If he were still alive this year, Robert J Alder would step off the bus on the corner of Lincoln Avenue on Friday, November 17th. He would walk a half block to our front door where my mother would be standing to greet him, having anticipated the precise date and time of his arrival as it always coincided with the Big 10 Football Schedule – specifically, the weekend – home or away – that Michigan played Wisconsin. As a courtesy he did call ahead to announce his visit, never expecting it might be an inconvenient time. For Robbie it never was. It was his pilgrimage every fall to spend time with Don and Helen Huddleston who befriended him in Monroe before moving to Waukesha. Until our Dad gave up his teaching job to enlist in the Navy, Robbie never missed a high school football game coached by him, and over the years he adopted our family as his own.
I never fail to think of him around this time, walking from the bus stop carrying his black leather valise that held a change of clothes, a dopkit that included his toothbrush, and a bottle of green Mennen Aftershave, the smell of which lingered in the house for days after he left. He also packed a carton of Lucky Strikes, a jar of Mr. Mustard and a quarter wheel of cheese from the Swiss Colony.
His appearance seldom changed over the years. He was neat and clean with close cropped gray hair, medium to stocky build and rimless glasses that framed bright blue eyes. He had very ruddy cheeks, possibly due to the alcohol in the Mennen’s and his favorite beverage, Blatz beer. Robbie lived with his mother in a small house at the end of 11th Street, just next to the entrance to the Monroe County fair grounds. I know he was a veteran, a proud member of the local American Legion, and he worked all his life in the post office just off the Square.
Since it was a weekend devoted to football, aside from his occasional Knock Knock jokes and references to food, our conversations with him as girls never revealed much about him, though he had pet names for us. I was SuzyQ, sister Jud was Little Princess and I think as the youngest, Duff was Junior something? He remembered our birthdays with outfits carefully chosen with help from a woman who worked in a shop on the Square – and a Christmas gift for Mom, the most memorable being the black cat that rolled its eyes and wagged its tail to mark the minutes. I don’t think it ever saw actual time of day, though it may have appeared during football season. For us, he was our slightly quirky uncle who came to visit once a year. To Mom and Dad he was a faithful friend.
The routine of his weekend was as predictable as he was. He prided himself on his recipe for Chop Suey, and having shopped ahead for the ingredients he needed, on Saturday morning Mom turned him loose in the kitchen to prepare a huge vat for a half time dinner that night. The rest of the day he sat on the couch glued to the TV watching football, chain smoking Luckies, drinking beer and commenting on the games with Mom and Dad. At some point, there was a timeout on a metal TV tray for ham and cheese on rye smothered with Mr. Mustard; washed down with Blatz, yet in all the years I knew him, I never saw him tipsy. Mellow? Maybe.
On Sunday, after Robbie boarded the bus to return to Monroe, life returned to normal. We had Chop Suey, which was actually very good, for days afterward and Swiss Cheese that lasted well into the New Year.
Robbie died in 1984 at the age of 81, and his obituary revealed very little about his life. Now creeping up on 80 myself, there are so many things I wish I had asked him when I had the chance. Why Michigan? Was it your alma mater? What did you dream you would do someday? Were you ever in love? Where did the war take you? What was your mother like, and your father? Did you ever have a car? How did you spend your days at the post office and how did you fill them when you retired?
If I ever come across another black cat clock Im going to hang it as a reminder to my family and friends to always keep the doors of friendship open, that time is precious, and ask the things you’d like to know about the people in your life who matter.
Maybe in another life, we’ll learn all the answers. I hope so.