Ow my leg hurts! My family

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on April 6, 2019

My family


You’ve already met several members of my family:  Grandfather Rettig (the basket maker), his wife (Grandmother Rettig, the matriarch), my father, and my mother.  Here is a bit more about them.


Opa Rettig


Opa Rettig was not only a basket maker, he was also the village butcher in Old Amana.  He had a wide knowledge about a lot of things, was friendly, but quite reserved.  I see this last characteristic as one that helped his marriage to Oma Rettig succeed.  She bossed, he listened.


Opa liked to tell stories.  My favorite one concerns the chief of the Meskwaki, a Native American tribe that lives about 50 miles west of my native village.  The Meskwaki would canoe down the Iowa River and camp near areas of the river that ran through the Amana villages.  One of the sacred areas they frequented was located just northwest of South Amana, where I currently live.  They would often perform ceremonial dances there.


A neighbor (now deceased) just to the north of our current house liked to tell of his encounter with the Meskwaki tribe.  As a young boy, he heard tribe members chanting one summer evening.  Curious, he sneaked to the site and hid behind a tree.  In order to see the ceremony, however, he had to peek out from behind his tree quite often.


During one of those peekings, he was discovered.  He panicked, thinking he would certainly be captured and heaven knows what would have happened then!  The chief came forward as my neighbor cowered in fear.  Extending his hand, the chief beckoned him to come to him.  Taking the boy’s hand, the chief led him to the circle of his fellow tribe members and motioned for him to take a seat on the ground.


It soon became obvious to my neighbor that his life was not in danger, but instead he was being treated as an honored guest!  After the ceremony, the chief chaperoned him back to his house to make sure he got home safely.  Thereafter, every time the Meskwaki came to that sacred spot by the river, the chief would make a special trip to the boy’s house to invite him to join them in their ceremony.


Back to Opa’s story:  The chief and my grandfather were best friends.  As soon as he landed, the chief would make a beeline for my grandfather’s butcher shop, because Opa would give him lard.  Lard was used by the Meskwaki not only for cooking, but was also mixed with pigment for body paint.


The agenda for the day was to shoot the breeze as my grandfather worked, and if the tribe didn’t do a ceremony that day, the pair would have an evening meal together and then retire to my grandfather’s basement where he had several barrels of grape and rhubarb wine.  They would imbibe until late into the night, becoming totally inebriated.  The chief would always insist that Opa accompany him back to the encampment because he was afraid of evil spirits.  Opa said that sometimes the chief would even howl to keep the evil spirits away.


The Meskwaki are the only tribe in the entire USA who don’t live on a reservation.  They own their land outright.  Recently, some Old Amana documents were discovered which seem to give credence to the story that the Amana Society gave them money to assist with the purchase.


Oma Rettig


The elders in Old Amana recognized the value of my grandmother’s strong personality, appointing her as a kitchen boss in one of my village’s nine communal kitchens.  That kitchen was in a wing attached to our house.  After the end of communal Amana in 1932, she and Opa were able to buy that wing, remodel it, and call it home for the rest of their lives.


By the 1950s, tourism was booming in the Amana villages.  The former communal kitchen diagonally across from Oma’s now-remodeled kitchen was leased by a local restaurant owner to show his customers what such a kitchen was like in Old Amana.  It had been left just as it was under the old communal system by the owner of the property and became a very popular museum.  My grandmother, being the person she was, was hired as a guide there, so she was able to speak from personal experience.  Tourists loved her bossiness and her no-holds-barred directness.  She became a beloved and must-see character on any tour of the Amana villages.


Eventually, Oma was hired for bus tours as well.  While doing a tour of Amana, the main village among the seven, she would issue a command to the bus driver:  ”Now you stop here!”  It was the location of Oma’s favorite restaurant.  “Everybody out!”  The tourists would dutifully get off the bus and follow Oma inside.  “Now you buy me a Bier!” she commanded.  Someone in the crowd would just as dutifully buy her a beer.  After several hearty slugs, she would announce:  “Now I sing for you!”  And she would launch into her favorite hymn, in German, of course.


Oma was a song leader in the Amana Church.  She had a beautiful and powerful singing voice.  The tourists were simply in awe.  Here she was, singing a church hymn in a beerhall!  They absolutely loved it.


Not only did Oma enjoy a beer now and then, she also smoked the occasional cigar.  Our family often spent summer evenings outside, due to the stifling warmth indoors in an era when air conditioning did not yet exist.  But summer evenings also brought mosquitoes.  “Leonard, gif me one of your ceegars,” she would intone.  “Those damn moskwitoes!”



