Mom's Story

(Mom was diagnosed with brain cancer, and underwent a craniotomy in July 1999.  She wrote this letter to her grandchildren before beginning radiation treatment that fall.)*


Dear Erin and Vance,

For a long time I've been meaning to write to you about my childhood, because it was so very different than yours (or even your mother's...).

Now I think it might be better to start with some of what I remember about my parents.    I am so happy that I was close to my mother and spent a lot of time talking with her.  She died even before your mother was born.  Some of us in the family like to think of Mom as our guardian angel.

As a young lady, Mother's name was Bernice Catherine Rickey (a nickname for Fredericka) Low and she was a school teacher.  She went to college in Wayne, Nebraska to earn her teaching certificate.  At that time they called it 'normal training' and the college, 'normal school'.  When her education was complete she returned to her farm home to live with her parents, two brothers and two sisters while she taught in a one- room country school near Snyder, Nebraska.  Her means of transportation was a horse and buggy (or possibly a horse and wagon).

At that time grades one through eight were all in that one school room together.  There was no kindergarten.  It was not uncommon for some grades to have only one student, and some grades none, if there was no child that age in the farm community.  After graduating from eighth grade, a student would attend a four-year high school in town.

The school was warmed by means of a pot-bellied stove fueled by wood which Mother had to hope some of the older boys would help her carry.  There was always a wood shed on the grounds and I imagine there must have been some shelter for the poor horse.  Winter was long and cold in Nebraska with lots of snow.  There was no indoor plumbing.  The 'bathroom' was an 'outhouse' at the end of a path.  Back then, teaching in a country school was not an easy job.

Before long, my mother was the proud owner of her own cedar chest.  Young single women would call them 'hope chests" and fill them with nice things they could use in their homes when they got married.  Mother was very protective of her cedar chest and did her best to keep her four young brothers and sisters away from it.

A family of that size might seem large to you.  Wait until I tell you about my father's family! There were 14 children, all of them in the home at the same time.  They slept two to a bed, two beds to a room.  There were four bedrooms upstairs and one downstairs.   With so many children to name, it must have been a challenge to come up with new names because the last two sons both had the middle name of George.  My dad's name was Alvin George and his younger brother was Julius George.

The kitchen was large, with a long, long table.  The seven daughters helped their mother bake bread twice a week.  They also had an occasional dressmaking day.  Of course, the seven sons had lots of outdoor chores on the farm.

It's a good thing they kept so busy on the farm because they didn't get to go into town very ofter - only for Sunday school and the county fair, as Dad remember it.  His father (my grandfather) had one of the first motor cars in the community, but the children walked the two miles to school or took a horse and buggy.  There was a small collage in a nearby town and Dad went directly from eighth grade to college where he studied bookkeeping and business management for a year or so.  Somehow he found time to learn to play the violin and Mother told me he brought his violin along and played for her when they were 'courting'.

My parents were married May 24, 1934 at the very end of the 'Great Depression'.  They moved onto a family farm owned by my Grandpa Otteman.  Grandpa wanted one of his sons to run the farm, and none of the other boys would agree to do that.  I think Dad resolved right then to buy his own place as soon as possible.

Times were hard - there was never enough money.  Mom and Dad celebrated their first Christmas by sharing an apple.  It was not easy to get fresh fruit in December those days, so it was a special treat for them.  Mother always said it was the happiest Christmas she could remember.

They could only afford to heat one room in the house, and there was ice on the floor of the pantry.  But they were happy with each other and there was a baby on the way - me! Their hearts were full of hope for the future.  I was born April 24, 1935.  My sister LaNell was born just 14 months later.  Even though we were both born at home, I don't remember when LaNell arrived.  Of course, I was just a baby my self! Just before my fifth birthday, our brother Lester was born in a nearby hospital.  I remember clearly when my parents brought him home several days later.  Mother set a straight-back chair in front of a chest in the kitchen and invited me to sit down so she could hand the baby to me! I was so proud! What meant the most to me was that as the big sister I was the first to get to hold him.  When Dianne was born three years later LaNell, Les and I stayed with our aunt in town.  On the drive home Mother actually reached over the back of the seat and handed the new baby to me to hold! It is one of the most happiest moments I can remember!

We had a simple farm home.  Indoor plumbing consisted of a hand pump at the kitchen sink.  And of course, there was an outdoor toilet.  Bathing was mostly 'washing up' or sponge baths.  The Saturday night bath was a big event.  We'd bring in a large metal tub, set it in the kitchen and fill it with water that had been warmed on the kitchen stove.  The tub had one handle on each side, and usually two people would carry it outside to empty it when we were finished.

There was a small oil stove in the livingroom for heat.  The kitchen stove was large and heavy (probably cast iron) with a chimney to the roof.  Fuel was wood or coal or even corn cobs.  My parents would keep a fire going in the winter to help heat the house.  In the summer, I'm sure cooking and baking was a very hot, uncomfortable activity.

