Available now on Amazon.com in softcover at $12.95 and as a Kindle version for $8.99.
Available now on Amazon.com in softcover at $12.95 and as a Kindle version for $8.99.
Smudgepot, A Triumph of Love over Cancer, is the story of Mary DiViggiano, and her 18 year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Follow Mary from her early days on the farm in Solon, IA, through her college years, as a witness to history, world-traveler, astute Chicago businesswoman, and loving wife. Her epic battle with this life-threatening disease, and the bravery she exhibited in the face of this challenge is remarkably retold here by her beloved husband, John. You will laugh, then cry as you read about her life, but you will also be inspired by the beauty of the love story within.
Life on the Farm
In 1945, Joe C. Kasper wasn’t thinking about farming, hogs, or his boyhood home in Morse, Iowa. He was busy fighting the Japanese army in the Philippine islands of the South Pacific. It was a memorable year: FDR died; my uncle, Edward J. Moskala was killed on Ryukyu Ridge in Okinawa, earning the Congressional Medal of Honor; and Joe Kasper’s bullet wound in his arm got him an early ride back to Iowa. That wound gave him a lifelong disability check, but never interfered with his golf game later in life. I wouldn’t often play with my father-in-law because—despite his war wound, two artificial knees, and terrible form—he was a scratch golfer who played every day. When I did play with him, he would, in typical Joe fashion, describe my worst shot as, “a damn good effort,” or “You got the makin’s, boy.” He was your biggest fan, your favorite high school coach, and your own built-in motivational trainer. In other words, he was one great dad to my Mary Charlotte and her sisters.
Once home from the war, Joe went back to the occupation of his father, farming the fertile land of Iowa. In 1946, he had the good fortune to attend an Iowa Democratic Party fund-raising dance at the Czechoslovak Hall in Iowa City one Saturday night. There, he caught the eye of Amelia Amelon, a single woman of German descent who was unmarried at thirty-five, and probably wrestling with her biological clock. She asked her friend, “Who’s that handsome man in the brown suit?” The friend replied, “Why that’s Joe Kasper, just back from the war; he farms in Johnson County.” Joe didn’t know it at that moment, but despite the Bell’s palsy that plagued him since his childhood, Amelia thought he was the most attractive man in the hall that night.
Mel (pronounced meal) was quite the independent woman. She lied about her lack of a high school diploma in order to enter the Irish Business School, and earned a secretarial certificate (though she was not proud that she lied, and made it clear that it was wrong). She was also one of the first women in Iowa City to own her own car, a green Willys Roadster with a rumble seat. A “townie,” she lived in Iowa City and worked as a clerk for the town’s mayor. She was one of five children, with three brothers and a spinster sister, Leona, who was a key figure in Mary’s early years.
Joe and Mel were married in 1946 and started having babies right away. Their first was born in 1947. Later in life, Carolyn Ann would take on the looks and characteristics of her grandma Charlotte “Lottie” Kasper—tall, thin, and introspective. Joe nicknamed Carolyn Ann “Main Spoke” because she was the first. This nicknaming became SOP (standard operating procedure) for Joe when each of their children was born. The next one to come along was the subject of this book, Mary Charlotte Kasper, who he promptly nicknamed “Smudgepot” because of the shock of dark hair she sported at birth. Next came Phyllis Jean in 1950, known to him as “Slicko” for her lack of hair at birth. She was the sensitive one who, as a little girl, cried when she accidently sat on her pet kitten and killed it. Mel lost a child after Phyllis was born, but was soon blessed with their last daughter Jane Amelia in 1951. Joe nicknamed her “Torpedo” because of her knack for taking on a job and ramming it through to completion (I suspect this nickname came later).
