Things Beyond Control

Margaret in her 20s, around 1931
Margaret in her 20s

The last time I ever stayed overnight with my grandmother, Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson, I made away with three artifacts. Handling the exhibits of the Great Tillotson Museum was generally forbidden, with outright appropriation of them being unthinkable. Once, when I was 18, I had managed to elude the curators and smuggle out the four-string tenor guitar from Aunt La Rose’s closet. She lived in California by then and probably had forgotten all about her tenor guitar. I started lessons with an old blind lady, but after just a few, Grandma intervened. Of course she intervened. She always did. In no uncertain terms she demanded the guitar’s return, having determined that La Rose simply wouldn’t approve of her guitar being strummed while she was 2000 miles away. I received a compensatory six-string from Grandma for Christmas, but that beautifully lacquered red Fender, lacking the two bass strings, was unique and special. I had no desire to play the conventional six-string like everybody and his brother. The Fender was retired to the closet and I suppose it remains there, guarded now by Uncle Michael, who lived with Grandma then and acquired the house and its precious contents after her death.

On that final overnight visit, a stagnant smell pervaded the place. It might have been owing to problems they experienced with the septic system, yet those were restricted to the deepest parts of winter. My mother forthrightly called it “B.M.” There was no denying Grandma had always been preoccupied with that bodily function. When we grandchildren were young, she spooned cod liver oil and Milk of Magnesia into our mouths as soon as we arrived on a visit, and we often weren’t permitted to flush until she had inspected our stool. It wasn’t until I saw the movie “The Road to Wellville,” about Dr. Kellogg’s sanitarium and the practice of colonic irrigation, that I realized her preoccupation wasn’t strictly personal and idiosyncratic but instead was largely cultural, a widely dispersed fog, a miasma of merde, that had shrouded her childhood in the first two decades of the 20th century. Kellogg’s pursuit of the squeaky-clean intestine had influenced the American public in those years. On top of this was the fact that Grandma’s own mother had died of rectal cancer, which couldn’t have been pretty, and it wouldn’t surprise me if B.M. somehow got the blame. Doctors could say what they wanted, but Grandma knew where that kind of cancer came from! The thing was, no one could tell whether she was trying to save up or eliminate. Many fresh fruits—cherries, for example—were said by her to “make you go to the bathroom,” and by the way she said it, that seemed a bad thing. Our mother had told my sister that Grandma used to receive frequent enemas as a child. I can imagine the trauma of this forced entry, instigated by a loony four-flusher from Battle Creek and implemented at the discretion of adults with devious purposes.

The house she lived in with Uncle Michael was built using the same slip-formed concrete techniques that Tillotson Construction & Development had worked out for the construction of grain elevators. It had a modern rectilinear character and featured a curving wall of opaque glass blocks in the small entry foyer. The living and dining areas adjoined each other without a barrier. They were trimmed with what Grandma called “surfwood,” a veneer with a gnarled texture. In the layout of the house and the selection of décor and accessories, she had been given no particular say. She once bought a lamp and mirror for the front room—it was never called the living room—but Grandpa ordered her to take them back. In an act of defiance, she left the mirror on the wall.

Mary Catherine, North High band member, 1953, at the front door of the new house.
Mary Catherine, North High band member, 1953, at the front door of the new house.

The picture windows on the west and north walls afforded sweeping views of the churning Ponca Hills of eastern Nebraska, but even though she was positioned higher on her knoll than anyone around, the curtains were drawn so that no one could see in. What was there to see? An old woman in a housedress and slippers reading the World-Herald, her youngest son anchored in his own chair, the new couch between them like a floating dock. Their feet pointed toward the television with the Champagne Music Maker about to come onto the screen. These perches were elevated about 50 feet above the road, but Grandma must have suspected motorists could somehow manipulate their mirrors to peer into her soul and descry her hesitancy about donating to the parish’s growth fund or her anguish about my youngest brother’s failures in high school. She had been asking me to encourage him: tell him to come each day to class with a preparation ready and give it all you’ve got, I’m right behind you. Her exhortations betrayed the rah-rah, can-do sentiments that are found in newspaper ads and self-improvement manuals of the period between 1890 and 1920. All a fellow really needed was to have his morale improved, you can’t keep a good man down, just steer clear of conniving females. (“The girls or woman [sic] are such targets and destroyers of peoples’ success,” she wrote.) “I know Robert has a head full of more knowledge than many others who got their piece of paper—but that piece of paper comes first so many places—This should make Rob say—‘I’m not down’ I’ll show them all I’ll make more out of life than the most of my friends—This should be a boost for him.” He didn’t graduate with his class and needed $150 to complete some credits in the summer. “Grandma will come forth again with this—hoping he’d faithful[ly] finish the courses this time.”