Keeping a constant temperature in the oven must have been a real challenge.  You couldn't let the fire burn too low or build it too high.  But my mother baked the best bread and rolls you could imagine.  When there was a family gathering of all the relatives, everyone would ask her to bring dinner rolls.

One of my favorite childhood memories is of lifting the burner covers on the stove to toast a slice of Mother's homemade bread on a meat fork over the open fire.  Then we'd spread it with butter she had churned with cream from our own cows.  I'm sure there were homemade jams and jellies, but to my mind nothing could improve on the taste of that wonderful homemade bread and butter!

There was an ice box (instead of a refrigerator).  It was a cabinet with a compartment to hold chucks of ice.  As the ice melted, water would run down to a pan under the cabinet where it collected until someone took it outdoors to dispose of it.  You might wonder where the ice came from.  It was a neighborhood winter project to saw ice from the frozen creek using an ice saw to cut it in blocks.  It was stored in a pit dug in the ground and lined with straw.  The ice blocks were packed in more straw, and a low roof covered the pit to protect the ice.

We ate very well on the farm.  My parents always put in a big garden and did lots of canning.  The cellar was full of rows of jars filled with beans, peas, corn, tomatoes and rhubarb mixed with mulberries.  Dad always had a huge strawberry patch.  What a joy it was to eat straight from the garden! If we got hungry while playing, we'd pick a handful of strawberries or shell a few pods of fresh green peas.  What a treat!

My parents also canned fresh beef (from our own cattle butchered right the on the farm).   They would work together to cut the fresh meat in cubes, pack it in jars with salt and pepper, fill the jars with water and cover with meal lids.  The jars were then placed in a huge boiler which was filled to just the right point with water and boiled for what seemed like hours.  During the process the lids would seal and the meat would be preserved.   Later, when Mom would bring a jar of meat up from the cellar, it would be like instant roast, or stew meat in it's own gravy - delicious.

The one-room school we attended was located 2 1/2 miles from our home.  When we were considered old enough, and when weather permitted, we would walk.  The walks home in the afternoon are the ones I remember best.  There was a bridge about half way which we chose to cross by climbing up and over the side rails.  On warm days when the creek water was not too deep we took off our shoes and socks to go wading.  As we continued on our way we came to a field which was home to a mean-looking bull.  He didn't seem to like us which he showed by snorting and pawing the ground.  We were grateful for a good, strong fence around that field.  Still, we hurried past.

The school was much like the one in which my mother taught.  There was no kindergarten, so I started in the first grade.  Those eighth grade boys looked huge to me! First thing every morning, as soon as everyone had taken his/her seat, the teacher would have an inspection.  Each child was asked to show a clean handkerchief and clean fingernails.  Our handkerchiefs were usually gifts.  Our birthday celebrations were nice family dinners with Grandpa and Grandma Low as guests.  Grandma would always bring a birthday card with a nice new handkerchief tucked inside.  I remember being relieved because then I'd have something nice and new to show at inspection.

I remember a time when there was no electricity.  I did my first homework under the light from a kerosene lantern.  Imagine how excited we were when the government first made electric power available to 'wire' houses for electricity.  But there was not a lot of restrictions on building codes in those days either.  So Dad bought some instruction books and began to study.  Before long he had our house wired for electricity, and there was a great demand for his services.  I remember when he wired the houses of many of our neighbors.  We though our dad could do anything and I guess we were close to being right! I'm sure when we finally got 'running water' in the house Dad was the one who installed the plumbing but I don't remember it as well as I do the electricity.

As a child I was afraid of the telephone - a box mounted on the wall, it had a mouthpiece that stuck out in front and a hand crank on the side.  You used the crank to 'ring' the person you wished to talk to, either someone on your party line or the central operator in town (everyone called her 'Central').  Everyone on the line was assigned his own signal.   Ours was two long rings and one short ring.  This signal would ring at every home on the party line, so everyone knew who was getting a call and could even pick up the receiver to listen in! I really didn't get comfortable with the phone until I was a teenager.

There were many interesting things to do on the farm.  We had a team of very large horses that Dad named Pete and Dick.  He'd lift us up on their enormous backs, then lead them around by their harnesses so we could ride them.  When LaNell and I grew a little older and braver, we'd braid Pete's and Dick's tails.  Those big old horses were so gentle they'd just stand patiently until we finished.  When I was little, there was no tractor and the horses pulled plow, disk and wagon to get the farm work done.

Corn and wheat fields gave us lots of opportunity for play.  We'd run up and down between the rows of corn to hide from each other.  Hiding in the wheat was much more effective.  We'd run out into the field, then throw ourselves to the ground.  The wheat was tall and stood in a circle all around us so we couldn't be seen unless someone stood right next to us and looked down.  We must have trampled a lot of wheat but Dad didn't seem to mind.  When the wheat was harvested Dad would let us ride on top of the wagon load of grain.  He told us if we chewed a mouthful of wheat long enough it would turn into gum.   It worked! That became one of our favorite things to do.

