Mom and Hinks Windermuth

By Lisa Padgalskas Hand

My mom doesn’t call me very often.  I know she’d like to, but she’s ninety years old and she forgets how to use her phone.  But when something urgent comes up, like she’s been mulling over something or she’s being tortured by her demons, she can suddenly and quite proficiently pick up that handset and punch in my number.  More often than not it’s the middle of the night, which happened recently when a familiar and very loud tune on my iPhone woke me out of a dead sleep.  I fumbled for the phone and saw it was mom’s number at the board and care home.

“Lisa!” she said in a way that was uncharacteristically demanding.   “I need you to come over as soon as possible!”

“Huh,” I said drearily.  “Why… what….?”

“I need to send a check to Hink!”

“Hank? Huh?  Who the hell….?”

I closed my eyes, just wanting to go back to sleep.  I was very annoyed but I didn’t have the heart at that moment to get mad.  My mom is a sweet – quite adorable actually – little old lady.  Years ago, before dementia soothed her anxiousness, she fretted ad nauseam over past injustices and mistakes that had been made.  But over time, she’s mellowed and jelled into a cute, befuddled, good-natured old lady.

It’s just that she’s so darn appreciative when people do something for her – like open the door, or take her blood pressure.  Thank you! is her mantra.  She’ll take her benefactor’s hand, look them in the eye, and thank them profusely.  Next thing I know, she has me running her all over town, looking for gifts, pies, or special food for that person.  God love her, but my mom can be a lot of work.

“HINK!”   I’d been dozing but my eyes shot open.

“Huh? Who?”

Hink!” she insisted.  “And it’s very important. Can you come over right now?”

I kinda lost it then.   “Mom, no,” I said firmly.  “It’s the middle of the night.  It’s three o’clock in the morning.”  It came out harsher than I wanted it to.

Her voice softened immediately.  “Oh, Lisa, I’m sorry!  I didn’t know.”  I didn’t reply because I really just wanted to go back to sleep.  So she continued.  “Can you come over in the morning then? I really need to send out a check.  Can you come first thing?”

“Mom, I’ll come tomorrow, but it’ll be later, in the afternoon.” I needed to bring some insulin for her diabetic cat, Max, anyway.  Her caregiver, Nester, said she was out of shampoo and body soap, too.

“Okay,” she said, the relief obvious in her voice.  “Thank you, Lisa.  Thank you so very much.”

My mom lives in a care home for the elderly in a middle-class neighborhood in Mission Viejo.  Including herself, there are six residents – two men and four women –  and two Filipino caregivers.  Because the house is a stuccoed, fortress-like abode, oddly lacking any front windows, my brother Van jokingly calls it “The Compound.”    Yet inside, it’s homey and often bustling with activity … visiting grandkids and family;  nurses and doctors  for house-call  appointments;  the vivacious activities lady who leads bingo and arm-chair aerobics.  People are always in and out giving manicures, haircuts, and bringing deliveries.

Prior to moving to the care home four years before, my mom had lived in the house in Whittier that she and my dad had bought back in 1953.  There they had raised my two older brothers and me, until one by one we all grew up and left home.  My dad, a functional alcoholic, left also when I was a senior in high school, though he would have saved us all a lot of misery if he’d taken his leave much sooner.  Many years later, when my oldest brother, Keith, died unexpectedly in his sleep at age sixty-one, my mom’s grief made it impossible for her to function by herself any longer.  That’s when I moved her into “The Compound,” better known as Golden Coast Senior Living, House #3.

The next day I drove over there, and as the front door was unlocked, I walked in.  As usual my mom was in her big easy chair next to the large sliding window that opens onto the grassy backyard.  Her chair was the last in a row of big comfortable recliners in the living room all lined up and facing the big screen TV.  She was engrossed in the newspaper, but looking up she spotted me, and waved her arm.

“Look, my daughter’s here!” she said emphatically turning to Marian next to her.  “See, there she is!”  She pointed in my direction.  Marian, who had just had her hair tinted an unnatural mousy brown, also smiled at me and waved.