People joked because, as hard as he tried, Joe Kasper could not produce a farmhand—aka a son. Life on the farm near Solon, Iowa, was idyllic for those four little girls. Mary speculated that Mel kept them on the plump side to discourage the boys, but that probably had more to do with a 1950s era mom encouraging her kids to clean their dinner plates because there were kids starving in China! Mel happened to be an accomplished seamstress who made all of their clothes and, despite Joe’s best efforts, was determined to raise ladies. Whenever a tornado threatened, Mel would herd the girls into the cellar and stand over the washtubs, lighting palms with her Camel cigarette and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. There was always a carton of unfiltered Camels on top of the refrigerator in their 1950s rural kitchen.
Joe had a rather colorful vocabulary, in which the word goddamned played prominently. Some might think it was using the Lord’s name in vain, but to him and to most of us, it was an endearing manner of speech. Joe would come out of church and remark, “That was a goddamned good sermon.” Expletives played prominently in Joe’s vocabulary, but that was as much a part of farm life as driving a tractor. Rest assured, Joe is adding color to heaven right now with his down-home manner of speaking.
A tractor was the first vehicle Mary learned to drive, as it was for many farm kids in the fifties. (Even now, in rural communities in Iowa, adolescents can get their learner’s permit at fourteen.) Mary told me the story of how, as a young girl, she once drove the tractor with her dad standing on the rear platform. Suddenly she looked back and he was gone. There he was, standing in the field behind her waving as she drove solo for the first time. She would ride out to the fields with her dad to look at the herd. If the cattle ate too much clover, they would bloat with gas, and it could be fatal, so Joe would go out to the fields and look for animals that were in trouble. He would walk up to the afflicted bovine and plunge a knife into its bloated belly, thereby releasing the buildup of gas. Being a city boy, I was appalled when Mary told me that story, but I have been assured that it was a common practice in the fifties, and despite its gruesome nature, the best thing for the animal. Joe was not above telling the girls to fill a feed sack or pitchfork some hay, but when it came time to cut the hogs (castrate them) or for them to farrow (give birth), the girls were not allowed to watch; Mel made sure of that.
Believe it or not, Mary had a little lamb. Its name was Mutton, and it was probably one of the lambs they had incubated in the kitchen oven when it was first born. Mutton was Mary’s pet until the day it ate Mel’s forsythia bush. Then Mutton ran away, or at least that’s what Mary was told. Mary’s other pet was a black mare which she named Sugar. (It is interesting to note that as a boy I had a black Labrador Retriever-Collie mix that I named Sugar. Is it any wonder that we were meant to be together?) Mary would ride Sugar on her dad’s acreage, and was fond of a stand of timber next to the creek. She named this place Angel’s Paradise. It was there that she would spend hours living in a little girl’s world of make-believe, probably dreaming of her knight in shining armor. She told me many times that I was that person, and every time she spoke of Angel’s Paradise, there was a gleam in her eye.
Mary’s childhood was deliriously happy, and she was surrounded by love and affection. Even though Mel was the disciplinarian and not prone to spontaneous displays of affection, she was a loving mother who was dedicated to her girls and instilled in them her faith in God, respect for nature and people, her talents as a seamstress, and showed them how to be a strong, independent, and productive woman who loved her husband. Joe was probably not the most successful farmer, and he loved to drink beer, but he knew how to have fun, and that made an indelible impression on Mary. There wasn’t a time when Joe didn’t wrestle with his girls, give them sloppy kisses, and—to Mel’s horror—sing off-color songs to them, like “Has Anyone Seen My Gal?” Unlike my dad, there wasn’t an ice cream stand that Joe would pass by without stopping, and when the Iowa Hawkeye’s were playing, they all crowded in front of the radio as Joe did the play-by-play. Joe Kasper, the man with four daughters, had a basketball hoop hanging on the barn. In the winter, he and the girls would play fox and goose in the snow and make snowmen in the front yard.
