Aunt Lillian

My mother’s younger sister Lillian had a huge heart. If you had looked in the dictionary under compassion or even empathy, you’d find a photo of my Aunt Lillian. If you had trouble, Lillian was there to be with you – to support you, to sit with you, to do whatever needed to be done.

When my mother had to have emergency surgery, Lillian came to town and sat with us at the hospital. When my brother died, Lillian was there. There were many times that she and my uncle stopped while they were in town and stayed for dinner. People didn’t phone long distance much in those days. It was too expensive. They dropped by, something that people seldom do anymore.

She worked hard and raised a big family, struggling with diabetes for many years. It was hard for her to say no to a cookie or a piece of pie. They always called her name. I have good memories of being at her home for family reunions when I was little. Her butterscotch cookies called my name.
I remember one reunion when I went to her and told her I thought my cousin Austin was so handsome. I was probably all of seven or eight years old. She leaned forward and said, “Honey, if you go tell him that, he’ll give you a quarter.” And I promptly went to Austin and told him that his mother said if I told him he was handsome, he would give me a quarter. I don’t remember if he gave me the quarter, but it certainly prompted laughter from the fellas standing around with him.

Aunt Lillian had a sister-in-law named Olive who was a thorn in her side all the years of her marriage. Olive was mean. I suspect Aunt Lillian wanted to keep the peace so she never made an issue out of Olive’s behavior.

When Aunt Lillian was dying, we gathered at the hospital to support her family. It was the least we could do after what she had done for all of us over the years. It was with delight that I heard one of my cousins report on something Lillian said shortly before she died. She sat up on her deathbed and said, “That Olive’s a bitch” and then laid back down. She waited a lifetime to say it. It makes me smile every time I think of it.

Cris Roll

The Ten Dollar Bill

Money was always tight at our house, especially after my dad died. Christmas was a struggle within our family. We lived on two pensions my mother got, one from the Civil Service and one from the VA.

Even so, we tried to share what we had. We often tried to have someone over for Christmas dinner, which usually was turkey. We all loved turkey dinner even though we’d just had one at Thanksgiving.

One Christmas was particularly hard. There just wasn’t anything extra. People, relatives, would come to the door with plates of cookies, maybe some fruit. And we had nothing for them.

As I was helping my mother with cleaning to get ready for the holiday, a strange thing happened. We had an old radio cabinet that had come from The Aunts after they broke up housekeeping. It was an odd looking piece of furniture. Radios had been large box-like structures back in the 30s and 40s. The cabinet was four to five feet long and about 18 inches deep. There were no drawers or doors. There were two fake doors on each side of the front and then a curved area in the middle. And it was hollow. Occasionally we would pull it away from the wall and dust the inside even though it didn’t ever show. This cabinet backed up to the stairway going upstairs.

I decided I had better pull it out and give it a good dusting behind since it was Christmas. As I moved it, I spotted a ten dollar bill sitting in the empty back in the dust. I called to my mother. “Look what I found!” We puzzled over that ten dollar bill. Where had it come from? We weren’t missing any money. How long had it been there? In the end we sat down and decided how to spend it. My mother had me bundle up and walk downtown to Woolworth’s. They had lovely boxes of peanut brittle for a dollar each. I bought ten boxes of peanut brittle.

We wrapped the boxes up in pretty paper and gave one to my aunts and uncles and whoever else we thought should have one. We felt so good about having something to give. To this day, I have no idea where that ten dollar bill came from. It could have fallen from someone’s pocket as they were climbing the stairs to the bathroom, but no one complained of missing that much money—and it was a lot of money back then. It could have been casually slipped into the back of the cabinet by someone who knew we would eventually find it.

Finally we stopped trying to guess and just accepted it as the small Christmas miracle it was.

Cris Roll

The Neighbors

When I grew up, people knew their neighbors. I was a baby boomer, and the neighborhood was crammed full of kids. We played outside, we played inside. We cut through each others’ yards, something most people wouldn’t dream of doing anymore.

