Michiana Chronicles: Grandma's arms
How did I get here? I’m Grandpa now. I live in the quiet house with old-timey pictures of the grandparents of grandparents and the closets behind closed doors of upstairs rooms that I would not open, either, in the house where I live now, the house that I would go visit, Grandma’s
Going to Grandma’s for a week in the summer when I was a kid was a treat. Chicken and dumplings. We lived in the country, but Agnes and John Fuller lived on a farm. I joined a farm crew bouncing behind a tractor, through a field planting tomatoes. I hid behind big limbs in the woods, and the apple orchard trees that were furtherest from the house, I would have listened to them, had they spoken to me, had they so desired. Inside, the upstairs door is a secret, told. Grandpa hugs the radio in the corner of the living room. Grandma puts her arms around me. I’m Grandpa, but I’m still a grandchild.
Rose Wenrich of Wabash, Indiana would stay for a week at her grandma’s house, too. Rose remembers that her grandmother was a great cook. “I remember hanging out in her kitchen,” she told me. That was before she “got booted out,” Rose said, of her long-time home near Somerset, Indiana to make way for the Upper Wabash Valley Flood Control Project, the Mississinewa Reservoir, back in 1964.
The home that Omma Sweet had shared with her husband Jessie until his death in 1955 was quaint, Rose said. It was a “beat up farmhouse with all the charm, the wood stove, and the smells, of the kitchen, where she would produce yummy baked goods, and foods sitting out on the table.”
I learned of Omma first, because she worked with my great Aunt, Vernie Knee, on the cafeteria staff at Somerset High School before the flood the U.S. Army engineered had wiped out the town by 1965.
Next, I learned that Rose’s grandmother was killed in one of the Palm Sunday tornadoes.
Ten tornadoes, three of them in the South Bend-Elkhart area, killed 137 people in Indiana, April 11, 1965. The biggest of those, on the ground for 48 miles and half a mile wide, killed Omma Sweet on the outskirts of Greentown, Indiana, ten miles east of Kokomo. I was 11 years old when I watched that tornado from my front yard another ten miles east of there.
When I learned that Omie died in the Palm Sunday tornados, I wanted to learn more. I learned that eight-year-old Rose Wenrich was in the car that Omie was driving when the tornado struck that day. She was going to spend a week at Grandma’s new home in Greentown.
“It’s a loving story,” Rose told me through tears, “a story of who I am.”
Rose is Dr. Rose Wenrich, recently retired after 40 years as a family physician and emergency room doctor in Wabash.
Rose was on the big Chevrolet sedan bench seat next to her grandma, nearing 8:00, on a Sunday evening in April, when 62-year-old Omma Sweet pulled off the road, because she could no longer see to drive.
At that moment, Rose says, “An angel told me to get on the floor of the car. It wasn’t my grandma.”
“Your memory is, basically, pulling off the highway…” I said.
“And being compelled to get on the floor,” Rose said.
“…and being compelled to get on the floor,” I said.
“By a being. I don’t know.” Rose said.
“But, I know.”
That’s the last thing I remember,” Rose said. “I think my grandma probably piled on top of me and wrapped her arms around me.”
That’s how the two of them were discovered an hour after the storm had passed, a darkened farm field away from where the car had landed. Rose’s uncle, John Haines, who lived in Greentown, told the Kokomo Tribune (April 12, 1965) that when he found Rose and Omma, Rose “was clutched in Mrs. Sweet’s arms.”
“I wouldn’t be here if my Grandma hadn’t put her arms around me,” Rose said.
“I think that experience made me want to help people and go into medicine,” Rose said.
“We stand on the shoulders of those who went before us.”
The children of Rose, too, and her grandchildren, wouldn’t be here if Omma had not put her arms around her granddaughter.
“We stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. And, I wouldn’t be here if my Grandma hadn’t put her arms around me.”