I don’t know much about my Grandma Schmalstig’s early years. She was born into the Bettinger family in northwest Ohio. In early pictures she is seldom seen smiling because her teeth were in disastrously bad shape. She eventually had most of them pulled and happily wore dentures. She met my Grandpa at a dance. John Schmalstig played trombone in a group that traveled from small farm town to small farm town. They performed dance music at Grange Halls on Saturday nights. I don’t know any details of their courtship, but they chose wisely and had a happy marriage.
My grandparents had nine children who all survived into adulthood. There were five boys and four girls. My mother reports that when she was dating my Dad she came over for visits and was struck by the informal, countrified feel of the house on Haynes Street. Meals were served in huge platters that weren’t passed politely around the table. Folks reached and grabbed to make sure that they got their fair share. An old hound dog left its hair all over the furniture. My grandfather had converted the half acre back yard into a vegetable garden and cherry orchard. My mother was used to the practice of a more genteel set of manners, but believed that she was treated with greater kindness and respect at the Schmalstigs than she was at home.
When I was little we visited with my grandparents once or twice a month. My grandma was shy and quiet and often held her hand over her mouth when she laughed as if she still had a mouthful of teeth that embarrassed her. I once asked her when I was about five or six if she would draw me a bunny. My Mom and Grandpa Reger could draw, and I assumed that most adults had the knack. Grandma S. blushed at my request, but picked up a pencil and a piece of paper and drew me a stick figure rabbit. I realized that I had put her on the spot, but was touched that she had made the effort. I thanked her for the drawing and she seemed relieved that I liked it.
Some friends of theirs came by unannounced on a Saturday night when my family was over for a visit. I had never met them before, and these strangers were loud and uncouth. A man went out to kitchen to help himself to some popcorn, and when he came back to the living room he ignored the trail of spilled popcorn he left on the rug when he carelessly tipped his bowl. They also spilled their beer and soda on the carpet and did nothing to wipe out the stains. They left before we did, and my grandparents’ living room looked like it had been hit by a tornado. I asked my grandmother why they hadn’t cleaned up their mess. She just laughed and said, “Oh, they’re like that.”
I spent an afternoon alone with her one day when my parents were busy running errands. She let me play outside in her yard for a long time, and then called me in for a snack. We sat at her big oak kitchen table and played cards while I worked my way through a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. We played War, and she smiled at me when I won a game. I noticed that she was happy to spend time with me, which wasn’t normally the case when I stayed at the Reger’s house.
When I was nine Grandma Schmalstig was diagnosed with cancer. It started in her kidneys and had metastasized throughout her body by the time she went to a doctor. Her daughters and daughters-in-law pitched in and took care of her as she lay dying in a hospital bed in her living room. When it was my mother’s turn to help out she left my brother, sister and me on the broad porch that ran the length of the front of the house. We played with the other cousins who were similarly marooned.
Most of us were too young to fully understand what was going on inside the house, but one day we found out when we were ushered into the living room. We stood in a row beside Grandma’s bed and waited for something to happen. Grandma seemed to be lost in her thoughts and didn’t greet us right away. I was shocked by the change in her appearance. She had gone from pleasantly plump to emaciated, and there were deep lines and grooves on her face. I was frightened by her transformation.
She made a great effort and sat up and turned to us. She looked like she was in pain. But when she gazed at us her eyes blazed with intense emotion. She smiled fiercely, triumphantly at the sight of her grandchildren standing before her. I suddenly realized that here was someone who passionately and unreservedly loved me and everyone else in the room whether we deserved it or not. It hit me like a thunderbolt.
She lay back down exhausted after a minute or so, and we were led back out onto the porch. I never saw her alive again, and to this day I still miss her.