September 4, 2008

In Memorium

Two Middle Bass residents who were an important part of my childhood died within the last month.

James L. Bretz, December 12, 1926 - August 14, 2008
Jim Bretz was the son of Leslie and Florence Bretz, who owned Bretz Winery and the pasture from which we got our Christmas tree every year. Cows -- two? three? -- lived in the pasture. Adjoining the pasture was the small woods where my sister and I picked wildflowers at the crack of dawn every May 1. We'd start our May Day deliveries at Mrs. Bretz's and then walk to Carrie High's house on the north shore (now the Bob Whyte - White? - house, it's directly across from an elegant bed and breakfast that used to be Albert Gmelch's house). After we left flowers on Miss High's doorstep, we'd hurry home with our flowers for Mother.
One evening over the Christmas holidays, we'd visit the Bretzes. Florence would show us into the formal living room. While the adults conversed and, perhaps, partook of a glass of Bretz wine, Jim would sit on the floor with us children and play Old Maid for hours and hours. He may have been the worst Old Maid player in the world; I don't recall a single time over the years that he ever won a game. Jim's annual Christmas card was navy blue with a picture and text in gold. If I recall correctly, he signed his cards with a gold pen. Christmas lasted all year with Jim because of his annual gift of a subscription to TV Guide.
Jim was a major employer of island youth, "major" being a relative term that in this instance means one or two. Jim rented his cottages out from Saturday afternoon until the following Saturday morning. Vacationers would pile into their cars and drive off to catch the Erie Isle, one of the black-and-white Miller Boat Line ferries, or a Neumann ferry boat with that distinctive salmon and turquoise paint. Between those departures and early afternoon when the next group arrived off the ferries, sheets had to be changed, floors mopped, bathrooms cleaned, refrigerators emptied, and all of the other tidying up that goes along with a rental business completed. I worked for Jim a number of summers. He followed Thelma as postmaster in the late 60s and later would open the Isle de Fleurs bed and breakfast. All of which is to say that he was always an important island presence.

Charles E. (Sonny) Schneider, January 18, 1939 - September 1, 2008
Another important island presence was Sonny (Charles E.) Schneider, who died in his sleep early Monday morning. I don't remember his father, who died in a terrible accident on the ice when I was five or six; but Sonny, his sister, and his mom were constants in my life when I was growing up. They were close enough friends that my brother, sister, and I stayed at Thelma's house when my baby brother was born. (She fixed spaghetti and meatballs one night.) Thelma took over the post office when Hazel Heiss retired from the job. My last year at Middle Bass Grade School I joined a bunch of fan clubs (my brother and sister had gone off to high school so I needed diversions). When I'd pick up the mail, I'd open any fan club communications and share them with Mrs. Schneider. I recall that she liked the looks of Dirk and Dack -- hmm, what was their last name? were they Dan Blocker's sons?-- more than she liked Elvis Presley's looks.
One Christmas Thelma was tickled to show us the elaborately wrapped gift that either Mary Ann was giving to Sonny or Sonny was giving to Mary Ann. Inside it, she told us, was a lump of coal. I think that was the year Sonny went toppling out of a living room window with the help of his sister.
Sonny's sister, Mary Ann, was the most beautiful, sophisticated person ever born. I learned the word trousseau the year she and Mac McCann from Put-in-Bay got engaged. Hers was the first wedding I ever attended; and I still remember her bridesmaids' gorgeous pink dresses. A few months later, in October, Sonny married Carrie Lunt, who was also from Put-in-Bay. Theirs was the second wedding I attended. I think Carrie's bridesmaids wore dark green. I wore a blue- green dress with a a balloon hem. The dress was almost unbearably stylish, and also itchy.
Prior to the wedding, I mostly remember Sonny working on cars in his garage, often with friends pitching in. (Bill Kristoff was one. Bill owned a red MG with his initials on the dashboard and died in a boating accident when I was a teenager.) Sonny was well known to the thousands of people he transported from Middle Bass to Put-in-Bay and back during the wild days in the 60s when Lonz Winery was the most decadent drinking location in the state. He was the captain of the Sonny S. (the second boat in his family's company; the first one was the Ruthelma) then and for decades afterwards. His greetings were always warm and his smile huge when over the years I'd see him on trips home.

When someone dies, the desire is to write something in foot-high letters to document their impact. But we don't live in foot-high letters, most of us, which is why so often we're left to honor people by speaking of things like paychecks, bridesmaids' dresses, games of Old Maid, and the satisfying smell of a garage.

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