After more than 10 years publishing the Hanneman Archive history web site, your humble correspondent can no longer cover the operating costs involved in this enterprise. So rather than risk having to take the site down, we turn to our readers and relatives to ask for support.
Since just 2014, the Archive has drawn nearly 33,000 visitors from around the world who accessed close to 84,000 page views. Our article count has topped 185, and the site includes thousands of photographs and videos.
From my just-published article in Catholic World Report:
Driven and sustained by his daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen lived an intense life of holiness, zeal to save souls and Christian love that helped make him the most influential Catholic in 20th century America, biographer Thomas C. Reeves says.
Reeves has released a previously unpublished conclusion to his 2002 Sheen biography, America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen. The conclusion chapter, titled “Living Intensely,” covers Sheen’s spirituality, his inspiration and how others viewed his life. While Reeves does not directly promote Sheen as a candidate to be raised to the altars, his book’s concluding chapter is a very tidy summation of Sheen’s merits for sainthood. Reeves is making the chapter available for free on the internet, and has donated it for inclusion in his papers at Marquette University.
“To an extraordinary degree, his mind was on God,” Reeves wrote of Sheen (1895-1979), the prolific author and Catholic evangelist best remembered for his 1950s television series, “Life is Worth Living.” “This supernatural approach to life activated and sustained his enormous energy. He said late in life, ‘the secret of my power is that I have never in fifty-five years missed spending an hour in the presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. That’s where the power comes from. That’s where sermons are born. That’s where every good thought is conceived.’ ”
In every community you will find inspiring stories of courage, faith and perseverance. And so it was the case when I researched the 1863 founding of my hometown parish, Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Catholic Church in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. The project lasted several months, and turned up many fascinating stories from the mission-territory days of Wisconsin in the mid-1800s.
Full confession (pun intended): I served as an altar boy for years at Sacred Hearts in the 1970s, and graduated in spring 1978 from the fine Sacred Hearts School. The current church, the third edifice in parish history, has some of the most stunning stained-glass windows you will find outside of a cathedral. That’s what initially drew me to the history of Sacred Hearts.
So what did I learn?
The church was founded during the second expansion of Catholicism in Wisconsin (the first being black-robed Jesuit missionaries who explored the territory in the 1600s). Much of the area at the time was untamed wilderness, now being colonized by immigrants from Ireland, Germany and other parts of Europe.
The early missionary priests rode circuits hundreds of miles long, often saying Mass in private homes or rustic buildings with no roof. Father Martin Kundig, an indefatigable traveler and founder of many Catholic parishes in Michigan and Wisconsin, had an uplifting experience in 1843. The faithful gathered in a private home for Mass overloaded the floor, and everyone except Father Kundig crashed into the cellar. The people reached up and supported the priest, standing on a narrow plank, so he could finish saying Mass.
These pioneers led often difficult lives. The John Sprengel family lost three children to diphtheria within one week in 1882. Emerand Aschenbrucker lost his first wife during the birth of their daughter, Anna, in February 1867. Nicholas Mosel lost his wife to typhoid fever at age 54. The church brought comfort to these grieving families, offering the sacraments and a reverent burial for the departed.
The Civil War affected every aspect of life during Sacred Hearts’ early years. Two young parishioners died during their wartime service, including one who was wounded in the 1862 Battle of Shiloh and died in a Confederate prison camp. Another died on a furlough in 1864. He was just 15. A third was wounded in the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, in June 1864.
When you set out to research a topic, you never know just what you will find. I found a very fascinating story in the “Catholic Pioneers on the Prairie,” which is what I titled the 28-page e-book that grew out of my research. I invite you to read the whole thing at Catholic Pioneers. View it online or download the e-book as a PDF file.
I wish I could get you a big birthday gift this year, like prepaid college tuition or a new car. But I can’t. I think I have something much more valuable to share, though. I wrote the letter below almost 23 years ago, when you were barely two weeks old.
Much has changed in our lives and in the world since then. You grew up and overcame big challenges on your way to high school, and then college. You’ve gone out into the work work and supported yourself as you pay for your own education. I know that has been hard, but it is a great credit to you, and I’m very proud of you.
