Back (at Aunt Mary’s) home again in Indiana

J. H. Osborne • Sep 28, 2016 at 1:06 PM

In the months since I began writing “Destinations & Diversions,” I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from readers. Among the more common comments is that my columns so far have reminded them of the differences between today’s “vacations” and the hows and whys and wheres of the typical American family trip during the 1950s, 1960s and for some into the 1970s.

Trips back then, especially for middle class families, often revolved around visiting relatives.

For our region of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, perhaps more so for the latter, it was likely that at least some members of any given family’s generations born between the 1920s and the 1950s had left their rural homesteads seeking steady, relatively well-paying jobs “down south” (cotton mills) or “up north” (factory work or skilled labor in metropolitan areas far larger than then-industrial-epicenter Kingsport had to offer).

In my family, the visiting-relatives-as-vacation was at least partly true — especially early on, in almost annual trips to Indianapolis to visit my Aunt Mary and her family. My mother, Wanda, is the youngest of 10 (Wallen) siblings, nine of whom survived to adulthood. Aunt Mary was the baby until Mother came along about four years later. Aunt Mary readily admits to having been jealous that Mother took her place, but their sisterly bond left that childhood emotion in the dust in no time.

Today, they are the only two siblings left. Mom is 83. Aunt Mary is 86. (I will be in trouble when they read this.) After marrying Calloway P. Roller in 1948 and a short stint in Kingsport, Aunt Mary and Uncle Calloway moved to Indianapolis. Aunt Mary, one of her sons (Tim Roller) and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren still live in Indianapolis. My family’s annual visits up to Indy ended years ago due to various obligations that kept my parents close to home or traveling to visit their own children and grandchildren in other parts of the country when they could get away.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Cal visited “down here” at least once a year until he died in 2001. At that point, Aunt Mary’s sons (Tim and Kerry) took over and made sure she made it down to visit once or twice a year.

Meanwhile, my mother devoted several years to taking care of my father as Parkinson’s stole him slowly away.

Dad died three years ago this week. Aunt Mary made it down for the funeral. But the last couple of years it has not worked out for her to come down.

So mother and I, with the can’t-be-overstated help of my cousin Phyllis Manis, relaunched our old habit of going to Indianapolis for a summertime visit.

From the time Aunt Mary and Uncle Cal, with toddler Kerry, moved to Indianapolis, the city became a regular destination for various members of the Wallen clan.

And the stories from several of those trips are legendary in my family. Some I have heard most of my life, including the following:

• On one early 1960s trip, with my dad driving a big old four-door, tail-finned Plymouth, the car was so full on the ride up (five adults and three children, plus all the luggage, dad’s ever-present tool box and a bushel of corn) my (step) Grandma Mary realized, at the last minute before getting in the car for the 400-mile all-day drive, that she would need to hold in her lap the old-timey stack cake she had prepared to take to Aunt Mary. The “luggage” included everything my paternal Uncle Ray (Elmer Ray Osborne) was taking for his move to Alaska, where he’d accepted a position as a school teacher. By riding to Indianapolis with my parents, mother’s father and stepmother, and my siblings and me, Uncle Ray saved a significant portion of his transportation toward Alaska. He also made lifelong friends with my Aunt Mary and Uncle Cal, but more on that later. If you are thinking that on the way back, at least we’d have more room in the car because Uncle Ray would be bound for Alaska, think again. My cousin Barbara (Hurd) Carr, a teenager at the time, had been visiting with Aunt Mary and was to ride back with us.

• Diversions along the way back in those days included picnic lunches at roadside pull-offs and a much-anticipated stop at what we all remember being called The Glass Barn, a treasure trove of glassware, from dinnerware to vases, to bric-a-brac. A prize possession in my mother’s curio is a brown-cow cream pitcher purchased there on some trip. I have searched online for any reference to The Glass Barn but have not found anything to nail down where such a place existed along our route. Some family members say it was in Indiana. Others say it was in Kentucky. Diversions once we reached Indianapolis included Garfield Park — and the piece de resistance, which often dictated the timing of our annual pilgrimage: the Indiana State Fair. It was there one year that my dad visited a food vendor’s stand for a hot dog, which was served with some sort of spicy sauteed-onion-and-tomato sauce instead of chili. My dad loved it. And had another. And maybe a third. He was trying to determine the ingredients and how the sauce was made. When he got home he worked on a similar concoction, and it became a trademark treat he’d serve up to family on summer holidays and to coworkers once a month or so at Mead Corporation.

There are other stories I have only heard in the last two years, as Phyllis and I drove mother to visit Aunt Mary:

• My mother first visited Indianapolis to see Mary and Cal and Kerry when she was just a teenager. She rode along with an older sister and her husband, Bonnie (Wallen) and Lonnie Hurd. Back in those days, the trip was mostly two-lane state highways and included several more road changes than is necessary today. Someone wrote them a set of directions, based primarily on road numbers, i.e., “stay north on Hwy. (number) until you turn right onto Hwy. (number).” None of the three in the car was known for having an innate sense of direction or a strong understanding of maps. Aunt Bonnie and Mom at this point had never driven a car, let alone had to navigate.But the three decided to work as a team: he’d drive, they’d watch for the road numbers. So Aunt Bonnie and Mom took shifts, barely blinking an eye for long stretches, watching for road numbers on signs to announce impending turns. When mother describes this, I always think of the scene in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” when Loretta Lynn’s husband is driving the backroads of America while she keeps an eagle eye out for radio station towers.

