Ryan Hilligoss, January 4, 2015
My old friend, you invited me in, and you treated me like kin
And you gave me a reason to go on
My old friend, thanks for inviting me in
My old friend, may this goodbye never mean the end
If we never meet again this side of life
In a little while, over yonder, where it’s peace and quiet
My old friend, I’ll think about you every now and then
Carl Perkins, My Old Friend
As I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with our extended Hilligoss family during birthdays, celebrations, family reunions and especially trips made to either Phoneix, Az where my grandparents moved in 1970 or around the state when they visited us here twice a year. They had a RV they used for many of their trips and when they came to town, Sean and I would climb aboard and head on down the road for unknown destinations. Opening the door to the RV with grandma Letha Hilligoss aboard, you were drawn into a world filled with smoke from her long, brown cigarettes she chain smoked, the aroma of fresh coffee brewing in the percolator, and never-ending chatter, whether anyone was present and listening or not. Often times, she would launch into a crazed rant filled with wild hand motions and unnamed characters, and Sean and I would look at each other not knowing if she were really talking to us and whether we should respond or not. More often than not, after travelling to some other towns, we would wind up in Edgewood to see Mary where they would park the RV and we would stay for 2 or 3 days before returning home. Grandma and Mary would spend hours at a time in the kitchen drinking coffee, doing the daily crossword puzzles and clipping coupons and sending in rebates, while we kids were left to our own walking the property, mowing the grass or watching TV. Due to their love of coupons, rebates and scoring a great deal, a simple trip to the IGA grocery store in Effingham which would have taken most people 15-30 minutes, turned into a three-hour journey as Letha and Mary walked down the aisles, closely inspecting each package they eyed, ensuring they had a coupon or could send in a rebate.
It was during these trips as a boy that I developed an appreciation and connection to the idea of extended family and a connection to the past and where I come from. During these trips, I developed a bond with my aunt Mary that lasted from childhood, through my college years and into adulthood when I had my own family. Mary and my grandmother Letha were like two peas in a pod in many respects including their love of coffee, smoking, cross words and family. However, their personalities were a contrast. Grandma was comfortable in her own skin, said what was on her mind with no filters, talked a blue streak, and walked through her life with her chin out letting the world know she wasn’t scared of much and would not back away from a situation. As a child growing up on her family farm, Letha would often times be ordered to handle chores in a certain fashion by her father Ed Cook, and if they weren’t handled the way he wanted, there would be consequences. And instead of taking her punishment and walking away, she would get back up again, stick her chin out as if to say, here I am, go ahead and knock me down again and I’ll just get back up. Mary on the other hand always had a grin on her face, was a little more quiet, had a nice, easy laugh. I always had the impression she looked up to her sister and often times followed her lead with caution.
While attending Eastern Illinois University, the Harvard of Coles County, from 1993-1998(yes I graduated in 4 years for anyone doing the math but stayed for a 5th year to pursue journalism), I made many a 60 mile trip down I-57 to see my aunt on weekends. Some trips were with my grandparents, before grandma died in 1996, but many were on my own. Being a fairly quiet and introverted person, going to Edgewood for a few days allowed me some peace and quiet in a warm, cozy home and some good companionship with my aunt who, after my grandma died, I thought of as a surrogate grandmother. I would usually call her mid-week and tell her I was thinking about coming down if she wasn’t busy, and usually she didn’t have any plans. When I arrived, she always had a weekend supply of baloney and cheese and Coke and coffee waiting for me. If I came down on Friday night, she worked in the kitchen at the Edgewood Opry from 6-10pm. The Opry was a local version of the Grand Ol’ Opry with local musicians filling the stage and local singers coming up from the audience and singing their favorite song whether gospel, folk or country. Despite my introverted nature and stage fright, I even got up and sang on two different occasions, Waylon Jenning’s Luchenbach, Texas and Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. Luchenbach got a nice round of applause while This land only got polite gold claps which confused me at the time but I now understand that the crowd was made up of local farmers who owned and farmed hundreds of acres and might not have been keen on Woody’s lyrics about signs saying no trespassing and private property being a violation of what he saw as the country standing for. The musicians were happy to have a place to play live and the talent level of the singers ranged from excellent, trained vocalists to….hmmm…how to put this politely….not stage ready. On one occasion, I went along with my grandparents and I sat next to my grandfather Robert Samuel Hilligoss and when I rather screechy singer came on, he turned to me and said, “God is that awful….but since I can’t sing, I guess I better keep quiet.”