When I wrote the letter, we had no idea who you would become. You were at times a cranky baby, with lots of colic. But you were mostly happy. It was a sheer delight watching you grow up. As I see you ready to celebrate your 23rd birthday, I can say that I could not be a more proud Dad of my only son. Just like the letter says, you’ve grown up to be a good man. I love you.
Feb. 2, 1992
Dear Stevie —
You probably don’t like us calling you Stevie anymore, but right now, it fits you perfectly. It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday. I’m watching a rerun of M*A*S*H on television as your Mom naps on the couch. You are asleep in your crib down the hall. I can hear you breathing over the nursery monitor.
There are a lot of things I want to say to you. The first is that your Mom and I love you very much. You’re only 2 weeks old, but you’ve added so much to our lives. And now we sit and imagine what kind of a person you will grow up to be. We know you’ll be a good boy, and eventually, a good man.
First, some history. You were born at 8:41 p.m. on Jan. 20. You weighed 7 pounds 13 ounces. I’ll never forget your little hand clutched around my finger as you lay on the incubator table. You were so alert as you waited to be put in a blanket.
The day you were born, George Bush was President of the United States. Tommy Thompson (a good friend of your great Grandpa Carl) was governor of Wisconsin. Your Dad works as a reporter for the Racine Journal Times, covering state government and politics. Your Mom works for Communications Concepts in Racine, doing graphic arts on a computer. The top TV shows are Cheers, Murphy Brown and L.A. Law.
You are a beautiful baby. You have dark eyes, red hair and soft, rounded cheeks. You’re only 2 weeks old, but already you can lift your head in the crib. I wonder what you are thinking when you gaze up at us while you’re feeding or playing. We nicknamed you “Popeye” because when you want your bottle, you look up with only 1 eye open and open your mouth.
You were conceived at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Your Mom was in the Army Reserves and was called off to war in Dec. 1990. She was stationed in Augsburg, Germany, as a food inspector. When she came home from war in April 1991, we had you. You were part of what was called “Operation Desert Stork,” named after the war, “Operation Desert Storm.”
As I write this your Mom and I are looking forward to seeing you crawl, take your first steps, and all the things that come after. But for now, there’s one thing we’re sure of — how happy we are you’re here.
At Christmas 2014 with Mr. Puggles.
A 2008 image of Stevie.
Stevie with one of his patented expressions.
We used to stuff pillows in our sweatpants and hip check each other around.
One of my favorite photos, taken at Wisconsin Dells.
The Knights of Columbus has long championed the “Keep Christ in Christmas” message to remind the public that the “holiday season” is really about the birth of the Savior. Each year, the more than 14,000 local K of C councils promote the message with car magnets, yard signs, television ads and radio spots.
Back in 2010, I wanted to create a 30-second broadcast commercial with this message, but we had no production budget. I found a beautiful mosaic image from the Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The year before, I used that image to create a billboard we placed alongside Interstate 94 in Racine County, Wisconsin.
For the TV spot, we planned to use that still image with a pan-and-zoom “Ken Burns effect,” but I still needed voice talent and music. I looked no further than my then 11-year-old daughter, Ruby. She only needed a couple of takes to nail the script voiceover. My other daughter, Samantha, 14, took to her keyboard and recorded a section of “Greensleeves.” That is the tune used for the hymn What Child Is This? Once I put it all together, we had a very nice broadcast commercial, quite beautiful in its simplicity. The finished spot ran hundreds of times on a wide variety of cable television networks throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. You can watch the video in the player below.
In the winter of 1966 or 1967, a young father designed and hand-crafted an outdoor nativity scene to decorate the family home in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. David D. Hanneman (1933-2007) painted the set freehand and put it on display just under the garage window of his home on Wisconsin Avenue. The nativity scene was a fixture at the home in those early years, but eventually was put in storage and forgotten.
Forty years later, after David Hanneman died, the badly weathered Nativity figures were rescued from a trash can in the garage. Over the next 18 months they were restored to almost original condition and put on display in the Village of Mount Pleasant.
