Sunday, December 31, 2006

Winter in the Plains of America

A friend from central Nebraska called to say the power had been out in her area since six p.m. Saturday night. Due to freezing rains followed by snow and wind, trees and limbs were down taking power lines with them. We were luckier here in southeastern Nebraska. We had slow soaking rains for a couple days with snow starting today.

When Arctic winds blow out of the North bringing snow and dangerous wind chills, I think of a story my grandma used to tell. It's one of my favorite stories, paraphrased from the book of her life, My Name is Esther Clara. It puts in perspective what little inconveniences we have today when winter winds howl around the house and snow drifts level with our porch.

In the early 1920s, Grandma and Grandpa set out from Kansas for a road construction job in Minnesota. America's roadways were sparse in those days. Cross country traveling and trucking were as rare as the roads. Americans were just beginning their love affair with motorized vehicles then, but wanted good roads to travel instead of rutted cowpaths.

Grandpa had been lured to Minnesota with the promise of good wages and "sturdy housing" if he was willing to work in winter. The phrase "sturdy housing" conjured up visions of a cozy little cabin where his family would be warm and safe. They arrived in a blizzard and were given a canvas tent to erect -- their housing for the winter -- and a small coal burning stove for heat and cooking. That they did not immediately return to Kansas is a testament to their determination, and their desperate need for decent wages.

Grandma, Grandpa, and their two toddlers spent most of that awful Minnesota winter living in a canvas tent. Wind blew so hard it ripped tears in the tent and Grandma kept the holes patched by sewing sheets over them. Her job was to get coal every morning from the company storage shed, to cook and wash their clothes by hand, and keep their kids warm. Grandpa's job was to work 12 hours a day, snow or shine, daylight or dark, in below zero wind chills to clear the woods for a roadbed. The workers got four breaks a day on schedule. Grandma kept quilts by the stove to warm her young husband at each break. She wrapped him in warm quilts, gave him coffee with milk and sugar and hot soup to heat his innards, and fed him fat sandwiches on home made bread for energy. Somehow they survived and thrived.

So today, when the snow blows and wind howls around my warm house, I'm thankful. Even if the electricity goes out, our kerosene stove is a handy source of heat and means of cooking. I don't have to patch holes in a drafty tent, and I don't have to live in the throes of winter with fragile shelter. Could I survive while roughing it today, like they did then? I doubt it. I'm two generations removed from coal stoves and life without electricity. And it's doubtful that I have their courage and resourcefulness. Modern life is a blessing that has spoiled me.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas Memories Part 4

This will be the final chapter of my Christmas reminiscences. We lived in a different world when I was a child. My memories will take you back in time to an era I consider to be warmer, safer than the one we know today.

I don't have any pictures of the whole gang gathered for Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa's house. Their house was small so we had to pack ourselves into it in separate areas and the only time we were all together in one space was at mealtime. Otherwise, the women were cooking, the men out hunting or gabbing in the living room around the tree, and the children in various rooms or outside depending on the weather.

Togetherness ruled in Grandma and Grandpa's world. None of their family questioned where they would be on Christmas day. Everyone would be together, rubbing elbows in small spaces, surrounded by laughter and familiar voices.

World War Two was still a recent memory then, so Uncle Kenny Ketchell shared war stories or tales of the shell shocked veteran who lived with them. Homeless veterans were rare in those days because family or friends took them in out of respect and concern. We kids never tired of Uncle Kenny's stories, told proudly from a well of patriotism and amazing courage.

Grandpa and Uncle Don Ford took great delight in teasing and joking. No one escaped their mischief -- especially the children -- and they kept it up until Grandma silently intervened by giving them the dreaded "straight mouth." When Grandma pursed her lips together, even Grandpa hunkered down and took a break from mischief. Uncle Don was not so easily intimidated, but switched from teasing to intellectual challenges to appease Grandma.

Before we gathered for our meal, Uncle Jerome Lueers sang "Bless the House" as our family prayer. His beautiful Irish tenor voice penetrated every room from corner to corner, ceiling to floor, touching hearts and spirits. Stresses fell away and anxieties departed because his voice soothed and healed.

So many of the participants of our gladsome gatherings are gone now. I remember them with fondness today because they are a part of the tapestry that is my life: Grandma and Grandpa Ford; Mother, Verla Ford Smith; Aunt Maxine Ford Ketchell, Uncle Kenny, and their sons Randy and Keith; Uncle Jerome Lueers and daughter Nancy. I miss their presence and their gifts.

