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Family Roots: Remembering a Heroic Cousin Who Caught FBI’s Most Wanted

It was nighttime in Sherrodsville, Ohio, August 1960. A car drove up to a house and parked. Two police officers got out and walked up to the front door. A woman appeared. The men asked if she knew the whereabouts of the notorious thief, jail-breaker, and FBI’s most-wanted at the time: Spunky Firman. She replied no. One officer tipped his hat and started walking back toward the car.

Her response must have been a hesitant “no,” or there must have been some other tip-off, because my cousin Chuck (son of my great-uncle), the other police officer, just deputized a few hours before for the manhunt, knew that it was his duty to search the house. He proceeded to do so. He walked upstairs and came upon a bathroom. Out sprang a man with a hand-held sickle. Out came Cousin Chuck’s gun. The sickle struck Chuck’s hand; the bullet hit Firman’s knee. So ended a manhunt that began a month earlier, when Spunky Firman had escaped the Coshocton County Jail. At the same time, something else began: a family legend that encapsulated what a great man my cousin was.

When Charles Amato died a few years ago, his son Nick made a very similar point by bringing this incident up. He mentioned the public recognition Charles Amato received for his bravery: a commendation from the then-FBI director himself, J. Edgar Hoover. Then, Nick mentioned how he had asked his dad years later where the citation was. Cousin Chuck, sitting down at his desk in the real estate office where he worked part-time, probably drinking coffee and smoking—things he enjoyed doing when not catching criminals—shrugged his shoulders and said, “You can go and get it, but that stuff doesn’t matter. It’s the people you serve.” Spoken like the policeman he had become—better yet, spoken like the man he already was when he caught Firman.

Chuck’s life was a rich picture of other virtues and acts of service. He attempted to join the police force full time soon after he made national headlines for catching Firman. One would expect that the police of Wellsville, Ohio, would welcome a man who had proven his bravery. But they did not, because of a strange fact that is now little recognized or remembered: There was serious ethnic tension between Irish and Italian Americans in those days, and cousin Chuck was Italian, while the mayor was Irish. For the first couple years of his service, Chuck walked the worst beats and took on the lowliest jobs in the department, all because of his ethnicity. He took this position because he took seriously the idea of putting service first. Eventually, he did move up in the police force, becoming a police captain.

There is one story that particularly illustrates his complete embodiment of what a police officer should be. He once arrested a mother, nicknamed “Tootsie-Dootsie,” at a nightclub, because she had left her four young children in the car. Afterward, he took the kids to Johnny’s Lunch for a meal and bought them shoes at Russell’s Store and some jeans. “Protect and serve” seems to be a motto that particularly fits this policeman. He displayed all the virtues most necessary: perseverance, bravery, unselfishness, and attentiveness.

It seems only fitting to cap off the description of a man who treated everyday life as an adventure with one more story: As mentioned above, Cousin Chuck had to literally walk the worst beats at the beginning of his career. His police chief would not even give him a car; instead, he was dropped off at remote locations to walk lonely country roads.

One day, there happened to be a festival in Wellsville: It was August 16th, the feast of St. Rocco’s. It is an important day for Italian Americans, and Wellsville had a fair share of Italian Americans, so it was a day of celebration for townspeople. One Italian American citizen who was not celebrating, however, was cousin Chuck, since he was out walking his country beat.

Meanwhile, two thieves decided it was the perfect time to rob a bank. The robbery went smoothly, and the getaway was going just as well. They were miles ahead of pursuit by the time the police radio dispatch went out.  

Then, they turned onto the very country road that Cousin Chuck was walking along. Chuck had been listening to his radio. He had no car, but he had a feeling the very road he was walking on would be perfect for the culprits: a little-traveled country road that could get one to a lot of different places. He set up a makeshift barrier of brush, hid himself in the trees, and proceeded to stop and search every car that came by. 

The robbers were not ready for either the barrier or for a lone cop to appear out of the woods, gun held ready. And so, in this manner, two armed robbers in a vehicle were stopped by a lone policeman aided only by his feet and his quick thinking. He was a hero again—or rather, just continued to be the hero he already was.

From April Issue, Volume 3

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Home Grown

Of all my 10 uncles, Uncle Bob was my favorite. Not only was he the family historian and a talented writer, he was the quintessential family man who involved his family in every aspect of his life, including his life’s work—operating a very successful greenhouse that has remained in his family for almost 50 years.

Upon his death in 2014, my Uncle Bob’s granddaughter Amanda memorialized him perfectly. She offered her hand and said, “Shake my hand. For when you do, you’ll have shaken the hand that shook the hand of the man who planted many seeds, watered and cared for them, and watched with eager eyes as they spread throughout the world. Take my hand and you’ll have grasped the hand of the man who cultivated a beautiful garden of life.”

My uncle was born in Minnesota, one of eight children. Most families were close back then, and his was no exception. This deep sense of family loyalty and service proved to be a guiding light throughout his life. As a young man, Bob helped an uncle who owned a small greenhouse in North Dakota, and his charismatic personality and strong work ethic undoubtedly served him well even at a young age.