Stardom for Oma


One day in her role as kitchen guide she was demonstrating some of the old kitchen equipment.  “Now what is this?” she demanded as she reached for a metal cylinder with worm-sized holes in it.  It had a wooden dowel that fit fairly snuggly inside the cylinder.  Of course, no one knew what it was.  “It’s a potato ricer!” she exclaimed in triumph.  As she was about to move on to another item, a young man in the group stepped forward.


“Could you demonstrate that again, please?  I’d like to take some photos.”  She happily obliged.  The young man introduced himself as an ad executive for Betty Crocker.  “We’re coming out with a new product soon,” he explained.  “I’d like you to come out to Los Angeles to shoot some commercials.  Your potato ricer will be the old fashioned way to process potatoes and our product will demonstrate the new way to do it.”  The new product, it turns out, was Betty Crocker Potato Buds, the first instant mashed potatoes.


“Of course, we’ll fly you out to Los Angeles,” he continued.  Oma interrupted him as “Los Angeles” had barely crossed his lips.  “I’m NOT getting on an aeroplane!”  “That’s fine,” he said.  “You can travel by rail.”  That appealed to Oma, since her father had been the depot agent for the Amana Society back in the day.  As such, he occasionally arranged for her to ride the rails just for the sheer joy of it.  The clincher that sealed the deal, was the fact that her twin sister lived in Los Angeles and she’d be able to stay with her.


Oma knew that her sister loved Handkäs and wanted to bring her some.  It was a specialty cheese once served in the communal kitchens.  Formed in the palms of one’s hands, it was laid out to age, usually on a window sill.  The end result was very smelly, not unlike the once-well-known Limburger cheese.  Her dilemma was that she didn’t know how to make it.  This from a kitchen boss!  She happily confessed that she didn’t know how to cook.  As kitchen boss, she could certainly boss, and the young ladies who did the cooking had recipes to follow.


As an aside, what do you suppose she did after the communal kitchens closed?  After all, she had to provide meals for her family.  She bought cartons and cartons of canned goods.  “You’re hungry?  Open a can!” was her solution to that little problem.


So Oma cajoled one of her fellow retired kitchen bosses into making the cheese for her.  She packed it with the rest of her carry-on belongings and headed for the train station.  Soon after taking her seat, other passengers in the car began to sniff the air.  “What is that horrible smell?!”  Oma said nothing.  One of the passengers caught up with the conductor and complained about the offensive odor.  It didn’t take long for him to find the source:  Oma’s Handkäs.  She had stored it under her seat, next to a heat vent.  The conductor confiscated the offender.  “You’ll get this back when you get off.”


Oma arrived at her sister’s without further incident.  It was a joyous reunion.  Separated by such a long distance, they hadn’t seen each other in a very long time.  The next day it was off to the studio to begin making commercials.  The first thing she was required to do was to join the Screen Actors Guild.  Dues were covered by Betty Crocker.


Things were progressing nicely until Oma’s dentures broke in the midst of one of the commercials.  Everything came to a grinding halt.  The denture repair took several days.  Oma didn’t mind, because it gave her more time with her sister.  The rest of the filming went well, and Oma was sent home with a whole new wardrobe and a reel of film containing her commercials.


It was a triumphant homecoming.  She now had star power! 


Soon an evening was arranged for the showing of her commercials.  It seemed like nearly everyone from all seven villages had crowded into the school gymnasium.  It was a short program.  About 15 minutes and then it was over.  That certainly didn’t bother Oma.  The most important thing to her was the adulation and congratulations she received afterwards.


Oma was bossy, but ultimately she had a kind heart.  The money she received from Betty Crocker went into a special account.  Every Christmas henceforth, Oma treated her entire extended family (about 20 people) to a Christmas dinner at her favorite restaurant, drawing from the funds in that special account.  Why dinner at a restaurant and not at home?  Because she couldn’t cook!


Postscript:  About two years after her commercial-making adventure, the Screen Actors Guild went on strike.  At a family gathering around that time, my wife, Wilma, said to her, “Oma, you’re on strike now.  You need to make yourself a sign that says ‘On Strike’ and parade up and down the sidewalk in front of your house.”  We had her stumped for about five seconds.  Then she smiled and said, “Ihr seid alle verrickt!”  (You’re crazy, the whole lot of you!)

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About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.

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