The original backers and braces were removed from the cutout figures of St. Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus. New 1-inch-thick plywood backers were crafted with a jigsaw, then glued to the figures and anchored with wood screws. Heavy L-shape stabilizing braces were screwed into the backers to give the figures sufficient weight to withstand winter winds.
Samantha J. Hanneman, David Hanneman’s granddaughter, did most of the paint restoration work. With a special set of art brushes, she applied metallic gold and flat black paint to maintain the original look. Touch up paint was applied sparingly to the faces and hands of the figures to keep the hand-drawn details.
The newly restored Nativity scene was put on display at the Hanneman home in Racine County in December 2008, making the old tradition new again for another generation. The crèche was displayed for several years, but had to again be put in storage when we lost our home. Now the figures again wait patiently to have a new home where their warm glow will fill the Christmas night.
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first Nativity crib or crèche on Christmas Eve 1223 in Greccio, Italy. St. Francis was eager to make the birth of Christ something tangible for the faithful. He had a manger built, brought animals to be part of the set, and had Holy Mass said before this representation of the birth of Christ. After the preparations were finished, St. Francis and some of his followers went to the crèche for the Mass. After a short prayer by Francis, a vision of the Christ child appeared on the hay.The miracle stirred the animals and greatly moved the faithful who witnessed it.
As kids growing up in Sun Prairie, any time we ventured into the back room of our basement we were likely to hear a voice from upstairs shout, “Don’t you go near those windows!” Of course we knew what that meant: the antique stained-glass behemoths covered in blankets in the farthest reaches of the basement, next to the furnace. I never gave a great deal of thought to them, until one day in 2006 when my father was dying of cancer.
Founded in 1912, St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison always had a chapel as part of its facilities. In 1926, a new, ornate chapel was built as part of an expansion of St. Mary’s. The chapel had 10 window frames, each with two beautiful arched stained-glass windows that rose 20 feet from eye level to midway up the wall. In between each were two Stations of the Cross. The windows remained part of the chapel until 1973, when that section of the building was razed to make way for a new hospital wing on Mills Street. My Dad obtained two of the windows, a total of four panels, carrying them home in blankets to rest for more than three decades.
When Dad was being treated for lung cancer at St. Mary’s in the fall of 2006, he got an inspiration to give those windows back to St. Mary’s. He asked for my help in doing some research, but he was so impatient he wheeled himself down to the administrative offices to talk to someone about it. That someone, vice president Barbara K. Miller, was enthralled with the idea, but it was her last day on the job before retiring. She promised to get the ball rolling on the donation. “I want these windows to come home to St. Mary’s,” he told her.
Dad was a little worried that his donation wouldn’t get done. The idea occupied his mind more than anything else in November 2006. He knew his time with us was short. He told the story and his idea to his physician, Dr. Gregory Motl. Dad made Dr. Motl promise that if he didn’t survive the cancer, the donation would be completed. Motl grasped Dad’s hand and said reassuringly, “I will Dave. I will.”
To say the hospital embraced Dad’s idea would be an understatement. His timing was perfect, since St. Mary’s was planning a $182 million expansion that would add a new east wing with operating rooms, a cardiac center, outpatient offices, patient rooms and more. St. Mary’s was looking for ways to tie the new facility to the hospital’s heritage. The architects designed special spaces for each of the four window sections. St. Mary’s had a new internal champion for the windows, Steve Sparks, public relations director.
After months of planning, St. Mary’s was finally ready to take possession of the windows. On March 22, 2007, Sparks and workmen came to Sun Prairie to transport the windows. He snapped some photos of Mom and Dad with a window section. Dad looked pale and drawn, but I know he appreciated the milestone that day represented. “It was humbling for me,” Sparks recounted later. “This gift demonstrated exceptional courage and generosity. It is an experience I won’t forget.”
Tears were shed that afternoon as the windows were lovingly carried outside. It was the first daylight to penetrate the stained glass in more than three decades. For Dad, it was the accomplishment of a mission of giving. His part was finished; now St. Mary’s would take over. Not two weeks later, Dad was admitted to St. Mary’s and then discharged to HospiceCare Inc., where he died on April 14, 2007.