Years later, he would refer to his life’s work as “people business.”

Bob took basic science courses in college and later served in both World War II and the Korean War. He married Clare, the love of his life, and together they had nine children. Working in a greenhouse was in his blood, and after the war, he advertised in a national florist magazine for a business. After receiving almost 100 replies to his ad, his dream of owning his own business soon came to fruition. In 1972, he purchased a small greenhouse in Centerville, Iowa, that would become his life’s work and his family’s legacy.

The property needed cleaning and repairing, and he engaged the help of his older children. Together, they hauled away 52 truckloads of junk to a landfill. From the start, the greenhouse was a family endeavor.

“A lot of the family could get involved with it,” he said. “Even an 8- or 10-year-old boy or girl can do something productive in a greenhouse. It’s strictly a family business with all members of the family helping out.”

He got into the business initially because he saw people wanting to improve their yards and homes, and “they needed someone to help.” Years later, he told his son David that the business also afforded his children “the pursuit of higher learning through college, and subsequently allowed each to pursue his/her journey in life.”

(Courtesy of Karen Brazas)

Operating a greenhouse isn’t for the faint of heart. “But,” my uncle said, “it’s one of the most satisfying jobs anyone could have … watching your work literally grow and become healthy right before your eyes.” And grow it did! Over the years, he and his sons renovated older buildings and added new ones. New lighting was installed and generators were frequently updated. What had once been a local retail business turned into a large wholesale operation serving several states.

As Uncle Bob said, “It’s like farming. You have to make hay when the sun shines.” During the busy spring season, the family worked from sunrise to sunset—13 to 14 hours a day. Success depended on the rain and the sun. Ice storms could knock out power, insects could ruin plants, and molds could kill flowers and trees. At times, things were hectic.

But “Centerville Greenhouses” survived, and over the past 49 years, three generations of the Bob Lind family have worked hard together. Some might call it a labor of love.

When Bob retired, his son Rob and his family took over. And these days, Rob’s sons Pete and Alex run the business with help from other family members. The family believes that “there is no better worker than a ‘home grown’ one.”

(Courtesy of Karen Brazas)

Grandson Pete says the greenhouse industry is “competitive, but everyone is friendly. There is a tradition of honesty and pride in the business. Everyone works toward helping the industry survive. They take pride in what they sell.” He and his brother Alex have hired several other workers now that the business has expanded with new buildings, renovated spaces, and more inventory.

“The biggest challenge these days,” he says, “is keeping up with marketing concepts and the demands of the consumer.” But they enjoy their jobs and are proud to maintain the work ethic and the family traditions passed along to them.

Their Uncle David said his father’s legacy was, “Always strive to do your best, but initiate a deep faith to provide the necessary guidance.”

I have no doubt they would echo their cousin Amanda’s final message to her beloved grandfather: “Love is the seed from which your tree has grown. It is the water and the sun. It is the care and the tenderness. It is all that is necessary. And I am so grateful, so moved, so happy to be one of its many leaves, forever connected to it, regardless of which way the wind blows.”

Karen Brazas is a retired high school English teacher and creative writing instructor who taught in California, China, and Lithuania. She worked and studied in 35 countries with the Semester at Sea program. Karen is a wife, mother, and grandmother, and now lives in Nevada City, California, and Channel Islands, California.

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What We Had to Offer

The Smithsonian Magazine labeled 1968 as “The Year that Shattered America. It seemed that each evening, Walter Cronkite began the CBS Evening News with reports of marches; protests; bloody clashes; and even assassinations happening across the world, in our nation, and in cities not too far from home. It was in the late summer of that year that Vilna, a foreign exchange student from Venezuela, entered my former high school—Monroe County High, in Monroeville, Alabama—a small school located in south Alabama.  It was probably the worst time for a young high school girl from a foreign country to come to study in the United States, in the South, and especially in the Deep South.

In Monroeville, the fear of potential racial unrest ran down the streets like syrup spreading on a dinner plate. Old men who met to play Dominoes on the town square gathered more to hear the news of what was happening in Clausell Quarters than to play their favorite game. They also whispered how Nelle Harper Lee’s book had just stirred the pot for upheaval in the town. Although her book “To Kill a Mockingbird” had been published five years earlier, the blame for some of this agitation, they surmised, could certainly be placed at her feet for bringing attention to their hometown. The locals knew that Maycomb was a fictitious name for Monroeville.

I, however, was more interested in knowing why my former high school was chosen as the host school for a foreign exchange student.  Monroe County High School wasn’t noted for its superb programs of study or for its state-of-the-art facilities. What was the appeal to the committee of the international study program? Surely, other schools in the South or even in Alabama could put their best foot forward to host foreign students.

If I was puzzled about the choice of Monroe County High School, I was totally baffled when Miss Norris, the faculty sponsor of the new International Exchange Program, asked Mother and Daddy to help host Vilna on weekends during her year of study. We didn’t even live in the city limits of Monroeville. Our little community was six miles away from town. Our family vacations took us to the Great Smoky Mountains and Florida beaches—not international destinations.

