rudolph and Eliza had four children; Otto,10; Emma, 8; Carl, 5; and Hermann, 2. By 1900, according to the U.S. census, Eliza was the mother of six children, but only three of them were still living—Otto, Emma and Carl. Little Hermann died in December 1886, the same year they came to America. A daughter, Johanna, was born in 1888, and died of appendicitis when she was only nine years old. Their third loss, a child whose records I’m unable to find, may have been born and died in Germany or in the United States between 1886 and 1900 (there are no 1890 census records due to a fire).

When I look at my family today—my parents, my grandmother, and my sister, whose children have died before them—there is no way I can understand their pain. Yet, I share the same faith they have, a faith in God’s loving grace.

Our children are God’s children and he assigned us to be their caretakers. Some of us for our lifetimes. Some of us only for theirs.

Ruth Larson, Clara Carpenter, Ruth Swan, Salem Lutheran Ladies Aid, Owossso, Michigan

Owosso Argus Press, October 7, 1988

It’s been said if you gather the women, you can save the world.

I smile at these words.

When I was growing up, it was my grandmother Ruth and all her lady friends that greased the wheels and kept things running. They had time, they had (wo)manpower and they had organizational skills yet to be matched by the opposite gender.

Ruth was a very civic-minded and social woman. As I researched archives from her local newspaper, the Owosso Argus Press, I found story after story of her involvement in church and community activities.

She and George hosted Henderson business meetings at their home.

She served in the Women’s Society of Christian Service of Henderson’s United Methodist Church.

She participated in Salvation Army charitable events.

She was a member of the Ladies Aid of Salem Lutheran Church in nearby Owosso.

Okay. Salem…Ladies Aid…My grandmother.

In my childhood bank of memories, these three are synonymous. I cannot think of one without thinking of the others.

When George and Ruth moved to Henderson in 1946, they joined Salem Church and Ruth immediately joined its Ladies Aid. She was an active member well into her 90s, often serving as president. When she was physically no longer able to attend meetings, she remained an honorary member.

Now, if you’ve spent any time at Salem (or maybe even Owosso, for that matter), there’s something you automatically associate with its Ladies Aid—sauerkraut suppers!

According to this Argus Press article, dated October 7, 1988, Salem’s Ladies Aid has been serving sauerkraut suppers since the early 1920s. The menu at that time included pork and sauerkraut, homemade applesauce, home-pickled beets, mashed potatoes (no instant), breads, relishes, beverages and desserts.

“Preparation of the main attraction begins with volunteers washing the kraut,” the article quotes Ruth, who was the Ladies Aid president. “It’s then boiled at low heat for an hour or so before being transferred to steam tables in the school kitchen, where it steams for an entire day. A little sugar adds seasoning.”

No wonder when I was a kid, the whole school smelled of sauerkraut during those two days of sauerkraut supper!

I was curious how Salem’s Ladies Aid and sauerkraut suppers are doing today, so I called a longtime friend of my mother and step-mother, Carol Hanchett. Carol remembers Salem’s sauerkraut suppers as a child, when her mother Clara Carpenter was involved.

“When I was a girl, sauerkraut suppers were in the church basement. They made sauerkraut from their own cabbage,” says Carol. “Later, they moved it to the school.”

Sadly, Carol says Salem’s ladies haven’t served a sauerkraut supper for the past two years.

“Mainly, because we couldn’t get anyone to put that much time into it,” she says. “The ladies that always did, no longer can and nobody wanted to take it over. We served it for a lot of years, but I guess it’s run its course.”

Henderson: Then and Now

October 18, 2010

Grain elevator, Henderson, MI

According to an Owosso Argus Press article, when my grandparents George and Ruth Larson moved to Henderson in 1946, it was a village of about 250 people. A small community, yes, but a community nonetheless.

Henderson’s history goes back even further, of course. Wikipedia tells us it was originally known as Hendersonville and a post office opened there in 1868. This Shiawassee County History site shows an interesting undated photo of the village. I wonder if the Main Street building closet to the railroad cars is George and Ruth’s store? I wonder how old this photo is?

Small as it was, in days gone by Henderson was a thriving community. There were stores, a grain elevator, a school, a church and a post office.

These days the village isn’t quite the same. The elevator, shown above, is boarded and vacant. Instead there’s much larger operation located south of the village limits. The only store left is a floral shop and it looks like the others have been converted to residential dwellings.

The 2005 census shows Rush township, where Henderson is located, as having a population of 1469 people. I spoke on the phone with Debbie, clerk for the township, and she estimated Henderson’s population today is probably only 150.

“It’s just a small little burg, kind of run down,” says Debbie. “It’s nothing like it used to be.”

