Nellie: The Character in Real Life and Fiction
I planned to write one of those breezy holiday letters — full of cheer and memories and romantic notions of snow-dusted treetops and faint bells jingling in the distance — clear cold nights and strong hot drinks. But alas, life interferes with romance yet again. My mother, Nellie, 92 and healthy until she was not, passed away the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Since you must be readers of the Jane Wheel books if you’re visiting this website, I believe you know my mother, Nellie, who served as the model for Jane’s mother named Nellie. It’s not that I don’t have an imagination –it’s just that the real Nellie was such a presence that when she became the fictional Nellie, her name just stubbornly remained — I couldn’t have named her otherwise.
Nellie was a great character in my life — always on the cranky and impatient side when she was overworked and underpaid as the chief cook and bottle washer at the real E Z Way Inn in Kankakee — but relentlessly loyal and supportive and even, on occasion, motherly — to my brother and me and also to the “boys” at the EZ Way Inn. To illustrate, here’s an excerpt from Phil Angelo’s column of November 28 in the Kankakee Daily Journal:
For a generation, Don and Nellie Schmidt’s EZ Way Inn was a second “home away from home” for the many workers at the Roper stove factory on the west side of Kankakee. Nellie Schmidt, 92, died at her home Friday in Adrian, Mich., where she lived in an assisted living facility close to her son’s family. Perched on 2228 W. Station, the longtime tavern served sandwiches and Nellie’s homemade vegetable soup 365 days a year. Another tavern is located on the site now, but it’s not the same one. The original building burned down a number of years ago.One year, daughter Sharon Sloan Fiffer remembers, Mom tried to convince Dad that the tavern ought to at least close for Christmas.”But if we did,” he said, “some of these guys would have no place to go.”
“Bring’ em along,” Nellie said.
So, Fiffer remembers, that was the year Barney and Vince went to her grandma’s house. She remembers, too, that Barney and Vince, ever grateful, brought along presents for the kids. She remembers getting $5 in a plastic toy purse. “Or maybe it was $1.” Whatever it was, it seemed like a fortune 40 years ago.
Nellie and the EZ Way Inn gave me the stories of my childhood which, in turn, have helped me develop the stories I tell, the stories I live. Holidays can be rough — whether you’re Vince and Barney, with nowhere to go, whether you’re my grandmother who had to open her door to strangers — or whether you have to make sense of a family which just doesn’t lend itself to a clear narratives and a happy endings.
But before the tears flow and the sentiment swarms, let’s go back to a ho-ho-ho holiday! I wish you all so much laughter and warmth this season and always. Thanks for all your support as readers and true friends of Jane, Charley, Nick, Tim and Oh and, of course, Don and Nellie and all the boys at the EZ Way Inn. The EZ Way Inn always sported holiday decorations — sparkling and shimmering and well-lit with nice vintage colored lights. Don your vintage Santa hats, pull out your old cast iron latke pans, and celebrate those you love!
Here’s to a well-lit, colorful life for us all.
– December 1, 2010