Christmas in Iowa

Todd Van Beck's picture

The Van Becks have lived in Iowa since arriving from the Netherlands in 1870.  I knew even as a small child that our family had been original pioneers in Southwestern Iowa, and it made me feel good to know that our roots were so deeply planted in the rich soil of the Hawkeye State.  Nothing lasts forever and if anyone visits the Oak Hill Cemetery in Hancock, Iowa you will see that over the last 139 years many Van Becks have died and been buried in that little cemetery located right in the rich black soil of rural Iowa.

By Christmas of 1975 our family was facing yet another death; my grandmother who had been a physical wreck for sometime was dying.  Nothing was working concerning the medical profession, and she just seemed to slip further and further from us and from reality.  In the months prior the family had held one meeting after another concerning my grandmother’s condition, and it was unanimously decided that she would NOT end up in a nursing home, under no conditions would she end up with someone else taking care of her.  She had taken care of us, now it was our turn to take care of her.

Of course I guess our family is normal because by Christmas of 1975 my grandmother was in a nursing home where she would subsequently die six months later.  So much for family conferences and/or convictions and promises.

During the same year of 1975 I bought my first two funeral homes in Eastern Iowa and was busy trying, without much success, to become the premier funeral director in our little town.  Looking back I am ashamed that I thought I could be the premier at anything let alone being a great funeral director, but hell folks I was only 23 years old, and did not know didly squat about life or what surprises my life held in store for me.

The phone rang about five days before Christmas and the announcement was made that my grandmother was slipping fast and that the medical people had sounded the alarm which summoned everybody to make the trip home.  Now freeze this frame for a moment.

Let’s take a moment and travel back to 1960.  In 1960 my grandmother was a literal dynamo.  Energy plus and she was 69 years old.  She never sat down even when she was eating because she was too busy making sure everybody else had enough food to eat.  She was an outstanding cook, outstanding seamstress, and outstanding gardener, and to top all this off she was a Registered Nurse (graduated in 1909) but first and  foremost she was my grandmother, and I always knew I was her favorite – she told me so on countless occasions – in fact she told me this fact way too many times to count.

In 1960 a television station out of Omaha had a program on Saturday nights called “MONSTER, CHILLER, HORROR THEATER.”  It was without a doubt, besides the old “Superman” and “The Three Stooges” my favorite TV program to watch – it just scared the hell out of me and I loved it.  Nothing was better in my kid world than to watch Lon Chaney, Jr. turn into the “Wolfman”, or Boris Karloff chasing some half naked women through a forest and swamp, or Bela Lugosi flying around drinking the blood from again some half naked woman who was in a dungeon in a spooky castle in Transylvania.  It was great stuff!  My father forbade me to watch the show.  I was always sent to bed – when I was at home, anyway.

One Saturday afternoon however, the clouds in my life concerning watching this scary program broke and the sun radiated through my father’s stubbornness and his evident total disinterest in getting scared to death.  What happened was simple; my grandmother asked me to spend the weekend at her house.  She lived seven miles away; it was a safe distance.  Halleluiah!  Reprieved at last! I am free, free! So off my grandmother’s house I went and a mighty happy camper I was indeed.  It was Saturday afternoon, six more hours before “Monster, Chiller, Horror Theater”.

That evening we ate dinner, I had two pieces of apple pie, she fussed on me, doted on me, and basically made me feel like the king of the castle. 

After I had helped her wash the dishes while we both sang old time songs we went into the living room to watch Saturday evening television.  “Lawrence Welk” started off the evening. Then I asked if we could watch “Gunsmoke.”  Sure was Grandma’s response.  I saw my opening.  If she would say yes to “Gunsmoke” there might just be a chance she would say yes to………….

The ten o’clock news came on.   Usually at home this was my father’s cue to start pushing me off to bed, but my grandmother just looked at me and asked if I would be interested in some popcorn?  Popcorn in the middle of the night?  Why sure I’d love some.   So off we went to the kitchen and started popping.  While I was keeping watch over the popcorn project my grandmother went over to the refrigerator (she called it the ice-box) and pulled out a beer.

She went over to the cupboard and got out two, yes two glasses.  By now the popcorn was finished and it was just about 10:30 p.m. time for my scary movie to begin.

Very nonchalantly and with great diplomacy I asked my grandmother if we could watch “Monster Chiller Horror Theater” and she said yes without batting an eye.  I determined right then and there that my life plan was to change considerably and that from now on my purpose and mission in life would be to finagle as many weekend invitations to bunk out at my Grandmother’s as possible.  My life had new meaning.

She poured herself a glass of beer and poured the rest of the bottle, very little was left,  into a small shot glass for me and with popcorn in hand she and I went into the living room to get the bejesus scared out of us – or me anyway, I hoped. 

There we sat, an old lady and a kid, watching a scary movie, eating popcorn and drinking beer and having the time of our lives in the middle the night – middle of the night for a kid, that is.

