A Grandson Remembers His Grandma

William Torgerson Olga Russell Winamac, Indiana Russell's Old Trading Post death obituary faith God prayer

Grandma and Me in Charlotte, NC

You might be surprised to know that my grandma Ogie was quite the volley balloon player.  This was a made up game that my sister and I used to play with her when we’d visit her house on Highway 14 across from the Tippecanoe River in Winamac, Indiana. Grandma would take two wooden chairs from the kitchen table, spread them out the width of the kitchen, and place a broomstick across the chairs so that we could swat a balloon back and forth over the wooden “net.” It was always my sister Anne and Ogie against myself. Other activities included a board game called Aggravation, regular walks across the back pasture to what was then Ben Franklin for a toy, and each fall we went to Russell’s Old Trading Post for school shoes.  There was a conveyor belt that went from the back room down to the basement and we used to ride it up and down.  The setting for my short story “Ye Olde Trading Post” in my novel Horseshoe was based on a drawing of the store as it used to be. My grandma and grandpa were fun.  As kids we weren’t afraid to break anything or make a big mess. Their house, and their lives for that matter, were for living.

Russell's Old Trading Post Winamac, Indiana Horseshoe faith God

sketch by John Sterling Lucas

(photo from artwork at Grandma’s house)

My grandma wrote me a lot of letters, and I’d like to use the content of those letters to write about the person she was. The letters have been coming my whole life, and I even received one as recently as this year.  I suppose at the peak of Grandma’s writing, she averaged about one every other month. Later than I would have hoped, I started saving thes letters. One of her latest is on my desk here in Connecticut where I live, and I have a file full of them in my office in New York. When I lay the letters from the past few years out in front of me, I can see the change in grandma’s handwriting, see how it became more painful and exhausting for her to write them for me.  I’d always intended to read from the letters at her funeral, but I was in a hurry to go see her in the last week of her life and I forgot them. It’s probably just as well because one of the lines near the end of most of the letters contained the phrase, “I don’t read them over.” The idea was that the letters had mistakes and if she read it over then she wouldn’t send them.  I don’t remember any mistakes. I think the line is more of an indication of Ogie’s humble way.  Her life was a life of service.  Service to those at the store, service to the people in her community, and service to her daughter Judy and her husband Bill in the time that preceded their deaths.

Olga Russell Aspen Winamac, Indiana William Torgerson death obituary funeral faith God prayer

Grandchild Aspen and Our Grandma

Whether I was nineteen or forty, Ogie’s letters contained a twenty dollar bill and the instructions to “Go eat!” That twenty dollar bill indicates how determined Ogie was to share her blessings. Whether it was money, something in her house, or love, Ogie was determined to give it away. Let’s say my cousin Aspen’s air conditioning broke. Ogie would often chip in to help fix it, and then without my sister Anne or I even knowing what had happened, we would receive a check in the mail for the exact amount that Ogie had given Aspen. I remember being in middle school when I was walking through the mall with my grandma.  We stopped at one of those talking parrots where you say something to the parrott, it records your voice, and says what you said back. I probably laughed and made a passing comment about the toy, and then I received the bird the following Christmas. You had to be careful what you said to my grandma. The first time my wife Megan met Ogie, I warned Megan as we sat in the car outside in Grandma’s driveway, “Don’t tell her you like anything in the house.” Well, we got inside and later Megan complimented Ogie’s paperweight collection. “Which one do you want?” Ogie asked. There was no way my grandma was going to let Megan out of the house without taking the paperweight.  Thank goodness Megan didn’t compliment Ogie on the concrete deer that stood in her shrubbery.

Olga Russell Winamac, Indiana death obituary faith God prayer

Ogie and her Great Grandchildren

Ogie always drew a smiley face somewhere in her letter and sometimes there was a big yellow sticker affixed to the back of the envelope.  It was an ordinary “Have a Nice Day” smiley face, except for that Ogie’s smiley faces had tight curly hair. I took the image to be Ogie’s self portrait, and it’s no accident that it’s a cheerful one. Ogie taught me a very important lesson: she showed me how to be sad about those we love who are gone but at the same time fill the life we have left with joy.  Just about every time I saw my grandma, she talked about how much she missed her daughter Judy and then later her husband Bill. Ogie showed me it was possible in one moment to be full of sadness remembering a loved one who was no longer with her, and then in the next minute say something to me that caused her shoulders to rock with laughter. She taught me a lesson I’ve tried to learn myself and now pass on to my daughters:  it’s often up to us whether or not we are going to go through life cranky and complaining, or whether we’re going to choose to be positive and try to help those around us.  Ogie was incredibly positive, even in the last week of life.