In early December 2007, Mom and I were invited to the dedication day at the new St. Mary’s east wing. We attended a luncheon and heard very kind words about Dad from Dr. Frank Byrne, president of St. Mary’s Hospital. They were similar to what Dr. Byrne wrote right after Dad’s death. “It is clear from Dave’s accomplishments that dedication to community was always a part of his priorities,” Byrne wrote, “and we will all benefit from that dedication for years to come. At this sad time, we hope it will be a reminder that though life may seem short, the contributions made by one individual have a significant impact in building a future for us all.”
When we walked into the atrium and first saw one of the window sections, it was enough to bring tears. There it was, set into the wall and brilliantly backlit in a way that brought out the green, red and amber hues of the glass. It was, as designed by the architects, a welcoming beacon for everyone visiting St. Mary’s. Mom posed next to the window, and even did an impromptu interview with Madison’s Catholic newspaper, The Catholic Herald. The three other window sections were placed on different floors of the east wing. One is in a waiting room. The others are in prominent spots.
The story of these chapel windows gives testimony that beauty can emerge from the depths of the darkest tragedies. Dad kept the windows safe for 35 years, and he got them safely home to St. Mary’s just weeks before he, too, made it home.
This post has been updated with additional window photos.
I remember well the first and last times I saw my father-in-law, Ron LaCanne.
In the nearly 25 years between these two events, I came to respect and love this man, whose story late in life became one of remarkable faith. I was incredibly moved by his quiet and steady faith in Christ and his hope of attaining glory in Heaven after his earthly journey, which ended earlier today at age 74.
It was such a long road away from the day I first met him. That was in early 1990, when I stopped at the LaCanne home on North Wisconsin Street in Racine to pick up his daughter Sue for a date. I was more than a bit nervous, because I had been told he was not fond of newspaper reporters. At the time, I was a reporter at The Journal Times, Racine’s daily newspaper. I sat on the couch and we chatted about the story I’d worked on that day, dealing with a Caledonia teenager who killed a dog, reportedly due to listening to heavy metal music. Somehow I survived the discussion and made a decent first impression on the man I would come to spend countless hours with over the next nearly 25 years.
My final and lasting impressions of him came in a series of visits this summer at the LaCanne apartment in Racine. Ron was thin, frail and dying from cancer. And although we’d been estranged in recent years, this time I was not nervous to visit. I presented him with a very special Rosary given to me by Catholic filmmaker Steve Ray. The Rosary had been placed on nearly a dozen sites in the Holy Land. This included Golgotha, the place of the crucifixion of Christ. He picked up the Rosary and felt the intricate carvings, then carefully laid it back in its olive wood box. I didn’t fully understand how much this touched him until a while later when the fire alarm went off in the apartment complex. He struggled to stand up from his recliner and grabbed two things: a hand-carved “comfort cross” given to him by a priest friend, and that Rosary. I struggled to hold back tears as my mother-in-law Eileen helped him out the door.
Two weeks later I visited again. This time he was confined to bed and drifted in and out of consciousness. We still had a nice talk, recalling stories and memories from across the years. I told him that many people were praying for him on his journey and that God would remain very close to him. “I sure hope so,” he said, squeezing my hand. A few minutes later, this solemn moment was replaced by laughter and joy. I told him that our oldest daughter Samantha was going to a concert that night. “A concert?” he said. He swung his hands out into the air and started singing the Alleluia Chorus from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah.We laughed at the joy and spontaneity of it. It seemed so appropriate, and so very beautiful. Wow.