Grandma, also my godmother, helps me face the happy prospect of baptims, 1955.
Grandma, also my godmother, helps me face the unhappy prospect of baptism, 1955.

She was also preoccupied with my parents, whose crazy threats to sell their house and move to Florida were starting to seem real. “I’m talking [sic] MC and Walter to get busy and forget about selling out—They could do it—‘where there’s a will there’s a way.’” She had helped them out financially and could hardly resist helping them some more, but felt that if she did she would only exacerbate the situation. “You didn’t think Grandma gets at ‘low ebb’ at times—so a little tonight. My relief—my prayers and trust in God. There is no road but has a turn—let’s hope it will be for the greatest happiness.” But my father’s restlessness was more powerful than her prayers. That’s how we found ourselves staying overnight, a truckload of household effects waiting to start for Florida in the morning. I was riding shotgun to keep my father company and help unload at the journey’s end. Even on the way out of town, we had to rely on Grandma for support. Naturally, she worried about us.

“You’re going through New Orleans, aren’t you?” she asked.

Why would we make a 90-degree turn at New Orleans in order to get from Omaha to Florida? As I pointed out, the direct route ran through St. Louis, Nashville, and Atlanta.

“Your brakes will go out in the mountains, dear.” 


The front bedroom and bath adjoined the living room, but the two back bedrooms and baths were reached through the dining room. The bathrooms were always noteworthy because of the blue porcelain fixtures and the toilets’ elongated bowls. Even when the house was just 10 years old, the water supply was feeble; it took ages to pour barely enough bathwater into one of the tubs. As much as he had benefitted from the Tillotsons’ generosity and forbearance, my father never had anything positive to say about them, and he sounded typically scornful in attributing the trickling bathwater to Grandpa’s cheapness, having directed a tiny water line uphill from the old house where the family had first lived.

My sister Kate and I in the front room, 1959
My sister Kate and I in Grandma's front room, Christmas 1959.

The other two levels of the new concrete house were the more intriguing. Just between the living and dining rooms, where Grandma’s organ sat, a dauntingly steep flight of carpeted stairs led up to the game floor. The entire surface area of this upper level was devoted to fun. One long room to the right contained two billiards tables (one with and the other without pockets), and there was a small sink with a faucet that acutely suffered from the low water pressure, so that not even a trickle could be coaxed from it. The drain was home to enormous black beetles that my mother called waterbugs. Of course, given the conspicuous lack of water, they should more accurately have been called drainbugs. They served as an indicator species for dessication.

To the left of the head of the stairs, a large L-shaped section was divided into three segments. The first was an unheated square enclosure with the two outer walls of opaque glass blocks and a floor covered with pea gravel. It was as though something didn’t add up in the design drawings, but Grandpa decided to make the dead space interesting. Sometimes I opened the door to this small odd room and stood there experiencing the mystery. Back inside the house proper, another long room had some arm chairs and rockers and a battered upright piano, and I guess teenagers were supposed to jitterbug there, although we were now in the era of the frug. The room’s other segment corresponded to the base of the “L.” Outfitted with a dilapidated Ping-Pong table and a jukebox that played 78-rpm records such as “Three Coins in a Fountain,” it completed the teen clubhouse.

Then there was the garage: a drive-in basement with a single retracting door but enough parking to accommodate four cars. You descended the iron stairs, clank, clank, clank, from the kitchen at great peril, for there was no railing. The room was poorly lit and smelled of dust and grease and rotting upholstery. Making entry from the driveway, one lane forked off to the right and the other stayed left. For as long as I could remember, Uncle Michael took three-quarters of the space for his old Fords, some whole, others in parts. Grandma always laughed it off as youthful foolishness, although toward the end of her life, after his junk had become the source of neighbors’ enforcement complaints, she might have recognized the true nature of his hoarding.