All of the work of harvesting and threshing crops was just too much for one man.  The neighbors, who were also good friends, would gather at one farm and work until the crop was in, then go on to the next farm the next day.  The farm wife would prepare lunch for everyone and provide coffee and a snack once or twice during the day.  Occasionally we children got to carry snacks out to the field for the workers.

When it was Dad's turn to help out at a neighbor's farm, Mother would not cook a full meal at noon.  At such times we would usually choose to eat bread and milk which we considered a treat.  We'd break up some of Mother's homemade bread in a cereal bowl and drizzle it with honey or sprinkle it with sugar.  Then we'd pour over nice cold milk provided by our own cows.  We thought it was pretty special to get a break from the usual meat, potatoes and vegetables!

There was always a lot of work for Mother.  She had to pump water for laundry and heat it on the kitchen stove.  The first washing machine I remember was electric.  Still, one had to feed each piece of laundry from soapy water to the first rinse tub through rubber rollers that squeezed out the soapy water.  Then the process would have to be repeated from the first rinse to the second rinse tub.  The it went from the second rinse through the rollers and into the laundry basket.

But wait! She still wasn't finished.  She still had to hang all that laundry on the outdoor clothesline to dry in the breeze.  As soon as we girls were old enough we got to help with each step of the process.  I really enjoyed such neat, organized work.  When it was time to bring in the dried clothes that meant it was time to help with the ironing.  I loved ironing Dianne's little dresses.  However I did not look forward to the overalls and bedsheets - they were no fun at all!

There was one job of Mother's I was glad not to have to do.  It started off nicely enough.   In the spring she would unpack crates of cute baby chicks, then take care of feeding and watering them and keeping the chicken house clean.  It's a good thing grown chickens are not so cute any more because by then they're about to become Sunday dinner.  It was mother's job to kill the chickens and prepare them for cooking.  Their feathers had to be picked off and this job fell to us girls.  I guess that wasn't so bad because Mom was left with cleaning out the innards.  I liked chicken best on a platter in the center of the dining table.

During these busy years, Dad managed to find a farm he could buy.  He rented out while he fulfilled his promise to run the family farm for his father.  It wouldn't be until his father died in 1949 that Dad would consider moving his family, and the next year Dad's wish for a farm of his own was realized.

Dad milked cows by hand.  Then he'd bring the milk to Mom, and she'd run it through the separator to separate the cream from milk.  We girls got to help her clean out the separator.  I remember it as a nasty, smelly job although it might not seem that way to me today.  Afterwards we'd sometimes get to churn the cream into butter in the hand-cranked churn.

On special occasions that rich cream would go into a hand-cranked freezer to make the most wonderful ice cream! It was hard work but we never minded turning that handle because we knew when it was finally ice cream we'd get to eat what remained on the freezer paddles.  What a treat that was!

One job I really didn't like was gathering eggs.  Those hens perched on their eggs and guarded them as though they were diamonds! When we tried to reach into the nest and under the hen to bring an egg out to the basket, she would get angry and attack with the best weapon she had - her beak.  You could come away with hands and forearms badly pecked.  I always dreaded the encounter.  Even though I knew those eggs would end up in wonderful cooked and baked foods, it was hard to 'keep my eyes on the prize'!

Christmas was a wonderful time.  Dad began making candy in mid-December.  He made the best divinity and fudge.  His favorite was a fruit and nut candy made of ground dates, mixed nuts and honey.  It needed to 'set' for a week or two and Dad chose to store all his candy in a cool upstairs room next to our bedrooms.  What a temptation!

At about the same time Mom was getting out tree ornaments.  Soon the Christmas tree would be set up and decorated.  Each child had his/her name written on a piece of paper which was placed on one of Mother's good plates under the tree.  Saturday or Sunday afternoons before the holiday we children gathered at the church to practice for the Christmas Eve program.  We all had 'pieces' to say in telling the Christmas story.  There were many children in Sunday school, and it took lots of practice to get everyone where they needed to be to say their piece or help sing a song.  It took all our attention for it to go well.

On Christmas Eve, when the program was finally over, we started for home.  We knew there was still excitement to come because Santa always managed to visit while we were gone.  When we went directly to our own special plate under the tree it would be heaped high with fruit and hard candy.  As a special treat, there were chocolates.  There would be one toy or game for each child.  LaNell and I usually got identical dolls, except they would be wearing different colored dresses.  This seemed perfectly normal to us because for most of our early childhood, Mother dressed us identically except in different colors.

I hope you've enjoyed my little trip down Memory Lane as much as I have.  It might be fun to get together and talk about it.  Until then...

Lots of love,

Grammy



* After writing this, Mom spent one more Christmas and one more birthday (her 65th) with us.  She died September 19th, 2000.