Blood Ties and Family History: a road trip to rural Ohio in March 2011

Posted on November 7, 2018

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This is a journal entry from Adrienne Redd and Greg Gettum’s visit to Mary Jane and Bill Mauger in March 2011 (it was originally written as a letter to Dalea Redd Reichgott and Marianna Lee Hill Redd).

My mother’s father was a Hill and one of five boys – and one girl born to my great grandparents. There are lots and lots of Hills. (One of the Hills married one of Daniel Boone’s daughters, so we are also descended from the famous, awful Indian-killer). I visited my mother’s first cousin, Mary Jane Mauger (a Hill) in March 2011.

The journey to Ohio started on Monday March 14, 2011 when I awoke not far from Canton, Connecticut having attended a reunion with old friends from college. (An old high school friend of my first husband hosted her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah; then we occupied her house in suburban Connecticut for the remainder of Saturday evening, went out for a fancy dinner Saturday, and stayed on into Sunday, talking all night.

Rain rolled in as I journeyed west. Driving on route 80 with giant trucks in my Mini Cooper was hair-raising. To bolster my strength, I stopped at a park in Connecticut, and then several more times in the “wilds” of Pennsylvania.  At about 8 pm, I made a nest in the back of the car and napped for about 45 minutes. Just as I was starting onto the road, my niece, Victoria Shaw Roney called me for help with a paper about Romeo and Juliet. I was very pleased to have the long-distance companionship, because the highway driving was simultaneously terrifying and boring.

Golden Eagle Motel

About 9:30 pm, my second (now ex-) husband, Rick (via mobile phone call) talked me into stopping for the night in a motel in western Pennsylvania. The motel was a bit of a time capsule, stuck in the most drab corner of the late 1960s, with a hex sign and chainsaw-carved “gold eagle” mascot. It was plain, clean and adequate and the proprietor was perfectly pleasant (though the Bates Motel did flit through my mind).

In the morning I fed myself breakfast in (the motel). It consisted of anchovies from a tin, a chocolate bar and a handful of cashews that I had packed for just such a need to get on the road without a restaurant stop. I walked up to the motel office for a cup of coffee and got a glimpse of the proprietor’s two daughters in tidy parochial school uniforms being hustled onto a one-quarter length rural school bus. The mother of the family hollered to the girls, “Don’t go near any motel guests!” (nor were they to let into the motel lobby the Springer spaniels who had already greeted me the night before). The proprietress then walked out and realized that I had heard her shouting – and meekly excused herself for being loud.

The sky and the rain thickened and darkened. I still had at least three hours of driving before the rendezvous with my cousin, Greg Gettum in the lobby of a hotel in Massillon, Ohio. I continued to not enjoy being on the road with the trucks, but it was better than doing so in the dark and the rain—being blown side to side each time a truck doing 80 mile per hour passed my tiny car. I reached rural, northern Ohio, with its gently rolling hills, signs for blue hen eggs, and light industrial operations cordoned off by chain link fence.

I walked into the lobby of the Massillon Hilton at 11:59 pm; the clerk looked right at me and said, “Your cousin is here waiting for you.” Greg and I had lunch at the “best place in town,” a completely ordinary bar called Kozmo’s, where the waitress overheard me mentioning my daughter’s having lived in Paris and murmured (like Simone, the waitress in Peewee’s Big Adventure (1985) “I would love to go to Paris.” She sighed deeply “But I guess I’m gonna die right here in Massillon.” Then added, “I’ve never been outside the city limits and now I have three kids…”

After lunch, Greg and I put our bags in our hotel rooms and called Mary Jane Hill Mauger (my mother’s cousin) to let her know we were right on time. We confirmed the address at her farm outside of Brewster, Ohio where she resides with her husband, Bill Mauger. Mildly, as in an afterthought, Mary Jane said at the end of the call, “There’s lots of mud and two Saint Bernard dogs.” This warning prompted me to change out of a white silk jack into a pilled and rather ratty dark brown wool jacket that would better hide the marks of dog feet.

