A recent Facebook post of a cousin resurrected a treasure trove of memories, most from my childhood.
As I read Don Kurtz’s words, I couldn’t help but think back to idyllic days spent splashing in Wolf Lake. Other thoughts as well: Sitting on the living room couch with Mom and listening to her reminisce about her teenage years and visits with a favorite uncle, Kenny Kurtz, and his wife Pauline.
Don wrote: “Our mother Pauline is not doing well. She did not wake up yesterday and is sleeping comfortably. We expect her to pass in a few days. At 97 years old, she has been wanting and ready to go. She has certainly lived a full life.”
Just a day later, Don gave us an update: “Mom walked into Heaven at 3 a.m. this morning, Thursday, October 1. She passed very easily. What a blessing.”
Soon after, the family historian and genealogist, John Snyder, posted a few words along with a wedding photo of Pauline and Kenny. “The last of a generation passed away today, my Great-Aunt Pauline Smucker Kurtz, age 97. We enjoyed many family visits to see her family on Wolf Lake in Muskegon, Michigan. She was a beautiful and loving woman whose smile lit up the room. What a heavenly reunion today. Here is a wedding photo from May 18, 1940, to her first husband Kenneth Kurtz. My uncle Russell Snyder is the best man.”
Aunt Pauline outlived three husbands, Kenny, his brother Clarence Kurtz and George Dulaney. It was Kenny she was thinking about when she wrote a letter to me shortly after my Mom’s death in November 2003. She shared her memories of her last hours with Kenny, who passed away in the early 1950s, a cancer victim. Earlier, I’d told her about a remarkable occurrence that took place in my Mom’s bedroom just days before her death.
Mom had ALS, sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease. By the end of her life, she’d lost the ability to move most of her muscles including her voice chords. So when I found her not watching me as I spoke to her but gazing at a far wall, I couldn’t just ask her, “What are you looking at, Mom?” Thankfully, she could still shake and nod her head, so I could ask her questions and get a yes or no by how she moved her head.
I learned there was someone in the room with us, a loved one who’d come from Heaven to comfort her. I ticked off the names of loved ones. At the name Kenny, she nodded “yes.” And so I told that story to Aunt Pauline.
All my life I heard how an angel had come to Kenny’s bedside at the moment of his death to fly his soul to Heaven. In her letter, Aunt Pauline clarified some of the details, “The late evening of Kenny’s death, Clarence Kurtz was sitting at his bedside when Kenny drew his last breath. Clarence said he heard the rustling of wings and it was angels that carried him home.”
I don’t think Aunt Pauline was surprised that Kenny came to Mom’s bedside. Like Mom, he’d gone through a slow and painful death. “It means so much to me that he visited Jackie those last few weeks before her death. I have shared this with my family and friends. How it has brought the reality of Heaven to us!”
When Pauline married Kenny, she joined the Kurtz clan of Wayne County, Ohio. Kenny was one of thirteen children born to David Elmer and Icie Belle Kurtz. My Grandmother Mid was one of Kenny’s older sisters as was my Aunt Ethel, John Snyder’s grandmother. A great tragedy befell the Kurtz family in the summer of 1920. Icie Belle and David Elmer died within weeks of each other. Later, in the winter of 1920, a daughter – Helen – would also die. Grandma Mid was just twelve at the time, Kenny a toddler, and Aunt Ethel a married woman with a child of her own, Russell, who would someday become Kenny’s best man at his wedding.
In the years ahead, the young ones were shuffled from relative to relative, some to older brothers and sisters, some to aunts and uncles. For example, Grandma Mid lived for a time with an aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania, but grew homesick. Aunt Ethel took her under wing, and my grandma lived in the house on South Fourth Street in Rittman that would someday become her house. Uncle Raymond and Aunt Ethel sold the house to Grandpa Frog and Grandma Mid when they moved to the upstairs apartment above their downtown bakery.
Aunt Pauline wrote about those days when Grandpa, Grandma, my mom Jackie and Uncle Denny lived in the Fourth Street house. “After Kenny and I were married, we spent almost every Sunday afternoon and evening with Mid, Frog, Jackie and Denny. I always felt so ‘at home’ with them. Mid always made supper for us and made us feel welcome. Looking back I wonder if she and Frog got tired of us. We just showed up and felt so welcomed.”
The death of Icie Belle and David Elmer could have torn the Kurtz family apart. Instead, the sisters and brothers grew closer. Family visitors were always welcomed – at my grandparent’s house, at Uncle Clarence’s place on Wolf Lake.
Remembering those scary days in the 1920s when the younger Kurtz kids were shuffled from family member to family member, Uncle Clarence decided to raise another family. He married Pauline and looked after Kenny’s kids, Dave, 12; Don, 9; Tom, 3, and Becky, 2. Dave telephoned me several years ago, wanted to share memories of Rittman. He praised Uncle Clarence for his generosity. There’s a wonderful photo of my Mom’s brother Denny and Dave floating on inner tubes in Wolf Lake. They don’t look very old… no more than twelve, maybe younger. One of Dave’s favorite childhood memories: riding his bike on the streets of Rittman alongside Denny.