• Indianapolis is also where, on that same trip, Mom and Aunt Bonnie had their first experience with an escalator. Shopping has always been a diversion for me, my mother and others in the family, though not all. It was no different in the early 1950s when Mom first visited Aunt Mary with Aunt Bonnie, and the three headed downtown to the city’s renowned shopping district— including the William H. Block Department Store. They entered and soon Aunt Mary said they needed to go up a floor or two and she walked to and onto an escalator — something Aunt Bonnie and Mom had never seen before and were afraid to step onto, until Aunt Mary, already being whisked toward the next floor, pretty much ordered them to take a step or get separated from her. This trip also included a visit to the Indiana State Fair and Mom’s first taste of root beer. When the others ordered it, all she heard was that they were ordering some kind of “beer” and she was having none of that. Aunt Mary explained it wasn’t alcohol and urged her to give the ice-cold beverage a try. Mom liked it. But it did not become a favorite.

• That time Uncle Ray rode with us to Indianapolis to catch a train onward toward Alaska, Aunt Mary and Uncle Cal turned their room over to my parents and spread all us kids out through the rest of their home — and a neighbor made room for two of them and Uncle Ray over at their house. The night before Uncle Ray was to head on toward Alaska, Aunt Mary and Uncle Cal took him out for a little taste of big city nightlife, sharing a few drinks and catching some live music. My parents were none the wiser for years to come. Aunt Mary told me about it during one of our recent trips, about how much fun they had and how happy they were that Uncle Ray really enjoyed himself. He considered them good friends the rest of his life.

When I was a preschooler, I thought my Aunt Mary was some sort of a movie star. My mother and their other four sisters, all of whom I saw on a regular, sometimes daily basis because of proximity, also dressed well and kept their hair styled. But my Aunt Mary — whom I saw only once or twice a year on visits — was ALWAYS glamorous. And by the time I was three or four (here I am less than a year old in one of the accompanying photos), she'd dyed her hair the color of Lucille Ball’s.

Aunt Mary worked at a Roselyn Bakery, ultimately becoming its manager. Roselyn Bakeries were a ubiquitous part of Indianapolis culture for decades. A comparison might be to say they were to that city what Pal’s is to our region. When she’d come home for a visit, she’d bring fancy cakes, cookies and pastries. I thought this made the story about the stack cake a bit ironic: all that trouble to take cake to a woman running a famous bakery. “Oh, there is no comparison,” Mom said. “Everyone LOVED (their stepmother) Mary’s stack cakes. No one made stack cake like Mary made stack cake.”

And Aunt Mary herself told me she quickly got sick of the rich pastries and heavily iced bakery fare that she prepared and served up day after day after day.

These past two years, we haven’t taken Aunt Mary a stack cake (I’ve never made one), but we have taken here a cake each time (red velvet last year and hummingbird this year) — but thanks to the space provided by Phyllis’ mini-van, I haven’t had to carry a cake on my lap for 400 miles like poor (step) Grandma Mary. Here I will mention I never knew my maternal grandmother, who died before I was born. By the time I came along, the last grandchild from my mother’s generation, my grandfather, Null Wallen, had remarried the widowed Mary Tankersley Hurd.

We haven’t visited the state fair, but Phyllis and I have made a beeline to the big city department stores. Block’s is no more. Neither are Roselyn Bakeries, but many of the chain’s favorite items are available for mail order online as well as a cookbook filled with recipes and company history.

With Roselyn’s gone, Mom and I can openly stop at Long’s Bakery for their world-famous doughnuts, pies and cakes. We grab a few boxes on our way out of town. Long’s, you see, was Aunt Mary’s competition back when she was running a Roselyn’s.

Phyllis’s and my shopping diversions have been Macy’s (her, mainly) and Von Maur (me). And we hit every thrift store and yard sale we spot coming and going.

Phyllis also spent Sunday morning this last trip going to cousin Tim’s church, Graceway Fellowship. He’s the pastor. I wanted to get Mom over to visit Aunt Mary as early as possible, so I did not get to hear Tim preach. But I was happy to learn some of his sermons are available online.

Mom mainly spends every moment she can with her last surviving sibling Aunt Mary. In addition to hummingbird cake, this year we had a special delivery: Aunt Mary had been craving the pickled corn and pickled beans of her and Mother’s childhood. So Mother, the dutiful younger sister, “pickled” several pints of each and we drove those to Indianapolis as well. And, no, I didn’t have to hold those on my lap either.

The pickled corn and pickled beans are actually fermented, in a similar fashion as making kraut. Mother uses a recipe handed down from others.

For the hummingbird cake, I use the tried and true recipe first published by Southern Living 30 years or so ago. But I use a cream cheese recipe from Junior’s Deli in New York (which is also where I get my red velvet cake recipe). The Southern Living recipe is online. If you want the Junior’s recipes, I think you’ll have to buy the cookbook.

Speaking of delis, if you’re ever in Indianapolis and need to nosh, my publisher, Hoosier native Keith Wilson, strongly recommends Shapiro’s.