Many of these posts have discussed the darker aspects of West Terre Haute’s history, and will continue to do so. But, tonight I wanted to tell a bit of the kind of stories I hope will balance out the portrait. I begin with memories of two extraordinary “ordinary citizens of WTH: my grandparents.
Nearly all that is good, all that is right, in me is the loving product of extraordinary women. One of those, indeed one of the most exceptional human beings I have ever known, was my Grandma, Hilda Mae Chrisman. She lived five weeks beyond her 104th birthday. She suffered the eviscerating pain of living longer than 6 of her 10 children (including my incredible Mother). Longer than all but one of her siblings. Outlived her beloved father by 73 years, her mother by 45, her well-loved husband by 33. Still, she was the most indomitable, strongest, wisest, most caring person in the world.
That I am an historian by nature and trade is principally due to her. She told wonderful stories of the past that inspired me to want to learn more. Thus, I want to tell you a bit about Grandma’s history. Just a bit for now, because to tell even a portion of her life would take volumes.
She was born in 1901 in West Terre Haute, Indiana, to William Hants and Lulu Arthur Hants. Bill Hants, a maverick personality (one of the highest honors of my life was Grandma telling me I was like her dad), housepainter, mortuary assistant and paperhanger, remained as a darling of his daughter’s life until the end. I always sensed that Hilda was Bill’s little girl forever. His one flaw was alcoholism, which explains, I think, my Grandma’s tolerance and care of those (including my wonderful Gramps, Ray Chrisman, and several of my uncles) so afflicted.
Her mother was Lulu Arthur. In my mind, she is a darker character. One who I think sometimes believed married beneath her, but seems to have cared for Bill despite his faults. My only memories of Great Grandma Lulie were of a stern character sitting in a chair in a darkened corner smoking a corncob pipe (I distinctly remember her sending me to a neighborhood grocery as a seven-year-old to get her a pouch of tobacco) and the fact that she scared the bejeezus out of me.
Allow me to begin what I hope will be a series of notes about Hildy by telling you three stories of her life, two from her early years, one of her death.
At 17, while studying to be a teacher at Indiana State Normal School (now ISU) in Terre Haute, she worked nights as a telephone operator at an office on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute. This was during WWI, of course. These were the days when all calls were operator assisted and Grandma worked in front of one of those huge switchboards plugging in wires to connect calls.
Now, this was during one of those times when efforts were made to close down the notorious brothels of the hoosier state’s Sin City to protect the health and morals of soldiers and the citizenry (one doubts they were sanguine about the lengths to protect them by their moré upright brethren). Grandma described how on one of the nights the switchboard literally lit up and buzzed constantly. The fevered calls were from prostitutes and madams (conservative estimates put the number of prostitutes in Terre Haute between 700 and 1,000 at that time) to their local “customers.” She and a friend listened in giddily as they connected the local soiled doves with some of the most prominent and upright men in the city ( Even ministers, she said in a lower tone( to finance their journey to and stay in places like Chicago and Evansville. Sometimes their cajolery turned into threats of exposure if the local swains hesitated to come forward with the cash.
As they listened, she and her girlfriend conceived of the idea of going to the train station when their shift ended at midnight. This they did, likely flushed with the guilty pleasure of it all. There they watched skulking men surreptitiously slipping envelops into the lacquered fingers of fashionably dressed, painted faced women.
This little sojourn among the demi-monde, of course, made her late in arriving home that night. Bill Hants was none too pleased to hear his little girl’s reason for getting home hours later than normal.
The next story is also set during the the War To End All Wars, or at least during its conclusion. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month Grandma was once again working at the phone company. Tumults of excitement and relief gripped the city. Grandma, like others was caught up in it as fireworks, ringing bells, and gunshots of celebration cascaded over the city. Her lesson learned, she eschewed joining the celebrations and headed home. As she approached the interurban stop to head home she saw a long, long string of small bobbing lights slither toward her. It was an arresting sight that caused her heart to pump and pump.
After a while she realized this phenomenon was caused by the helmet lamps of hundreds of miners from around the county who were marching into town to join in the joy of peace. We now know that one of the heads beneath those bobbing strobes was that of Ray Chrisman, her future husband, and my gramps. But… more on that in a later essay.
The final story for tonight is about Grandma’s end.
Until the last sixth months of her life Grandma was remarkably aware. Oh, she had her moments and her short term memory declined rapidly, but she was still Grandma. The first time I knew my Grandma was leaving me occurred during a visit we made to her at Easter at my Uncle Kenny’s in Lafayette, where she had been living for five years.
The first shock came when she did not recognize Robin. Now, Robin and my Grandma were something together. Each loved the other completely. Robin was as much Hildy’s granddaughter as anyone. Before Robin and I married we lived with Grandma for six months. As Grandma said, “You don’t really know someone until you’ve wintered with them.” Those two wintered together beautifully, each coming to adore one another.
When she asked who Robin was and I said, “My wife. “ Grandma’s reply was, “You certainly have a beautiful wife.’ For the rest of the day I was seventeen again to her, my mom was still alive, and so was Gramps. It was one of the saddest days of my life. Perhaps selfishly, one of my thoughts that day on a quiet drive home was that the only person who had known me every day of my life was about to leave me.