Olga Russell death obituary love God faith Russell's Old Trading Post Winamac, Indiana

a letter from Grandma 3/7/2010

As with my grandfather’s funeral, my mom asked the family to brainstorm adjectives to describe my grandma.  (as mom joked, “…apparently this is what English teachers do.”) Somebody suggested the word “stubborn,” and I know there was some doubt on my mom’s part whether or not such a word should be included at someone’s funeral. I can tell you there is a thread of stubborn that runs at least from my grandma Ogie through her daughters, to their children, and then to Ogie’s great grandchildren. When Ogie’s daughter Judy was a little girl, she said something that hurt my mom’s feelings. Grandpa and my mom were set to head off to work at the store, and Judy was told to sit on a step until she apologized to my mother.  Judy sat on the steps and refused to apologize. My mom and grandpa went to work. When they came home for lunch, Judy was still on the steps and still refusing to apologize. My grandma liked to tell that story.  As for her own stubbornness, when Ogie moved into my parents’ spare bedroom, I was told that as she came in with mom, my dad said something to the effect of, “Welcome to our home.” My grandmother’s response? “Thank you, but I don’t want to be here.” It wasn’t that my grandmother didn’t like my dad or my parents’ house. Right up until the end, Ogie was worried about everyone else, and she hated the idea that she was being a burden. She wasn’t. We were all so thankful to get to spend time visiting with her.

Without fail, Ogie’s letters always had a sentence that told me she was proud of me and that she loved me. When loved ones pass away, I often hear phrases that begin something like this: “If only I’d have known…Or, I wish I could have told her…”  This wasn’t the case with Ogie. My whole life, whether it was in person or through letters, both of my grandparents told me that they were proud of me and that they loved me.  They didn’t say this in passing. They told me in a shoulder grabbing, make full eye-contact, tell-me-twice kind of way, and that’s just one of the many ways that the lives of my Grandpa Bill and my Grandmother Olga will live on. My daughters will know that I am proud of them and that I love them. They have already played volley balloon ball across a broomstick and hunted plastic Easter eggs with treasures inside just like I did when I was a kid.

Bill and Olga Russell Winamac, Indiana Russell's Old Trading Post

My Grandparents: Bill and Olga Russell

My grandma and grandpa didn’t want anything in return for what they gave us. They wanted us to do the same for the family members who would come after us. They were able to help us financially, spiritually, and emotionally, and they hoped that someday we might be in position to do the same for somebody else. I told grandma during the last week of her life that she and grandpa will always be a part of why I do what I do. I will try to stay focused on taking actions which would make them proud. On the day my grandma died, she told me that my girls would grow up fast. She also said about dying, “It’s not hard. It doesn’t hurt.” Grandma did hurt some even thought she wouldn’t admit it, but we were very thankful that she was mostly comfortable. I didn’t see a bit of fear or doubt on Ogie’s part when it came to what was going to happen to her after death. That she passed away with miminal pain after having spent the week with her family, was exactly what she wanted. It was an answer her prayers and ours. My grandmother’s faith was strong and she was anxious to get to Heaven.  Thank the Lord for that.




Horseshoe, a novel in stories

Horseshoe is a novel in Southern Gothic tone stirred with Midwestern sensibility that churns the waters of the Tippecanoe River that embrace the town of Horseshoe and its inhabitants.  The novel’s stories are told from multiple characters and points of view. Each chapter can be a standalone story. But when read as a whole, the book produces a rich, multilayered tale of life in a small town.

“The town of Horseshoe is modeled somewhat after my own small hometown of Winamac, Indiana,” Torgerson admits.

“Once I moved out of Winamac to bigger cities such as Fort Wayne in Indiana and Charlotte in North Carolina, I came to realize that it was a really unique feature of living in a small town that everyone knows everybody else’s business,” Torgerson says.  “If you’re from Winamac and marry a person from Winamac, then you likely know that person’s entire history.  You know what they did in the park when they were twelve, and you know the details of their first divorce.  My friends here in New York City do not tend to have the same sort of experiences.  They meet strangers and date strangers and there are parts of those people’s history which remain eternally hidden.”

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen Horseshoe

click cover to read excerpt on Amazon

The “knowing everybody else’s business” feature of his small hometown was an aspect he strived to illustrate in the stories. “I knew I wanted to have a grocery-store story but I couldn’t imagine what would happen there,” Torgerson says. “Oh sure, I had ideas, but the story surfaced for me when I was browsing a Bible concordance where I was looking for words connected to love, marriage, divorce, and adultery.  It was the verse from Leviticus that unlocked the story for me, that gave me the idea for the Biblical egging of Uncle David and Aunt Barb.  I think stories need that sort of unexpected turn or surprise, and so I guess I could say in a way that God delivered that part of the story to me.”

Torgerson explains that once he thinks he has an idea of where the story might go, he gives himself over to the language and uses it as the mode of transportation to find the conclusion.

“There are almost always surprises,” Torgerson says, “but I like to know where the story is headed when I begin.  I wrote using similar processes with ‘The Bloody Bucket’ and ‘The Secret,’ the latter story inspired by a student who told me his mother had tried to kill him.  Of course he’s not the only person to whom that had ever happened.  It seems like I hear that story every once in awhile, and my story allowed me to experience a bit of what it must be like to be mother and child.”