Margaret visits our house in west Omaha, summer 1968
Margaret visits our house in west Omaha, summer 1968

By the time of my final overnight visit, Grandma had lived in the house for about 35 years, and she had long passed the point of no return as far as needing to sort through her own stuff. She lacked file cabinets, so documents, cards, and letters were stacked on every flat surface. There was a recess behind the washer and dryer in the kitchen, which was split down the middle by a breakfast counter and stools for six hungry people. Besides all that the recess harbored, I think even the top of the dryer supported its own burden of memorabilia, and I doubt it was a symbiotic relationship as in the case of the birds that perch on the backs of cows (although it did suggest the way that Grandma herself had always shouldered burdens). Stacks had accumulated on the buffet in the dining room and even up on the big table. Grandma and Michael certainly took all meals at the kitchen breakfast nook. The tide was starting to go out on holiday celebrations anyway. At Easter there had only been 10 when they had planned for 15—”but the dinner was a satisfaction for me, even if I do the complimenting. We had sirloin roast and yours truly did the carving etc etc. The gentlemen were who we missed.” Grandma was by now in her 80s, often short of breath, and hardly up to much work. “My tune is getting cut a lot every day,” she said, referring to the onset of the congestive heart failure that ultimately caused her death. Some of the family, including yours truly, had already moved away from Omaha. The Fourth of July was “the time we generally see everybody—but this year will be different. Seems everyone took off in his own direction. Wanted to have the 4th here one more year—Where will everyone be next Fourth?” I remember hearing in subsequent years about holiday celebrations at a restaurant. As for the clutter, even the little table between her white chair and the sofa had stacks of its own and a unframed glass to magnify the print. Of course, Michael’s area had deep deposits of magazines and thick volumes of a vintage car trading book. He had tipped the lampshade to throw light across his lap, and his miserliness led him to read with a handheld magnifier rather than buy himself cheap drugstore glasses. Grandma’s reading matter included a Catholic newspaper and a book, “Purgatory,” which I guess she perused like a Michelin guide to her next travel destination: “Ah, the delicate scents! The delicious flavors! The enchanted nights of Purgatory!”

Me and Uncle Michael, Christmas 1969, with drapes still drawn.
Yours Truly and Uncle Michael, Christmas 1969, with the drapes drawn, as always.

Besides smelling like B.M., the slip-formed house was freezing cold. “Like a dungeon,” my father said. The baseball playoffs were on TV in late October. I watched the game in my jacket. Maybe Grandma just hadn’t turned on the furnace yet for the season. It occurred to me that I had no idea where in the house the furnace was located. To my question on this, she tapped the thermostat, saying, “Right here.” I was supposed to sleep in the front bedroom, La Rose’s room, the guitar room, and at bedtime Grandma stripped the comforter off the bed and casually tossed it into the corner, offering me an electric blanket, instead. I declined this and retrieved the comforter.

When we had arrived I found the sink stoppered in that bathroom. Cold water dribbling from the faucet drained out through the overflow. Maybe this had been the caprice of a grandchild during another visit.



After returning from Sunday Mass, Grandma fixed breakfast for me, my father, and Uncle Michael. She cooked at the gas range that was the last in a line of appliances from left to right along the wall: Frigidaire, deep freeze, stove. She used a two-pronged tool and skidded bacon strips into the skillet over a high flame. When the bacon was crispy she piled it on a plate at the back of the range, and then fried eight eggs in the sea of grease. The eggs roared and popped and spat enough to warrant the use of a fireproof suit. Meanwhile, she wielded a spatula at a second skillet while putting in an appalling amount of margarine. This was for the French toast. When everything was ready I accepted one piece. By this point in my life, bacon grease and margarine seemed downright evil. I declined any eggs from the plate she proffered. “Why?” she asked. “The grease is fresh.”


I made away with a classic white diner-style coffee mug that Grandpa had used. I also got an anodized aluminum drinking glass that was quite battered. I thought I’d never see such a thing again, but after finding dozens and dozens of them at a swap meet, I let it slip out of my possession. From the medicine chest in La Rose’s bathroom I pilfered a Glacier Crystal Alum Block “For After Shaving.” The Walgreens price tag said 44 cents. I’ve never mentioned it till now, just in case she might extend a hand from the grave, wagging her fingers as a sign to bring it all back.

