Wichita HS

A creative nonfiction piece commemorating Grandpa Max’s life.

Part 1 of a piece written in honor of my great-grandfather, Charles Maxwell Overholt, November 16, 1912 – March 25, 2013. 

Excerpts from Memory Book created in honor of Max Overholt’s 100th birthday:

I remember Grandpa Max likes to get me. ~Nora, 5, great-granddaughter

I remember Grandpa Max horsing around on the floor with me. ~ Aaron, 9, great-grandson

One of my favorite memories of Grandpa Max happened several years ago. Jackson, Isaac, and I were running around Grandma’s house. We didn’t think that anyone was paying attention to us, but then Grandpa Max joined in. He shuffled along behind us, pumping his arms as if he was running. I think we called him “The Jogger.” I don’t think he ever caught us, but I did appreciate that he tried. ~Joel, 18, great-grandson

Late January 2013

Grandpa MaxThe warmth inside the nursing home is a welcome change from the cold January night air. My three younger siblings and I trail in behind our parents, stretching our legs from the twenty-minute drive. My dad tells the woman at the front desk we’re here to see Max Overholt, and she directs us to the correct wing.

The walls are painted with warm pinks, greens, and oranges, very different from the sterile white I’ve seen in other nursing homes. Despite the cheerful atmosphere, I still feel a twinge of discomfort when I walk past open doors that reveal an elderly woman in a hospital-style bed or an old man sitting alone before his TV.

We find my great-grandfather puttering down the hall in his wheelchair, moving slowly but steadily, his feet doing most of the work while his hands rest on the arms of the chair. My dad has said his grandfather often does this, that he likes being out of his room and moving around. Knowing my Grandpa Max, that doesn’t surprise me at all. He’s never been one to sit still.

“Hey, Grandpa,” my dad says. Each of us kids moves forward to say hello. When I take his hand, his skin is papery beneath my touch, a bit like the well-worn knees in a favorite pair of jeans. Despite its fragility, it is still the deep tan it has always been, the color of the golden brown acorns that fall from Midwest oaks in autumn.


Excerpt from a short life history written by Max Overholt:

“My parents lived in Hesston, Kansas, but I was actually born in Canton, Kansas at my Grandmother Evans’ house. My mother had always lived in Canton and was acquainted with a Doctor there, so she chose that as my birthplace. I don’t know how long we stayed at Grandmother’s house after I was born. Probably a week or so.”

My great-grandfather was born a century ago on November 16, 1912. His parents named him Charles Maxwell Overholt, but to his friends and family, he has always been “Max.” His mother gave birth to him in Canton, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, but his early years were spent in nearby Hesston, population 250. As a boy, he trekked a mile to school every day and worked the summer harvest with his brother and uncles.

Though I’ve never been there, the many road trips I’ve taken with my family across western Kansas help me imagine it. The ripening wheat that morphs with the breeze into a golden ocean is neighbored by fields of stiffly straight stalks of corn with green husks and pale yellow tassels and the ground-hugging alfalfa, which forms a green carpet over the rich brown soil.

I can see the two young boys—Max and his brother, Bill, four years younger—tromping barefoot down a dirt road toward their uncles’ fields. Their arms and legs are tanned from the hot summer sun, their bodies strengthened from the physical work. Stretching over them is the clear Kansas sky, an upside-down bowl of blue that reaches from one horizon to the other with no mountains and few trees to block its brilliance from sight.


Reading the life history Max penned for his children provides me with additional snapshots from this time in his life: age 4, facing the prison-sentence of bed rest because of a “leakage” in his heart; age 5, climbing aboard his father’s motorcycle and accidentally knocking it out of gear so that it coasted down a hill; age 6, watching the adults’ celebration at the end of World War I and trying to comprehend the scope of that event. I muse over the heart problem I’d never heard of before, laugh while imagining a young Max frantically trying to stop the motorcycle, and wonder what it would have been like to try to understand war at such a young age—perhaps much like it was for me at 10 to try and understand 9/11.

Excerpts from Memory Book:

I have many fond memories of our time in Wichita. We liked to eat! I remember many times Mike and I taking Max and Winnie out for Chinese food or going over to their house for Max’s famous ribs. But some of my favorite times with Max and Winnie were them coming over to our house for dinner. Afterwards we would play Rummikub and have root beer floats for dessert. Time really is the most precious gift. ~Sheri, granddaughter-in-law

My family moves with Grandpa Max to one of the nursing home’s small visiting areas. My parents sit on one couch, my siblings and I on another. I perch in the middle, my brothers, Joel and Isaac, to my sides, and my sister, Lydia, in my lap.