I imagine Henderson is indicative of many areas of Michigan. Every time I return to nearby Owosso, my hometown, I see grim reminders of the economic pain brought on by an ailing auto industry. When I drive the winding six miles on Chipman Road from Owosso to Henderson, I see houses I remember from my childhood, many of them now rundown. I also see newly built mega-mansions invading the farmland and monopolizing riverfront acreage.

My step-mother Jan confirms this. She describes the area as having become one of “upper class and lower class, with nothing in between.” She speaks of hundreds of homes that are foreclosed upon and vacant.

Looking for good deals on Henderson-area property?

I checked out the real estate and came across a couple fixer-uppers. On Bingham Rd., there’s a 600 sq. ft., 2-bedroom, 1-bath on .5 acres  for the bargain price of $10,000. On Ridge Rd., there’s a slightly larger 850 sq. ft. house on .9 acres for $40,000.

Bargain prices for the buyer, yes. But unfortunate for the sellers, who likely paid more for these properties in years past.

The store today, Henderson, MI

George and Ruth’s grocery store, now a residential property.

The store today, Henderson, MI

Photo by my sister Rebecca

The store today, Henderson, MI

George and Ruth built the enclosed fire escape stairway. I remember finding it so intriguing as a child. Whenever we heard the whistle of oncoming trains, my grandmother opened the fire escape door so there were plenty of spectator windows. On its left is the living room window where for years my Great-Grandmother sat. On the right is a window for a back bedroom.

Henderson, MI, Post Office

Photo by my sister Rebecca

Just two doors down from my grandparents’ store, we regularly walked to the post office. It was such a highlight! I still remember the fascinating dippy bird the postmaster kept on the counter.

Methodist Church, Henderson, MI

Although my grandparents were Lutheran, Ruth participated in many community events sponsored by Henderson’s United Methodist Church, a Main Street presence still today.

Seeing this church brings a tug to my heart. I remember so well the excitement of attending mother-daughter banquets here. I remember sitting in the church pews for the entertainment program and then moving to the basement where pillow mints and the most creative place settings awaited each of us. To a small girl, dressed in her Sunday best, this was comparable to a high school prom.

What are your memories of Henderson? What do you know of Henderson today?

They Never Went Back

October 14, 2010

Owosso Argus Press, March 31, 1971

Owosso Argus Press, March 31, 1971

Triggering Special Memories

October 7, 2010

George Larson in Larson's Groceries & Market in Henderson, Michigan
You know how the certain feel of a place takes you back in time? Or a random scent instantly triggers a memory?

There’s an old, general store near us and whenever I walk across its creaky floor I’m reminded of my grandparents’ store in Henderson, MI. And, once, just once somewhere else, I caught a whiff of something that instantly took me back to the bathroom of their apartment above that store, a room with pink tiles and the unique scent of soap combined with my grandmother’s toiletries.

These triggers are special. They’re two of many that bring a flood of memories of the grocery store owned by my grandparents George and Ruth Larson. It was an old-fashioned, family-owned kind of store in an old-fashioned-family-kind-of-village. Only now as an adult, do I realize how much of my childhood is in that store.

Isn’t the above picture cool?

It was taken in 1950 (well before my time), and it shows the store four years after they bought it. That’s my grandfather George, dressed meticulously beneath his grocer’s apron. Yes, he’s wearing a tie. But look, he’s also got his sleeves rolled up—he was finally able to let loose after all those years in a Chicago office.

In a 1990 video interview, my grandmother Ruth describes the store during those early years of their ownership. She says at first it was like “an old, country store.”

“There was just one long counter with stocks behind on shelves. We had one of those things to get things down that were way up high,” says Ruth, as she’s reaching with her arms. “And to slice the cold meats, you had to do it by hand.”

Little by little, George built new island shelves, added a glass meat counter and an ice cream freezer.

“And he built the walk-in cooler. He went up to Midland (MI) and brought the insulation home,” Ruth says matter-of-factly of my grandfather’s ingenuity. “He built all that himself.”

Larson Grocery & Market, Henderson, MI; family and friends

This photo was taken in 1948, two years after they moved to Henderson.

In back (l-r), are family friends Roy Pederson, Ruth, and Frieda Pederson. In the middle are Carol (George and Ruth’s daughter, and my mother) and Nancy Pederson. In front are Coyla (Jeanie) McCargar (my mother’s best friend and later her sister-in-law) and Judith (George and Ruth’s daughter).

Note the architectural details on the false store-front.

Ruth Larson and her daughters Judith and Carol

This is the only photo I have of the apartment above their store. Taken in 1952, there’s Ruth on the left, and her daughters Judith (playing piano) and Carol.

Check out the handsome Navy-dude in the picture on the piano! That’s my dad, and the next year, in August 1953, he and my mom (Carol) were married.

Larson's Grocery & Market, Henderson, MI

Taking down the false front in 1954.

George Larson in Larson's Grocery & Market, Henderson, MI

Here’s the store in 1958, with the island shelves George built. And look, the tie is gone!

