Uncle Ralph, He Was Just A Milkman
By Fred Owens
Hugo was my brother and true companion on the back roads of America. He writes to me from somewhere in Florida. I cannot say exactly where in Florida because he moves around a lot -- gotta dance, he says. Hugo wants to pony up for a subscription to the Frog Hospital newsletter, but he says "please no politics." This plea touches my heart. The back and forth of political hostility is sweeping the nation and making life much too harsh. Poor Hugo, and I don't say that to be cynical. Poor Fred. Poor all of us. But we have to go through it. The impeachment hearings start tomorrow on live television and the halls of Congress will quake. I will be watching. You should watch too, as much as you can. Let's all be there with strong hearts.
But let's hear from the rest of you. Hugo says no to political writing at Frog Hospital, just the stories. What do you say?
Thanksgiving. I called my sister Carolyn in Venice and we talked about Thanksgiving. Everybody is coming and going. There is no plan, as yet. Laurie's older daughter Mariah is in Hawaii. Her younger daughter Shannon is in Santa Cruz, but she will drive down to see us. My son Eugene will go to Boston to have turkey with his new girlfriend Rachel and her parents. My daughter Eva, her wife Lara, her two boys Walter and Joey, and their golden retriever Odie are all in Santa Cruz right now and will have turkey there. Carolyn will be hosting her two daughters Primavera and Zana. My niece Aisha from the Bay area will fly down, with or without her children and husband, to spend the holiday with my brother Tom and his girlfriend Marti in Sierra Madre which is near Pasadena. That whole group will come feast with Carolyn and Laurie and me at a location to be determined. Laurie and I will likely do two turkeys at this point -- an early stop at Carolyn's house and then spend the evening and overnight with her two brothers, Dave and John and their families in Manhattan Beach. This is actually not confusing, it's just a game of musical chairs. Either way we get pumpkin pie.
Laurie's brother Dave's wife Grace is Japanese-American. Grace's brother Sam will be at the party. Sam is a quiet fellow. He comes in the house and heads straight to the TV room and the couch. He watches the football game in contented silence. This is the joke. He pretends he does not speak English. Laurie says he does not speak hardly any English even though he has spent most of his life in this country. I say he does speak English but he would rather watch the football game and not talk. Anyway, I enjoy Sam's silent company.
So that's it and we did not write anything about the impeachment hearings. But the hearings are an important matter, and so is the 2020 election. We will be writing more about them unless an overwhelming number of readers want just the stories.
The subscription appeal is doing well. We have received $225 so far and we aim for $900. The details are at the bottom of this week's fairly short story.
The Owens Family Chronicles. This week's installment is fairly short, so read it all, no excuses.
What I knew about old people was from my relatives – Granma and Granpa, Aunt Lena and Aunt Francis. They were always old, so they never got older. They had grey hair and soft wrinkly skin. They moved slowly and they always said the same cute things to us. Granma died in 1955, when I was nine, so I don’t remember her well, but she had a Persian lamb black coat that was very shiny and smooth. She took it off when she came over, I got to put it away in the hall closet. And she had a nice clean smell, like just a little soap or lavender.
Granpa was bigger. He didn’t have much hair, but he had a big nose and brown spots on his hands. All his clothes were grey. Granpa chewed tobacco and that made him seem ancient to me for some reason, like a horse and buggy thing. One time I was riding with Granpa and Uncle Ralph was driving. Uncle Ralph stopped the car. Granpa opened the door, leaned over and made a big spit – wow! Then he pulled the tobacco plug out of his pocket along with an aged small pocket knife and cut himself another chew. He died in 1960. He was 94.
Aunt Lena and Aunt Francis were his younger sisters. They were old maids. They lived together down in Chicago someplace in an apartment. Aunt Lena had a job, but Aunt Francis always stayed home and did the housework. I liked them both. They were too old to be any fun, but I never expected that. They were like extra grandparents, so I felt rich in that way. We only went to their apartment once or twice. It was full of knick-knacks and delicate old furniture and doilies and everything like an old lady ought to have. They were very kind to me, and I could touch things but carefully, no antics. They came over to our house for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, and for the Fourth of July party in the backyard.
They both wore these incredible old-lady shoes, low high-heels that laced up in the front and thick nylon stockings that you couldn’t see through. Aunt Lena was thin and small and droll in her speech. Mom liked Aunt Lena because she worked. Aunt Francis was fat and sometimes merry. I liked her better because she was more fun. But Mom said Aunt Frances never did anything except have a good appetite at mealtime.
The Chicago fire was in 1871 when Mrs. O’Leary kicked over the lantern while she was milking a cow. The whole city burned except for the Water Tower, now a sandstone landmark right near to downtown on Michigan Boulevard. I loved to hear the story, I would ask them to tell it again. Aunt Lena and Aunt Francis and Granpa were in the fire when they were children. Their house burned down and they had to run away, but nobody got hurt.