On one side of my house lived Gladys and Bill. If they had children, they were long gone. The couple was Canadian. I’m not sure why they lived on the Michigan side of the St. Marys River, but they were our neighbors for many years. Gladys had a lovely garden in the back yard, and their house was neat as a pin, inside and out. I remember one spring, a little girl from across the alley picked every single one of Gladys’s red and yellow tulips and took them home to her mother. She was chastened by her horrified mother and made to go back across the alley and apologize to Gladys who took it pretty well actually.

Directly across the alley was the family of a local policeman. He was a mountain of a man, and his wife, a French war bride, was a little bit of a thing. They had three children that my mother babysat from time to time. The youngest boy was a handful. My mother once caught him pitching eggs across the kitchen.

Next door to that family was a Greek family with one boy who was a great friend of my brother. My mother often chatted with the mom over the back fence. I remember a story my mom told about this lady. As they chatted one day, the woman said with a sigh, “When I married Mr. Melonas I thought he was a Greek god. Now he’s just a goddamn Greek.” My mother always giggled when she told the story.

Next door to the Greek family was a tiny house that belonged to my friend’s family. There were five kids in that house. Over the years, the dad added on to the upstairs and created a lot of built-ins for storage. They lifted the little house and put a basement under it when I was small. There was a huge pile of earth and clay in the yard for a long time. We kids had a lot of fun and got filthy playing on that pile. Next door to their house was their grandparents home. Their grandmother was the neighborhood grandma. We all loved her and the beautiful collection of tea cups which we admired in her china cupboard.

Next to my house on the south side was a family of seven kids. It wasn’t unusual to come out in the spring and find the mother with a swelling belly. We all played together and shared colds, measles, mumps and chicken pox.

The house next to their house belonged to a family of Baptists. In the summer they conducted vacation Bible school in their garage. I begged my mother to let me go. She didn’t want to let me because we were Catholic, but eventually she gave in, made me put a dress on and let me go. I really didn’t care about the lessons. All I was interested in was the cookies and milk and being included.

In the house next to the Baptists lived a family of Methodists. The dad was also a policeman. The lady of the house and the mom next to us spent a lot of time in our kitchen gossiping and drinking tea. My mother set off a neighborhood war when she blew up one day and alienated the other two ladies. We didn’t have much, and she resented supplying them with their daily tea and never getting much done while they were there. Poor Mom didn’t know how to handle those kinds of situations. It created a lot of ill will for many years.

These were some of the people who populated my world as a small girl. Some of them moved out of the neighborhood over the years and some were still there long after I left home.

Cris Roll

The Bomb

I grew up during the Cold War. On spring and summer Saturday mornings, they tested the air raid sirens. In grade school, we had drills where we had to get on our knees on the floor under our desks, bend over and cover our heads with our hands. Even then I didn’t think it would make any difference if we were bombed.

The Sault Locks, we were told, were a target for the A-bomb or H-bomb, whichever one was the going thing. The Locks had also been a target during World War II when dirigibles floated over the area. I didn’t care which letter of the alphabet they called it; I was scared stiff. I think my whole generation must have been terrified.

We saw pictures in Life magazine of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after they dropped the bombs to end the war. We saw the mushroom clouds. We saw the people photographed in hospitals as they lay dying in agony from radiation poisoning.

I don’t know how I knew this; I probably heard the grown-ups talking. But I knew that in order to even think of surviving a nuclear blast, you had to be at least five miles from the epicenter of the blast. I calculated that we would have to be at my Uncle Don’s house on Baker Side Road. We didn’t have a car, so I was pretty sure my family and I would fry.

Sometimes I feel angry when I think of how all that affected our childhood. The fear was crippling. I didn’t know anyone in the Sault that had a bomb shelter in their backyard, but there were many U.S. families that had them.

After college, in the late 70s, when I worked at Community Action, we found large tins of Civil Defense food in the basement of the building because it had been designated a bomb shelter. We opened a tin of candy that dated from the 1950s. It tasted pretty awful. It brought back all the memories of the fear I had felt as a child.