Several times we sat alone and talked about his final days on earth. He spoke freely and with stark honesty about his impending death. I encouraged him not to be afraid, since all of those who love him have complete faith that Jesus will not forsake him. “I’m not afraid to die,” he said. Then he asked me to do him a favor. “Can you help me identify the gentleman sitting on the couch over there?” There was no one on the couch. And since Ron had lost his sight over the past year, he would not have seen anyone there in the first place. But I could tell he was seeing something profound, even if it was beyond my vision. “Describe him to me,” I said. The visitor had dark hair and wore a cap. His expression was calm, peaceful and friendly. “He has been sitting there for the past two days,” Ron said. We talked a little more, and I suggested his visitor was a guardian angel sent by God to protect and comfort him. The idea was not foreign to me, as I’ve read a number of accounts by hospice workers of dying patients seeing angels.
We were on guard for weeks expecting Ron’s death, but he wasn’t about to follow any script. Just when we feared the worst, he would rally and have a great day or two. I recall one day pulling up to the apartment center and seeing him sitting outside in the sunshine, facing Lake Michigan. I asked him how he felt. “Doing great,” he said. “I feel really good.” On another visit, after listening to a preseason Packers game, we talked again about death and dying. “The time is near,” he said. I thanked him for the incredible witness he was providing to his grandchildren (and all of us). The Cross is heavy, and he knew it. But in his final months, weeks and days, he found peace. And now he is at peace.
I’ve always believed life is well-reflected in pictures, both on paper and ink and in the mind’s imagination. Many images of Ron come to me as I recall the last 25 years. Let me share just a few.
I remember the early afternoon of October 5, 2002. It was a very difficult day. I was driving Ron back to Racine from Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa. A short time before, his oldest son, Patrick, had died at the too-young age of 37. Ron exhaled loudly and struggled to find some words. “I’ll tell you, Joe, this is so hard. So hard. No one should have to experience the death of their child.” So very true. We drove and recalled favorite memories of Patrick. By the end of that drive, we both better understood the impact Pat had made on the family. It continues to this day. I can only imagine the embrace the two shared at their reunion earlier today!
My mind rolls back to January 1992, when a well-dressed Ron stopped at St. Luke’s Hospital in Racine. He was on his way to his job at S.C. Johnson Wax, but had to stop first for some quality time with his first grandson, Stephen Patrick Hanneman. The photo my wife Sue snapped that morning tells of the joy and pride of a new grandpa. That day Ron earned the moniker he later awarded himself: “Gramps.”Gramps. He wore that title as well as anyone could, loving his five grandchildren like no one else.
Everyone always enjoyed July 4 at the LaCanne residence. While the grandkids were little, Ron went all out with a fireworks show as good as you’d see at the lakefront in Milwaukee or Racine. There were toy soldiers launched 100 feet in the air, returned to earth via parachute. And the Titanic, a huge brick of sound and color that should have come with its own fire department. On one occasion, one of the fireworks tipped over, firing projectiles across the gathered relatives. We all dove for cover under tables. “Incoming!” Over the years, Ron gave up the fireworks duty, but none of us could ever match those incredible displays.
Speaking of displays, Ron was also the master of Christmas decorating. He always got two trees, one for the living room and one for the basement. His main tree was usually the tallest, fattest one on the lot, which he covered every square inch with ornaments, lights and beads. The rest of the house was festooned with lighted villages, Santa statues and a Nativity set that could reside at the Vatican. One year after a few seasons of collecting ceramic lighted Norman Rockwell houses, we put up an entire village on an expansive shelf space over our front door. After plugging it in, I danced down the upstairs hallway, singing, “Ron LaCanne, eat my dust!” Silly to be sure, but in a way, it was my own tribute to the master.
Every year, Ron played Santa at the LaCanne Christmas eve party. This was an event attended by dozens of family members. The food was diverse and plentiful, half the punch was spiked and the kids were all antsy in anticipation of Santa’s arrival. About 9 p.m., Ron would slip out of the living room, duck into a phone booth and emerge as Santa, always coming in through the front door. It was tradition that “Santa” would pick up the youngest grandchild for a photo. This often lead to either wide-eyed amazement or quivering tears. This was all followed by an orgy of gift opening for the kids. One year, an eagle-eyed granddaughter Samantha noticed that Grandpa was gone for a while, and when he returned, his hair was wet and he wore different shoes. Hmmmm. Another year, after Ron had retired from being Santa, youngest grandchild Josh LaCanne was determined to let Santa know the best gifts should be for him and not his brother, Geoffrey. When the red-clad bearded one (played by Ron’s son Chris) appeared at the party, young Josh got wide eyed and shouted, “Brother wants rocks!”
