Ted's Life

10/4/11 - Ted's mother passed away last year about this time, a few days after her 101st birthday. One hundred and one years old. The number challenges comprehension.

Mavis Madine Pankey was born in Brookfield, Linn County, Missouri on September 30, 1909 into a prominent family whose fortunes came from hard, honest work in America's burgeoning oil business, combined with a jolly outlook on life and a dollop of robust charisma.

Hallenburg farmhouseGroetecke monumentBefore oil came along, Madine's forebears made their way in the world like everybody else in the mid-western USA. They were farmers and they were good at it. The farmhouses and graves of Pankeys, Groetekes, and Hallenbergs dot the countryside south and west of Brookfield. Until the 20th century arrived, these were people who stayed put, doing right by their families and their community, working a profitable gig and enjoying the lifestyle of breadbasket agriculture. They could also trace their lineage directly back to the sister of George Washington, which is as close to royalty as you can get in the United States of America.

A fine young womanMadine was a daughter of privilege. She knew it and she was perfectly comfortable with the distinction. Her jovial father referred to her as his "hothouse flower," especially after she sustained a back injury falling from her horse. She bore the aura of her father's endearment (and the injury) for the rest of her life.

Madine grew up to be a fine young woman. She behaved within the boundaries befitting the offspring of community movers and shakers and never brought shame, stress, or cause for concern to her parents.

Madine found her mate in a young man from a respectable, although less steller Brookfield family, the Decapitos. The Decapito dad worked (all the livelong day) as a conductor on the railroad. Mama Decapito was a homemaker and good enough at it to satisfy the Pankeys, although they secretly thought she was a ditz and everybody said she slipped into her pantry a couple of times a day to take a pull on some kind of liquid she kept in there.

Theodore Francis deCapito was the younger of the two Decapito children. His older sister, Olive, was a teacher at the elementary school and taught both Theodore and Madine. Theodore began courting Madine shortly before he left Brookfield to attend the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Theodore "Cap" DecapitoWhen Theodore returned to Brookfield four years later, he was a certified civil engineer, specializing in drainage, which perhaps interested him because of Brookfield's swampy origins.

Theodore and Madine got hitched and headed off to Cleveland, Ohio. Theodore (who assumed his father's nickname, "Cap") accepted an offer of employment with Republic Steel. The offer was precious because the year was 1932 and we all know what the employment situation was like in 1932.

The ever-practical (and squeaky tight) Cap left Madine in Brookfield when he traveled to Cleveland for the interview with Republic Steel. Times were tough and there was no need to spend money so the little lady could accompany him, especially if Republic didn't hire him.

Republic did hire him though, so Cap rented an inexpensive apartment in Cleveland before he returned to Brookfield for Madine. They hopped on the train in Brookfield and rolled east down the tracks toward their destiny.

A fancy womanThe first thing Madine discovered in Cleveland was that the apartment Cap rented was in the red light district. "Men leered at me when I went out," she complained. She never forgave Cap for that transgression, even though she knew the apartment was temporary, selected precisely because it was cheap so the couple could keep expenses down while Madine searched for more suitable accommodations. That said, one must admit that the girl did look like a fancy woman, with her fox fur and her velvet-paneled coat, and a Packard. And what's in that bottle on the Packard's running board anyway?

The second thing Madine discovered was that the spelling of her married name, deCapito, suggested to Clevelanders that she had Italians in her woodpile. She certainly could have THAT, and quietly adopted the spelling "de Capiteau," thereby laying claim to a heritage of French aristocracy. Nobody's sure if the claim is legitimate. The Decapito name first showed up in Brookfield with Cap's grandfather. Published history and family recollections are vague about where the first Missouri Decapito came from and stunningly silent about the circumstances of his arrival in Brookfield and his departure from his previous location.

Legitimate or not, the spelling, de Capiteau, gave Madine a feeling of status and superiority in the big pond of Cleveland--which was as important to her as her her bullfrog-sized status in the very small pond of Brookfield. Cap adopted the new spelling without protest. Madine could now claim a blood connection to Hugh Capet himself and the Huguenots of Virginia. She couldn't lose with a pedigree like that.

Ted and Alice AnnTed's parents visited Brookfield as often as they could once Ted and his sister, Alice Ann, came along. They always spent at least Christmas and the Fourth of July in Brookfield. Cap would use vacation leave and then head back to Ohio and his job. Madine and the kids stayed a while longer, especially in the summer. Everybody knew everybody in Brookfield, so Ted formed friendships and enjoyed the advantages of indulgent and respected grandparents. Today, his childhood tales relate more to Brookfield than anywhere in his Ohio birthplace.

The Pankey placeTed didn't get to Brookfield much after he left home. He drove there once with Madine and flew there for his father's funeral. After Cap went to his reward, Ted's grandmother and Madine's brother followed in short order. A neighbor bought his grandmother's house and tore it down.

The trip to Brookfield for Madine's funeral last year was important to Ted. He knew it would be the last time he would go there. With all his Brookfield family gone, he had no reason to return.

Madine was the last person remaining alive in Ted's immediate family (Alice Ann died in 2001), so the trip was a poignant one. We drove up US 54 from New Mexico to Missouri. Ted took cell phone calls from the funeral home in Brookfield to finalize arrangements for Madine and made calls to friends and family to advise of the developing plans.

