By Dan Schuette
It’s September of 2011 and in the last four months I have had memories of and conversations with my deceased grandparents Al and Ella, my dad John, and my young grandson Cole. They are deceased so I obviously didn’t see them in person but I did visit their grave sites and I did have memories of them and conversations with them.
In May of this year I drove from my condo in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin to Middleton where I picked up my 90-year-old mother. Together we drove to the cemetery in Columbus for our annual Memorial Day week-end trip to lay a wreath on her mother’s grave site. While there and while my mother stayed in the car, I found the head stones for my grandparents on my Dad’s side, Al and Ella Schuette. My mom and dad were divorced when I was 5 or 6 years old and I was raised by my mom. On some weekends during the school year and for a week at a time in the summer I was often driven from Madison, where we lived, and dropped off at Al and Ella’s in Columbus. I have a lot of good memories of those times in the 1950s.
My Grandpa Al was a little overweight, always wore dress slacks and a white business shirt, and often had a Camel cigarette dangling from his mouth. He was a successful and active local businessman in Columbus who owned the local hardware store. I was given a lot of free rein in that store, often riding the rails (in this case the ladder that was on rails and slid back and forth behind the counter) to climb up the ladder and fetch something from a high shelf for a customer. I also remember putting my small hand into the nail bucket and bringing up a handful of nails for a customer…nails were sold by the pound back then. He would also take me to the 9-hole Columbus Country Club and we would play golf together. That’s where I was introduced to the game of golf which I still play today. Grandma Ella would give me 50 cents to go to the local movie theater which was only four or five blocks from where they lived. After the movie I would stop at the corner popcorn wagon and buy some popcorn with a little salt and lots of butter. I’m not certain but I think the movie was a quarter and the popcorn 10 cents. While cooking or baking something in the kitchen, Ella would always call out words from my spelling list and I would spell the words. We wouldn’t stop until I got them all right. Sometimes we would do some arithmetic too.
Before we left for the 45-minute trip home, standing in front of their grave stones, I thanked Al and Ella for giving me so many opportunities at such a young age. I told Al that I was still golfing and actually getting better at it every year. I thanked him for playing catch with me too and told him that I played in a softball league until I was 60. I thanked Ella for all the spelling and arithmetic “home-schooling” she had given me and that I did pretty well in a couple of spelling bees when I was in 7th and 8th grade. And that I didn’t have to use “spell-check” these days nearly as often as most of my friends.
In July of this year I drove to the west side of Madison and stopped at the cemetery where my dad is buried. I quickly found the bronze plate on the ground bearing his name. He was a WWII veteran and I remember the military honor guard at his funeral three years ago, the mostly older veterans in their uniforms, the playing of taps, the gun salute and the presentation of the folded American flag to my half-sister Trudy. It was very moving and as a Vietnam Veteran I decided that day that I too wanted a funeral with military honors.
My early memories of my dad are few, but good. I remember riding in his car up to Columbus to visit his folks and him singing and whistling various songs. I don’t remember him ever yelling at me and certainly not hitting me. My mom always portrayed my dad as the bad guy in the marriage. My younger brother and I were basically raised to have very little, if anything, to do with our father. It was almost as if we would be disowned if we had contact with him. And as I graduated from college, got married, raised a family, spent three years in the military, and worked hard in my career, the contact with my dad was practically non-existent. That is, until sometime in my fifties when I finally decided to get back in contact with my dad. I lived in Sun Prairie and he lived on the east side of Madison. I just dropped in one day and said I wanted to see how he was doing. He invited me in and we talked about a lot of stuff, WWII, his life, my life, and what-have-you. I brought him up to date on the family including his grandkids and great-grandkids, and asked if he would like to meet them…he said, of course. So in a few weeks I brought them over and my dad now knew the rest of his family.
As I stood over his grave I apologized for not getting in contact with him earlier but that I was glad that I eventually did. I was glad for the opportunity to listen to his life story and wished I could hear more. And I told him I would stay in touch with Trudy, my half-sister, whom I met and spent time with mostly at the hospital during my dad’s last days.
John Schuette served in the army in WWII
as an MP in the 257th military police company.
In late August I drove out to a small but very nice cemetery a few miles west of Verona where I visited my late grandson Cole’s grave site. Later that day I wrote these words that summed up my visit:
“I took a trip, it wasn’t far…I picked some weeds, we had a talk…I ate lunch by myself, but wasn’t really alone.”
Cole Allen Lehnherr was born 11 years ago to my daughter Danita and her husband Gary, weighed in at over ten pounds, but with some severe lung problems. He died twelve days later. He was kept alive by machines. He never opened his eyes or cried. I remember all the nights I spent with him at UW Hospital. I had the night shift so every night I got to read and talk to him and “tuck him in” so to speak. I then slept in a small room down the hall until the sun rose and then I got to see my buddy again. I love my wife, kids, and grandkids but Cole taught me what unconditional love is really all about. He touched my heart like no one else ever has. He taught me a lot above living, loving, and what’s really important about life.
So as I brushed away a few leaves and picked a few weeds around his gravestone I thanked him for being in my life. I told him I hadn’t forgotten his lessons and reasons for being with us, even if for only a short time. I told him I stopped and played with his two younger brothers Carson and Rowan regularly. And that I still gave a scholarship every year in his name to a graduating senior from McFarland High School where his family lives and his brothers go to school. And that I still loved him unconditionally.
Cole Allen Lehnherr, 2000
I don’t have enough money to have a building or park named after me. I know I’m not immortal and I’m not entirely sure about the hereafter. But my recent visits to the cemeteries and grave sites where some of my relatives are located have convinced me that I too want a funeral and a gravestone in a cemetery. Maybe it’s wishful thinking but I hope my kids and grandkids might someday come visit me and have fond memories of our times together and maybe have a conversation or two. Memories and conversations …that would be enough for me.
Written September 21, 2011