I greeted them both and then went to my mom to give her a kiss.

She smiled up at me and looking into my eyes, took my hand.  “It’s so nice to see you, Lisa.  Where are we going today?”

I was happy to see that my mom was in a good mood, and hadn’t been obsessing on the Hinks character, as she was apt to do.  However, I hadn’t actually planned to take her out. Frankly, just getting her out the door is a major undertaking.  I’m not by nature a very patient person, but like my mom over time I’ve mellowed.   I’ve realized that with one son in New York and the other gone, I’m her lifeline. Besides, she’s good company – my best friend really – and though it can be a pain, it’s kind of fun to take her out to lunch and shopping.  She always likes to buy me stuff.

Besides, I hadn’t eaten and was starving. “I guess we could go to Ruby’s and get some food.  You could have a shake….”

“Oh goody!”  She clapped her hands, and immediately began struggling to get out of her chair.

I helped her get up and into a standing position, which can be challenging as she’s on the plump side.  She’s also precarious on her feet – not to mention terrified of falling – so she takes shuffling baby steps while hunched over her walker, and pushes it a little too far in front of her.  Though she’s slow as molasses, if I look away for just a moment, the next thing I know, she’s gone. Vanished. She could be anywhere – the dining room, her bedroom, or out the back door.

“Mom, the door’s over here,” I told her.

“This way?” She pointed with crooked fingers down the hall to her bedroom.

“No, over that way.”  I gestured to the front door.

And of course, we have to first get past Nester, her caregiver, a small, dark-haired Filipino man, who, though very sweet, has a with a sparse, somewhat sinister mustache.  He was waiting to help us out the door.

“Nester, do you want to come a long?”  she asked him.

He giggle-laughed.

“No!  Viola!” he said in his strong accent.  “I can’t!”

“Will you give me a kiss, then?” She asked, and with that, she grabbed for his shirt, but he was agile and quickly ducked away, covering his face to stifle his laugh.  My mom had a thing for Nester, and at times it was shocking to watch.  She certainly added some spice to a home for the elderly.

She finally gave up and let go of Nester, and gripping her walker, began her slow, hunched shuffle out of the house.  Getting her into my Toyota Highlander was the next challenge, but we had it down.  I get her to sit on the passenger seat, and then use my body to shove her over. Once she was in, I folded the walker and put it in the rear.

We ended up having lunch at Ruby’s Diner at the Laguna Hills Mall, where my mom looked over an order of sugared beignets, and an Oreo Cookie milk shake.  I had a bunless bacon burger. She was relaxed and upbeat and I waited for her to mention Hink, whoever the heck that was. But she never once did.

And I wasn’t about to bring it up.

It wasn’t until about a week later that Hinks’s name came up again.   We were in the fast-food drive through-lane because my mom just had to have der Wienershnitzel.  I ordered a chili dog for her and a Chicago dog for me. And large fries and a shake. Not exactly the diet of my choice, but she loves it. And it is delicious.

“Oh, by the way, I need to send a check to Hinks,” she said casually.

I glanced over at her, and she was digging in her purse.  My mom is always wanting to give checks to people.  She wants me to write checks to missionaries, to various charities, to Nester for being so nice, and to friends she thinks she owes because they bought her a plant. Ten years ago.

“Mom, who is this Hinks character, anyway?”

“Well I owe him some money.”

“What do you mean? How much do you owe him?”

“I don’t know.”

The matter got dropped when we pulled forward to the pick-up window and got our food.

But she brought it up again the next time I came over to bring some litter sand for Max.  We were sitting in easy chairs at the compound watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

“Oh, by the way, Lisa, do you think we could write that check to Hinks?” she asked.

I sighed.  I had hoped she had forgotten all about it, but apparently not.

“Mom, tell me how you know this Hinks fellow.”

“Well, I used to work for him.”

“You used to work for him?  When?”

She just looked at me.  “I really don’t know.”

“Like a long time ago?”

“Yes, I think so,” she replied.

“Mom, come on.   How are we supposed to send a check to a guy you used to work for a long time ago?”