Ron and Eileen were always faithful attendees at the grandkids’ activities. Countless soccer games on chilly, windswept fields in Franksville, Christmas concerts, track meets, graduations. Ron was there with either a video camera or a still camera. Over the years he took thousands of photos and hours of video, often making commemorative books that he would present at birthdays or Christmas. I recall a time seeing a video that showed the family watching videos of the grandkids. Life imitates art.
As time went on and events in the world became more troubling, Ron decided he wanted his grandchildren to know about a simpler time, when right and wrong were easy to spot and traditional values where championed. So he started writing, tales of his childhood growing up as a Catholic boy in Racine. Stories, anecdotes and just things he wanted the kids to know, they were all included in this growing 100-page tome of Ronaldian wisdom. Occasionally he would share bits and pieces. What a gift these writings will be to his grandchildren and their children. I hope one day to be able to digitize them and format them into a book.
Ron was always willing to help out with a project. In 2007, after my father died of lung cancer, he helped me install a new floor in the upstairs hallway at my parents’ home in Sun Prairie. During my Dad’s illness, his little dog Chewy didn’t get as much attention and didn’t get put out as often. The result was he used the baseboards and the carpet for a bathroom. It was awful work pulling out the carpet, only to realize the baseboard, plaster and parts of the subfloor were contaminated. We worked for two days, first removing the mess, then treating the walls and subfloor with pure bleach to neutralize the smell. My eyes are still burning. When we were done, my Mom had a new wood floor and no more doggie smell.
When I was running my own marketing business, I tapped Ron’s business expertise and we worked together on some major projects for my client, Volvo Construction Equipment. I hired Ron to help me evaluate company financials, stock reports, annual reports and other business intelligence on prospective customers for Volvo. His analysis and detailed input allowed me to present market studies that were so well-received I still hear compliments about them, nearly a decade later.
I could go on for pages, but time is fleeting. Ron lived a very full 74 years. He gave much of his time, from his days in the U.S. Army, to volunteering in the community to groups such as the Opportunity Center and United Way. He rose high in the ranks at one of America’s great brand companies, SC Johnson Wax. But it was and is his family that was the love of his life. On Sunday evenings when everyone gathered in the living room after another of Eileen’s great dinners, Ron would pat his stomach and look around the room. “Mi familia!” he would say. Nothing can top having your family surrounding you. How he loved his wife Eileen, daughter Sue, sons Patrick and Chris (and wife Elise); and his grandkids, Stevie, Samantha, Ruby, Geoffrey and Josh.
My thoughts return to the man with the Rosary, clutching it and the Cross like an anchor during a time of fear and uncertainty. This will be Ron’s everlasting lesson and legacy. To carry the Cross through good and bad times in life, maintaining the hope of things unseen. As his life came to a close, Ron returned to his roots and his embraced his Catholic faith. It was his comfort and salvation. To use a phrase from his ancestors’ native tongue, La fede mi da vita:Faith gives me life.
This was a day I’d long dreaded. I knew it was coming, and prepared for it the best I could. But I feared it still, because I did not have an answer for the question it posed. How do I — how could I — say goodbye to our family home?
I walked through the now nearly empty house and I still had no answer. So much had happened during the nearly 14 years we lived here. Our third child joined us here. They all grew up here. Our oldest went off to college from here. I started a home-based business here; a business that failed during the long recession. That’s what eventually brought me to this day, just a short time before foreclosure would take it all away.
I stood in the front entryway and listened. Nothing. The quiet was almost deafening. A few boxes and odds and ends were scattered about, but very little remained of the home I loved. This is not how a home is supposed to look. I’m struck by how cold and empty it is. No pictures on the walls. No dogs running to the window to bark at the mailman. No children watching a favorite movie. No charcoal grill cooking steaks out on the deck. No carefully decorated Christmas tree in the corner of the family room, sending out a warm glow into the night. No family saying grace at the dinner table. This is not how I want to remember our home.