My beer tasted horrible, just horrible, but I felt so grown up that I knew I couldn’t let on.  Obviously my grandmother did not think her beer tasted horrible, for in no time her glass was empty.  I don’t think I ever finished my beer – if may well have been the only beer I never finished; my, my how things have changed over the years concerning by behavior with that particular recreational activity.

In the middle of our naughty clandestine activity my grandmother leaned over to me and whispered (there were only her and I in the room) “Now don’t tell your Dad about this, will you?”  TELL DAD!!!!!!!!!! ARE YOU KIDDING?????????  TELL MY DAD!!!!!!!!!!!!  I promised on all that a kid could hold holy that never a word would be said to my father about the movie, the beer or even the popcorn – it was our secret.  To this day he does not know, I never told on her.

Let’s pick the frame up.  Now it is Christmastime 1975, fifteen years later, and I had arrived home.  At the nursing home my grandmother was flat on her back, eyes closed, saying nothing, not moving at all, just lying flat on her back.  She had lost a great amount of weight but she was small to begin with, could not speak, her hair was a mess, however the nurses had made absolutely sure that she was clean and that there were no bed sores.  Looking back they might well have had a vested interest in my grandmother because as one RN told me in the hallway “If it had not been for your Grandma’s influence in my life I would never have mustered the courage to go to nursing school – she taught me how to be a practical nurse, way beyond the textbooks.”  I was so proud.

In mid-evening I found myself sitting all alone with Grandma.  Some Christmas cards were taped up, there was a little Christmas tree which was nice, but my beloved friend, confidante, and Grandmother was dying right before my eyes and there seemed to be nothing I could do to help her.  I just sat there thinking.

Eventually this same nurse who had been an apprentice of Grandma’s in the nursing profession came in and started talking to her like nothing was wrong, like in the good old days.  This nurse was telling my Grandmother about other patients and the trouble she was having with some of them, and she one time even asked Grandma what she ought to do with one particularly grumpy patient down the hall.  Grandma said nothing.

Finally the nurse looked at me and said she had to leave for a few minutes and why don’t I continue talking to Grandma she asked.  I was totally uncomfortable.  You want me to talk to my Grandma, are you kidding?  I had known this woman for years, and as she left the room she shot me a stern look and said, “You heard me Todd, talk to her, she loves you so much.”

So I started talking to her stumbling around not knowing what to say exactly.  I started to talk about “Monster, Chiller, Horror Theater,” and what a blast it was to make the popcorn and drink the beer with her and go to bed really late and that Dad never ever found out about it.  She did not move once while I was talking to her.

Finally I ran out of steam and was sitting there quietly buried in my own thoughts, when out of nowhere, out of the blue, without any hesitation or stumbling my grandmother, eyes still closed, said as clear as a bell – “I DON’T REMEMBER THE BEER.”

I just sat in my chair stunned.  My nurse buddy came in and I told her, and she took my hand and said again “She heard everything you said, she loves you very much, she just can’t talk, that’s normal.”  Those were the last words my grandmother ever said to me, “I don’t remember the beer.”

It was cold as hell outside, snow was everywhere.  I gathered my coat and walked out to the car.  Another Christmas in Iowa, but not another one for my Grandmother – this one would be her last.  However, today every time the Yuletide season comes around, this one profound memory is what I recall with the greatest frequency.  The memory has nothing to do with toys, presents, parties, singing, laughing and being merry, it has everything to do with the real meaning of Christmas – love.

My sainted grandmother has been dead for 33 years. I have survived 33 Christmases in her physical absence, but I know that she is not spiritually absent, and each time I feel that warm holiday glow I remember two human beings from years ago, one old, one terribly young, sitting together in a very little house in a very little place called Hancock, Iowa (population 250), making popcorn, laughing, telling stories, drinking a little beer while watching some crazed lunatic monster chasing people all over the place, and on top of all that, Dad never was the wiser – great fun – God I would give a year's salary to have that moment just one more time.

Interesting, is it not, what happens to people in the past. When it is happening, it seems routine, somewhat mundane, but what a difference history and time make on those seemingly routine and mundane life events of years gone by.  Youth is truly wasted on the young, and what ticks me off with young people is that they are the very people who don’t get it.

Two last thoughts, the first one is special, almost unbelievable in fact, and the second one is just dripping with sincerity and love.  Here is the odd, special, eerie, strange, unbelievable one: On June 27, 2009, I married a Registered Nurse. Can you believe this, a real live honest to goodness licensed certified graduated formalized canonized Registered Nurse, and trust me, my friends, she is in every way just as much of a dynamo as my sainted grandmother was. I can’t keep up with her and she has indeed changed my life, all for the better.  Lastly, to all my good buddies in this great profession, this old undertaker sincerely and truly wishes everyone a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Years.



I love your articles! This Christmas article is very special because you're right time changes the significance of the event. Happy Holidays to you and Mrs. Van Dyke(inside joke)!

Mike Stache