Greg seemed a little apprehensive about my seeing Mary Jane and Bill’s rambling country homestead. He said, “I think they have a lot of cars Bill is working on…”
My global positioning system (which is capable of losing its mind in country settings) took us straight to the bottom of their driveway (on Pigeon Run Road) as if it were itself a homing pigeon.

It had been raining for days and was standing water in the deep ruts in the long, unpaved lane to the farm house and an ocean of mud. On either side, the narrow lane fell away to gully with pasture beyond.

As Greg and I pulled up to the house, he seemed seemed nonplussed by the yard full of Crosley cars rusted right down to the chassis, a row of three circa 1970s GMC mobile homes, and pens of mixed livestock.

Greg said of the rusted vehicles, “I count 18” and added, “I think that when one of ‘em dies, they push it to one side and leave it there.”

Two enormous, gentle and filthy Saint Bernards came rushing out to jump on us, lean on us and sniff us thoroughly. Once inside the kitchen door, I received another thorough crotch-sniffing from the dogs and when I politely pushed one of them away (I had had enough of being olfactorily probed), Mary Jane excused them, saying, “It’s because you are strange,” (by which she meant that I was a new person to sniff).

Greg and I settled into deep armchairs; the two dogs continued to affectionately deposit long strand of drool onto the one sleeve of mine to which they had access.

The house of my mother’s cousin is a rabbit warren of rooms-off-of-rooms, with an addition once occupied by Mary Jane’s mother, Mignon Hill, until she died well over the century mark. (I knew her as Aunt Mignon and remember her ghostly presence from visits when I was a child).

Mary Jane has left her mother’s room much as it was for decades. The rest of the house is filled with floor to ceiling shelves of Hummels, other porcelain figurines, old clocks, turtle shell-handled hair brushes, portfolios of photos, books, etc. Everything has a layer of slightly shimmery dust.

Bill Mauger, a tall handsome man in his 70s with intelligent eyes, a thick shock of white hair and a modest belly, came and sat with Mary Jane, Greg and me for the entire visit. We sat in one of the living rooms for three hours or more, looking a Mary Jane’s albums, photographs that Greg had brought as conversation starters (and which he kindly lent me to scan, label and return).Although nightfall was two or more hours away, the sky continued to darken with clotting clouds. It occurred to me that if we were going to visit some graves that we should get moving.

Out in the country on Bill and Mary Jane’s 72-acre homestead, the mailing address is Navarre, Ohio (Navarre is also a name of the other, French side of my father’s mother’s family) and their farm is outside a town called Brewster where our Hill family played a role in starting the Wheeling-and-Lake-Erie Railroad, as founding the United Methodist Church and other institutions and businesses.

There is also a little general store in Brewster that carries my second cousin, Sarah Hill Emmert’s married name, “Emmert’s.” Mary Jane proudly pointed out the various amenities in the town, a small park with a walking path and few shops. Un-ironically, she said, “ You know, we sell guns just like the big towns.”

There were very few restaurants this far out in northern Ohio. However, Mary Jane knew that the local old folks’ home would serve sandwiches and soup for $2 in the dining hall of the rest home, so we piled into one of the cars and headed to dinner, calling Mary Jane’s daughter, Jodi, to meet us about 6 pm. We drove through Brewster, with Mary Jane pointing out her parent’s house and other boxy, clapboard, pastel houses on regularly-spaced streets that had been home to Hill ancestors and some living family.

There was a dinner menu (peppered with misspelled German and French) but the waitress didn’t want to be bothered with asking the kitchen to prepare, nor with serving us “dinners.” She warned us off of them, saying that they would “take over an hour to prepare.” This was clearly manipulation, but we all played along, instead choosing one of the three soups plus a sandwich, or half-sandwich.
 
