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How it began

July 19, 2016



Mother is sitting where Ellen’s chair used to be before she went to the hospital.

Prologue: Ellen Wichstrom Bonde


The doctor spoke as though talking to a deaf person: “Ellen, do you want to die?  Is that—is that it?”

She suffered in silence, a Norwegian.  Grandma often said she didn’t trust doctors and I knew she didn’t trust this German bully, the one who prescribed the mercury tablets for her kidneys.  In 1967, in Montana, doctors still made house calls.

Our house stunk.  Mother gave Grandma soft-boiled eggs she then vomited.

We talked about fixing a hospital bed in our front room because Grandma was too weak to make it upstairs.

You know, I could have carried her, but she disliked me.  I was a senior in high school, a football player, a track runner, a drunk.  But Ellen didn’t trust me.  Said I stole her kitchen utensils.  Well, I did. Also, I used to pawn her projector screen and camping stove for beer money.  Either one of those would get me $5 from Gracie’s Second Hand Store, the price of a case of Lucky Lager.

I carried her up the stairs to her room that Sunday when the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan.

When I got home from school the next day I learned that Mother sent Grandma to Barrett’s Hospital by ambulance.

It was two and a half blocks away, so I walked over to see her.  The building was old, granite, and easy to get around in.  Smelled like carbolic acid antiseptic.

Grandma and I didn’t get along.  Hell, we usually fought.  She had often called me a “little piece” and a “puke.”  In turn, I had called her a “nasty old bitch.”  The abuse was always verbal and mutual.  I don’t know who started it. She had strong right-wing political views.

In the hospital, I was surprised that Grandma was glad to see me. With me she was sincere.  “I give it to you straight from the shoulder,” she said.

However, I noticed Grandma was shy around strangers, often passive when she didn’t like what they said.  Most times she saved her harsh criticism when she was out of the other person’s hearing.

Not always.  Once I heard her argue with a policeman who wanted to give Mother a traffic ticket.  She did know how to turn on the charm.

At the hospital:  After a few pleasantries, she said “You are a good boy.  Your Grandma said so.”  She asked me to get her purse for her. She gave me five bucks too.  Sort of hurt my feelings because I didn’t visit her to get five dollars.  I was her grandson, after all.  I wanted to cry.  Even so, I soon bought a case of beer.

The next time I saw her, Sunday, Grandma was in Park View Nursing Home, across town.  When Mother and I visited her the skin on her eyelids looked swollen and greasy.  Her breathing was labored.  Her half-closed eyes had a kind of wild look as she surveyed us.  Even so, I’m not sure she knew who we were.  If either one of us spoke to Grandma, I’m not sure what we said.

She died that night.  She had reached a goal:  She lived to be 80, and like, nine days.

However, she died without ever learning what happened to either her son or her cat.  Both disappeared, entrusted to others for their well-being.  Neither returned.  No bodies were recovered.

The last years of her life, Ellen looked to me bitter and depressed. She held her head in her hand.  Looked like she might cry.

Her son whom she lost in WW II, Carl Ralph Bonde, Jr., had been named after her husband Carl and her brother, Ralph Wichstrom. When he was 19, Carl had gone into the army, destined for the European war.

Her beloved cat? It disappeared when I was in the seventh grade.

One day her son was in England, writing letters, telling her about “limeys,” then . . . nothing. He was gone.  Missing in action.  A month later she got a telegram from the War Department stating he had been killed in action.

Ellen died without learning what happened.

Her cat?  I took it for a walk in a makeshift rope harness.  A block away from home, I tied it to a tree so I could visit my friend Chuck Mann who often peed in his basement drain.  An hour later, only the harness remained. Grandma didn’t believe me when I told her.

“I think you did away with my cat,” she said.

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