Uncle Mike filled the garage and much of the property with his old Fords. Here, in 1983, was the scene at the paddock. The house was on eight acres and there was a stable, tennis court, and pool.
Uncle Michael filled the garage with his old Fords and scattered them over much of the property. Here, in 1983, was the scene at the paddock. The house was on eight acres, which included a stable, tennis court, and pool.


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5 thoughts on “Things Beyond Control

  1. After reading my nephew Ron Ahrens’ recollections of some periods of my mothers life, I must respond by saying it is unfortunate that he dwelt on my mother’s
    fixation w/ BM’s and not with some of the good attributes she provided over her lifetime. Having come from a small town in NE and leading a sheltered life, she took up school teaching and continued that until she was 32 years old. At that age, she then married and went on to have six children and two misses before she was 40. My Dad ran the finances and
    dribbled out money to her on an ‘as needed basis’ whereby she had to beg him for money to supply the family with even the most basic of needs (food, clothing, books, etc. When my Dad passed away she was 58 years old, had never had a checking account nor a checkbook and didn’t know the slightest thing
    about banks, investing or for that matter providing the family children that remained at home with an income.

    In 1960 then, after Dad died, at the age of 58, she went back to teaching and she continued this endeavor until she was over 75 years old. It’s peculiar that
    Ron makes comment that his Dad thought my Mom was stingy!..while at the same time his Dad enjoyed her supplements of money that she provided him, my sister Mary and her children over the many years that they were ‘struggling’ in Omaha. His Dad and my sister Mary must have had tunnel vision for one thing and beyond that they were not aware of the many ‘supplements’ provided to my mother’s other ‘struggling’ children and her grandchildren.

    My mother was, like all people, not without fault,
    but overall she far surpassed the target mark of being stingy and uncaring. She managed, on a teacher’s salary (after teaching ended, she got a small social security check)and some small supplemental income from my Dad’s estate to eke out a living, support herself and her live-in son and all other relation that came to her with their hand out for over 35 years after my Dad died. As Ron mentions the support and financial help provided by Mom to he and his mother, father and siblings, she was doing making similar ‘supplements’ to other family members as well! She tried to be fair with all.

    And, in addition, she did her own laundry, housekeeping and cooking, drove her own car and transported herself to wherever she had to go, almost until the day she died at the age of 92.

    I’ll close this by rendition on Mom by saying ‘God Bless my Mother’ she was a meek and silent saint and I know the Lord is proud to have her with him in Heaven.

    Her loving son,

  2. I always look forward to and enjoy your family reminiscences. You have a sharpshooter’s eye for detail, and while you are irresistibly funny, you also write about your experiences in a way that inspires a jolt of recognition. While I’m laughing I recognize familiar absurdities in my own family and friends. It’s not just what you write, but also what hides between the lines that is palpable and makes me laugh, makes me care, and makes me more human.

  3. Made me LAUGH OUT LOUD!

    I remember her offering us Milk of Magnesia as soon as we walked in the door. I liked it, I thought it was candy! Ooh the nice minty taste…. I have talked about this myself during the years.

    I also remember grabbing the woolen blanket and going to the top of those stairs by the organ and sliding down on it like a sled until we got in trouble. Also didn’t feel too good on my rump but it was still fun!

    And going upstairs to the game room and playing “smash fingers” with my brother Dan on the billiard table. I usually lost.

    I still have dreams about going up those stairs but I can never get inside those doors.

    Also, remember that gold cowboy boot by the bar and that waterbug sink? (that sink always scared me) I always that was so neat when I was growing up. Mom finally coaxed Uncle Tim into getting it when he was there last and when he finally sent it to me a couple years ago I realized that all it was, was Grandpa’s old boot spray painted gold. Hmmm. It was quite old and dusty. It never did find a place in our home down here. Instead it sat outside on the back porch for the longest time.

    What fun reading this. Loved the pictures also. Christmas at Grandma’s was always the best.

    Brought back a lot of good memories. Thanks Ronald.

  4. I remember that house as being possibly the grandest house I had ever been inside. All those glass bricks. I was very impressed with the idea of a tennis court and swimming pool. I think what you call the game room was the ballroom to me.

    I love the picture of Michael’s old cars. Enjoyed your reminisces.

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