Grandpa Max slouches a little in his chair, the weight once carried in his arms and shoulders now slumped into his stomach. When he smiles, a lopsided sort of grin, his blue eyes light up behind his thick glasses. He seems happy to see all of us, though to be honest, I can’t be sure whether he knows who I am.

But do I really know who he is either? Though Grandpa Max has lived near us for several years, I’ve never had long conversations with him. I know lots of things about him, but sometimes, I still don’t feel like I know him.

“It’s a pretty nice place you have here,” my dad says.

He nods. “Oh, yeah. Yeah.”

I scan the room, examining it for myself. The walls are a burnt orange color, softened slightly by cream trim, and a potted plant sits in the far corner. A TV hangs high on the wall to my left, and the broadcaster gives a teaser about the French declaring war on the English language. Lydia twists in my lap to give me a confused look, and I return the glance with a shrug, feeling a bit distracted. The room is nice, but I can’t quite push away a nagging sense of discomfort. I’m not sure whether it’s the nature of being in a nursing home, or whether it’s the feeling that I am sitting outside this conversation. A stranger, watching.

“So what did you have for dinner tonight?” my mom asks.

“Fried cod,” Grandpa Max replies.

That makes me smile. Grandpa Max has always been an avid fisherman, and no doubt, he still enjoys a good fish dinner. Many of our old photos show him on his boat just off the Texas shore in the Gulf of Mexico, proudly holding his latest catch, his face and arms bronzed from the summer sun. He passed that love of fishing on to my grandmother, and my father, who passed it to me, at least to some extent, though I haven’t been fishing in years now.

My mom follows up with another question. “Did you have anything else for dinner?”

“Well, they scrape along the baseboards and around the couch there. Then, they scoop up all the vermin there, and they fry them up.”

What? I shoot a glance sideways at Isaac, my eleven-year-old brother. His freckled nose is wrinkled, and he’s snorting a little, as he tries to hold back his laughter. Grandpa Max has always been a bit of a jokester, and sometimes now, it’s difficult to tell whether he’s just confused or is making a joke. I try to hide my own laughter, just in case.

Excerpt from life history by Max Overholt:

“We were close to Mom’s sisters and their families, and [it] seemed they were all happy. Later on it seemed they had money problems, and Mom got a job . . . . About this time—5th grade—my parents split up and got a divorce.”

Even in a history about his life, this was all that Max said about his parents’ divorce. Maybe he was ashamed—this was in the early 1920s, well before divorce became an “acceptable” option. Or maybe thinking about it just hurt too much.

Max’s family had moved to Hutchinson, Kansas, shortly before his parents’ divorce. After the divorce, life became chaotic for him. His father got a job in Clay Center and moved there with Bill, while Max stayed behind to finish up seventh grade in Hutchinson. His mother apparently decided to move back in with them during this time, and according to Max, his parents “were getting along real well.” But his father wasn’t able to make enough money at his job in Clay Center and decided to move to Wichita, taking Max and Bill with him—their third move in five years. Their mother moved with them also and began attending a chiropractic college in Wichita, but after she graduated, she moved out, leaving Max and his father and brother to “batch” from that point forward.

Max makes no comment in his short life history about how he dealt emotionally with these changes. My dad has often talked about how his grandfather goes with the flow and never worries about the future. Was this a quality that Max always had? Or was it perhaps a result of so many upheavals early in life? I can’t be sure.

IMG_0002When Max was 19, he met my great-grandmother, Winifred “Winnie” Ellen Hill, and married her four years later on June 2, 1935. At some point before that, Max’s father had become a self-educated pastor, and it was he who performed the ceremony for Max and Winnie. Winnie’s parents disapproved of the marriage and refused to attend the ceremony.

I wonder how Max felt that day . . . nervous like any bridegroom would be, I suppose. Was he afraid, worried his marriage might end like his parents’ had? Or was he determined to make his life different than theirs? The disapproval of Winnie’s parents makes me think fear must have played at least a small part in the day. But Max and Winnie’s next sixty-four years of marriage convinces me he must have been determined and dedicated, as well.

Max and Winnie were married in the middle of the Great Depression, an era that made its mark on Kansas as much as any other state. But both were hard workers, and despite outward difficulties, they made their marriage work. From 1935 on, they loved each other for richer and for poorer and raised three children together: Nancy, Judith (my grandmother), and Robert. They kept their vow to love “till death do us part,” separating only at Winnie’s death in 1999.

Read Part 2, here.