Outside the Dalhart, TX Holiday Inn ExpressWe spent a night in Dalhart, TX. (When you go there, you know it's Texas because of the horses. You know it's Dalhart because of the bouquet from the town's numerous cattle feedlots.)

The next day we drove on to Brookfield. We got there around sunset, guided to Brookfield's Best Western hotel by GPS. At least that was the theory. We followed the GPS directions to the northeast beyond Brookfield on the road toward St. Catherine. When the GPS lady told us, "arriving at destination, on right," all I could see was the watery Brookfield reservoir (which Ted's father designed). Ted called the hotel. The desk clerk laughed and said it happens all the time. The Garmin folks have their location wrong, very wrong, and are unable to correct it for reasons understood only by Garmin. She wasn't sure how many guests end up in the water. "We don't hear from the ones who don't make it," she giggled. What a gal.

Next morning we set out for breakfast, the funeral home, and a day to explore the town. Breakfast was filling. At the funeral home, the funeral director asked us for a recent photo of Madine so he could arrange her hair properly. When Ted gave him the photo, he blanched and swallowed. Then he said he would do his best, but looked dubious. As it turned out, the facility where Madine was living at the end had shorn her hair so short she looked like a boy. It was no doubt easier for the staff to deal with the comotose woman's hair that way, but she sure didn't look much like herself. Nothing to be done for it. Although short, Madine's white hair was clean and shiny.

Ted treated himself to a haircut at the barbershop now run by a boyhood friend, who recognized Ted and was tickled to see him.

Downtown BrookfieldBrookfield is a delightful little town. It's located far from the rest of civilization and it is the Linn County seat. As a result, it is surviving more or less intact as the area's commercial center. WalMart, of course, did away with most of the small businesses and stores that historically lined Main Street, but Main Street itself remains tidy and well-maintained. There are few boarded-up storefronts, but the businesses that inhabit the larger ones are insurance or real estate sales offices, non-profit social-service organizations, a supplier of technical and computer services, and a couple of antique dealers. The town's traditional role as a Saturday destination for shopping and to meet friends is long past. A few businesses remain--the barbershop, a tiny department store that hangs on somehow, a drug store. The decline of rail passenger service has left the train station a dusty foundation, but the trains still stop and go to support the region's agriculture.

Ted's grandfather's business, the storage facility of Pankey Oil and its various gas stations that were scattered throughout the town, are gone. Main Street is still the main artery through town, but few people stop. Apartments and commercial space above the street-level storefronts are mostly empty. It's quiet downtown and it feels like a museum. Everything seems to have stopped suddenly 50 years ago; a visitor is wary of touching things for fear they will crumble to dust.

Brookfield City ParkNevertheless, much remains of traditional Brookfield. The town has no sparkling new subdivisions pocked with modern pseudo-Victorian houses. Instead, most of the old houses have been kept up and remodeled. The town park still has huge trees and a bandstand. Kids still gather on the park's southwest corner across the street from an ice cream shop. People still smile their greetings to one another. The churches still stand where they always have and the townsfolk still gather in them on Sunday. Friendly dogs and cats still approach passersby on the sidewalks and follow them to the end of the block.

Ted thinks that should I leave this world before he does, he will move back to Brookfield to renovate and reside in a sunny loft over a vacant storefront on the east side of Main Street, where the morning sun will warm his bones and he can lean out one of his large windows and bark at the kids skateboarding down the sidewalk.

Madine's funeral was attended by a few people--a funny and generous Pankey cousin from Cedar Falls, a distant cousin who still lives in Brookfield and practices geneology, the town's historian, Ted's grandmother's (Hallie's) next-door-neighbors, the ones who bought Hallie's house and then tore it down. The neighbors are buying up dilapidated houses in their neighborhood and tearing them down, perhaps to replace them with new housing some day, but meanwhile preserving the neighborhood's safety and property values. The area thus has several parcels of open green space, but nobody spends any time in them except the contractor who keeps the grass cut.

The neighbors seemed uncomfortable in Ted's presence about their decision to demolish Hallie's house. They invited us to visit the site, where they pointed out the things they preserved--the carriage house, gutted and remodeled as a commodious work shop, a pebbled bird bath Hallie made, heavy oak cabinets and trim from the dining room, employed in their own house next door. They replaced the house with a spectacular garden, in which descendents of Hallie's own plants thrive. They explained apologetically that the old house was rented out after Hallie died and was largely unmaintained by its new owner. The house was afflicted with termites, caving in on the back wall, and about to collapse into its own basement. The neighbors felt they had no other choice but to demolish the place.

Ted appreciated their predicament, but nevertheless sighed ruefully after we left their company.

Brookfield's memorial to those fallen in warAfter Madine's funeral and burial service, we walked through an October Brookfield afternoon from the park and past houses of long-gone Pankey relatives and acquaintances, crunching over leaves that were beginning to fall from the huge trees lining every street and passing by the war monument that mentions Rick Holzer, a friend of Ted's who succombed to Viet Nam.

The next morning, we paid a final visit to the Rose Hill Cemetery, where Madine now rests alongside Cap, and where other relatives lie.

Then we put a period at the end of a chapter in Ted's story and left for New Mexico and a return to the present.

Ted's father Pankey headstone