Maybe Miss Norris knew that in our small, rural community of Mexia, our home was the “welcoming center” for newcomers to Mexia Baptist Church and that our house was the central hub of activity for our unincorporated, rural town. Mother hosted more showers, club meetings, and social events at our home than most country clubs. So, it wasn’t surprising that Sherry, my sister who was a senior like Vilna, asserted her fine-tuned hospitality skills in welcoming her wholeheartedly into our home.

I knew that my sisters and I would learn much about Vilna’s culture as a result of her stay, and we did. However, it was my parents’ quiet and out-of-step actions from their normal routine that revealed lasting lessons for life.

In the 1960s, our family could have been considered as the model family for Southern Baptist home life. Daddy’s fingerprint was on all aspects of church service at Mexia Baptist Church—deacon, trustee, chairman of numerous church and associational committees, and teacher. Mother served in almost every role allowed to women in the denomination. If the church doors were open, my sisters and I were there. It was against this religious backdrop that Vilna, a devout Catholic, crossed the threshold into our Baptist world.

In our young, unworldly minds, the word “Roman” implied foreign and strange, and certainly all things Catholic were in direct opposition to Baptist doctrine. Leading up to the 1960 presidential election, Daddy and Mother were adamant that they would never vote for John F. Kennedy, because a Catholic president would “take orders from the Pope.” Mother and Daddy were asked by the Bethlehem Baptist Association in Monroe County to serve as delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in 1960 when then-presidential candidate Kennedy addressed the convention with these words: “But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.” What was the impact of those words on my parents’ political views? Who did they cast their vote for in the election? Vilna’s stay at our home lends me a clue. Out of respect for Vilna and her religious heritage and culture, Mother and Daddy, the staunch Baptists, drove Vilna to and from Monroeville every Sunday so that she could attend Sunday Mass, thus altering their own worship routine drastically.

Advances in technology over time have erased some of the ordinary ways of living in ways we can now take for granted. In 1968, to call a friend who lived just 25 miles away meant a long-distance charge was added to the monthly phone bill. I didn’t call home but once each week from college because of the additional charges, but Daddy and Mother never said no when Vilna requested to call her parents in Venezuela.

Vilna’s interest in Alabama history resulted in the family and Vilna taking short road trips to visit historical sites on Saturdays. Like a choreographed routine Ginger, Sherry, Debbie, and I would pile into the backseat of our Buick, while Vilna sat up front between Mother and Daddy. Daddy would pull the car off the road at every Blue Star Memorial marker in Monroe County, and each stop became a history lesson not only for Vilna, but also for us. History books and local lore tell of the ghost town of Claiborne, which is located only five miles from our home. The only evidence of this once-thriving city of 5,000 people are the graveyards that sit on bluffs above the Alabama River. When we stopped the car and walked among the crumbling tombstones, the inscriptions told a haunting story of the massive toll of the Yellow Fever pandemic of 1873. Grandmother Jaye had often told us stories of how our great-grandmother had attended the glorious gala given to welcome Marquis de Lafayette to Alabama at the Masonic Lodge in Claiborne. As we toured the building, which had been moved up the bluff to Purdue Hill to escape the swampy waters that bred the carriers of death that caused the pandemic, we could almost see the ladies swirling and twirling to the music as they enjoyed welcoming the handsome and noble Frenchman to their new state of Alabama. The faded and almost forgotten images of Claiborne, the ghost town, came alive to us that day.

When the local radio station in Monroeville announced that Jose Feliciano was going to perform at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, Sherry wishfully asked if Vilna and she could attend the concert. Surprisingly, Mother and Daddy agreed, and even more shocking was that they would let Sherry, a 16 -year-old, drive 150 miles to Auburn. As Sherry took control of the wheels of the car, it rolled along toward Auburn with two teenage girls singing loudly to the music of the Spanish-born performer. When Jose climbed the steps onto the stage playing his acoustic guitar and singing “Light My Fire,” Sherry still recalls Vilna’s expressions of joy. “She was in heaven, pure heaven.”

My parents’ actions of welcoming Vilna to our home revealed some universal truths that connect us all. It’s what you have to offer, rather than what you have, that matters. Religious divides aren’t as big as they appear. And let hospitality permeate your actions, for it’s the essence of following the great commandant of “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Gwenyth McCorquodale has been teaching since the age of 7, when she taught her three younger sisters the letters of the alphabet. Gwenyth retired from Judson College in Marion, Alabama, where she served as professor of education and head of the department of education. She has written books, articles for national and international journals, and for her hometown newspaper The Monroe Journal.

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Creativity Is Survival!

My story is set in an imperfect world where it seems like everything can be bought with money. This is in stark contrast to my childhood growing up in Hollywood Beach, California, where life was more about outdoor adventures with my horse. At a young age, the values of truth, trust, honor, and faith were taught to me by my parents. I carried these values into adulthood, believing in them as a foundation of character-building and integrity. To me, this was what built America—freedom, honor, self-respect, and responsibility.

