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Cake : How the Croquembouche Crumbles

November 10, 1994|SCHUYLER INGLE

My grandfather, Neal Ledgerwood, grew up in, grew old in, and died in Colville, a county seat in northeastern Washington state. But he was born in Kettle Falls, on the Columbia River, and was just a little toad when his father, Kit Ledgerwood, moved the family to Colville on a horse-drawn sleigh at the onset of winter. A drive that today takes all of 20 minutes, regardless of road conditions, lasted several days back then, before the turn of the century.

Kit Ledgerwood had been a teamster in the true sense of the word, hauling freight in wagons back and forth over Sherman Pass. He sold insurance and took a turn as a butcher. When he decided he was probably going to die of hemorrhoids, he left the family for six months and traveled to Kansas City for a cure that apparently worked.

He found his true calling when he was elected sheriff of Stevens County. It was a Democratic year. He was also deputy warden at Walla Walla State Penitentiary at one time, probably during a Republican administration. By all accounts, Kit Ledgerwood was a hard man, and both his boys, Neal and Creed, had mean streaks in them when they hit adulthood, the sting of which I felt more than once.

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My grandfather attended a one-room school as a child and showed promise with numbers and baseball from the get-go.

The school stood off the main road into town, at the bottom of a long hill. Once a week, he told me, the stagecoach would crash down the hill and all the children would fly to the school windows to watch it thunder past. The stagecoach was owned by Gilbert Ide and was pulled by two matching pairs of bays. I have a photo of Gilbert Ide standing in front of his coach, and it looks like it has just rolled out of a John Ford movie. Gilbert Ide's grandson, my father, married Neal Ledgerwood's youngest daughter, Joyce, my mother. They moved to Chicago and from that day on only returned to Colville to visit the relatives.

I went to high school in Los Angeles on a campus with more buildings than turn-of-the-centure Colville. The only coaches to pass in front of my school were buses and limousines. My grandfather had retired by then, selling his five-and-dime store, which he had nursed through the Great Depression, in the face of an encroaching mall. He would spend his winters with us, living in the same apartment at first, then finally getting an apartment of his own and a job as well. He handed out tickets and took in money through his 70s at a USC parking lot. People and money, Neal's true calling.

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Adolescents being what they are, I wasn't inclined to enjoy much time spent in the company of adults, grandfathers included. Breakfast was the most trying time of the day. My grandfather had the habit of talking with his mouth full, usually starting up in mid-thought at high volume and at high speed and, if Republicans were on his mind, with some of the most remarkable expletives I have ever encountered.

He had been kicked in the face by a mule when he was a kid and suffered a repair job at the shaky hands of the local veterinarian, a man rarely sober.

His lip had been split open by the kick, and when the vet sutured it back together, he left behind a scar that pulled down one corner of my grandfather's mouth and, in later years, the corner of his eye on that side as well. So when Neal got excited and talked with a full mouth, he tended to spray. Imagine, if you can, a surly adolescent sitting across from a mean old man carrying on about God knows what, spraying masticated shredded wheat across the table.

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By the time I was married, all the meanness had gone out of Neal. He seemed to have shrunk a little as well. He talked more and more of how things had been, and gradually he became unsure about who he might be talking to, or where he was. It was an incremental slippage, an oncoming senility that left him sweet and confused and finally, there at the end, completely lost in his own frontier world.

My bride's grandfather was a dozen years younger than Neal, but an old man just the same, a Swedish immigrant of gentle disposition. Our wedding was held in a back yard in Seattle on a gorgeous September day. Tamara and I had decided that we would approach a circle of family and friends to the tunes of a fiddle player, accompanied by our grandfathers, walking at their pace, arm in arm, four abreast. I don't think Neal had any idea what this was all about, but he was cheerful and pleased to be the focus of a lot of loving attention. Despite my adolescent years of rage, I wouldn't have had it any other way.

A short reception for the wedding guests followed the ceremony. About the time everyone started looking around and fidgeting and wondering when to head off to the family home for the grand reception, clouds rolled in and lazy drops of rain the size of golf balls helped move us along.

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