My Grandma Lamers

By William Lamers, Malibu, California
e-mail: lamers@earthlink.net

If someone asked me for a quick description of Grandma Lamers I would immediately reply, "She was gentle, kind, caring, quiet, capable, funny and loving." When I was a little boy we lived in the big house on South 10th Street in Milwaukee with Grandpa and Grandma Lamers and Aunt Marie. In those days it was common for three generations to live together in the same house. The 'extended family' has yielded since World War II to what is now called the 'nuclear family' of parents and children, but no other relatives in the home. I liked our extended family. Let me tell you why.

My childhood was happy, almost idyllic. Although my parents bought the house on Warren Avenue in Wauwatosa in the mid-1930s, Grandma and Grandpa Lamers continued to play an important role in our lives. In fact, when the rest of the family moved to Wauwatosa, I chose to remain behind with Grandma and Grandpa Lamers. I did not make the move to Wauwatosa for several months.

Grandma Lamers came from an old Milwaukee German family. Her father was Joseph Cordes. I recall Grandma telling me how she would go to dances at the Mitchell mansion (now the private Wisconsin Club) on Wisconsin Avenue. Old photographs show Grandma to be a beautiful woman. In all my memories of her she has totally white hair and soft, brown eyes. She told me her hair suddenly turned white when she developed typhoid fever during an epidemic when she was a young woman.

Because she often worked in the kitchen, Grandma usually wore an apron. She was an excellent cook. For special occasions she prepared sauerbraten, a dish that required her to marinate large chunks of beef in vinegar and spices in a crock in the basement. She also prepared a dish she called, 'hunter's special', a German variation on the Italian chicken cacciatore. She also cooked hassenpfeffer, a flavorful dish made with rabbit. She excelled at baking cakes and 'kuchen,' a generic term for rich pastries. For the holidays she baked hundreds of Christmas cookies. For our birthdays she always made cakes. For Sunday dessert she baked pies, of which my favorite was lemon meringue.

Many of my early memories place me at the large, square table in the kitchen. I usually sat on the west side of the table near the back door and the icebox. (We used a 50-pound block of ice every two or three days to keep food cool). Across the table from me on the east side of the room was the gas stove. To my right was the long, low kitchen sink, made from a piece of red granite. Tucked away behind the sink was another room, a pantry for storage of dishes, utensils and food. A door leading through a 'butler's pantry' led from the south side of the kitchen to the formal dining room. At the southeast corner of the kitchen a doorway led to the hall with access to the upper floors plus the living room and parlor. In the northeast corner of the kitchen was a door leading to the basement stairs. From the window to my left I could look out at the paved alley that separated us from the Nielsen home to our north. In the 1930s it was common to see horse drawn vehicles passing in the alley. The milkman, the garbageman and the iceman had horse drawn wagons. The 'rag John,' as Grandpa Lamers called him, sat astride his small, horse drawn wagon as he drove the alleys, crying out for "Raaaggs."

Grandma often took me with her to shops in the neighborhood. Sammy the Grocer was on the northwest corner of South 10th Street and Greenfield Avenue. After leaving Sammy's store we walked south of Greenfield Avenue to a small meat market on the east side of South 10th Street. That shop stands out in my mind because the butcher gave me thin slices of sausage from his large polished, hand operated slicing machine. Before finishing our rounds, Grandma and I always visited the candy store run by two sisters just south of Greenfield Avenue on the east side of 11th Street. After that we would cross to the northeast corner of Greenfield and South 11th Street where she would buy whatever was needed at the drug store. One day Grandma and I walked all the way to 16th Street and Greenfield Avenue to Jahr's Fruit Market. I recall carrying home a small carton containing sweet white grapes from vineyards in upper New York State.

Sometimes Grandma and I traveled by streetcar to funeral homes after friends or relatives had died. The ride to the Weiss funeral home on North Farwell Avenue was a long ride with transfer to another line. After we arrived, one of the staff usually took me into a room where I could observe the fish in a large aquarium while Grandma met with the bereaved family and friends. I donšt know how many times I went to funerals with Grandma, but whenever I see an aquarium I recall going to Weiss' funeral home with my Grandma Lamers.