One of Mary’s fondest memories was of one particular Christmas Eve when she was just a little girl. Santa always arrived at the Kasper farm on Christmas Eve, so one year Joe rigged up some buckets on the front porch with a string attached to them. The string ran up through a window and to his chair at the dining room table. Just as they finished dinner, Joe yanked on the string, sending the buckets crashing down. He jumped up and said, “What’s that racket out there; it must be Santa!” The four girls ran out the front door to find all of their Christmas gifts strewn in the snow in the front yard. Mary would tell that story as though it happened yesterday.
She loved her dad dearly, and, as a little girl, never missed an opportunity to hold his hand. One day while in town, she was holding her daddy’s hand, but because he was preoccupied with something, he shook her off and said, “You have to go it on your own, little peggler,” She promptly cried. Years later, as she and I were walking through Stow-On-The-Wold in the English Cotswolds, I wouldn’t hold her hand because I was busy taking pictures or just feeling standoffish that day. She pouted all day while we visited Lake Windermere in the English Lake District. That look became known as the Windermere Pout, and we laughed whenever I mentioned it. Mary’s connection to her dad was deep, real, and carried over into our married life. In some ways, I took over for Joe, the protector, the guidance counselor, the cheerleader, the loving man.
Mary was also close to her cousins who lived in nearby Morse, Iowa, and in Lincoln, Nebraska. When all the cousins were in town, it was a “girl fest,” complete with sleepovers, rides on Sugar, camping, and that most memorable (and illegal) of family activities—fish trapping on the Cedar River. Oh, yes, it was illegal to set traps for catfish in Iowa. Joe and his brother John, and hundreds of other Iowa farmers, routinely set large, wire fish traps and enjoyed bountiful catches of the tasty, however ugly, freshwater fish. They used a special stink bait that they purchased somewhere in Muscatine, Iowa, a historic river town on the Mississippi. The bait was old scrapings from a cheese factory, and it stunk to high heaven. But the worse the smell, the better it worked. Joe always told the story of how he and John went to buy some and forgot it was in the trunk of the car—probably after having a beer or two. Days later, a decomposing body could not have smelled as bad. Anyway, the girls would accompany Joe and John to the river around midnight. They would sneak through the weeds and reeds, shushing each other so the game warden wouldn’t hear them. They’d check the traps and empty them when needed, throwing the big whiskered fish into the pickup bed. Mary always remarked that they made a sucking sound as they flapped their gills. As the family retreated to the truck, they would groom the reeds so it would not look like they’d been there. It was all so clandestine, and a whole lot of fun.
Joe liked beer. Who didn’t? It was the drug of choice for that generation, my dad’s included. When Joe would sell some hogs, it was time to celebrate at the Morse General Store, which also had a bar with a brass rail. Mary remembered going there with her dad and sitting on the brass rail while drinking a grape Nehi. She recalled the time a neighbor got drunk and rode his horse right up the steps, through the door, and into the bar. Cousin Susan talked about the time she was in from Lincoln visiting Uncle John and Aunt Mag, and decided to ride into Solon with Uncle John. She was probably six years old and content to sit in the pickup while Uncle John went inside the local tavern. Hours went by until Joe appeared and asked, “Where’s Uncle Jack?” She pointed to the bar and said she’d been waiting for hours. “Don’t you fret, little one; I’ll go get him for you,” said Joe. Susan fell asleep while waiting for both her uncles to come out—well past sunset.
For a time, Joe drove cattle to the Union Stock Yards in Chicago. Mary remembered how her dad and mom would come to school and pull them out to go on a road trip. I guess they did that when they heard the current price of cattle on the radio. They routinely listened to the farm reports by Orion Samuelson on WLS out of Chicago. In the 1950s, the Chicago Stock Yards bustled with activity. Mary recalled vividly the looks, the smells, and the excitement of being there. On one occasion, a bull got loose from its pen and stampeded through the corrals. She remembers a large man scooping her up and placing her high atop a fence as the raging bull sped by her. One of her childhood “knights in shining armor,” no doubt.