She shrugged her shoulders.  Ellen had left the stage and was dancing the aisles among the audience.  We both were mesmerized watching her.  What freedom to just be able to do that on your own TV show.  I wished I could be Ellen.

But then something clicked about Hinks.  An old black-and-white photo came to mind, one of my favorites of mine that my mom had had in a tattered shoe box with all the old, crinkled faded pictures from her life.  Some of the pictures were of her early life on the family farm in South Dakota; of her and her parents and aunts and brothers, playing and posing and jostling each other out in the cornfield, or front of their simple forlorn farmhouse.

This particular photo, however, was in excellent shape, not crinkled or torn, and it was bold and eye-catching.  My mom is standing in front of a café, I remembered, and I could even see the picture window behind her with swirly old-fashioned letters saying  – though I could be wrong – “Hinks’s Café, Tripp.”   And my mom’s so young and pretty and confident; so photogenic, with beautiful dark hair rolled away from her face in the style of the time.  She has a humorous  glitter in her eyes.

She was a stunning young woman, in a genuine, happy, innocent way.

Yet, she was just a farm girl from Parkston, South Dakota – the oldest child with two younger brothers –  with second-generation parents of German descent.    Life was hard on the farm during the depression.  She’d spent her youth milking cows, tending chickens and trudging miles in the snow to her one-room schoolhouse – or so she’d told me.  She’s also told of how the dustbowl made life miserable for the farmers in the Midwest, and how the sky was clouded and the dust seeped into the skin.  But somehow, my mom had made life good.  She’d left her parents and her two little brothers at fourteen years old to go to high school in Tripp, a very long fifteen miles away.

In the photo, she was a city girl now, on her own, and there was a certain quiet pride in her smile.

And remembering that face full of excitement and potential, I felt sad knowing what laid ahead for her.  A marriage to a man who wasn’t right for her; who was angry and went into rages and made our family home a living hell.  A painful divorce at age fifty. The death of her oldest son years before his time.  Yet she was strong.  She’d survived and even thrived in her own desolate childhood, and she’d developed a sense of humor that drew so many people to her – even into very old age.

“Mom,” I said softly.  “You worked at Hinks’s Café, right?  You were like eighteen or twenty or something like that?”

“Yes, I think you’re right.”

I was watching the TV, but the images weren’t registering. I fought to bring myself back to the present day, and to the issue at hand.

Slowly, I said, “This Hinks.  Was he older than you?”

“Oh, yes.”

“You’re ninety years old, mom.”   I thought of the beautiful young woman in the photograph.

Her wrinkled face collapsed into a laugh.  I could always, easily, get her to laugh.  That’s one reason why people loved her and were drawn to her. She’d been that way her entire life, with a positive outlook despite all the hardship.

“You would have to remind me,” she said laughing, all the while watching me, acknowledging that I was poking fun of her.

“But mom, what I’m getting at is, if he was older than you, and you’re ninety-years old,” I paused, hoping I wouldn’t have to state the obvious.  But she was looking at me, waiting for my point.

“Mom … he’s got to be dead!”

The laughter on her face, disappeared immediately. She looked truly alarmed.

“How can he be dead when I saw him last night?”

Christmas was drawing near. I took my mom several times to the mall and we enjoyed the bustling shoppers and all the red coats. She can spend an hour looking at one rack of jewelry, and as she ambles along in her walker, she talks to people and they’re always gracious, even if she’s said something off-the-wall.  I enjoy being with my elderly, ninety-year old mom.  She adores me and she’s so easy to be with. No matter who I am that day, she’s happy to be with me.

But the issue with Hinks, it wasn’t going away. I mostly ignored it, though she brought it up constantly.  I thought about just writing out a check, showing it to her, and then telling her I’d send it – though to where I couldn’t say.  This was the best solution, I finally decided, but I got busy with Christmas and shopping, and the craziness of it all.

One day, when my mom and I were sitting at The Compound in our recliners, and she’d brought it up for the umpteenth time, I asked if she even knew his last name, because how could we send him a check if we didn’t even know that?