After 14 years of marriage, supporting my husband’s career in the high-end resort field, I asked for a divorce after learning he had a different lifestyle on the side. I moved to the big island of Hawaii. Instead of buying a home, a parcel of incredible beauty called to me. When I bought it, I stood there saying to God, “This is the most beautiful land I’ve ever seen, Lord.”

I prepared the land and planted a Kona coffee orchard of 2,000 trees. I planted grass down the rows to hold the top-soil, with the trees situated further apart allowing the breeze to bring moisture and nutrients to my trees twice a day. This had never been done before, and I was laughed at by many local farmers. I fogged my orchard with an organic seaweed mixture that attracted ladybugs to eat the unwanted scale. As my orchard grew vibrantly, I would drive the tractor through the rows singing and talking to my trees, not knowing this land had been King Kamehameha Royal Gardens back around the year 1824.

Coffee cherries. (Courtesy of Suzanne J. Farrow)

Within five years, my trees tripled the average crop per tree on the Kona Coast, registering at the North Coast Coffee Mill with 95 percent Fancy-Extra Fancy grade! Prior to my coffee tote packaging design that took national packaging awards, all Kona coffee was presented in brown paper bags with peel stick labels. In 1993, after winning 1st place at the Kona Coffee Festival Cupping Event against many large farms, The Chef de Cuisine of the Kona-Kohala Coast five-star resorts adopted my Keopu Mauka Lani Plantation Coffee (the Heavenly Belly of The Mountain) as their representative of Kona coffee. I designed the dessert coffee for the Ritz Carlson Resort Hotel, and I was asked by our state representative to represent the Kona Coffee Industry for several years at the opening of the State Legislature. All this stimulated the Komo brothers, long-time coffee farmers, to want to sell their 228-acre parcel next to my plantation to me at a very low price of $1 million to honor the land their father had left them. They said they had watched me work as hard as they did for years, and couldn’t believe a woman from the high-end five-star resorts world could become so involved with making Kona coffee beautiful.

Kona Coffee at Kailua Bay. (Courtesy of Suzanne J. Farrow)

Their proposal was overwhelming to me. I was still building my coffee business, but I agreed. Later, when I had the land appraised, I was shocked at its $8.2 million appraisal!

The formal business plan I created for this organic, undeveloped land was to set aside ten acres for a Hawaiian Cultural Center so the Hawaiian Historic Society would have a central place to teach its language, arts, crafts, and dance, and 14 acres were set aside at the top for youth outdoor education and school camping since there were no camps for children on the islands at the time.

I interviewed enthusiastic developers including Lucky Bennett, architect of The Mauna Kea Resort, and Adrian Zecha, developer of The Bora Bora Resort Hotel. The plan was for the purchasers of the five-acre parcels to develop Polynesian-style homes to be leased back to the private resort. My coffee company, Keopu Mauka Lani, would install and manage three of their five acres in orchards, giving back a crop share percentage with low agriculture state tax. A real win-win-win!

I interviewed numbers of potential finance partners and because of time restrictions, I decided to take a man who presented himself as being a single investor from Honolulu. I had my attorney check out his credentials. However, as legal partnership documents were created and signed, I learned the man was just “the frontman” for two very powerful “silent partner investors.” They didn’t want me, they wanted all I had pulled together over the years of planning, labor, and investment. I had been duped. I quickly shifted from managing my coffee company to defending against a barrage of hostile legal “takeover” attempts. The silent partners were high-profile agricultural businessmen with mainland markets, Harvard attorneys, a former governor backing them, and connections to investors “with deep pockets.”

The corruption my attorneys and I witnessed over the many years as I struggled to defend what was rightfully mine was overwhelming, to say the least. It involved corruption of controls in the banks, the law firms, courts, and certain politicians. What did I learn from this? Not all human souls upon this earth are honest, caring, and come from an integral foundation—money and power drive many of them. I had trusted these men and the advice of my attorney.

From 1991–2012 (21 years), I fought like a mother tiger trying to protect her cubs. During intense legalities, my attorneys and I had our phones tapped and our lives threatened. Throughout those years, I spent about $1.2 million striving to get justice in the courts. Finally, I won a $2.2 million settlement … only to have the settlement challenged.

I had to leave Hawaii. In 2010, I moved back to Hollywood Beach. I had no alternative but to file for bankruptcy, which took another two years for the court to sort out.

The hard pill to swallow was that the Bankruptcy Trustee didn’t want to investigate the accounting that I requested. Without any investigation of the changed illegal document of a loan agreement from a straight percentage rate into a percent being compounded monthly, the Bankruptcy Trustee agreed with the opposition to grant all my land, development plans, and home, destroying my award-winning Kona Coffee Company and handing over the $2.2 million settlement to the corrupt side. The judge shook her head that the document presented was not researched, but said she would have to grant everything to the corrupt challenging side. I walked out of the courtroom with my family as we dragged our mouths on the floor in disbelief.

