It’s funny, or something, that I somehow contrived to end my last entry with a reference to my grandmother. I didn’t plan it that way; it just happened. I like when good things just happen, and I like being reminded of my grandmother. She’s actually been near the front of my mind since the start of the pandemic, because this is a time for returning to first principles.
When Wanda McAllister Casey passed from this world, a quarter-century ago, I was somewhere in Asia. Probably Bangkok, where I was living, but I couldn’t say for sure because in that period I was constantly in motion, chasing something undefined that I thought might reveal itself to me if only I kept moving. I learned of her death in a letter from my mother – and by letter, I mean words handwritten on a piece of paper and sent by airmail. I’m sure I still have that letter, somewhere in a box or tub in my backyard shed with a lot of other letters and papers.
Wanda Casey’s life and death left little material trace. She had exactly zero dollars to her name when she died. I do still possess four items that belonged to her: a threadbare quilt, a vintage kitsch teapot shaped like an elephant, a quaint advertising picture of a little kid brushing his dog’s teeth, and a small picture in a wooden frame of another kid, lounging under a tree with his dog, captioned by a poem:
I wish I was a little rock
a-sittin’ on a hill
Doin’ nothin’ all the day
but just a-sittin’ still.
I wouldn’t eat, I wouldn’t sleep
I wouldn’t even wash.
I’d just sit still a thousand years
and rest myself, b’gosh!
She was a widow and one of the great church ladies of all time. The dictionary entry for the phrase “little old lady” should feature a picture of her. She got by on Social Security, of which she paid a fixed percentage to live in the Wilkinson Manor senior living building in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, until her stroke in 1990. She was the only Texan in town. Well, technically my parents were Texans too, but they didn’t like to let on.
After her stroke, it fell to my dad and me to empty her little apartment of all her worldly belongings. At that point she no longer drove and had sold Nellie, her white 1965 Rambler that she put 50,000 miles on over twenty years, for $75 for parts to my brother’s friend Brett Heimer, who was a body man. Her uncomfortable old hide-a-bed sofa, where I slept many nights growing up, went to Goodwill. A lot of stuff went in black Hefty bags and maybe to Goodwill, maybe to the dumpster. She had a number of porcelain figurines of angels and sweet children, and a bowl with a lid that I knew to handle carefully when I lifted it to check for candy. She had a sewing machine in her bedroom. In her kitchen cabinets were a great many identical hard plastic cups and bowls from a brand of margarine. The idea was that you could keep the cup or bowl and use it for juice or cereal. But one little old lady didn’t need dozens of each. I understood that the point of that habit was her having survived the Great Depression, which to young me in the 1970s seemed like a portentous epoch that, fortunately, had been relegated to the ancient past. But it was less long ago then than the seventies are now. And now, I think I understand better where her mentality came from.
Visiting her in her room at Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital – where in high school Bill Henning, who is still a good friend, had gotten me a job in the kitchen working with him, Jill Redzinski, and Jill Schmitz (who looked real good in her white uniform, but I digress) – I remember my dad sitting at Grandma Casey’s bedside while she cried, “Where’s mah purse?!”
“It’s right here, Mom,” he replied patiently, more than once.
“She never stopped talking about that purse,” he said to me later. “Not a damn thing in it.”
My parents had moved to Colorado Springs, and it was from there that he and I had flown on short notice. I was living then in DC, off Connecticut Avenue NW near the zoo, walking via the Taft Bridge to temp jobs on K Street, and when my grandmother had her stroke I just happened to be visiting my parents. Cleaning out her apartment was one of the saddest experiences of my life (but I wouldn’t have missed out on it for anything), and it was strange – not in a good way – to have to stay in a motel in what I still then strongly felt to be my hometown. My dad had arranged for her to live in a nursing home, a good one run by nuns, in Colorado Springs. So we flew back there from Milwaukee via Denver, and on the short hop from Denver to the Springs she bestowed a blessing on me. She was in the window seat, and I was next to her on the aisle. She turned to me, put her hand on my arm, and said: “I love you, Ethan.”
I have many memories of Grandma Casey’s little apartment in that old folks’ building in Oconomowoc. She subscribed to the Reader’s Digest and always hopefully filled out and sent in the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. She watched Johnny Carson and The Price Is Right and soap operas, lots of those, and the Milwaukee Brewers on television. In the late seventies, mind you, Robin Yount (she pronounced his name “Yunt”) and Paul Molitor were only promising youngsters, and until they showed up the team was fun but not very good. They did have Hank Aaron for his last two seasons, and I got to see him play. Grandma’s favorite Brewer was right fielder Sixto Lezcano, of whom she remarked: “When he first came to Milwaukee, he didn’t speak a word of English. But he said, ‘Ah’m a-gonna learn English.’ And he did.” I don’t think I ever saw her reading a book, though I do recall a Louis L’Amour novel or two lying around.