I start to walk the house. Almost like a projected movie, the memories flowed, right before my eyes.
I peered outside the small window to the left of the front door. I can almost see my late father coming up the sidewalk with a broad smile and saying, “Hello, Jofus” (that was his little word play on my given name after St. Joseph). September 15, 2006. That was the last time he was here. The sun glints off his silver hair, he waves, and is gone.
I turn and start to head up the stairs to the second floor. The paint color is darker on a large section of the wall. For most of the time we lived here, a giant quilt hung on the wall, embroidered with the saying, “In a House with Love, All things are Possible.” The carpeting on a section of the landing looked new where a small cherry bookcase sat. The case had belonged to my Grandpa Carl. On top of the case I had a shrine with candles, a large crucifix and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On many nights those candles burned in prayer for a dying relative, a sick friend or some special intention. I used to get angry at our son for dipping his fingers into the hot wax and either making fingerprints on the wood, or rolling little marble-size balls of warm wax that he left along the edge of the bookcase. What a silly thing to get upset about. How I wish I could put the case back and have those wax fingerprints again.
At the top of the stairs, I paused. This was the site of one of the most frightening events in family history. Samantha, then 4, was playing with a magic kit. It had a small polystyrene ball and a black tube. Her little eyes turned to a look of terror when she realized the ball had become lodged in her throat. My wife tried the Heimlich maneuver and smacking Samantha between the shoulders. It didn’t work. In desperation, she picked little Samantha up by the ankles and held her upside down. Pop! Out it came. The tears of relief flowed.
I turned left and entered the master bedroom. The heart of the house was now nearly empty. In the corner still stood a chest of drawers. I opened the top drawer and saw an envelope and more than a dozen plastic baggies. Each bag contained a tiny tooth, snatched from under a child’s pillow and replaced with a gift. It was good of the Tooth Fairy to leave them. I kept them all. I picked up the letter, which was addressed to Santa Claus, North Pole. It even had a stamp on it. I gathered the bags and the letter into my pockets. Precious memories need to be kept.
I walked down the hallway toward the children’s bedrooms. On the wall I could see the outlines where our wedding photos used to hang. How young we all looked on that Saturday, December 1, 1990, at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. I still had hair and was 40 pounds lighter. What a blessed day that was. Such a contrast to the sadness of today.
As I approach the first bedroom, I see a large hole near the bottom of the wooden door. I remember the day in 2002 I rushed home from work because our then 10-year-old son Stevie had kicked a hole in the door in a fit of anger. As I walked inside the room, I could almost see my son’s battery-operated pteradactyl, flying in circles, anchored to the ceiling by fishing line. The wooden dressers that once sat along the western wall for years had glass aquariums on top — home to hermit crabs, green anole lizards and frogs. The anoles had a diet of live crickets, which were as likely to escape into the carpet as end up in a lizard’s stomach.
Across the hall, I was impressed by the cheery green paint of another child’s bedroom. There were glow-in-the-dark stars pressed all over the ceiling. Pet nets hung in the corners, once home to dozens of stuffed animals. They are empty now. This room had changed hands several times over the years. It started out with white walls as a nursery. The white steel crib sat against the far wall, waiting for its new resident. She came home on a July 4 during our first summer here. It was 104 degrees outside. Little Ruby spent a week in intensive care with a hole in her lung. She was our third baby. We worried so much about her. Every peep on the baby monitor sent us scurrying down the hall. But all was well. How many times I sat in the oak rocking chair in this room, feeding Ruby a bottle. There’s no feeling in the world like rocking a newborn in the still of the night. I thank God for the experience, and the memories.