The physical space of the retirement home was telling. The building was comparatively new construction, not more than twenty years old, and employed a pastoral theme. The floor plan of the dining room of the nursing home was very large, perhaps 2,000 square feet and there as a white plastic lattice fence enclosing the center portion of the floor (with the tables and chairs for dining set up within) with artificial flowers, plastic vines, a pergola and other trappings of an outdoor garden patio around them, but all indoors, of course. I thought of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Robert Persig’s assertion that people begin to use space in a more profligate way as one travels west across the United States.
 
At the side, there was an artificial “Christmas-Saint Patrick’s Day” tree with green glittery shamrocks decorating it, inside a second shiny white plastic fence. I asked with some amusement whether the home had erected a Christmas-Valentines Day tree and would later be putting up a Christmas-Easter tree and Mary Jane looked at me in surprise as if I should have realized that such decorations were de rigueur. “Yes, of course. They do a Christmas tree for every season!”

We decided to put off the visit to the graveyard until Wednesday; just past dusk we returned to the Maugers’ farm; Bill Mauger pointed out the “little red bull” who is “in love” with the largest mare, a tall, heavy palomino who grazes in the same fenced field with the other large animals. There are various other enclosures, ponds and pastures with geese, ducks, chickens and goats. The large animals were all in a clump near the lane as we drove by, a few cows, a mare who is the largest of the group, a pony or two, and the young bull.

Bill said that the bull likes to go over and “go at her.” We did see him, glowing auburn in the dying gray light, not bigger than one of the shaggy ponies, leaning against her rear flank affectionately. She was rolling her eyes wildly in irritation. As we drove past, she hip-checked him hard, nearly knocking him over.” Bill remarked mildly, “I have to go in there and cut his nuts. We can’t have a bull in with the rest of the herd.”

We said goodnight to Bill and Mary Jane for the evening and agreed to meet the next day for lunch at 11:30 am at Smiley’s, an ostensibly Italian restaurant in Massillon (run by a Lebanese family for the past quarter-century.)

As we drove, Greg and I talked about our shared grandparents, Ruth Calderwood Hill (later Janson) and Louis Gilbert Hill and how during the Depression the only cash for the family came from Greg’s two grandfathers’ making suits and fixing the teeth of the mafia in Toledo, Ohio (which also had a Lebanese mob.)

The next morning breakfast, we checked out of the hotel (Greg having no charge because there had been a ruckus outside his room during the night) and walked down the street in the light drizzle to meet Mary Jane and Bill for lunch.

Bill and Mary Jane Mauger

I told Bill and Mary Jane that my mother, Marianna Redd, sees the two of them as a “great love story,” not in spite of, but because they were married very young, divorced and reconciled and re-married. They were amused by this comment  and Bill murmured with a touch of embarrassment, “I had some wild oats to sow.”

After lunch, we drove to the Rosehill Cemetery. Bill had brought the Saint Bernards. When we parked at the graveyard, I came over to greet them and Bill commented, “This is their car.” To my amusement and Bill and Mary Jane’s annoyance, the dogs tumbled out of the car and immediately pooped in the graveyard.Bill briskly cleaned it up. My cousin, Greg opted to stay in the car and out of the mud, rain and dog chaos.

In the light rain, Mary Jane, and I visited the graves of James Francis Hill (1859-1933), superintendent and master mechanic of the Wheeling-and-Lake-Erie Railroad and father of Greg’s and my grandfather, Louis Gilbert Hill. (The father of James Francis Hill was James Hill, born 1819 and died 1916. Yes, he lived to be 97 years old).

We also visited the final resting place of J.F.’s wife, Bertha Brewer Hill (1866-1932), my great grandmother.

Mary Jane, ebullient for all of our two days with her gravely placed flowers on the plots of her father, Glen Arthur Hill (1894-1947) and her mother, Mignon Hill (1896-1998).

After that, we drove to the condominium of “Bob” Edward Arthur Hill. He had turned 92 on April 26, 2011.( He is alive as of this re-reading in 2018). He is the oldest continually licensed family doctor in the United States. As of my first writing this in March 2011, he was still seeing patients on Tuesday and Thursdays and driving up to Cleveland to a clinic there on alternate Wednesdays. He was honored as the oldest and longest continually licensed doctor (what used to be called a general practitioner, or GP) by the American Board of Family Medicine.

