The roaring ’20s
By ANDREW MCGINN
As a girl, Mary Geisler found it wildly difficult to imagine a time when Indians roamed freely through her neck of Cedar Twp.
That, despite the fact her own grandmother told stories of being visited as a child by a remnant band of Potawatomi led by Che-Meuse, the chief white settlers endeared as “Johnny Green.”
It just goes to show that every kid thinks their grandparents are ancient.
The fact is, though, by the time most of us come to be interested in what they have to say, it’s usually too late to ask anything.
She doesn’t see well anymore, and inquiries now have to be delivered at peak volume into her left ear, but Geisler is the living, breathing, Shakespeare-quoting exception — a centenarian whose mind would be the envy of people half her age.
As of Wednesday, we’re all now living in the ’20s — albeit the 2020s — but Geisler is among just a few Greene Countians who can claim to have lived through the 1920s as well.
Like the decades that came before it, this new one is sure to have its own distinct look and feel; new trends, embarrassing fads, monumental innovations and moments of tragedy and comedy.
At the age of 100½, Geisler has seen more than she could have ever possibly imagined, yet her journey continues on with only the aid of vitamins, Aleve and a daily glass of orange juice — and in the relative comfort of her own house, the 19th century Cedar Twp. farmhouse she’s known as home since the 1920s, when Emily and Pat Connelly, her aunt and uncle, took her in as a baby following her mother’s death from cancer.
The Connelly family bought the house back in 1878 (only the old kitchen survives in the home’s current form), but Grandma Connelly was a Fitzpatrick, and they had been in the area as far back as the early 1850s.
“My mind keeps clicking,” she said.
In fact, some nights, she lays in bed unable to sleep amid the avalanche of thoughts and memories.
“My mind’s going like a kaleidoscope,” she said.
Born Mary Coan on July 2, 1919, the fact that her body hasn’t kept pace is a source of frustration.
“I’m useless. I’m in everyone’s way,” Geisler bemoaned, explaining that she now spends her hours praying with her rosary.
“I guess they don’t want me in either place,” she quipped. (Don’t believe it, though. The personal blessing she was shocked to receive this past summer from Pope Francis himself in commemoration of her 100th birthday suggests she has connections in all the right places.)
Son Andy Geisler, who returned home to Cedar Twp. to care for his mom following a career as a federal parole officer, likens his mother’s deteriorating body to “living in a cocoon.”
“It’s kind of unforgiving, the body,” he said.
But with the appropriate amount of volume, Mary Geisler can still answer any question.
“I can’t hear,” she said, “but I can talk.”
Shaped by people born in the 1800s, Geisler can speak about the 1900s in ways that amaze in the 2000s.
“The most challenging thing,” Andy Geisler said, “is not knowing what questions to ask.”
“If you don’t ask the right question,” he added, “you don’t get an answer.”
The Great Depression left an indelible impression on Mary Geisler, who graduated from Churdan High School in 1936, the same year photographer Dorothea Lange came across an anguished woman and her grubby children in Central California and created the era’s most lasting image, “Migrant Mother.”
Geisler remembers wayfairing men, out of work, who were given respite among their hay bales. Others came in search of a sandwich.
“Out here on the farm,” she said, “we were lucky because we had food.”
Geisler — who wasn’t yet a Geisler until her 1944 marriage to Ed Geisler Jr. — eventually went to work teaching in one-room country schoolhouses at a starting salary of $45 per month.
She still has the Underwood typewriter she ordered from a Montgomery Ward catalog, a professional luxury that set her back $50.
It still works, in fact — as do her home’s rotary-dial telephones.
Geisler has since outlived many of her former students, some of whom went off to fight in World War II, not to mention half of her own eight children.
Lucky were the farm kids who trudged through the snow and mud daily to be in her presence. Depending on the year, there could be as few as five or as many as 15 kids of all ages in her class.
She recalls a time she confiscated an arsenal of toy dart guns from her pupils during a geography lesson on South America, locking them away in her desk.
And then she hit on an idea, passing the guns back out. Her bewildered students couldn’t believe what was happening, especially when she asked each of them to take aim at the big, pull-down map of South America.
Whichever country their suction-cup dart hit would be the country they then had to tell about.
“Believe me,” Geisler said, “they learned South America.”
She was dismayed, however, when she looked up and saw the county schools’ superintendent standing there, unannounced.
As it turned out, he was so impressed he asked Geisler to present her lesson at the state teachers’ convention. Off she went to Des Moines in her Model A.
Geisler’s aunt and uncle — who became her mom and dad — were champions of education. Her adopted mom, Emily Connelly, had been a teacher herself, having attended the Iowa State Teachers College and also the University of Chicago.
Young Mary, their only child, grew up immersed in books.
“I was fortunate. Very fortunate,” Geisler said. “Lucky little kid.”
Not everyone at that time was so lucky. Her future husband, Edward, never attended high school.
“His family didn’t believe in education,” she explained.
Before her diminishing eyesight last spring made reading too difficult, it’s believed that Geisler read more than 5,000 books from the Churdan Public Library, whose staff would deliver new ones to her in grocery bags.
“I miss the Bee & Herald, mostly,” she said.
She had learned speed-reading in college.
“She would read a paperback page in three seconds,” her son verified.
Even though she can no longer make out the words, Geisler is visibly comforted knowing her personal book collection is in good hands thanks to son Andy, now president of the Churdan Public Library trustees.
Her copy of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” is dated 1899; her copy of “Macbeth” was printed in 1900.
Mary Geisler’s favorite subject, however, will always be history.
“Children should all be taught their family background,” she said, “then they’d know history more.”
As a child, she could hardly believe the stories of free-roaming American Indians — they existed into the 1870s, according to local lore — and of a battle on Cedar Creek between Johnny Green’s Potawatomi and rival Sioux that left bones and artifacts strewn for settlers to find.
“Now I can see the whole picture,” Geisler said. “There’s a terrific history out here, and most people don’t know it.”
That leaves son Andy racing against time to learn as much as he can.
“You know they’re going to pass,” he said.
Even though he’s been luckier than most, he still knows he’ll one day ask himself, “What questions should I have asked?”