As a child years later in the 60s, I remember running my hand along plastic tracks on the front edge of each shelf where George had carefully inserted product prices. I remember dragging the inserts all the way from one end of the track to the other, bunching them together along the way.

My grandfather, gentle and quiet man that he was, simply said to me, “Please don’t do that.”

George Larson at his desk

"Head man at his desk!" by Ruth Larson

This picture, and the caption my grandmother wrote on the back, says it all.

Here’s my grandfather at his roll-top desk. Perhaps this piece of furniture, more than any other, best represents their store. If you look closely at the very top picture, in the right corner you can see the open doorway into a back room. Here in this room was the “head man’s” desk and here’s where he kept his detailed books.

When my grandparents sold their store, they gave the desk to my mother, who later gave it to my brother.

Here’s another furniture piece from the store. I remember this bookcase sitting along side George’s desk in the back room. I remember my grandmother pulling out glasses, often old jelly jars, and giving us drinks of water. Such a simple thing, but something I always loved.

I now have this bookcase in my home.

Wicker rocking chair from Larson's Grocery and Market

This rocking chair, which I also now have, is one I remember being in the back room. In the video, however, my grandmother says they also used it in the store. Sure enough, if you look closely at the very top picture (maybe even magnify your screen, ctrl +), you can see the chair back against the white wall, underneath the two advertising posters. It had dark cushions then.

“There was a big, square register in the floor,” describes Ruth. “The rocker sat there. In the wintertime, when people would come in and they’d be cold, they’d go and sit in that rocker.”

I wish I’d thought to ask my grandmother if these furniture pieces came with the store. I wonder how many people warmed themselves in this wonderful chair? Or how old the books are that originally were kept in that magnificent desk?

George Larson Family, circa 1936

George Larson Family, circa 1946

So here it is, 1946, and we have this very proper family from big city Chicago—George, his lovely wife Ruth, and their dearest daughters Carol and Judith, all dressed to the nines and posed for a formal portrait.

In 1946, the George Larson family was rooted deep in their big city life. Their extended families lived in surrounding communities. George, 47, was well-established in his career with C.A.Burnett Packing Company, the same place he and Ruth first met nearly 20 years earlier. Ruth, 37, had set up their home in the bungalow they owned on Ada Street. And Carol, 13, and Judith, 10, were in eighth and fifth grades, respectively, at Timothy Lutheran School.

But all was not well in the Windy City.

“Grandpa wasn’t feeling too well,” my grandmother Ruth tells me in our 1990 video interview. “He was having problems with his stomach and the doctor told him he shouldn’t be working in an office. He should be moving around more and get out of the city.”

“He was a bookkeeper,” explains Ruth. “Besides doing all the bookwork, he used to go around and pick up all the checks from these different companies that slaughtered with us. One of them was Oscar Meyer and Co.”

Then, one weekend a family visit to Michigan changed all that. It changed life not only for George, but for the whole family as well. According to Ruth, this change came “quite in a hurry.”

“We were up in Michigan visiting Grandma & Grandpa Larson on the farm and Esther and her husband Lloyd, who had a store in Gaines,” Ruth tells me in the video. She’s talking about her inlaws who farmed in Imlay City, MI, with George’s brother Clarence, and also George’s sister Esther, who lived in a small town about 50 miles away.

“They got the Flint Journal all the time and we looked in there and this store in Henderson was listed,” Ruth says. “We drove out there once and looked at it while we were there on vacation. I think that was over the Labor Day weekend. Grandpa decided he wanted that store. We didn’t have enough money to put down on it because we were just there on vacation. So Uncle Clarence let us have $500 to put down on the store.”

In the video, I ask how much they paid for the store. A nosy question, yes, but I’m thinking of posterity.

My grandmother doesn’t remember.

“But it was less than what we sold our house for because we sold our house for $11,500. I think the store was about $10,000,” she says.

“And of course, the apartment was upstairs. We had to have our furniture brought and we had the baby grand piano. That was easier to move because they just took the legs off of it, see.

“The furniture got there before we did. Six rooms of furniture and all our clothing and that. It cost us $117 to move from Chicago to Henderson, MI,” Ruth laughs.

“The people had called us to tell us the furniture was there,” Ruth continues without a pause. “We stayed at Aunt Esther’s and Lloyd’s in Gaines for a few days and the people in the store asked if they could put up the piano and play it—I guess their daughter could play piano. The rest of the furniture was all in the back room.”

I remember my grandmother’s furniture well. She had many very nice, quality pieces. Imagine the curiosity it aroused for those store owners! And think of the buzz going through the little town of Henderson as they wondered about the family coming from Chicago!

“Finally we took over the store,” remembers my grandmother. “I think we moved in October, around the 25th of October in 1946.”

George Larson Family

George Larson Family, circa 1950s, in their apartment above the store.