Bob was clear-eyed and alert, though frail and a little stooped. His vision, acuity, energy level and memory seem good. His hearing was quite impaired, however, though he wore top-notch hearing aids.
 
There is a tension between long separation and loving welcome from people whom I had either never met, or whom I met only once, nearly 40 years earlier, when my mother took me to Dr. Bob Hill’s house. (I remembered a somewhat ostentatious fountain in the foyer of his house of that time. Although he lives in a condominium now, there is another fountain near the front door.)

Another tension I experienced as I wrote this ten days after returning – was my own aloneness with my own thoughts and apartness during the long hours of solitary highway travel. I am very much an an outsider in rural Ohio. I was alone – yet reunited. Together, yet very much apart.

My sense of a bond with seldom-seen family stands in contrast to the embarrassment of Greg Gettum at Bill and Mary Jane Mauger’s yard full of cars, clutter-filled house and farm animals (while their utter lack of self-consciousness delighted me.)

In this picture (below) with my second cousin, Sarah Emmert Hill (Mary Jane’s daughter), Sarah’s hand is on my arm. She met me for the first time an hour before this picture was taken. The cousins, cousins-once-removed, and second cousins I visited in Canton and Massillon instantly saw me as family, connected to them by history and genetics and accepted me – whoever I might be.

Mary Jane Mauger, Greg Gettum, _Bob_ E.A. Hill, Jodi Mauger, Adrienne Redd, Sarah Hill Emmert

I have felt this before in the presence of my Midwestern family, as a second or third cousin several times removed said grace at the 100th birthday party of my paternal grandmother’s sister, Auntie Mary in 2002. I thought to myself while bowing my head and pretending to pray, “These very white people, politically conservative, doughy people are [nonetheless] my people. This is where I come from.”

As we were looking at more pictures at Dr. Bob Hill’s house, I threw my head back at one point and laughed. Mary Jane said, “You reminded me of your mother just now.” I replied, “What’s your sense of my mother?”

She said, “Bright, sharp, a little harsh and sad.”

Greg looked at her and asked, “What about my mother?” Mary Jane replied, “Happy, full of life – the popular sister.”

A few moments later, Mary Jane pointed to a picture and said of another ancestor, “She was one of the strange ones. She used to hide when people came to the house.” I asked Mary Jane to say more about this and she explained that there is a rivulet of instability that runs through the Brewer and Hill family: depression, agoraphobia, imbalances and obsessions, plus what we would now called seasonal affective disorder. My mother’s father may have suffered from it; he only drank alcoholically for part of the year and managed to be functional much of the time –  a skilled, respected, innovative oral surgeon and dentist. (I write about this elsewhere in the account of my mother’s sister, Nancy Hill (Gettum) (Tod) surviving polio in 1938, When Nancy was Seven.)

By way of connection to the “strange ones,” Mary Jane then told a story about Bertha Brewer as she was giving birth to Marion and Martin.

“Bertha,” said the doctor, “Here’s that girl you always wanted.”

“Praise the lord!” My great grandmother joyfully exclaimed.

“But first you have to take another boy,” said the doctor, realizing that he was delivering fraternal twins.

“Please, God,” said Bertha, “Let me die.”

My grandfather was the sixth of Bertha’s and the fifth boy. J.F. Hill was prosperous – a respected official with the railroad, so Bertha and the children could escape to a cabin in the Rockies for the summers. However, life weighed heavily on Bertha; one can see it in the century-old photos.

Bertha Brewer Hill with Frank, Jack, Glen Arthur, Louis G, Marion and Martin Hill annual summer trip to DenverBertha Brewer Hill (at right) with (from left) Frank, Jack, Glen Arthur, Louis Gilbert, Marion and Martin Hill on the annual summer trip to Denver.

I looked down and mumbled, “I’m sorry my mother has been so hard to reach.” Mary Jane put her arms around me and said, “That’s alright. Now we have you.”

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