The family’s farm was in rural Solon, but there was no bus service to Solon, so it was decided that the kids would go to school in West Branch. Mary’s bus ride was about the longest because of where she lived, and much of it was on gravel roads, so there’s no telling how much road dust she ingested daily. West Branch has historical significance because it was the boyhood home of Herbert Hoover, and is now the site of his grave and presidential library. At the burial of President Hoover in 1964, Mary sang at his graveside with the school choir. She was always proud about that.
One day in kindergarten Mary came up behind a little girl whose bow had come untied on the back of her little dress. Mary tied that bow and began a lifelong friendship with Linda Marie. Word has it that Linda Marie was quite the looker back in high school, but very aloof when it came to boyfriends. One boy remarked that kissing Linda Marie was like kissing a doorknob, “At least as hard and twice as cold.”
Mary did not have problems with boys because she was on the chubby side. (Mary subsequently struggled during much of her life with a weight problem, especially in her young adult years). Her prom date was Dennis, her sister Phyllis’s boyfriend and now her husband. He came in handy when one of the other girls needed an escort. Joe wanted Mary to marry Billy Joe because his folks had a lot of farmland, and Billy Joe had a boat. Mary speculated that Joe wanted the boat, and not much else. Mary always likened herself and Billy Joe to Jack Sprat and his wife because Billy Joe was tall and lanky, and wore high-water pants. I don’t know what happened to Billy Joe, but I’m guessing he’s a millionaire landowner and may still have that boat.
Joe built a boat once, then realized that he couldn’t get it out of the cellar. He finally did, and named it the CaMaPhaJa, after Carolyn, Mary, Phyllis, and Jane. It was a flat-bottom fishing boat that came in handy when setting those catfish traps on the Cedar River.
Mary was an exemplary student and was inducted into the DAR. Quite frankly, I’m not sure why membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution was such a distinction, but she was proud of it nevertheless. Life at West Branch High School was always a fond memory for Mary. She spoke with great affection about classmates Karen (“Kay-Kay”), Clifford (“Cliffy”), Andrew (“Andy”), Bruce, and, of course, her best friend Linda Marie. Mary was active in school activities and even starred in a school play or two, such as Brigadoon. Her PE coach was a relative of Dennis’. Mary fondly remembered “Jumpin’” Jenny, and actually had contact with her at certain family functions in recent years.
Mary was not athletic, but she loved to watch and support the West Branch Bears. After we married, we relished every opportunity to see our nephews play football and baseball for the Bears. We’d also enjoy watching our niece Annie pretend to play the trombone in the marching band; we could see that she was simply puffing her cheeks rather than playing for real.
Some of Mary’s fondest memories were of her sleepovers at Linda Marie’s house. Linda’s father, Delbert, was a farmer who had given up life on the farm and moved his family to town in West Branch. His wife, Marjorie, worked for the telephone company and Delbert stayed at home, read books, and probably had a drink or two. Mary said Delbert was always good for an excuse note when the girls decided to be late or ditch school.
The graduating class of 1966 numbered sixty homegrown, mainstream, genuinely good kids who loved their parents, were fiercely proud of their school, probably drank a beer or two, and to this day gather every ten years to get together and reminisce. Mary made every reunion, except for their fortieth, and that was because she had been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome and needed to begin treatment in an attempt to save her life.
I accompanied Mary to one of her class reunions shortly after we met. As we drove to Dubuque, Iowa, to board a dinner cruise on a Mississippi River paddle wheeler—with Linda Marie in the backseat—Mary proceeded to flip down the glove compartment door of my brand new Cadillac Coupe Deville and began to polish her nails. I never said a word about it until several years later when I remarked, “Don’t you EVER do your nails in my car again!” That was a waste of breath because she simply replied, “Oh, piffle!”
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John M. DiViggiano is a first-time author who has spent most of his adult life in the travel industry. He is currently semi-retired, doing volunteer work, working part-time, and writing in his spare time. He currently resides in the Palm Springs, CA area.