It wasn’t exactly awkward, but still rather unusual. John and I started dating in the mid-60’s. His only sister Elly, had already been married for several years with 4 children! Wow. Jim and Mag were champions when it came to spacing children! Meaning, Elly got married when John was about 2. She became a mother for the first time a couple years after I was born. I didn’t see them very often. They lived in Sioux Falls at the time and were busy raising their family. A few years later they moved to Spencer. John and I were too busy making out to be real involved with Elly and her family. Oh how things would change.
|Holidays with Elly and Dewey, mid-1970’s…|
It was 1977. We were still renting the farm house in Cascade. John was driving 40 miles to work, one way to Cedar Rapids. Leaving me virtually stranded out in the boondocks. With several hundred hogs. And 2 small children. On the plus side, at my disposal were the best apple trees in the world. Made some great apple pies out there.
|My favorite picture of Elly, always limber, mid-1980’s…|
John had a job offer from Eaton Corp, located in Spencer, Iowa. We would be about 60 miles from both sets of parents who were in in Rock Valley. For the first time since Hubs was 2 years old, he would be living in the same town as his oldest sibling, Elly. Some of our best years were about to start. In 45 years of marriage, of all the many places we have lived, 2 hold a special place in our hearts. Complete opposites as far as size. Small town versus big city. Spencer and Davenport. You’ve heard a lot about Davenport. This is my story about Spencer. And Elly.
We weren’t used to being so close to family. For a short time in Hinton, 1970-1972, John’s brother Arly, his wife Vicky, and baby Wendy lived there. Otherwise we had never lived this close to any family members.
|Young Elly with her mom Mag. In front great grandma Lena, and grandma Carrie, 1934…|
Elly and Dewey welcomed us (more like enveloped us) with open arms. Both were working full time, but they included us in their family plans often. By then, 3 of their kids were out on their own, though I think Kerrie was still in high school or living at home.
Think of it. Elly was born 4 years after my mom. Although our kids would soon think of them as another set of grandparents, (something neither Elly or Dewey ever discouraged) John and I did not. Elly doled out her own brand of wisdom on child rearing and marriage, but I never saw her as a mother figure. She became one of my dearest, best friends and sister-in-law.
|Elly, Jimmy and Leslie. About 1945…|
Dewey was a sports nut. Not spectator. Two sports come to mind. He loved basketball. Playing in a senior league past the age of 80! And bowling. He was good. Very, very good. Soon after we moved, he asked us to join a couple’s league. Bowling every Sunday night. John and I had bowled on a couple’s league as newlyweds with Phil and Mitzi in Sioux City. But neither of us had thrown a strike or a gutter ball I n the 5 years since.
|Aunt Elly and Adam, 1985…|
It was a wonderful chance to get to know Elly and Dewey better. Often we would have supper together at their house or ours. Dewey would require the patience of Job to bowl with the rest of us misfits. (Actually talking mostly about Hubs here). John assumed to become a better bowler, one needed to throw the ball harder. Aim was secondary. Concentration, not mandatory. He’d heave that 16 pound sucker down the alley with the strength of Atlas. It might stay in the assigned lane and catch a couple of corner pins. Occasionally smash the living snot out of them with a zinging strike. Then he’d trot up to the 19″ color TV, hanging on the wall by the counter. Watching the last of whatever football game was still on. Sigh. Amble back and give the ball a second toss, aiming for the brick and mortar way beyond the lanes. Drink some beer and talk football. Elly threw her ball at about 10% of John’s speed, but got down as many or more pins.
|I give up. Done arguing with Arly and Jim behind her, 1975…|
Dewey and I concentrated hard on the finite world of bowling. I was pretty good, but threw a straight ball down the center. Dewey threw a magnificent hook. Encouraging me to invest in a fingertip ball, and try rolling a hook. We were there the night Dewey was in “the zone.” He seemed to have found a literal groove in both lanes. Bowled the series of a lifetime. It was almost 40 years ago, but it was something like a 725 series. Unbelievable. We were farting around with 450 series. Dewey was almost double that.