“Welcome to Horseshoe, Indiana,” Bryan Furuness, author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, states from his reading of an advanced copy. “In the tradition of Winesburg, Ohio, William Torgerson’s new book links stories about big doings in a small town. With a style that is always engaging and often hilarious, Torgerson has written what Sherwood Anderson would have written if he had a sense of humor.”

Jane Roper, author of Eden Lake, says, “As I read, I felt as if each character’s longing, anger, lust or regret were temporarily my own. It hurt—in the best possible way.”

Horseshoe is available now at bookstores and on-line at Amazon.com and BN.com from Cherokee McGhee Publishing.

For more information on William Torgerson, please visit http://www.TheTorg.com.  Visit http://www.CherokeeMcGhee.com for more information on the publishing house and its current and future novels.


William J. Torgerson is an assistant professor in the Institute for Writing Studies at St. John’s University in New York.  His first novel Love on the Big Screen tells the story of a college freshman whose understanding of love is shaped by late-eighties romantic comedies, and his adaptation of that novel won the Grand Prize of the Flickers Rhode Island International Film Festival Screenplay Competition.

William Torgerson Horseshoe Love on the Big Screen

a fictional Ye Olde Trading Post

William’s work has appeared in numerous literary and scholarly journals, including his article “Learning to Surf the Sea of Conversation,” which is forthcoming in the Journal of Teaching Writing.  Over an eleven year span of teaching and coaching, William worked with students ranging from grades six through twelve in the public schools of Indiana and North Carolina.


Media Kit available at: http://www.cherokeemcghee.com/Torgerson/mediakit/MediaKit.htm

If You’ve Moved Around A lot, How Do You Know Where You’re From?

Whether it was a house, an apartment, or a condo, the building I’ve called home in my life has changed twenty-three times in my thirty-nine years.  Last summer, for the first time in twelve years, I didn’t move.  Sometimes I moved twice in one year. Given all that, how do I know where I’m from?  What do I call my hometown?

Kayaking on the Tippy with (not pictured) Bassmaster Kevin "Herb" Larkin

For me, these questions weren’t so hard to figure out.  I just “felt” their answers, a state-of-knowing by feeling that I usually try to avoid.  For about ten years I let my feelings be the primary rudder that directed my life and they took me into some pretty treacherous waters.  “Do I feel as if I love her?”  Now I try to let my thinking tell me what to do, and I find that if I just do what I know to do, my feelings will often fill in the sails of action behind me.

But in the case of “where I’m from,” I know the answer in my gut:  Winamac, Indiana.  Although it’s not where I was born or where I went to school through the seventh grade, it’s the place where I graduated from high school and the town where both of my parents grew up.  Winamac is a small town set up high on the bank of a horseshoe bend of the Tippecanoe River.  I remember once when I went away to college and brought a friend home for a long weekend. He asked, “When are we going to get on the interstate?”  Travelling from Kankakee, Illinois to Winamac there are only two-lane roads and lots of corn fields.  We weren’t getting on any interstate.

In 1984 I was fourteen years old and burning to see Eddie Murphy’s Beverley Hills Cop.  All my friends were going; they had permission from their parents to see the rated “R” rated flick, but my mom told me I wasn’t old enough to go.  I hatched a plan for circumventing my mother, and my first mistake was that I stopped pestering her to go.  Like my own daughter now, when I wanted something, my primary plan was to beat my mother into submission with countless repeated requests.  Letting it go to fast probably sparked her suspicion that something was up.  My buddies were going to an afternoon matinée and so when show time came around, I told my mom I was doing something like going down to the park to shoot hoops.  She said fine and I was a bit surprised.

The Isis Theater Where My Mother Cut Me Off At the Pass Twenty-Six Years Ago

I went straight to the Isis Theater, but when I got to the ticket counter—facing an attendant for all I knew I’d never seen before—I was denied admission. Although I don’t remember anything about the attendant, I do remember what he or she said:  “Your mom called and told us not to let you in.”  Mom was smart:  who cares about where Bill is; I know where he wants to go.

So Winamac—where the Pizza King is tasty, the bike paths are flat, and a nice day is best spent on the Tippy—it’s the place where I say I’m from.  As for my oldest daughter—the child of a Midwesterner and a Southerner, born in Macon, Georgia; one-time resident of Queens and now living in Connecticut—I can’t imagine from where the little girl is going to say she’s from.  Us four Torgs, we were all born in a different state.

It’s easy for me to know where I’m from.  My parents mostly kept anchored in Winamac, so no matter how old I was—nineteen or thirty-nine—when I go visit them I am returning to the same place.  I’m certain not everyone has it this easy, and I wonder if the notion of a hometown is a problematic source of stress for some, if being from no place gives a person a different sense of identity, or if everyone has some way of figuring out where they are from.

Great New Bike Path in Winamac

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