I would spend time studying and reading while she watched tv and then we’d work the crossword puzzles after the newspapers were delivered. Then we might head into Effingham for dinner at Neimerg’s Steakhouse and a trip to the grocery store. Or we might have lunch with her girlfriends at Pat’s Restaurant in Farina. Occasionally on Saturday nights, we would pick up two of her friends, Virginia and Mary, and drive to Vandalia for the Saturday night dance in the local roller rink, complete with sawdust on the floor and a local band supplying songs from Hank Williams, Patsy Kline, Ray Price and Kitty Wells. It was there I learned to dance the waltz to Waltz Across Texas With You, the Texas Two Step to Lovesick Blues and the polka to The Orange Blossom Special. The only time I ever danced with my grandmother Letha was at the roller rink. I can’t remember the song the band played, but I can still see the smile on her face as we twirled around the floor. On Sunday mornings, Mary would fix me breakfast consisting of coffee, toast and Malt O Meal, still my favorite, and only, hot cereal. After watching some television, her favorite shows were Walker, Texas Ranger, Dr.Quinn Medicine Woman and Reba, and helping with some chores around the house and in the yard, I would pack my bag, say goodbye with a hug, head back to school and then return for another visit every few months. Looking back on it, I guess one of the reasons I enjoyed going there so much was she gave me the space and understanding to be who I was at the time, as a young adult.
After graduating and moving back to Godfrey, I still visited but not as often and not as long. Then when I moved to Wheaton to be with my then girlfriend, and now wife of 14 years, Kim and I would make the 4 hour drive down to spend a day or two visiting. After our kids were born, Graham in 2004 and Aurora Eva Rose in 2006, we still made visits, usually for the Hilligoss reunion in June and the annual fish fry held at Mary’s house for her family every October. While I had developed my own family and home, the connection to family remained and I made the time and took the energy to spend moments with who was important to me and my life, just Mary and both sets of my grandparents and uncles and aunts did throughout my life. The last time I saw Mary was in a hospital after me, my dad, uncle Rick and brother Kevin had visited her at her assisted living facility and she had a mini stroke. Before the ambulance took her away, she looked at me and had no knowledge of who I was at that moment, but knew who my dad was due to her mind and memory playing tricks on her. After she was taken to the hospital and had recovered, I went in to see her and she looked at me with eyes of recognition and smiled and told me she was glad I was there. After asking about where Kim and the kids were and telling her they were back home in Cortland, she told me in her quiet, forceful but loving, and grandmotherly manner, “Go home and take care of those kids.” She always knew what was important and how to say it.
Mary passed away in 2007, but I think of her often, especially when I make myself Malt O Meal, when Kim makes Mary’s jello/yogurt whipped pie, when I hear an old country song on the radio or when I sit in her Lazy Boy recliner that sits in my living room. Mary was many different things to many different people throughout the stages of her life: daughter, sister, niece, wife, mother, grandmother and aunt. And while she was indeed my aunt on two accounts and served as my grandmother in spirit after Letha passed, what she meant most to me was a friend, and that is what I miss most. I miss calling my friend on the phone on a random Wednesday afternoon and hearing her answer with a hearty, “Yeaahhhh,” when she recognized my voice. I miss going to the Edewood Opry and working with her in the kitchen on Friday nights while we listened to the music of local musicians and talked to friends and neighbors. I miss having lunch with her at Neimerg’s in Effingham. I miss dancing with her at the roller rink in Vandalia. I miss seeing her fill her hummingbird feeders that hung outside her windows. And I miss working on crossword puzzles with her at the kitchen table and watching her gaze out the window as her mind searched for the right words to write down and became lost in her thoughts and memories. And now as I type this, I gaze out of a window lost in my thoughts of Mary, my old friend.