Grandma had a lot of friends. She always stopped to speak with people while we were on a walk. She was part of a social group named, 'The Buffaloes.' I remember some of the ladies in the group, especially Mary O'Connell, who spoke with a brogue. The Buffaloes met at the home of a different member each month to play cards, talk and eat a rich dessert. I recall several sessions at our home on South 10th Street. One afternoon while they were playing cards, a Buffalo experienced a heart attack and died. In those days there was no 911 service. The police arrived first, then a doctor. Ultimately a funeral home sent people to remove the body. Death at home was more common in the old days. I keep wondering what would happen today if you called 911 and told the operator there was a dead buffalo in your living room.

My father was known for the stories he told to entertain his children and grandchildren. One of them was called, 'Grandma Cordes and the Wolf.' This referred to the mother of Grandma Lamers. It is most unlikely that Grandma Cordes experienced any confrontation with a wolf, but my father was never known to adhere to the facts while telling tales. My father and his mother often worked together to play tricks on us children. After we moved to Warren Avenue he started a fire in the fireplace and told us gullible children that if we hollered up the chimney, Santa would surely hear us. I, for one, doubted his assertion. Yet, rather than appear to be a non-believer, I got down on my hands and knees and yelled, "Santa! Santa," many times in front of the blazing fireplace. Soon the phone rang. My father told me to answer it. I lost sphincter control when the voice on the phone said, "This is Santa." My father had arranged for Grandma to call at a prearranged time. It was quite a show. I determined that I would not subject our children to the same type of emotional assault that I experienced at the hands of my father and his mother.

Our phone number at South 10th Street was Mitchell-6468, later Mitchell 5-6468. The Mitchell is in honor of Billy Mitchell, the son of the people in whose ballroom she danced as a young woman. Billy Mitchell was an early aviation hero. The airport in Milwaukee was also named for Billy Mitchell. On some Sunday afternoons, we went to Mitchell Field to watch airplanes land and take off. At other times, we would go to the Mitchell Park Conservatory at the south end of the 27th Street Viaduct to look at the superb collection of flowers and trees.

Grandma was never idle. If she was not preparing food or cleaning, she was sewing or crocheting or playing with one of her grandchildren. She held us in her lap and played simple games ("Patty cake, patty cake, baker's man...Bake me a cake as fast as you can.") or sang to us, sometimes in German ("Du, du, liegst mir in herzen, du du, liegst mir in sinn..." or, "Ach, du lieber Augustine, Augustine, Augustine..."). Once, while attending a conference in Oslo, I stood with a group around a piano while we sang songs. A friend from Dresden, Germany, asked how I happened to know several verses of old German songs with which he was only slightly familiar. I told him my Grandma sang them when I was a little boy.

During the summer, Grandma and Grandpa stayed in the 'little cottage' across the road from the main summer home at Wind Lake. This was the original house on the property that had been moved south of the road to make way for the new house, built by Joseph Brunk, the same man who had built the big house on South 10th Street in Milwaukee. Grandma and Grandpa and Aunt Marie (we called her "Meekie") spent their summers at Wind Lake with my mother and the four of us children. Our father stayed in town most of the summer to teach at Marquette University where he was dean of the School of Speech. Our father used to come to Wind Lake on Friday afternoon and stay until he returned to work on Monday morning. While he was away, Marie drove us to Waterford to shop. On these excursions, Grandma often treated us to ice cream cones at Zimmer's Drug Store in Waterford or at Krause's or Borkenhagen's resorts on Wind Lake. Large ice cream cones cost five cents in those days. We did not have a telephone at the lake, so if someone had to make a call we all got in the car and drove to Krause's where there was an old fashioned phone on the wall that you had to 'crank' by hand before you could place a call. We children ate ice cream cones while one of the elders made a phone call.