During these years, I watched as “white envelopes” of cash bought attorneys and even judges to rule against Hawaii state statutes. Thus, “he who has the most money wins.” I flew back to the Keopu Mauka Lani Plantation to retrieve my belongings and say goodbye.

At 72 years of age, I walked off my land after standing on the old ancient Hawaiian stone wall, overlooking my orchard and 14 miles of Kona Coastline, saying to God, “I never owned this land. I only owned the privilege to direct and protect it … now Lord, I give it back to you. May I learn my lessons of soul … and may those who took it … learn their lessons. Amen.”

These past ten years, in an effort to keep my innate “positive outlook of life,” I have written and illustrated 16 life-value children’s books, through my Lollipop Media Productions, LP. Ten of these books have won national and international awards in book festivals, from Paris, London, and Amsterdam to Chicago, Los Angeles, Hollywood, and the Greater Southwest.

In the Abraham Lincoln book, he shares with the child reader: “Of all the countries in the world, America is the only Country with a Birthday! So why do we celebrate your birthday, my birthday, and America’s birthday?” Questions stimulate curiosity. Curiosity drives passion to know. Life becomes fun and exciting. Using this thread of creativity in learning about life, I’ve just completed 90 “Homeschooling PuPus” (in Hawaii, pupus are delicious appetizers).

Also, I’ve dedicated myself to a visionary project to build The Pavilion and Chapel of Nature to educate children and visitors to the importance nature plays in our everyday lives. We have explored various potential sites in California and Arizona. When I was a student at Arizona State University in the early 1960s, I fell in love with the “organic” architectural designs and creations of Frank Lloyd Wright through Taliesin West. He designed The Trinity Chapel of Nature in 1958 that was never built. I’ve always admired this idea, so going forward we’re hoping to secure necessary financial support for our project to really educate people of nature’s exquisite importance in sustaining life here on planet Earth!

Integrity, honor, faith, love, giving from our soul … these are the real gifts of life … the real happiness that many souls never discover, and that money alone cannot buy.

Walt Disney’s last words to me in the summer of 1964 were: “Suzy, never give up your dreams no matter what anyone says. And always remember, failures are stepping stones to success.”

Love life, be available to life, learn your lessons with the joy of wisdom, and the rewards will come within your heart and soul.

With gratitude, Suzy

Suzy with her rescue dog, Muffin, and two rabbits. (Courtesy of Suzanne J. Farrow)

From Levi jeans with a plaid shirt and blonde pigtails flying, riding her horse Paint as a child, Suzanne Farrow became a polished, knowledgeable young lady at Colorado Women’s College and Arizona State University. Her life over the years expanded into many incredible and creative experiences as an entrepreneur.

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My Mother’s ‘Sisu’

“Sisu” could well be the favorite word of the Finnish people. The term is loosely defined as “the Finnish art of courage.” It refers to a mix of resilience and perseverance that leads to a life of greater purpose and happiness, and Aune Ylitalo, a second-generation Finn, reflected Sisu in all its strength and beauty. This wonderful woman was my mother.

Mom blessed our world with her arrival on January 20, 1914, a frosty winter morning in the tiny Minnesota village of Floodwood. Aune was nicknamed “Cutie.” “I guess I was nice looking at the time,” she told me. But my mom was always beautiful, inside and out, her entire life.

Aune was welcomed by three siblings and her parents, William and Fina (Makitalo) Ylitalo, who emigrated to the United States around the turn of the century. William came first, finding a place to settle before calling for his young bride, who made the treacherous transatlantic journey by steamer … bringing her Sisu with her! They settled on a small farm and worked hard to raise their family. The simple farmhouse had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Kerosene and Aladdin lamps provided lighting, and two wood stoves warmed the house during the long harsh Minnesota winters. A compartment in the “icebox” held huge blocks of ice that my grandpa took from the river, blocks that were kept frozen in sawdust until they were placed inside.

The “outhouse” was dark and cold, but the saving grace was the good old-fashioned Finnish sauna! After enjoying the intense heat and steam that arose from the hot rocks in the corner, mom and her siblings would run out into the snow, rolling around to “cool off.” The basement also housed a washing machine run by a small gas engine and a “storehouse” for canned goods from the vegetable garden and the jams and jellies made from fruit, fresh-picked during the summer months.

Mom was her mother’s helper, and they did everything together. “The house had to be clean at all times,” mom remembered. They used milk to shine the kitchen floor, and on Saturdays, they freshened all the sheets on the clothesline. Grandma taught mom to cook and how to can vegetables and fruits. They often drove 50 miles just to pick blueberries. Mom loved baking cakes and pies and was sometimes called upon to bake for a family whenever their sons came home from college.

But mom’s favorite task was working with her dad and brothers on the farm. She drove horses and the tractor. She helped in the hayfields and in the barn and admitted, “I often wished I was a boy!” Even after suffering a broken leg while playing broom hockey on the frozen river near their home, she didn’t slow down “because there was always work to do.”