She wore polyester pantsuits and cat’s-eye glasses and a hairdo, and the overall effect was to make her look like any one of tens of millions of anonymous Chinese peasants. We called her getup her Mao suit. Bill Henning and I used to walk across the athletic fields from the high school to be fed by her at lunchtime. Bill spoke politely to her like Eddie Haskell – “Hello, Mrs. Casey. How are you today, Mrs. Casey?” – with the difference that Bill was genuinely a fine young man. Grandma Casey approved of Bill.
Visiting Wilkinson Manor, you were supposed to ring your elderly relative’s bell in the vestibule and then they were supposed to push the intercom button on their end, speak to you to verify who you were, and then buzz you in. Grandma Casey always just buzzed you in. You’d walk into the lobby and turn left around the office, and her apartment was on the ground floor at the far end of a hallway. Her way of ensuring that you weren’t an axe murderer was to lean out her door to watch you walk down the long hallway. So my brother and dad and I would always greet her by saying, “Hi ma’am, we’re here to steal your TV set.” And she would reply, “You Casey men are always tormentin’ me!”
She thought Franklin Roosevelt hung the moon, and that’s how she would have put it. It’s worth noting in this context that not only was she a Texan; she was an essentially uneducated rural white Texan. She was born in either 1907 or 1908 in Quitman, Texas (hometown of Sissy Spacek and of Governor Jim Hogg, whose daughter was famously named Ima). As a young woman she moved to Dallas, where she worked on the cosmetics counter at Skillern’s Drugs and at the Greenville Avenue Bank where, at least apocryphally and – who knows? – maybe actually, Bonnie Parker had an account. “All the ladies said Bonnie would have turned out just fine,” she said, “if she hadn’t got mixed up with that darn Clyde.”
Anyway, she loved FDR. She was staunchly loyal to LBJ too, because he had proven tough enough to get the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed, and because he was a Texan. She thought those snobby Kennedy people had treated him badly. She stuck up for Jimmy Carter, because she considered him a good man and resented how people mocked him for his Southern accent. What she cared about most was fairness, and she could smell a phony. When Reagan came in she said, many times: “He wadn’t a good actor, and he’s not a good president.” I can only imagine some of the things she would have to say if she were around now.
And that’s the point, I think: I can readily imagine what she would say, because I knew her well. There was no guile to Wanda Casey. What you saw was what you got. Once in a crowded restaurant she said to my brother, “Your friend Bruce, he’s Jewish, isn’t he? There was a Jewish family down the street from us in Dallas. They adopted a l’il Gentile girl.” When my father remonstrated with her to pipe down, she said: “Well, that’s what they call us: Gentiles!” What she was was an old-fashioned Protestant moralist, and believe it or not I mean that in a good way. The thing she said to me many times that stuck was: “You know darn well that’s just plain wrong, Ethan Casey. And I’m agin it.” Another thing she said (though not original to her) was, “Pride goeth before a fall.” Looking back, I can say that her sense of right and wrong was pretty much always right.
So Wanda Casey left no material legacy whatsoever, but she left a great many intangible traces on my adult personality. And it was these – not the books I had read or the traveling I’d done, or the fact that I had written a book about Pakistan – that gave me the confidence to include this paragraph in the talk I gave in February 2012 at the annual National Character and Leadership Symposium at the United States Air Force Academy:
It’s helpful to remember that some moral dilemmas aren’t actually dilemmas at all. We all know darn well, as my late grandmother would put it, that some things are just plain wrong. For example, you don’t have to be a theologian or moral philosopher to know that it’s wrong to urinate on other people, no matter who those people are or what bad things they might have done. You can be an uneducated farmer’s daughter like my grandmother and know that. When a video surfaced in January of four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghans presumed – but not known – to have been Taliban, I wrote about it, and I took flak from many Americans, including readers who identified themselves as soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan, who were prepared to make excuses for them or to lecture me about how I should show more gratitude toward our proverbial men and women in uniform. But I know darn well that urinating on other people is just plain wrong. And, as a citizen of the United States of America, I don’t want American soldiers urinating on other people in my name.
In the q-and-a afterward, a man in the back of the room raised his hand to offer a comment about, as he described me, “liberals like you.” And it was Grandmother Casey whose moral mentorship had equipped me to reply: “What makes you think I’m a liberal?” We all know darn well that some things are just plain wrong.
Ethan Casey’s Seattle coronavirus crisis diary covering the dates between March 3 and August 1, 2020 is being prepared for publication in book form in spring 2021. You can support the work of Blue Ear Books by pre-purchasing it for $17.95 plus $3.95 US shipping: