The wrought iron gate opens to Gloria Penning’s cottage garden, flowers still vibrant with summer—and now, fall colors of yellows, purples and reds. Up on the porch, over the door, are the names of the original home builders, set in stone: HENRY & MELITTA SCHUCH 1915.
I’m greeted at the door by Gloria’s live-in family. Her two dogs, “Dottie,” a chihuahua mix, fat as a small lamb and a Bichon Frise poodle by the name of “BJ.” They act like they are protecting her, but they just can’t help themselves—they’re glad to see a visitor. They aren’t too ferocious, but I play along and let them have time to sniff me, hand extended, palm up.
It’s obvious she loves her dogs.
“They’re a reason to get up in the morning when you don’t feel well,” she said.
She added that she is about to hit another decade milestone, age-wise.
The story begins
The living room air is cool and comfortable and I know, at one-time, this house was full of life. Gloria offers me a chair that rocks and I settle in for a visit. She told me earlier on the phone she had lived her life under a bushel basket and didn’t think there was anything that was particularly interesting—certainly nothing that people would want to spend time knowing about. I sat there gently rocking and let her talk while I listened. Dottie brought me her favorite toy, but I would have to ignore her, aside from stroking her short-hair ears and she eventually lay there to listen as well, her fat tummy extended.
Gloria and her husband John raised seven boys and one daughter in this house on 4th Street. He was a mechanic and ran the Sinclair filling station, which was located across from the Sharp Corner Tavern, for 36 years.
“We were grade school sweethearts,” she shared. “I never went with anybody else and he didn’t either.”
John was in the service during WWII for two years, serving in Va. as supply master with a Master Sgt. rank and upon his return, they tied the knot. The two were married almost 68 years before he passed away.
A parental cross to bear
I asked her how she felt about her children today. After all these years, does she still worry about them? She answered it with a quote.
“Someone wasn’t thinking when they asked the Mother of the Year (years ago) a question,” she began. “Someone asked her, ‘Which child she loved the most?’ She said, ‘the one who’s gone until he comes home and the one who’s sick until he’s well.'”
In other words, a parent doesn’t stop worrying about their kids, no matter their age or how many. She lost one son, the second oldest, to a fatal disease about 11 years ago. She referred to him as a “Rock of Gibraltor” son. She also had her own serious health scare and surgery. Topics like health can percolate to the top of a conversation easily when you’re a senior. It’s just a simple sharing of life’s reality, but the battle scars are still there—just hidden away. Still, Gloria brightens up with the acknowledgment that she’s a survivor due to God’s good graces.
Our conversation is interrupted briefly when she gets a call from one of her sons.
“He’s good about checking up on me,” she says, proudly. “We have some good kids—I gave it my all. I think being a mother is what I was born to do.”
Gloria was a court reporter and a secretary who put the son that just called, through automotive school. Most of the time she enjoyed being a homemaker and later, the activity director at a nursing home. She also played the organ for 22 years, between St. George and the Catholic church in Berger. But this day was not to be a rehearsal for writing a life’s story as though it were an obituary. Gloria’s too full of life to let that cross her mind.
She loves to knit.
The fabric of her life
“I couldn’t go without knitting—it soothes my soul,” she says.
She knitted a lace wedding veil that she started in 2008. It took a year and a half.
“I wanted an heirloom and nobody uses a lace tablecloth, so ‘what could I make?'” she wondered. That’s when the idea of knitting a veil came into being.
Five of her granddaughters have worn it in their weddings. It’s large and intricate and in one of the photos she showed me, a newly married couple held hands under the veil.
She shows me her craft room which she thinks is a mess, but it’s highly organized with everything in its place. There’s a quilting frame along one wall. Four lady friends that attend church at St. George come over on Thursday afternoons to quilt, but her love is lace.
“It’s like a guy going fishing,” she explains. “I can just get lost and I can knit up all the loose threads in my life while I’m knitting. You have to be concentrating, so you can’t be worrying about this or fretting about that. It just pulls me together.”
Turning a hobby into a business
Gloria’s interest in lace patterns led her down the path of entrepreneurship. She put together six books of patterns, within a series entitled “The Art of Lace Knitting.” Some of the book titles are “Lace and Miniature, “A Danish Lace” and “Old World Treasures.” They are full of curated complimentary designs and some are her own designs that she sold by mail-order, placing advertisements in women’s magazines such as McCalls and Cosmopolitan.
She has folders of pattern after pattern of templates that are pieced together in creative ways to make her items. Some look like intricate snowflakes.
With the price of postage, she is looking at converting her books to a digital format and will sell pdf.’s of her patterns.
“I had an order from London about two weeks ago and she ordered two books of the six,” she said. “The postage was a dollar more than the books.”
Gloria is known in some of the lace circles in the U.S. She would love to hear from anyone in Hermann or the surrounding area that does lace knitting, for some local comradery. She says she’s not big on meetings, “but I’ll share what I have.”
As if quilting and knitting lace wasn’t enough, she also does miniature intricate paper cutouts, an art called “scherenschnitte.” She doesn’t cheat and use Xacto knives, but German scissors, made for this type of cutting.
“My hands may not be pretty, but they don’t tremor—they’re wiggling,” she says, grinning.
Here’s a woman of many facets. She loves the 70’s brass band, Chicago (we sing the chorus together of “Saturday in the Park”). She says three members of the band are original members. She recently attended a concert in Columbia where the band played. A young lady from the audience introduced herself and said how much she liked Gloria’s knitted shawl. They hit it off, so Gloria invited her for a visit to Hermann.
Come before winter
We stroll out to the porch with Dottie and BJ for a goodbye. She frets about her garden. The new water feature burbles in the corner of the yard on the far side of the porch.
“I haven’t felt like getting out there this summer like I used to,” she said. The weeds had taken over one of the flower beds where she planted wildflower seeds. The air feels like change.
Perhaps it’s the passage of one season into another that has her thinking about time this autumnal day and if truth be told, it is probably full of bittersweet memories. She walks carefully, half-joking that falling is her new hobby, but she is aging with grace and relevancy in the home where she raised her family. And in an afternoon visit, I got the impression that Gloria thinks that’s something worth holding on to, because even though it’s just Dottie and B.J. now, home is still where the heart is.