Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Okies, part 6

Mom’s parents, Ken and Evelyn Guier were married before the war. Evelyn Olech was from a Polish family who had recently immigrated to Chicago, and to this day, most of the Olech clan still lives around Chicago. Ken Guier grew up in Peru, Kansas. Grandpa claims that he is German, but that point is open to debate. The name Guier is Alsatian, being half French, half German. There are variants of it spelled Geier, pronounced “Guy-er”. (Rhymes with “fire.”) The French spelling is Guier, but is pronounced something like "Goo-yay". Yet, he claims he's German.

Why? Grandpa hated Frenchmen. Grandpa is pretty bigoted, as are many people who grew up in small towns in his day. He could never stand "those filthy frogs" he'd come across in the war.

Apparently, he’d served on ships in the war with Frenchmen aboard. Too bad for the Frenchmen.

"Goddamn son-of-a-bitches were so filthy I once grabbed three of 'em and threw 'em in the shower, complete with their clothes on!”

So we all quietly accept that we're quite definitely not French.

Grandma Guier died much too early in her life. She died in her fifties, in 1977, of lung cancer. Strangely, she never smoked a single cigarette in her entire life. We all wonder about her death because of this. Could it have been Ponca's bad air? Was it some strange chemicals that Grandpa dragged home in his clothes? Was it radon in the basement? Or was it just bad luck? We'll likely never know.

What little I remember of her was an extremely kind, generous woman. My most vivid memory of her was when she, my brother Mike, and I were playing Old Maid in front of the living room window. We were sitting on their great green striped couch, the warm Ponca sunshine streaming in from the front window onto the pink marble coffee table top upon which the comical Old Maid cards were strewn.

Our hands were made up of cards with characters like Hayseed Hank and Penelope Prude. And no matter how many games as we played together, Grandma always lost, taking the Old Maid card at the end. (One doesn't want to win when playing four and six year old boys.)

By this time, we were living temporarily in Ponca. We had just left Maryland, where I was in first grade—we were soon to be going to Germany for a second trip and were staying in Ponca for a few weeks beforehand. Because the school calendar was starting, I was to spend the first part of my second grade in Ponca City. And it was this visit coincided with Grandma Guier's rapid decline from lung cancer.

During her ill health, I was never told she was dying or near death. Yet, I knew something was terribly wrong with her. My parents, probably with valiant intentions, tried to shield me from the horrors of cancer and the inevitability of Grandma's death. Upon reflection, I believe they were also trying to shield themselves. I think they expected or vainly hoped for a full recovery.

Dad and Mom always presented Grandma's illness in a safe way that a six year old could digest. By this stage in Grandma's illness, she was completely bald from the chemotherapy and radiation. I never once saw her baldness as a child, which I'm sure was because of my Grandmother's pride.

Grandma wore brown wigs with great loopy curls, similar to her original hair. And Grandma always donated an extra wig to Dad, since she felt sorrier for his baldness than she did for her own.

Dad would parade through the house, proud and goofy with this curly brown frock of hair. He was a good sport, and it gave the adults a much needed smile in this tough time. Mike and I always laughed uncontrollably.

One of Grandma and Grandpa Guier's closest and dearest friends was a woman their age named Dorothy. She lived a few houses away and would stop in regularly during the illness to help around the house and provide comfort. Dorothy would live on for more than fifteen years after Grandma's death. As a widower, Grandpa Guier was very close to Dorothy. But he would never become romantically involved with her, never marry her. We always thought he would have.

My second grade year living at the Guier house was a perfect youth for a six year old. I was enrolled in Mrs. Pinkerton's second grade class at Franklin (Roosevelt?) Elementary School on Virginia Avenue. I liked my teacher and had quickly made friends with a chubby boy with glasses and a flattop haircut. Frankie and I were both in the same class, and Frankie lived only a few houses down on Virginia Avenue. Every afternoon, after class, we would race home together and firmly plant our behinds in front of the television to watch the latest episodes of Batman and Wonder Woman.

Common knowledge has it that a six year old is an asexual being, identifying only with his mother and father, and commonly thinking that "girls are gross." Not so with me. I was keenly interested in the opposite sex, even at six. Therefore, my interest in Wonder Woman was not just its fascinatingly complex thirty-minute plots.

At six, I thought Linda Carter was the most beautiful woman in the world. When she'd spin around, changing into her electric red and blue studded Wonder Woman outfit, I'd get so excited!

Mom said I would tell her, “Wonder Woman is great! She’s so sparkly!”

Yeah, she sparkled alright. And it wasn’t just her eyes!

Frankie liked her too. Together, we'd sit glued to the television watching as she saved our world from boredom and homework.

On the day Grandma Guier died, I was told by my parents that Grandma and Grandpa Harris were going to pick me up from school. I found this peculiar and knew something was wrong. So after school, I remember leaving the school building. I spied Grandma and Grandpa Harris in their Ford LTD waiting patiently for me in the parking lot. Against my parents’ wishes, I snuck away from Grandpa and Grandma Harris and walked home with Frankie as usual.

I felt guilty for ditching them at the school; I knew it was wrong. But I feigned forgetfulness, an excuse I knew everybody would understand from a six year old boy, and went home to the Guier house curious to see what was happening.

When I arrived at the Guier house, nobody was there, except Dorothy. This struck me as unusual, as the house was usually filled with my parents, Grandpa, and frequently one of the Aunts or Uncles who all lived in Ponca as well. But this time, nobody but Dorothy. She was vacuuming the dining room rug, and somehow I instantly knew that Grandma Guier was dead.

With the exception of my brother, who was already with Grandma and Grandpa Harris, my entire family was undoubtedly at the hospital, and I felt crushed that I wasn't allowed to be a part of the final moment. I was never to see Grandma Guier alive again.

This was my first experience with death, and to this day, my reaction to all death is the same. I am overwhelmed with an amazing disbelief that the person is gone. I try to force myself intellectually to grasp the concept that I will never, ever see that person again. I fail to convince myself of this, and eventually, numbness sets in over the pain.

Just before her death. Grandma was allowed to come home for her final days. Every night one of the Guier children (my Mom, Uncle Butch or Uncle Bobby) would faithfully sit beside her bed through the night to help her should she need to go to the bathroom or want anything.

The night before her death, my mother was sitting in a chair beside her bed. It was the middle of the night, and my mother was drifting in and out of sleep. She was suddenly awakened when Grandma walked passed her on her own feet. This was quite remarkable.

Mom quickly hurried to her side. "Mother,” she said, "you need to be in bed. It's late."

Grandma said nothing, but returned to bed, Mom gently guiding her by the elbow. Grandma drifted back to sleep, and my mother continued her vigil.

The next morning, Grandma was dead.

Mom swears this was Grandma’s spirit leaving her body that night. To write it gives me chills. I believe it’s true.

A couple days later, my parents took Mike and me to see Grandma at the funeral home. This was the first time I had ever seen a real dead person. I recall seeing her, lying peacefully in her coffin. I was sure that she was just resting, and that any moment, she might sit right up in her coffin, open her eyes, smile at us and say, "Let's go home, boys." But instead, she just lay there.

Mom leaned over to me and explained, "She's just sleeping now, Scott. She's just sleeping now."

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