Aune Ylitalo. (Courtesy of Karen Brazas)

But life wasn’t all work and no play. A Sunday afternoon would find Aune and her friends making their own ice cream or going to town for a “real cone” for 5 cents … more expensive than the candy that cost only a penny. In the summer, picnics and swimming in the river were favorite pastimes. “My brothers taught me to swim by throwing me off a boat!” mom said. “I had to either swim or wish I had.”

Holidays at the Ylitalo home were simple. The women spent hours cooking and baking while the men chopped down a tree that would be decorated with simple handmade ornaments. Mom sewed and knitted scarves and mittens as gifts for her family. A sleigh ride was the highlight of the season.

Aune enjoyed school, and since the farm was 4 miles from town, transport was a horse-drawn “school bus” carrying 14 children. “Occasionally all 14 of us had to jump off the carriage so the bus could get ‘unstuck’ from a deep mud hole,” mom said with a smile. During those years, her Finnish Sisu played a big part. Her dreams of attending college and becoming a home economics teacher were foiled when her mother suffered several strokes that required Mom to stay home and manage the household. But she never regretted her decision. “I stayed where I was needed. I would never have had the heart to leave.”

But leaving familiar surroundings would become a theme in her life. Only months after she and her new husband set up their first home, Dad was drafted into the Army, and they left their families behind to move to Florida for his training. Months later when Dad was deployed to India, Mom moved back to the farm, 8 months pregnant with their first child. Dad was gone for almost two years. During their 68 years of marriage, because of Dad’s career, they relocated many times. Each departure was very difficult for Mother, not only because she left behind so many friends, but because she understood the toll each move took on us kids. Once again, her courage and resilience showed through her heartache. Years later, she confessed to me that during each move, she shed her tears in private so none of us would see.

Because above all else, my mother was completely devoted to her family. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for us … preparing home-cooked meals, shopping for school clothes and supplies, helping with homework, warmly welcoming our friends, never missing a school concert or ballgame, cheering us on and encouraging us every step of the way, especially when we were sad, worried, or distressed. “Don’t worry, honey,” she’d say to me. “You’re going to be just fine.” Her balm for an aching heart.

Years passed. Dad retired and they resettled in Arizona. Life became more and more simple as they aged and moved from house to condo and finally to assisted living. Downsizing with each move, mom’s belongings became simple … a few matching outfits, simple holiday decorations, a collection of her favorite romance novels, her treasured family photo albums and framed pictures, a box of age-old greeting cards received through the years, and her trademark White Shoulders perfume.

Throughout her life, her amazing warmth and comfort extended to everyone who knew her, and she had a way of making us children feel courageous, strong, and important. She always assured us that “everything will be all right. Everything will work out.” And whether we were playing cards, watching TV, chatting on the porch swing, curled up reading our books, baking cinnamon bread together, or enjoying our morning coffee, even doing nothing in her company was everything.

Mom passed away quietly at the age of 98. She died in the early morning hours of our 9/11 wedding anniversary. Each year we celebrate our marriage and her life. To say I miss her isn’t enough. To say her death left a hole in my heart isn’t accurate either. Because she left it filled with her kindness, her gentleness, her love, and yes … her Sisu! Because on the days when I wonder how I can go on without her, I feel her loving arms around me and I hear her soothing voice … “Oh honey, don’t worry. You’re going to be just fine.”

Karen Brazas is a retired high school English teacher and creative writing instructor who taught in California, China, and Lithuania. She worked and studied in 35 countries with the Semester at Sea program. Karen is a wife, mother, and grandmother, and now lives in Nevada City, California, and Channel Islands, California.

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Midwest Memories: Growing Up in the ’50s

The 1950s have been referred to as the “Golden Age” in America. Taxes were high, but the economy was strong as was our military. Eisenhower was our President, and folks sported “I Like Ike” lapel pins. But as a child, I was oblivious to it all. I was too busy growing up.

My family moved to a sleepy little town in southern Minnesota when I was six. A population of about 700 farmers and “townies,” primarily Swedes and Norwegians, called this slice of lush green landscape their home. We settled into an old Victorian clapboard “lady” purchased for a whopping $4000 in 1953. Ancient elms bowed low along our street, fragrant lilac bushes graced the front porch, and purple morning glories raced up the telephone pole by the narrow alley that separated us from the schoolyard. Our houses weren’t numbered, and our streets weren’t named. Mail, labeled with only our name and our town, was retrieved at the local post office.

Because it was so big and right near the school, our yard was everyone’s favorite playground. In the summer the neighborhood boys set up residence in a treehouse in the towering old pine where they hid their collections of Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel comic books from their parents. We girls “played house” in a sheet tent set up over the clothesline. We ran through sprinklers, played kitten-ball and croquet, swirled our hula hoops, and tossed frisbees. And a few of my lucky friends whipped through the neighborhood on their newly popular Schwinn bicycles. In the winter we built snowmen and igloos, and we ice-skated long into the evening. In the summer we’d spend hours at the school playground, catching tadpoles at the creek, and capturing fireflies in jars at night. We were always outside—day and night, rain, shine, or snow.