On one hand, when I think of the fear that children in other countries have had to live with, I guess we didn’t have it so bad. On the other hand, no child should have to live in fear of bombs being dropped on them. Not one child.

Cris Roll

Snoring

My cat, Jeannie, snores. She’s an old girl now and has arthritis. I think when I’m restless at night, it disturbs her so she doesn’t sleep with me very often anymore.

She likes to sleep on her cushion in front of the heat duct in the dining room. My other cat, Chloe, seems to understand that it’s not her spot and leaves Jeannie alone.

I hear Jeannie snore while I’m reading in bed or trying to get to sleep. (That’s one thing about getting older—sleep eludes me many nights.) Jeannie’s snoring sounds so human. In fact, she sounds a lot like my late mother. My mother and I had to share a bedroom when I was growing up. My dad died when I was quite young so Mom and I shared twin beds that were side by side in the larger of the two upstairs bedrooms. And she snored like a son of a gun.

Her snoring woke me at night, and there I would be, unable to get back to sleep. For a teenager who loved to sleep, this was vexing. Finally I devised a way to get her to stop—for a while, at least. I would slip my leg out of the covers and reach it across and give my mother’s bed a good kick. She would snort a few times and then settle back down and stop snoring for a while. This was very effective. I took great pleasure in making her stop snoring. I might do this three or four times until I would finally fall back asleep.

I never admitted to her that I had done this. She had a good, dry sense of humor, but she would not have found it amusing.

I can’t do that with Jeannie, of course. I can’t kick her bed to get her to stop snoring. In truth, I chuckle when I hear it night after night. It always reminds me of Mom. I admit I have wondered at times if she’s trying to get even with me.

Cris Roll

Silent Night

It was late December. My big brother was in the hospital, dying of congestive heart failure at the age of 38. My heart was breaking. I was 30. I had lost my father at the age of eight. My brother had been the nearest thing I had to a father for most of my life.

Pete was an alcoholic and he smoked and had asthma. I think he must have been fatalistic. He admitted to me once during a coughing fit that a doctor had told him he wouldn’t live past 30 because he’d had rheumatic fever as a child which damaged his heart. I reminded him at the time that he was 31. He looked at me, grinned and put his index finger against his lips. “Shhhhh,” he said.

My aunt and uncle had given me a ride to Marquette where Pete was hospitalized. I stayed at my cousin’s home and walked back and forth to the hospital every day. His doctor spoke with enthusiasm about a heart transplant. I knew it would never happen. Pete was just too sick. His whole body was breaking down.

My mother had an ulcer attack and had been hospitalized two floors up from Pete. I ran back and forth between the two floors, trying to look out for both of them. Mom was being difficult. I know it was because she was sick herself and was worried about Pete. But Mom wasn’t very good at handling things. The nursing staff was short-handed. Mom was demanding. I flew off the handle with her one day. I accused her of acting like a prima donna. She never forgave me for that remark. It didn’t seem to occur to her that it was difficult for me as well, watching my brother dying, trying to look out for her. I was close to losing it myself.

That evening, my cousin took me to the mall. I don’t remember why. Maybe it was just to help me forget my troubles for a couple of hours. Christmas music drifted out of the PA system. And in the middle of the mall, they had constructed a Christmas tree made of blood red poinsettias. I couldn’t help but stare at that beautiful sight. I had never seen anything like it. It was 12-15 feet tall, and it just about took my breath away.

Pete died a day or two later. It was two days after his birthday, and three days before Christmas. The longest night of the year. My sister had called and told me to stay in that night, that she and her husband would stay with Pete. I was exhausted, so I did what she said. At three in the morning, a call came from the hospital. Pete had died. I was numb as I got dressed. My cousin drove me over to the hospital and came upstairs with me to see my mother and then downstairs to see Pete. The nurse said my sister had never shown up. Pete had died alone.