They used to tell us about great-grandfather who was a Union soldier in the Civil War and how he marched through Georgia with General Sherman. After the war, great-grandfather came back to Chicago and opened a dry-goods store on the North Side. He lived to be 98 and he always marched in the Memorial Day parade. He was the last one in his regiment to die. Granpa and his two sisters took over the store and they ran it until 1920. There was a small depression right after World War I and they lost their business. After that Granpa retired and they were middle class but in straitened circumstances.
Their name was Cuny, a Swiss name. Great-grandfather came over from Basel, Switzerland when he was a young man. He spoke German. Great-grandmother was from Alsace in France and she spoke German too. At Christmas we sang Silent Night and O Tannenbaum in German because of that, and we listened to records of the Vienna Boys Choir.
Granma and Granpa had eight children. Baby Henry died when he was little, they told us. Besides him there was Ambrose (Ted), Carolyn, Charles (Chuck), Theresa (Tessie), Jerome (Jerry), Ralph, and Marie. Mom was the baby and the prettiest. They always lived in a big apartment. One time when they were really short on money, they couldn’t find an apartment big enough for seven children, and they had to split up the family. Mom stayed with relatives for a while. She said it was fun for her, but it was difficult for Granma and Granpa.
The Depression was hard and they had to save every penny, and if someone had a job they had to hold on to it and count themselves lucky. The grown children stayed at home until they were married and they turned their paycheck over to the parents. The Cunys thought they were a little bit better than other people and had good standards in education and manners and in being good Catholics. Proper people, but threadbare.
They still lived in the apartment until the early 1950s when they bought a snug red-brick bungalow in Evanston, on Lawndale Avenue. Their house was only a few miles from our house, and near to Central Street where we used to live.
Uncle Chuck and Uncle Jerry got married and had their own families. But Uncle Ralph, Aunt Carolyn and Aunt Tessie never married. They just stayed home with Granma and Granpa until they died and just the three of them kept living there. This way I had extra aunts and uncles with no children of their own and we got a special attention from them, and they were only minutes from our house. Mom held Aunt Tessie and Aunt Carolyn in high regard and we looked up to them. Aunt Tessie was a drama teacher at St. Scholastica, a Catholic high school. She had a melodious voice, very careful diction, and beautiful posture, carrying herself as on the stage. She had shiny black eyes and white skin, and I liked it if she gave me a kiss. She was exuberant and enthusiastic about most things. Aunt Tessie didn’t have enough college for a degree, but a teacher didn’t need one back then. Drama was her vocation and it gave her a spirit and sense of duty and joy.
Aunt Carolyn was older and more serious. She was plain looking with strong horse-y features. She was the one that had the steady job all through the Depression and her pay check as a legal secretary on LaSalle Street was what kept the family going. She kept that job for forty years. She was a bit sacrificial in her spinsterhood and her work-a-day life. She never got to go to college because she was older and had to work. I still thought it was odd that they didn’t have husbands, but we had the nuns at school, so they were like semi-nuns.
Uncle Ralph was a milkman. He was my favorite uncle and he came over to our house a lot. He would just drop in for a little bit. I knew what a milk man was, because the truck came to our house twice a week. Uncle Ralph worked for Glenora Farms and sometimes he came by after work wearing his brown company jacket with “Ralph” embroidered on the front. Everybody liked Uncle Ralph and he always did favors for the customers on his route, and always had a cheerful smile when he came to see us. Too bad he was a drunkard. I didn’t know that, but Aunt Tessie and Aunt Carolyn had to drag him out of taverns and get him back to work sometimes. Uncle Ralph served in the navy for World War II. He was stationed in some miserable backwater in New Guinea. He didn’t like to talk about it.
The thing that bothered me was that Mom said he was “just a milk man.” Even if I was only eight years old, I knew that wasn’t a right thing to say. I didn’t talk back because I didn’t have the words, but I understood what Mom meant – Uncle Jerry, Uncle Chuck and Uncle Ted had white collar jobs. Being a milk man was not as good. Yes, except Uncle Ralph was the one who always came over to the house and smiled a lot.
That's all for this week.
Frog Hospital used to make money, maybe $700 or $800 a year. That was when I sold subscriptions at $25, but somehow the readership fell off and people stopped paying for it and I kind of gave up. But now I think, well, I need the money. And all I have to do is put the solicitation at the bottom of the newsletter when it comes out. To write a check for $25 or more and mail it to Fred Owens, 1105 Veronica Springs RD, Santa Barbara, CA 93105...... or hit the PayPal button on my blog and do it that way.
That's the blog with the PayPal button on the side. The blog is simply the archive for the newsletter. Every issue of the newsletter becomes a post on the blog, so it stores some hundreds of back issues. Frog Hospital has been in business since 1998, so there is some longevity in it, although Facebook and other social media outlets seems to be overwhelming. Yes, overwhelming, but we ain't giving up and the Frog Will Roar Again.