When we did come inside, we rarely used the heavy front door that led to a cold, imposing front foyer, the perfect spot in the heat of the summer for an uninterrupted game of jacks, Candyland, or Chutes and Ladders. The only folks who used that door were the milkman, the women of the Ladies Aid when mom hosted, the doctor who made house calls, or our minister paying us his yearly visit.

The foyer led to the living room, the home’s original dining room. Our black and white TV with only one channel sat in the corner. But the acquisition of that appliance was a huge event! I rarely missed “The Mickey Mouse Club,” and “Tom and Jerry” and “Bugs Bunny” cartoons were my little brother’s favorites. At suppertime we patiently waited as Walter Cronkite reported the evening news—news of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., the Korean War, or the Soviet’s Sputnik blasting into outer space would only interest us years later. My favorites shows were “American Bandstand” and “Hit Parade,” a treat on Saturday night once I finished my Sunday School lesson. My parents, however, drew the line when Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, pronouncing his classic moves in “Jailhouse Rock” as “inappropriate.” My mother seldom missed “I Love Lucy” and “Father Knows Best,” and my dad seldom missed “The $64,000 Question.”

My sister and I shared a tiny bedroom, home to our Nancy Drew Mystery collection and our Betsy McCall paper dolls that we clipped from mom’s monthly magazine. The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” and Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” provided music on our little ’45 record player.

My brother’s bedroom was the home’s original pantry, a space just large enough for his bed, which was next to a door that led to a cold dark basement with an earthen floor. (My poor little brother … I knew that whatever ascended the old wood stairs at night would get him first!)

The kitchen was the hub of activity year round for us and our friends. After spending hours at the playground or the ice rink, we’d all tromp into that big warm kitchen for Spam sandwiches and hot cocoa. A cast iron radiator warmed our soggy mittens and earmuffs while keeping my shoebox of baby kittens warm. An old wooden wall phone hung in the corner. We were on a “party line” with one or more neighbors which allowed anyone to listen in on our conversations!

A spacious bathroom, once the “scullery,” was big enough for a sink, a commode, a “bathtub built for two,” an ironing board, and a washing machine. There were no clothes dryers, so laundry was hung outside. No one believed Robert Frost’s “Fences make good neighbors,” so no barriers separated our wide grassy yards. Housewives chatted while hanging the laundry. Kids chased balls through neighbors’ yards. Dogs roamed freely, and backyard BBQs were “come one, come all.”

Everyone knew pretty much everyone else in town, and neighbors helped raise each other’s children. We got away with little as the self-proclaimed “neighborhood watch” was ever vigilant. This was fine with us as we could always count on a warm cookie and a glass of milk wherever we went. Any neighborhood in town was “our oyster.” We never worried about crime, abductions, or getting lost. Our parents never thought to accompany us as we meandered down our dark streets on Halloween collecting homemade cookies and popcorn balls all over town.

Holidays were also exciting community affairs. Memorial Day and the Fourth of July would find most everyone in town grilling hotdogs and roasting marshmallows at Sportsman’s Park. Church suppers were popular at Thanksgiving, and carolers strolled through dark snowy streets at Christmas.

Even if their children weren’t involved, most adults attended school concerts, plays, ceremonies, and ball games. In the fall, hay wagons were offered up so each class could construct a float for the homecoming parade. And the entire town gathered for the traditional bonfire where we would lead cheers, crown the king and queen, and burn our opponent in effigy. That event, like so many others, created an atmosphere of support, of inclusion, and of joy.

All the businesses in our town were located on one main street. We kids hung out at the drug store, perched on wiggly red plastic stools, sipping cherry sodas through red licorice sticks. Our little movie theater was occasionally open showing hits like “Singing in the Rain,” “Peter Pan,” and “Rebel Without a Cause.” A small popcorn stand next door offered up a hot buttered treat on the way home from the indoor roller rink where we spent our Friday nights roller skating or attending sock hops, showing off our new poodle skirts and dancing the twist and the mashed potato. “Cruising” was the favorite pastime for the teenagers … up and down the main street for hours, often ending up at the drive-in movie or chatting with the car-hops at the A&W root beer stand.

Over the years, I’ve returned to my “roots,” and I realize how time marches on. My house, which I remember as quite imposing, looked rather forlorn. Its front porch sagged, and weeds grew where lilac bushes once flourished. Streets are now named, and a street light hangs over Main Street. The school playground was empty except for a few children playing under the watchful eye of a parent. Yards were separated by fences, and few people were about.

Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” Perhaps I should have heeded his advice. But I know that years can’t erase my precious past. And now it’s my turn to create memories for my own grandchildren so that when they look back on their childhoods, their memories will be as happy as mine.

Karen Brazas is a retired high school English teacher and creative writing instructor who taught in California, China, and Lithuania. She worked and studied in 35 countries with the Semester at Sea program. Karen is a wife, mother, and grandmother, and now lives in Nevada City, California, and Channel Islands, California.