I was so angry with my sister. And hurt. I could have been there with Pete. She later said that the roads had been icy, and they were 25 miles away. She could have called to let me know. But she chose not to.

I stood in my mother’s room staring out the window at the dark and listening to the silence. The only sound at that hour was the machinery that kept the hospital running. I watched as steam rose from vents in the buildings. It was deeply cold. Silent Night played in my head, over and over again.

Although it has been many years since Pete died, I sometimes find myself walking out of the stores in December when I hear Silent Night.

Cris Roll

The Rumors of Her Death

When my Aunt Thelma died, the family gathered at the funeral home ahead of other visitors. I wandered around looking at all the flowers and reading the cards tucked in them. I heard a noise in the back room, and I peeked around the corner to see Clyde, a man I had known for many years. I asked him how he was. He said he was upset, that they had just had a call to pick up Ruby, my aunt’s best friend. I was shocked. “Ruby died?” I asked. “I just saw the flowers she sent out front.”

I hurried back out to the rest of the family. I went from group to group to tell them the news. Every time someone new came into the funeral home, we told them the sad news about Ruby.

One of my friends stopped to pay her respects, and I walked her to the door when she was ready to leave. I happened to glance toward the parking lot and saw a gaggle of ladies from senior housing coming toward the door. Leading the pack was Ruby. “Oh, my god!” My friend asked what was wrong. I told her I didn’t have time to explain. I ran back into the funeral home and went from group to group. “Ruby didn’t die,” I said desperately. “She’s on the way through door right now!”

When Ruby walked in, she was hugged and made a fuss over by half the people in the funeral home. I’m sure she never knew why.

I was angry with Clyde, and when we closed down the funeral home that night, I said to the young man who was holding the door, “You folks ought to be more careful about your employees. Clyde told me that Ruby L. had died today and it wasn’t true. It caused a lot of trouble.”

“Oh,” he said. “Clyde doesn’t work here, he just stops by to visit.”

I spent a year being angry with Clyde until one day I heard that he had Alzheimer’s disease. It all became clear to me then. Poor Clyde had been confused. I forgave him.

We still tell that story when the family gets together, and we laugh over it again. But there’s a postscript.

When Ruby really did die, a cousin and I drove out to Pickford to the funeral home. I saw Ruby’s daughter and I asked her to sit down for a few minutes. “I have a story to tell you,” I said, and proceeded to relate the unfortunate incident at Thelma’s funeral.

Ruby’s daughter got an odd look on her face. “Well, that’s why!” she said. I asked her to explain. “You know my mother was a teacher before she was married. She received a newsletter from other Michigan teachers, and one of those newsletters had Mom’s death notice in it.  She never could figure out how that happened.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. It was clear to me that someone must have left the funeral home before they got the news that Ruby really hadn’t died at all and had reported the sad news to the newsletter. Poor Ruby. The rumors of her death had been greatly exaggerated.

Cris Roll

Hanging Out with My Friend

When I was a kid, I played a lot with a little girl who lived next door. She was a
year younger than I. We did a lot of typical kid things, played with our dolls, told
stories to amuse ourselves, and stole a lot of green apples.

Little green apples were verboten. Our mothers warned us that they would give us
stomach aches but, of course, we didn’t care. We loved the tart taste of those little
unripe apples and stole salt shakers from the cupboard to dash on their sour white
flesh. We also stole packets of unsweetened Kool-Aid from the kitchen. Hiding
behind the house, we’d lick our fingers and dip them in the sour grains of Kool-
Aid. Another thing we stole was rhubarb from Mrs. Wallis who lived up the street.
That had to be done under cover of darkness because she guarded that rhubarb
pretty closely.

I well remember the sleepover at her house on New Year’s Eve 1960. We had
overheard dire predictions of one of the Fatima letters that was to be opened in
1960. We sat at the top of the stairs, listening to festivities on the television. We
were waiting for the world to end, so frightened were we from the conversations
we had overheard from our parents. And, of course, the world didn’t end. We
finally went to bed.