“Oh, yes, it’s Windermuth,” she said.  Then she spelled it out one letter at a time.  “W-i-n-d-e-r-m-u-t-h.”

My jaw dropped as I took out my iPhone and googled “Hink’s Café,” and then “Windermuth.”  I found references to both on people’s blogs.  Hinks’s Café had apparently been closed for many years.  There was also a reference to a one Beatrice Windermuth in Tripp, South Dakota, most assuredly a sister or a niece or someone related.

So he was out there.  The spirit of Hinks was somewhere out there in time.

It wasn’t until my brother Van flew in from New York that we finally did something about the matter.  He comes every year for Christmas, and then spends a few weeks at my mom’s old house in Whittier, which she still owns, and which I’ve been fixing up over time.  My mom joins him for a few days, with a caretaker of course, so she and Van can be together, like they used to every single Christmas before she went to The Compound.  Like me and my mom, the two of them go shopping and to lunch, and they watch TV and hang out.

It was then that Van got the entire low-down on Hinks Windermuth and the café he owned in Tripp, South Dakota.

He called me from Whittier one night soon after Christmas day.  “Lisa, mom and I had a long conversation last night.  Did you know anything about Hinks?”

“Uh … yeah,” I said hesitantly, somewhat surprised, though I don’t know why.

“Do you know that she took four dollars and ten cents from the cash box one day where she worked at Hinks?”

“Four dollars?” I asked, stunned.  “Four dollars!”

“Yeah, we talked about it for a long time.  It was four dollars and ten cents and she’s feeling very guilty about it.”

“And she  …. stole the money?”

“Yes! Can you believe it?  Mom? So Darlynn and I took mom to the bank, and we had the lady figure out what the interest would be on  four dollars for seventy years at one percent interest per year.  Guess how much it is.”

“Oh my god.  About five hundred dollars?”

“No.”  He laughed.  “Like another four dollars and fifty cents or something.  And she keeps harping on it! So, let’s just get a check and a letter out to Hinks as soon as we can.”

So Van composed a beautiful letter and read it over the phone it to our friend, Malcom.  Malcom later flew in from New York to stay with Van for a week in Whittier, and brought the typed-up letter with him.  A family friend for years, he knew and loved my mom.

We were all at Downtown Disney for lunch on a sunny January day when Malcom handed the letter to my mom to read.  We were sitting in front of a water fountain outside of the Rainforest Café where we’d had lunch, and my mom slowly read it over.

When she finished, she looked at us one by one, first at Van, then me, then Malcom, and said, “Thank you, thank you so very much.  All of you.”  Then she took the pen Van handed to her and carefully signed the letter.

We enclosed it with a check for $20 in an enveloped addressed to the following:

Hints Windermuth, c/o Family of Hinks Windermuth, c/oTripp Post Office, Tripp, South Dakota 57376.

The letter read as follows:

To the family of Hinks Windermuth,

My name is Viola Vilhauer Padgalskas. I worked personally for Hinks Windermuth and the restaurant many, many years ago.  I am now approaching my ninetieth birthday and am attending to any unfinished business. Approximately sixty-five years ago, I made a mistake that I honestly regret.  Although I knew better, in a moment of misjudgment I stole money from the restaurant.

Hinks trusted me enough to let me handle the cash and although the amount may seem small now, after the difficult depression years, four dollars and ten cents was a sizeable amount. However, the amount was not as important as the fact that I did something wrong.  And for this I want to sincerely apologize.  I am returning the amount I took with more than triple interest.

Please accept this money and my sincere apology from a contrite heart.  With exception to my error in judgment, I have fond memories of the Hinks restaurant and the Windermuth family.

I would have sent this to Hinks personally, but I could not locate him. With the intention of closing this chapter in my life, I send this with kind regards,

Viola Vilhauer Padgalskas

Though we never received a reply, nor did I see that the check was ever cashed, my mom was happy after that.

And she hasn’t said a word about it since.

Copyright 2015 Lisa Padgalskas Hand