Kurtz clan photos range from the early 20th century well into the modern age. First, John Snyder’s father Harold collected the photos from family scrapbooks. Later, John assumed the mantle and has posted many of the photos on social media sites like Facebook. John’s grandfather, a baker, married his grandmother in 1915. The Snyder family were not only bakers, they also owned a photography business. Unsurprisingly, the Kurtz clan collection teems with photos of Icie Belle and David Elmer’s children. With this piece I’m including photos of Uncle Kenny and Grandma Mid when they were children, the originals nearly 100 years old.
By the 1940s and 1950s folks were using Brownie cameras and taking photos of themselves and their children at play. For the Kurtz clan, when it came time for vacation, more often than not the children of Icie Belle and David Elmer packed up their mates and children in their cars and headed for Wolf Lake. They knew they’d always get a hearty welcome and sweet smiles from Aunt Pauline and Uncle Clarence. During the day, the adult vacationers would sit side by side in lawn chairs on the back deck and watch the kids swim in Wolf Lake. At night there would be cookouts and Bible scripture reading.
I’ve a mishmash of memories of our times at Wolf Lake. There’s a photo, dated 1956, of Kurtz clan members at Wolf Lake. Like many of the photos snapped over the years at the Wolf Lake house, they’re gathered together like a school class photo. There’s a boy on a tricycle at the forefront. He looks like me. Yet I’ve no memory of a 1956 visit. Later ones, yes. I would have been four at the time, and the boy on the tricycle looks about four. Not until a year later would the Staton family move from Wadsworth, Ohio, to San Bernardino, California. During this time of my life, I loved the Mickey Mouse Club, especially the “Spin & Marty” serial, and wanted a doll for Christmas, a gift wish that upset my father or so I’ve been told. By the way, I did get that doll as well as a school desk. I was probably too timid to go into the water, which may be why I have no recollection of that Wolf Lake vacation.
In later years, though, I loved wading out into the water near Uncle Clarence’s dock. But I couldn’t swim, so I never put my head under the water and wouldn’t go out much past my waist. I’m embarrassed… I wasn’t much of a risk-taker as a 7 year old. It wasn’t until the summer of 1964 that I took swimming lessons at the Corona, California, municipal pool and leaped off the high deep into the deepest portion of the water.
I’m remembering certain sensory memories. Walking down the small hill to the water, sand caressing my bare feet. Feeling the touch of the lake’s muddy bottom and the tickle of water weeds poking between toes. Lying in a strange bed in the dark listening to thunder and the wind howling, like fists beating against the room’s window. Watching Tom light firecrackers and then holding my hands over my ears as they burst. Listening to Becky play the theme from the movie Exodus on the piano. Watching Star Trek at one of Clarence’s adult sons’ houses; even remember the episode, a time travel story involving the launch of a Saturn V moon rocket from the Kennedy Space Center.
Clarence’s dock or pier plays a prominent role in many of the photos. Over and over again you’ll find the moms and grandmas sitting on the dock, their feet dangling in the water, while the kids pose in the shallows. That popular shot must have been a requirement during all Wolf Lake vacations. Each one I look at always brings a smile to my face, especially the ones whose dangling feet belong to my mother, Grandma Mid and Aunt Ethel.
So many of us who were young during those vacations at Wolf Lake in the 1950s and 1960s can remember our parents and grandparents saying what a loving hostess Aunt Pauline was during those halcyon days. Always, we heard about her sweet smile and sunny disposition. While we showered her and Uncle Clarence with love, they returned it tenfold by opening their home and hearts to us. Aunt Pauline’s letter to me makes clear just how much she loved my Mom. “Jackie always kept in touch with me at Christmas. One year George and I stopped at Beverly. We had been to the Bob Evans Farm in Southern Ohio. We got to see where Jackie lived and some of her family. She was at the library, but soon came home. We had a nice visit. Jackie looked happy and pretty.”
The Wolf Lake vacations will forever be linked to the emotional closeness of Icie Belle and David Elmer’s children and their children and grandchildren. They persevered over heart-wrenching tragedy. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize just how lucky I was to be born into this family. And Aunt Pauline was a big reason I came to that realization.
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Hey, I’m an author. Two fantasy books published – The Emperor’s Mistress and Thief’s Coin. A third one is 95 percent complete. Just need one more review of the last chapter from a longtime reviewer and I can make the final edits to that chapter. Hopefully, you’ll soon see Assassins’ Lair in print. Thinking about purchasing the novels? You’ll find them on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites as well as the website of Wings ePress (wingsepress.com).