There was one last bedroom on my tour. Over the years it was painted blue, white, pink and yellow. Today I saw a toddler bed tucked in the corner. I was reading a book to a curly hair redhead. It was a classic Dr. Seuss tome, Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?It was a favorite of all three children for its memorable, rhythmic lines. “Dibble dibble dop dop, cock-a-doodle-doo! Mr. Brown can do it. How about you?” Once the book was done, we started a nightly ritual to see how long I’d sit by her bed as she fell asleep. I started the bidding. “I’ll stay THESE minutes,” I said, holding up two fingers. “No, THESE minutes,” Samantha shot back, holding up five fingers on each hand. After a few rounds of this, she usually won. Now I wish I had these minutes back again. As I turned to leave the room, I saw both daughters asleep in their beds. A small lamp threw off just enough to illumine the room. In my head I could hear a favorite Nat King Cole song:
Lights out, sweetheart / One more perfect day is through
Lights out, sweetheart / One more perfect dream come true
We’ve reached the hour of parting / So kiss me tenderly
Lights out, sweetheart / Close your eyes and dream of me
Close your eyes and dream … of me
Back down the stairs, I stood in the foyer again. My grandmother’s 1899 Singer sewing machine had been the centerpiece for years as the staging place for all sorts of family displays. I saw the children gathered around the Advent wreath, taking turns lighting the purple and rose candles. Or placing Baby Jesus into the Nativity creche on Christmas Eve. Most of the year it was covered with framed family photos, from the kids’ sports and school pictures to the large wooden-framed antique photo of my Grandma Ruby Hanneman (1904-1977).
I walked into the kitchen and was overwhelmed with memories of family meals, birthday parties, family meetings and prayer time. I recall our weekly ritual of doing a “blessing cup” ceremony, where each of us would take the blessing cup and talk about something we are thankful for. Ruby, who was very young when we started the tradition, always said the same thing: “I’m sankable (thankful) for my skoowa (school).” It never got old. Today, the table is gone and the blessing cup is packed away. I am still most thankful for it all.
I looked out the sliding glass door to the deck. Suddenly the gas grill was fired up and I was cooking steaks, vegetable kabobs and hot dogs. On the corner of the deck, a fire pit crackled with warmth in the fall night, with our children and the neighbors gathered around, toasting marshmallows. A group of children and adults sat in chairs on the deck, watching me light fireworks for July 4th. “Ooh, pretty! Light the big one now, Daddy.” I looked up at the second-story windows and saw the low flickering light from a television playing a favorite Disney movie, Aladdin.
I walked around the front of the house and the snow was suddenly 3 feet deep. On the porch was my Dad’s handmade wooden Nativity scene, which daughter Samantha had repainted and restored. It glowed a welcoming gold, red and green in the cold darkness. I walked toward the garage and all three kids came running down the driveway with their fishing poles and a tackle box in tow. “Wait for me!” one yelled, as they ran towards the neighborhood pond. How I miss those fishing days now.
I walked back inside and stood at the foot of the stairway. I listened, but heard nothing. Heavy silence. Nobody home anymore. My heart was so heavy, it felt like stone. I never wanted this day, but now it was here, and at an end. “Thank you so much,” I said out loud, almost expecting the house to answer me. “I’m sorry I failed you. Thank you for sheltering us for so long. I will never forget.” There was one more word I thought I should speak, but the lump in my throat kept it from coming out. I just couldn’t say it.
I pulled out of the driveway for the last time and started to drive away. I stopped and looked out the window. More than a decade of memories were visible to me all at once. They swirled around the house like fairy dust. In the upper window, my oldest daughter laid on her bed, reading a book. On the front lawn, our preschool children splashed in a pool. Relatives filed in the front door with armloads of Christmas presents. Our son sat in a lawn chair on the porch, studying for exams. All three children romped during a nighttime snowstorm. “Dadda, it’s snowing!”A petting zoo was set up in the front yard for a birthday party, with children taking turns riding a pony around the block. A tent was set up for a summertime sleepover. The smell of steaks wafted from the backyard grill. My Dad got out of his blue sedan and walked up the driveway with a wave. Voices rang out from the children’s rooms:“I had a bad dream.” “Santa came!” “I got all As!” “I love you, too.” “I’m really proud of you.”
I rolled down the window and took it all in. I waved and bid all of the memories to come with me. And so they followed. Some things are just too precious to leave behind. ♦