Features Generation to Generation Your Stories

Lessons From My Grandchildren

I promised myself long ago that if I were ever lucky enough to have grandchildren, I would be the best grandmother! I would read to them, sing to them, take them to wonderful places, and teach them all about life. Little did I know that they would be the ones teaching me.

Mia and Tyler marvel at the world around them, whether it’s a seagull flying high above the beach, or a deer or fox at the forest feeder, gobbling up tasty leftovers. They take great delight in watching these beautiful creatures. When the first snowflakes fell, little Tyler ventured outside and glanced skyward. A look of astonishment crossed his face, but before long he was twirling in circles and squealing with delight. The first time Mia experienced rain, she was mesmerized. Her little fingers reached out and seemed to caress the raindrops, her little nose pressed tightly against the cool damp windowpane. Neither child minds the rain, and actually looks forward to a storm because, as Mia says, “I know there might be a rainbow!”
(Revel in nature’s beauty, and even when it’s familiar, never take it for granted.)

Mia and the sea turtle. (Courtesy of Karen Brazas)

The children like trees and rocks and even pretty weeds. They’re never in too much of a hurry to “stop and smell the roses.” A tiny blossom, a little feather, a shell on the beach, or even a “perfect stick” is special. On our walks, they take delight in a passing dog, a stray cat, or a garden lizard. Tyler is ever on the lookout for fire engines, police cars, and passing trains.
When these two aren’t looking around, they’re looking up … at beautiful fluffy clouds, debating which animal they look like.
(Look around. Take the time to appreciate everything in your world.)

(Courtesy of Karen Brazas)

My little ones study people and gravitate toward those who are nice and friendly. They aren’t afraid to make new friends, and while playing in a park, Mia will go up to a random child and ask, “Do you want to be my friend today?” From his balcony or bedroom window, Tyler calls out to greet passers-by whether he knows them or not. And if either one is rebuffed, they aren’t bothered. They simply engage with someone else.
(Never take yourself too seriously. Sometimes you just have to move on.)

Mia’s first rainfall. (Courtesy of Karen Brazas)

Before they could even walk, they couldn’t wait to venture out into the pounding surf, crawling like baby turtles, straight to the sea. And now they both charge full speed ahead to meet the waves, unaware of what they might be getting themselves into. As toddlers, they were afraid to cross over the three-inch gap leading into our home elevator and would wait for me to lift them across. I remember the day Mia studied that gap and then scurried over it! Once inside, she turned to me with the biggest grin, cheered herself with a big “yay,” and gave herself a hearty round of applause. These days after building up their courage at the park, they aren’t afraid to take chances. They’d climb the highest monkey bars or ride the zip line, their fear dissipating after the first try.
(“Sometimes the only method of transportation is a leap of faith.”)

(Courtesy of Karen Brazas)

These two are ever eager to try new tasks. Never mind the results. Mia insists on pulling weeds, deadheading flowers, or watering pots in my garden. Both she and her cousin love helping in the kitchen, stirring, baking, or dipping strawberries into creamy chocolate. They want to learn how things are done and “Please! Let me try!” is their mantra. Both have mastered bicycle riding, without training wheels. Tumble after tumble, scraped knees and all, nothing diminished their enthusiasm. Now they’re learning to swim, jumping headlong into their daddies’ arms and then attempting to reach the pool’s edge on their own. I can’t remember a time when either one has said, “I don’t think I can do that.”
(Never quit. Never stop learning. Have faith in yourself.)

(Courtesy of Karen Brazas)

If the children try new food and dislike it, they let me know. They feel free (very free!) to tell me where they want to go … the park, the beach, McDonald’s … and what they want to do (which rarely involves school work!)
Even if they don’t know all the words to a song, they sing out loud no matter who is listening. They dance like everyone is watching. If they’re sad, they tell me, ask for a hug, and then reach for a favorite toy or blanket for comfort.
(Say no to things you don’t want, and do what makes your heart happy.)

(Courtesy of Karen Brazas)

Mia and Tyler have learned to be very flexible. Their activities, meals, and bedtimes often depend on their parents’ busy schedules. Some days, they are popped in and out of car seats and shopping carts several times a day. When they travel, a change in routine, unfamiliar surroundings, and sleeping in a different bed doesn’t bother them. They’re aware that tomorrow might be completely different from today. No matter.
(Get some sleep. Tomorrow will take care of itself.)

Tyler seeing snow. (Courtesy of Karen Brazas)

My grandchildren are only 5 and 6 years old. Unlike mine, their skin is tight and smooth. Their hair is silky and shiny. They have energy to burn while my flame often smolders. But none of this makes any difference to them. They sense the gentleness in my heart and see the love in my eyes. They look past the wrinkles and the gray and love me just the way I am. I know, because they tell me so many times a day. They are the essence of unconditional love.
(Tell your loved ones you love them every chance you get … and love them with everything you have.)

I have much to learn.

Karen Brazas is a retired high school English teacher and creative writing instructor who taught in California, China, and Lithuania. She worked and studied in 35 countries with the Semester at Sea program. Karen is a wife, mother, and grandmother, and now lives in Nevada City, California, and Channel Islands, California.