We were playing in my brother’s room one summer day, and we hatched the idea
that we would dangle each other from the bedroom window outside. We unhooked
the screen and took turns holding on to each other’s hands as we dangled from the
window. I don’t remember how many times we did it, but it’s probably a good
thing we got bored with the activity. I shudder now to think of what might have
happened to one of us.

By the time we were in high school, my friend and I had moved on to other groups
of friends, and we didn’t see much of each other except in passing. I was sad when
I heard she was pregnant and her dad kicked her out of the house. That’s what
happened back then. There was such shame involved in unmarried pregnancy. She
gave the child up and moved out west somewhere. I don’t know what kind of life
she had, but I suspect it was a hard one. I heard she died of cancer a number of
years ago, and I was saddened once again.

Cris Roll

My Father’s Teabag

When I was very young, we had a coal and wood range in the kitchen, one of those
big black cast iron stoves with warming ovens in the top and legs that held it off
the floor. Our house wasn’t very well insulated, but that stove helped to keep us
warm. Our cat and dog liked to lie under the stove because it was the warmest
place in the house. Next to the stove was an old black coal scuttle. We carried the
coal inside from the coal shed and left it where it was handy. The handle of the
coal scuttle was usually in the up position. I mention this because it’s important
later in the story.

My dad, Louie Roll, worked as a lockman at the Corps of Engineers. He wasn’t a
suit and tie kind of guy. He often sat around in his work pants and long underwear,
suspenders holding up his pants and his hair sticking up in several places. He
didn’t drink much coffee, but he did like his tea.
His spot was at the corner of the kitchen table. He also sat there to listen to
Saturday operas from the Met on the radio. My no nonsense dad was seen to leak
water from his eyes sometimes during one of his favorite arias.

One day as he sat with his tea mug in front of him, he pulled the Salada tea bag
from his cup. Never one for wringing the last bit out, he flung the teabag across the
kitchen, leaving a trail of tea drops across the linoleum. The hexagonal shaped tea
tag caught on the wire bale of the handle of the coal scuttle and flipped over. And
over again. And over again until it hung in place. My dad let out a hoot of joy.
He had never done it before. And he never could do it again, no matter how hard
he tried.

Cris Roll

My brief recruitment into the military

During my senior year of high school I kept receiving calls from military recruiters. They wouldn’t stop calling. One of the kids who had been in my freshman science class, Joel Detleff, was going into the Marines, and he worked it out with his recruiter to bring me in to the recruiting station. Apparently they thought that since I didn’t know how to say ‘no’ that meant I was a possible sucker.

I went to the recruiting station with Joel after school one day and the recruiter sat me down in his office and had me take some form of standardized test. At this point I still had absolutely no intention of ever joining any military branch, let alone the Marines. He scored the test and told me that I did extremely well. That meant I would have my choice of what kind of role I wanted to play in the Marines. When I tried to tell him I really liked my friends and my life in Milwaukee he asked me – and I remember this very clearly – ‘Who are you going to listen to regarding your own life, yourself or your friends?’ As if he had somehow made the statement that my personal choice was going into the military. My answer was that I would listen to my friends – partly because at that point in my life, that was probably true. I was very close to a group of people and I didn’t want to leave them. However, I saw that as my way of finally being able to tell this recruiter that I really wasn’t interested. Well, that’s at least how he took it. He looked at me with a disgusted scowl and told me that I wasn’t fit to be a Marine anyway.

The entire time, from the start of the calls to that day in his office, I felt that the recruiter really didn’t care if I wanted to go in or not, he just wanted to meet his quota. It made me feel very uncomfortable and I still feel that way whenever I see recruiting stations.

After that day I would still get calls from other military branches, but not the Marines. At the end of each call they would always ask if I knew any other kids who would be interested. These guys were so pushy I felt I had to give them names – kind of like the Hollywood Blacklist. So I would give them names of kids I knew – NONE of which would probably have any interest at all in the military. I often wondered if those kids had the guts that I didn’t have to just tell those guys that they simply weren’t interested.