Wednesday, September 16, 2009

About Grandpa

Recently my grandfather died. He succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t usually use this blog for highly personal writing but there are some memories of my grandfather that I would like to share in a more public way.

Grandpa was 92 years old when he died. He grew up in the small town of Seymour Indiana, a town with a full page of Stuckwisches in their phone book. His family, like my other 3 grandparents’ families, were farmers. At that time, farm kids only went to school through the 8th grade, after that they were needed on the farm. My grandfather became the first person in his family to go to high school. Not only did he earn the first high school diploma in his family, he also went on to college, graduate school, and a PhD in chemistry. Grandpa began the family tradition of paying for his children’s bachelor’s degrees completely, with the understanding that the kids would take over the cost of their education beyond their bachelor’s. My father always referred to this as “the only trickledown theory that works.” Two of grandpa’s children have also earned doctorates, and I am one of the few members of our family with only a bachelor’s degree.

Grandpa used to joke that he had to go away to college in order to meet a woman he wasn’t related to. My grandmother grew up in Blairstown Iowa. She wanted to go to college, but her father believed that there were only 3 reasons to go to college: to become a minister, to become a doctor, or to become a teacher. At that time the Lutheran church did not ordain women, and my great grandfather apparently didn’t believe women could/should become doctors, so grandma became a teacher. If you google our last name, you will find many teachers. Many Stuckwisches are listed on elementary school, high school and university websites as teachers and staff.

Our first relative in this country in the Stuckwisch line came to escape German conscription. The story that has been passed down to me is that he knew someone who worked on the boat coming here, and that person helped him to hide in a pickle barrel, at least until the ship was beyond turning back. What no one in the family can tell me is whether or not there were still pickles in the barrel. No one else thought this an important enough part of the story to pass down. My father and both of his brothers were able to avoid Vietnam: my dad by becoming a teacher (an exempt profession), my uncle Steve due to a minor medical exemption, and according to the other two, David got out because he was lucky. His birthday was one of the last in the lottery. Also according to Dad and Steve, David was always Grandma’s favorite. As you can see, for the most part I come from a long line of draft dodgers. Even so, Grandpa tried to enlist in the air force during WWII. When they found out that he had a chemistry degree, they told him they didn’t want him, that he would do the war effort more good by finishing his doctorate in Chemistry and working here. He did work for Kodak during the war which he was not allowed to discuss at the time. We found out later that he worked on aerial color photography for Allied planes.

From Kodak my grandfather moved on to the academic world. As a chemistry professor, he worked at several universities and moved the family around the country a few times, which is probably part of why my aunts and uncles are scattered all over the US. He finally retired from a position as provost and executive vice president of the University of Miami in Florida. After retirement, he still preferred to live in university towns and hang around the universities there as much as they would let him.

About 10 years ago Grandpa moved back to the town of his birth and renewed an old friendship with a woman named Elsie. They had grown up together, and at one time Elsie and her late husband had double dated with Grandpa and Grandma. When we visited, Elsie would come with us to get Chinese food, which she loved but her own family didn’t much care for. At some point folks around town began to talk, possibly because there were other widows who “had their caps set” for Grandpa. I remember Grandpa’s frustration when he declared “We’re not fornicating, so it’s none of their business!” I privately thought that it still wouldn’t be their business even if fornication were involved.

By contrast, my maternal grandmother, who had a very similar upbringing, stayed in the house she moved into when she married my grandfather, in a small town here in western New York. Grandma DeVantier had been willing to buck social norms when she was young and newly married. In her small German Lutheran town families sat together in church on Sundays. When she moved with her husband to his neighboring small German Lutheran town, she discovered that they still sat with all the men on one side of the church, and all the women on the other. Apparently she integrated the church by sitting with her husband. I was so proud when I first heard that story. By the time that I knew her, Grandma DeVantier had become much more concerned about what the neighbors would think, and whether the other teenage girls were wearing clothing just as weird and outrageous as I was. Apparently if I was at least one of a crowd wearing a fashion she found ridiculous, it wouldn’t be so bad.

In February of ’08 Studio Arena Theater closed its doors and I lost my job. I went to Washington DC for 10 weeks of work and then to my recurring job at the Glimmerglass Opera. Those jobs held off unemployment for 5 months, and thank God I happened to be married to a guy with health insurance, but after Glimmerglass, in the fall of ’08 I had nothing lined up. A friend told me that a suitable position would be opening up at Buffalo State College, and I began to contemplate a major life change: I could continue freelancing around the country in professional theatre, affording me little time with my husband to whom I had been married for less than a year, or I could make a switch from professional theatre to academic theater. This would be a big change, and there were lots of things to take into consideration, but I couldn’t help but think about the contrast between the 2 grandparents I knew the best, Grandma DeVantier and Grandpa Stuckwisch. Grandma had stayed in a small community. The young people she knew were family members, and as she grew older she was not challenged to go beyond her comfort zone or continue to interact with young adults. Grandpa had lived the life of a college professor, actively pursuing new knowledge and new research and interacting with many, many young adults over the years. I see in myself the tendency to become set in my ways, and finally a bit afraid of change or new ideas, and I didn’t want that. Grandma DeVantier, whom I loved dearly, was clearly concerned the first time she saw the Simpsons, a show the rest of the family loved, including our family members who had also stayed in their small German Lutheran town. I remember around the same time watching a Monty Python marathon on TV with my brother Wade. Grandpa was visiting us and came into the room to see something that I’m sure would have scandalized Grandma DeVantier. Grandpa just commented, “Those guys are wacky, aren’t they?” and moved on.

As I contemplated embarking on a new life in a college community, I knew I wanted to hang on to that mental flexibility that I saw in Grandpa. I wanted to continue to pursue new knowledge and understanding, to appreciate new ideas, new comedy, and things that were intended to be shocking, without pulling back into myself, resisting, and withdrawing into a long established comfort zone. Grandpa was one part of why I made the choice to move into academic theater, which puts me very far outside my comfort zone, at least to begin with. I want to benefit in the same ways that he did, and retain the same mental youth and flexibility that I think he could at least partially attribute to life in a college community.


Susan Steege said...

What a wonderful post, Erica. I loved it.

Emily said...

Hi Erica! I really enjoyed reading this post about your grandparents. It's so nice you got to hear all of those stories about them and keep them for posterity, too.
It's also timely that I read it, because about an hour ago, I gave myself a homemade acid peel for my face (I invented it myself!), using organic cider vinegar as the main acidic element. I can tell you with some fair certainty that while there may have been pickles in that barrel, there probably wasn't much brine. You see, I too, am a kraut, and have always been half-convinced that my blood is mostly vinegar, but I still came out of that peel with a stinging red face.
In conclusion, he MAY have taken a bath in some brine--but he would've looked awfully strange when he got out, and I think you'd have heard about that! :) LOL...

DrChopSuey said...

Thank you for sharing a bit of you and your family. That was such a touching post.