Despite the fact that Grandma had a very sharp mind, she had trouble recalling our names. She would rattle off a couple of names and then in mock frustration identify whichever one of us (Mary, Billy, John or Ed) she wanted as, "Whatcha-ma-call-it." For my mother, Grandma Lamers was a built-in baby sitter, part-time cook and cruise director. She was more than another pair of hands; she was another heart. She was always ready to play games with us, to work picture puzzles, to play various card games, to comment on our art work. She frequently made things for us including clothing and toys. For my youngest brother, Ed, she repeatedly restored his favorite animal toy, a monkey named, "Butch." She was truly the quintessential 'Grandma.'

In about 1945 or 1946 we gave Grandma Lamers a dog that she called, "Poochie," a lean, wiry, acrobatic mongrel. Poochie once crawled under the dining room table during a formal meal and licked the leg of Aunt Louise (my mother's sister) who spontaneously uttered a colorful religious phrase that had never before been uttered in Grandma's home. During the painful, deafening silence that followed it seemed people were trying to pretend they did not hear Louise's automatic verbal response to the unanticipated workings of a tongue on her bare leg. Louise's automatic verbal outburst characterized the difference between my mother's and my father's sides of the family.

I remember Grandma Lamers and my father working at the dining room table to translate the Civil War letters of one of her ancestors, Adam Muenzenberger, from German into English. Deciphering the old German in the correspondence between Adam and his wife, Barbara, was a difficult task. When it was completed they presented a copy to the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin. Several years ago, a student at the University of Minnesota came upon the letters and made them available on a Civil War historical site on the Internet. Today, Steve Mohr, one of Grandma's great grandchildren, is in contact with historians who told him these letters are part of the finest collection of correspondence from the Civil War. Many of the men of the 26th Wisconsin Volunteers were well educated and wrote detailed letters to their families. They are an important part of our heritage, a testimony also to the dedication of Grandma Lamers and my father.

Some things stand out in my memory of living at South 10th Street. There was a loud and flamboyant lady known as "Crazy Mary" who lived across the street. Today she would be called an ambulatory schizophrenic and would be treated with anti-psychotic medications. Grandma Lamers told me not to be afraid of her and her mad ravings, her outlandish clothes and frightening gestures. During my early years while training in psychiatric hospitals, while working with people like Crazy Mary, I recalled Grandma's benevolent attitude toward people with emotional disorders.

To help get some perspective on time, the interval between the present and my childhood equals the time between my childhood and the Civil War. I remember going with Grandma and Aunt Marie to visit relatives, the Rollers, who lived south of Milwaukee in Racine County, Wisconsin. The old people in the Roller house still spoke German. I recall hearing that they had lived in the same house on a crossroads in the countryside since the time of the Civil War. I always felt out of place in that old house and I am not sure why. It seemed like a trip far back in time.

I entered Marquette Medical School in 1954. On occasion, I would drive to Grandma's house to have lunch with her and Marie. While I was in the third year of medical school, Grandma was diagnosed with cancer. Her doctor, who happened to be one of my professors, Dr. McCarthy, told her that she needed an operation. Grandma said she would not have the surgery unless I assisted him. She had the surgery. However, it was not curative and she died while I was in my internship in San Francisco. At the time of her death, I was hospitalized myself for appendicitis, so I could not attend her funeral in Milwaukee.

Grandma Lamers was very important to me. She loved her grandchildren and was heavily involved in our everyday care while we lived in her big house on South 10th Street. She was a benevolent matriarch, a constant presence in my young life. She brought a sense of security, a soothing influence, a cookie, a smile, a reassuring word, and a kiss before bedtime.

I do not recall ever hearing Grandma Lamers utter a harsh word, nor do I recall her being angry. She was benevolent, calm and imperturbable. Even now I can visualize her soft, brown eyes and her gentle smile and her snowy hair. She was important me when I was a child. She is still important to me today.