For the last few years of his life, we shared our May birthdays. Our family had sensible celebrations: cake and ice cream after dinner–maybe some candles and a few gifts. I had turned 17 that last year. He was hospitalized and died in the fall around Thanksgiving time. That was the first complete dinner I had prepared by myself since Mom and Grandma were occupied at the hospital keeping vigil.
Long before I was ever thought of, he was looking out for his younger sister Elsie. Originally from Kankakee, Illinois, Walter Dahling had married his wife, Mary, and they were living in Chicago where he worked as an engineer on the trains of the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad Company. They had no children of their own, but helped out several extended family members as needed. Around 1917, my grandmother–Elsie Dahling Gerhardt tried to hang on to hope. Her husband had abandoned her and his two childen, Herman (about 2 1/2) and Lizetta (about 18 months). Brother Walter rescued her and the babies and he and Aunt Mary provided a home for the three of them.
He was a father to my fatherless mom and her brother. “No nonsense” describes the home Uncle Walter provided. Stories and quotes have trickled down through the generations. For example, once when Uncle Herman complained about the peas Aunt Mary had served at a meal, Uncle Walter sternly said, “Everything on this table is good to eat.” And with a fist pound on that table added, “Commence!”
He was firm about the fact that one was not fully dressed until shoes were on the feet. And speaking of shoes, his sister Elsie was not quite as straight-laced (pun intended, perhaps) when it came to fashion. Her brother would comment on her shoes that may not have been very comfortable: “You need to buy shoes to fit your feet not your face.” Mom told us that Grandma would buy pretty patent leathers for her, but Aunt Mary would return them for brown oxfords! (I never met Aunt Mary but she may have been a bit like Marilla of Lucy Maude Mongomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Her kitchen was her kitchen and my mother’s only housekeeping skills when she married were how to peel potatoes and darn socks!)
As his nephew and niece faced their teenage years, Uncle Walter had some advice that still rings true: “Gentlemen keep their hands to themselves.” (Sister Elsie remarried when her children were in their teens, but they chose to stay with Uncle Walter and Aunt Mary until they each married their spouses.)
Herman and Lizetta also enjoyed summer trips to Altorf, Illinois where Walter and Mary had a summer cottage. Her uncle helped my mom get her first job and had this advice when she went to purchase a vehicle: “”Tain’t the cost–’tis the upkeep that will be expensive.”
After his wife died, Walter moved to Kankakee and shared housekeeping with another sister, Clara, who had been widowed after years as a farmer’s wife in Wisconsin. Back to their birth county, they attend Our Savior Lutheran Church in Bradley, Illinois where Walter served faithfully as custodian. Aunt Clara passed away first, and Uncle Walter lived out his days once again sharing home and board with now-widowed Sister Elsie in Chicago. I am truly thankful for his good boundaries and big heart that provided home and hearth for my mom.