|Shannon, Elly, Adam, Dewey and Josh, 1980…|
Elly, Dewey and I would stick with bowling for several more years. Actually, I got pretty good and consistent. Best average I would maintain was in the mid 160’s. John gave it up to be an armchair football coach. Dewey and his 700 series. That was some night. Towards the end of the night, all eyes were on Dewey every time he let the ball go. Quiet, because no one wanted to jinx him. No one came over to joke or high 5 him about his 5 or 7 string of strikes in a row. The bowling alley made him a commemorative bowling pin. Sawed one in half with his series total painted on it.
|Elly with her dad, mid-70’s…|
Elly was really into collecting. John and I had a few pieces of antique oak furniture. But it was Elly who would soon infect us with the life long bug of antiquing. We were at an auction together. Elly outbid her competitor for a box of antique dishes. She was going through her treasures and she handed me 2 pieces. One was a green rectangular, 2-piece butter dish. The kind that holds a pound of butter. The other was a piece of depression glass, also green. Called Cameo. She thought this would give me something to collect besides furniture. And it was cheap. Oh, Elly what a shove you gave me down that slippery slope. A love of old glassware. Which I never had looked at before. Even when it wasn’t cheap anymore.
|Elly recently in Le Mars, Iowa, 2012…|
We would antique with them for years. Even after we moved away from Spencer. Hire a babysitter for the day, and leisurely go on the hunt. Back then, almost every little town in Iowa had at least one antique store. Lately it’s antique malls that have gained popularity. But a day of antiquing with Elly was gaining knowledge. She knew a little bit about everything when it came to antiques. Kitchenware, furniture, glassware. What was real or a “repo.”
|Elly and Dewey…|
Our closeness with this amazing couple (relatives to boot, who knew?) did not require a sitter or a day away though. Most of our best times were spent at each other’s house. Sharing a meal. Yes, I was finally a fairly good cook and baker by then. Playing cards, watching the kids play or TV. One miserable weekend during the winter (Spencer winters lasted about as long as northern Alaska’s) we invited them over. We were going to play Penuchle and make homemade ice cream. We had a crank type we had to churn. You surround the mixer (full of milk, cream, sugar) with rock salt and ice, and turned the crank until your arm fell off. Ta-da. Homemade ice cream. You can’t believe how much colder it tastes than store bought. We were doing something special with this batch that snowy Saturday. Making the whole works into “Grasshoppers!” Adding a healthy dose of Cream de Menthe and Cream de Coaco. First we took out a big portion, plunked in a few drops of green food coloring for Shannon and Joshua’s share. They wanted grasshoppers too. We were half lit playing cards. I don’t think I was capable of cooking anything too complicated that night. A good time together.
|Dewey me Josh just starting on Grasshopper ice cream, 1981…|
Elly wanted me to take ceramic classes with her. I did and made a few things for the house and a couple gifts. Not long after I started though, the place we took classes was making me sick. One night I had to leave early. Light headed and queasy, I needed to get out of there. Driving home, wise Elly wondered what was wrong. “It’s their heat Elly. Who has heat blowing down from the ceiling? Blows on my face and it’s making me sick,” I lamented. “Well, I think you’re going to have a baby,” she said quietly. ‘Twas true. We just hadn’t told anyone yet about our news. Little Adam was about to make our world a better place. Elly continued classes, but I didn’t. She surprised me with a fantastic nativity set she made for Christmas. Blew me away.
|The nativity set Elly made for me, 1979…|
The fall of 1979, the 4 of us had Minnesota Viking’s tickets. We would slowly antique all the way up to Minneapolis, go to the game on Sunday and head back home on Monday. We dropped Shannon and Josh at my Mom and Dad’s. Adam, a month old and a nursing babe would make the trip with us. A memorable trip to say the least. Only thing I remember buying was an antique oak board. It was off a fancy dresser or sideboard. One end was chewed off by mice after laying in a barn somewhere for 30 years. We spent a couple of bucks for it. When we got home, John used his saw to make it fit the top of our china closet we had just bought, but was missing the top.