Her health declined rapidly after that. She was in and out of the hospital. Eventually we had to put her in a nursing home. Finally, in late July we knew the inevitable was lurking. My Uncle kept us informed. That last weekend Robin, my sister and I went to Lafayette for the last time, to keep vigil. On Friday night, Kenny and I spent the night at the nursing home after convincing Robin and Sis to rest at a local hotel.
It was a long sleepless night, with Grandma in and out of consciousness. As morning dawned on a hot July day, Kenny went to shave and freshen up and I said I would stay with her. After a while she stirred. I went to the bed and held her hand and whispered, “Grandma.” She opened her oh so tired eyes and looked at me. I knew she knew me.
“Timmy,” she said, “You were always a good boy.”
She fell back asleep. It was a moment for me. My friend Jess later said it was her way of saying goodbye. I think she is right.
We kept vigil the rest of the day. More family came to join us. She had her spells when we thought the end was at hand. My brother Terry and sister-in-law Trish arrived in the late afternoon. Still Grandma’s incredible strength persevered. At about 7:30, my brother, sister, sister-in-law, Robin and I (JoAnn Crumrin’s children and spiritual children) felt we could safely go get something to eat.
As I was paying the bill my cell phone rang. It was my Aunt joyce saying to hurry back. We rushed through the Saturday traffic. As we walked to the entrance to the nursing home, Joyce met us. “I’m sorry,” she said “she’s gone.’
After seeing her, the family left the room and we all talked about this remarkable woman.
For a reason I cannot now remember I went back to her room. The lights had been shut off, only the small one above her bed remained lit. It was ethereal looking. When I walked in a nursing assistant was washing my grandmother’s naked body. My instinct was to turn away. But something stopped me. There was my granny’s naked, dead, painfully thin body. I looked at her face. It was almost peaceful. I could almost here her say, “Naked I came into this world. Naked I leave it.”
This will not be the last you will hear of my Grandma. I hope you have some sense of her eventually, but these stories are not truly for my Facebook friends. They are for my nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews who, sadly, will never know her, never feel her gentle, loving touch, but who should feel her spirit.
Hilda Chrisman was not famous She lived a quiet, worthy, loving life. She deserves to be remembered by the world and will not be. But that she is remembered by me and those she touched. That would be enough for her. That was the kind of woman she was.
As anyone who has read my postings knows, I am the product of extraordinary women. But there was one terrific male influence in my life. My Grandpa, Ray Chrisman (his first name was actually Cloral; nobody knows what that was all about). As you may know, Gramps (what Grandma always called him) may have been one of the miners who formed a snake line, that so enthralled my Grandmother, under their miner’s helmets and marched into Terre Haute to celebrate the end of WWI.
What we do know for sure is that they met on an interurban train (interurbans were trains that ran between many cities in Indiana until the 1930s and would now be a godsend for commuters) in 1920. My petite, unworldly, sheltered grandmother was drawn to the rough miner who smiled at her on the train. From that first encounter came a 56 year marriage that produced 10 children and, ultimately, me.
Gramps had a tough life. He started working at age seven, hauling coal for the postmistress at St. Mary’s village in western Vigo County. As a side note, when at age 18 I began working at a nursing home I met the then 102 year-old postmistress, who still remembered the scrawny 7 year-old Cloral straining to heft the coal buckets. By age 14 he was toiling in the coal mines. One of his jobs was to drive the “bank mules” that hauled coal out of the mines. Bank mules became part of his personal mythology. One of the worst things he could say was “they are dumber than a bank mule” (he had to occasionally get off the coal wagon and whap them with a 2 by 4) and he would walk by Grandma and affectionately smack her bottom and say, “Hildy, your bottom is as broad as a bank mule.” I have never compared her to a bank mule, but Robin is used to my smacks of her bottom. I think she thanks you for that, Grandpa!
Gramps worked damn hard all his life. He spent 40 years working for a cement company, trading coal dust for concrete dust and sand, which ultimately contributed to his death. But he did squeeze out time to play. Gramps was a good baseball player. Good enough to play minor league baseball. Shortly after he and Grandma married he played a season for a minor league team in Matoon, Illinois. But as Granny said, he got homesick for her and came back to West Terre Haute after three months, giving up his big league dreams for her. I don’t think it was a difficult decision for him.
The love of baseball was one of the many gifts Grandpa gave to me. We would sit on Saturday afternoons and watch Dizzy Dean and Peewee Reese do the games. He would explain the intricacies of the game, while complaining that Ol’ Diz and Peewee talked too much. Damn it, he could see what was going on! My Grandpa taught me more about the game than anyone. It was one of our many bonds. I know he was a good baseball player. One of his friends told me my Grandpa could hit a ball farther than anyone he knew. In his 60s he could catch a ball more adeptly barehanded than his 13 year-old grandson could with a glove. Family legend says he was one of those chosen to play against one of Babe Ruth’s barnstorming teams at the old park in Terre Haute in the 1920s.
On the surface, Gramps seemed like a hard man. But I know better. He was a kind, gentle soul. I am proud to say I was his favorite grandchild (out of 65 or so). He and I intrinsically understood each other. We were best buddies. He would take me fishing just so we could be together. Neither of us liked fishing so we never baited the hooks. It was just me and Grandpa hanging out together.
Last year I visited his and Grandma’s graves. I always take flowers, but I wanted to do something just for Gramps. I had a 1950s baseball glove I bought off E-Bay a few years ago. I put it on his grave. It said simply, “Thanks for baseball, Gramps. Thanks for everything.”