Thursday, April 19, 2012

Remembering Grandpa Mueller in Five Senses

In my mind's eye, I'm eight or nine years old, and Grandpa Mueller is letting me follow him while he makes the rounds on the farm. I see a coop of chickens scatter as eggs are collected; a line of cows regard me with ambivalence as Grandpa hooks them up for milking. In a small room in the front of the barn, a chilled machine mixes and churns a huge tub of fresh, raw milk. On the side of the barn, piles of hay bales are stacked as farm kitties get comfortable and corn waves in the breeze in the background.

But mostly, what i see and remember is Grandpa's overalls, his determined gait, and the twinkle in his eye. What i don't remember ever seeing is Grandpa not smiling.

Back at the house, i hear laughter--not an unusual sound in the dining room, or the front yard around a volleyball net. Grandma and Grandpa had ten kids (eleven, actually, but one died long before i was born), including my mom, and it was more likely that another branch of the family was visiting at the same time we were than not. When multiple family members gathered at the house, that meant outdoor volleyball or football on the lawn, or basketball as tennis shoes and knees skidded along the gravel driveway. Inside, it meant Sheepshead, with Grandma and Grandpa passing nickels and dimes back and forth with their kids, kids-in-law, grandkids, and whoever else happened to be along and understood whatever the hell "Schneider" meant (i thought it was a dude in a white t-shirt with cigarettes rolled into his sleeve and had no idea what he had to do with cards). One night when i was three or four, i sat on Grandpa's lap, excitedly showing off my reading skills. "Q! 8! 7! J!" I wasn't on his lap for long that night. I don't actually remember that story, but my dad loves to tell it. I may have actually been on Grandma's lap, now that i think about it. Either way, i know exactly what the laughter sounded like around the dining room table. It was warm, and loud, and gregarious. It sounded like family. It sounded like the Muellers.

Elsewhere in the house, i feel the temperature drop as my cousins and i go upstairs (the heat's not on upstairs. Why would it be? When you farm for a living you don't pay to heat parts of the house that are usually empty) to play with our aunts' and uncles' old toys--darts and dolls and tic-tac-toe boards and beanbag toss. In the living room i remember feeling the smooth plastic pegs of Grandma and Grandpa's Master Mind code-breaking game as i matched wits with my cousins Jeff and Wendy with 60 Minutes on in the background. Oft times we'd break out the kids' old Monopoly set, which i loved playing because its 1960s design looked so dated and quaint compared to our version at home.

This one? I think?

If i wasn't playing games with my cousins, i was back in the living room, holding the viewmaster up to the light and reading the Snoopy and the Red Baron story through its 3D viewfinder for the 82nd time. It only ever showed the Red Baron in silhouette, which i found crazy mysterious.

Snoopy never did get him, no matter how many times i read it

But mostly, when i think about Grandpa and Grandma, I remember the taste of fresh homemade bread; of the richest, creamiest, ice-cold raw milk i've ever put in my face. My god, milk has never tasted that good since. Apples have never been as sweet as the ones on the trees in the yard. No wedding cakes have ever tasted like the ones Grandma spent decades baking for her kids and her friends' kids. And of course, i remember all those farm smells. Hay and chickens and manure, all sweet and pungent and omnipresent. And at the end of the day, i'd remember a different kind of sweet smell--the sweet cherry tobacco of Grandpa's pipe as he relaxed in his favorite chair or dealt another hand to his kids at the dining room table.

My grandpa, Ray Mueller Sr., died this week after 94 years of hard work, deep faith, and tireless devotion to his family. He's the only grandpa i've ever known (my paternal grandfather got the hell out of dodge after helping conceive my dad), but he was twice the grandparent of most mortal men. He kept the same hours as the sun, milking cows, baling hay, gathering eggs, all with that same smile and twinkle in his eye that, for the life of me, i can't picture him without. As absent as my other biological grandfather was, Grandpa Mueller was even more present, through his laughter, his deeds, and through the ten children he raised and the dozens upon dozens of grandkids his children gave him.

The Muellers are a fabulously tight-knit family. For decades my parents, aunts and uncles have gathered on holidays, weddings, and summertime weekends, and adhere to family traditions of communion with a near-religious commitment, and it's all because their parents--my grandparents--raised them to treasure family before all else. I suppose it's hard to not be close-knit when ten kids are getting crammed into one station wagon to get to Church on Sunday, but hey.

This Sunday and Monday the family will convene again to remember the patriarch of this modest farming family from Chilton, Wisconsin. I know there will be plenty of tears, but i for one feel far more grateful than sad. After all, 94 years is a hell of a run. I prefer to spend my time remembering the sights, the sounds, and god, the incredible, time-stopping smells that the memories of my grandfather infuse me with. Thanks to Grandma and Grandpa Mueller, my childhood was richer and fuller than it would have been without them, and that's what i plan to focus on this weekend.

I am going to miss my grandpa, yes. But if the soul is in any way immortal, he lives on. And i'm not even talking about Heaven (although my grandparents' faith defined so much of how they lived their lives and how they raised their family). Whenever i hear an uncle or aunt or cousin of mine laugh, i hear grandpa's laugh, and i see that smile, and that twinkle in his eye.

Thanks for the memories, Ray.


  1. Wow! This brought tears to my eyes! So many memories of my own that I never had the words to put on paper. Thanks so much for sharing this and your gift of writing to all of us. Those of us that have been so blessed to be a part of such great families, rasied with faith, morals, and unconditional love. Thanks to all the wonderful grandparents for enriching so many of our lives. We love you and miss you.