|Dewey helping Adam at Christmas in Rock Valley, 1980…|
Two other moments stick out about that trip. Let’s just say Dewey was frugal. Very frugal. He would often drive several extra miles, looking for gas. Cheap gas. A penny a gallon cheaper than he saw it at the last station. We wandered around Minneapolis, looking for gas. I still don’t know how we didn’t run out. Then the brakes started squeaking. A couple of days of driving in a big city, and the noise was driving us crazy. John said, mildly exasperated, “I thought you were going to have new brake pads put on before we left, Dewey.” “Well I was John, but I thought I could get one more trip out of them,” Dewey answers slowly. (He was an easy going guy). Doesn’t do any good to point out after we screeched our way back to Iowa, John not only had to replace the pads of Dew’s wagon, but the rotors too.
|Elly at Adam’s 1st birthday party. September 1980…|
The last big memory of that trip was the game itself. I had one of those baby carriers. Nestled that little newborn right out in front like he was still in the womb. Game day was a spectacular fall day in Minnesota. High about 70, sunny skies. There were thousands of fans at the old Metropolitan Field. Adam was fed, dry, content, quiet and comfy. The Vikes were about to take the field. Holy moly. You wouldn’t think 57,124 fans, seeing 50 players run onto the field would be such a big deal. Big deal folks. 57,122 fans jumped out of their seats, screaming bloody murder. When they finally quieted down, only 1 small fan remained screaming. That uproar sent Adam over the edge. And I couldn’t retrieve him. He screamed for about 10 minutes before I screamed, “I’m done.” It took more pushing and shoving than giving birth, but I managed to free myself and the still screaming tiny fan out of our row. The great motel we were staying at was right across the parking lot. Wound our way through thousands of cars, to our quiet, air-conditioned room. We watched the game on the queen size bed. No more screaming from either of us. The trip as a whole, a wonderful memory both John and I hold dear.
|John and Elly not too long ago…|
Besides an avid antiquer, Elly had a “thing” for Christmas. She must have got it from her family. All the Van Berkum’s made a big deal about Christmas. Elly had a large picture window in her dining room. Every Advent, she painted a Christmas scene on that window. Decades later, folks from town would ride down East 8th Street to witness she had chosen to paint.
|Don’t look at me. See the decorated window behind me that Elly painted, 1979…|
The other “thing” that takes hours (and dollars) was her tree. She has an ornament collection that’s unrivaled. She bought unique, one of a kind ornaments wherever she went. Everyone who knows and loves her bought her unusual ornaments. One made from the ash of Mount St. Helen’s after it erupted. Many homemade ones from her grandkids. And our kids, of course, who thought of them as grandparents.
|Elly’s magnificently decorated Christmas tree…|
Elly would happily “do” Shannon’s hair for me. I was pretty hopeless in the styling of complicated hair. Shannon has a head of hair that unbelievably thick and coarse. Elly could do the most amazing French braids. Kids at school doubted Shannon’s Dutch heritage after Elly did her hair in braids. Shannon looked Asian for days because the braids were pulled so tight. Shannon’s little Asian eyes squirting tears while Elly’s fingers flew through that mass of hair.
|Shannon aka, Bo Derek. Styled by Elly’s daughter, Kerrie, 1980…|
The year after she made me the nativity set, Elly surprised me with a Christmas tree skirt. It’s about 35 years old now, and lovingly used every year. But not without a few expletives at first. Elly didn’t cut through the skirt. She cut a big X through the center. Her reasoning was then I could use it as a table cloth or center piece if I just covered the slit X with something. All well and good. But when I’m setting up the tree, if I don’t remember to slide the skirt over the stand before the tree is plopped in, I have to undo everything to that point. It’s not often anymore that I forget. But I did several times the first few years.
|Joshua and Aunt Elly. Christmas, 1980…|
We moved to Davenport in 1981, about 325 miles from Spencer. We still often traveled to northwest Iowa. Making a point to visit Elly and Dewey. They came to visit us eastern Iowa, later to Michigan. Lots of new antique stores for her to check out.
|Hot tubbing with Dewey at our house in Jackson, 1990…|
Dewey passed away a couple of years ago. Elly sold her big 2 story house and moved closer to a couple of her kids, and several of her grandkids and great-grands. Just had her 85th birthday and still enjoying her circle of life. I thank God that He put us in Spencer for a few years. Wish we could have been there longer. Grateful for the good years we had together. Love you so much Elly…
|Elly with her newest great-granddaughter, 2015…|