We epitomized the American family in those days, relatives who enjoyed every nuance of Christmas and made no apologies for it. We were a family who believed in God, a family that prayed together and took comfort in the Christ Child's message, who put angels on our trees and creches in our yards. This Christmas I will celebrate those times, envision those familiar faces, and fond memories will put a smile on my face. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Christmas Part Three

The old Methodist Church in Marysville Kansas was a large part of our social life back when I was a kid. Even practicing for the Sunday School Christmas play and carol sing was a thrill, back in the days before television dominated our lives. And all we Sunday School children knew that if we were good, if we played our parts and sang our carols well, Santa Claus would visit church after the Sunday service nearest Christmas.

After church, some of the people went outside to smoke. Others, ladies mostly, went downstairs to begin serving pot luck dinner. Mom and Grandma always brought fried chicken and some sort of dessert. Everything was made from scratch in those days. No KFC or deli cole slaw, no store-bought cakes or pies. Mom often made mayonnaise cake -- a rich, chocolate cake with fudge frosting. Grandma's old standby recipe was her world famous frosted molasses creams. I always made sure to sit with Grandpa. He knew ALL the best things to eat. He'd help me fill my plate, starting with Mom's or Grandma's fried chicken because he said theirs was the best. Finally, he'd say, "That oughta hold me over for awhile." That was the familiar signal to take my empty plate to the kitchen and go sit with Mom and Grandma. The most exciting part of the day was at hand. Santa Claus would soon arrive!!

The Methodist Church Santa was a tall man with twinkling blue eyes. He called all the children by name while handing out bags of candy, nuts, apples, and oranges. The genuinely happy sound of his laugh, the deep timbre of his voice, and the smell of his whiskers was comforting and familiar. When it came my turn to sit on Santa's lap and tell him my secret Christmas wishes, I wanted to snuggle in against him and take a nap. Mom always whisked me away before I could nod off.

Guess I was too young back then to realize why Santa seemed so familiar and comforting to me. Grandpa Ford was the quintessential Santa. He played his part to perfection and loved Christmas as much as any child. My grandpa loved Christmas and playing Santa almost as much as he loved me.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Christmas Part Two

I've often been told that whatever shred of creativity I have came from my mother. Mine just took a different form than hers. Mom took colorful, creative handiwork to a level beyond my capabilities. Holidays shined because of her imagination, especially Christmas.

Mom wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth and neither were her children, but she didn't let that lack dampen her enthusiasm. Every Christmas package she wrapped became a work of art so beautiful that even children hated to destroy her creations. No matter how mundane the content might be -- socks, overboots, even the dreaded underwear -- came packaged like the rarest treasure. She labored hours over each package. Using glue and glitter she created snow scenes with reindeer, laughing Santas, angels on heavenly clouds, baby Jesus surrounded by Mary, Joseph, wise men, shepherds, and lowing cattle. I've often wished that even one of those packages had survived intact so I could brag about her talent today. Mom's inspired art deserved to be framed and hung on my walls because I understand now that such handiwork was an extension of her love.

No Christmas season was complete without trays loaded with Mom's decorated cookies. Like her wrapped packages, cookies were transformed to high art with Mom's special touches. Flat cookies formed by cookie cutters became a three dimensional finished product. Even her four little cookie monsters hated to bite into them, at least until they'd been properly admired from every angle. Santas and reindeer, snowmen and angels took on a vibrant life of their own. Mom spent hours coloring bowls of frosting to just the right hues. My personal favorite was Frosty the Snowman, complete with gaily colored stocking hat, scarf, happy smile and carrot nose all carefully formed from frosting to accent his white roundness. My second favorite was Santa. Shredded coconut atop white frosting transformed his beard to a believable reality. Our classes at Lincoln Grade School eagerly anticipated a tray of Mom's decorated cookies each Christmas. Each cookie sat on its own paper lace doily and seemed too wonderful to eat.

One year in particular stayed firmly in my memory. Our house was heated by a warm morning stove with isinglass doors. A howling blizzard knocked out the electricity but our house stayed warm and cozy, thanks to our gas stove. Bitter winds drove temperatures down below zero. Mom bundled me up in a snow suit and sent me across the street to our neighbors, who heated with electricity, and said to tell them our house was warm if they wanted to come over. Before long our living room was packed with people, laughing and talking while their kids ran and played and jostled each other. That day had started out as cookie baking day. One tray had been completed with individual rows of Santas, angels, snowmen, and reindeer. When that tray of treasures was knocked to the floor by careless children, the entire house went silent. Then Mom cried while the neighbor ladies tried to rescue a few unbroken cookies from the fractured mess. Mom said, "No, I'll just start all over in the morning." And she did. I don't remember how long our neighbors stayed with us that day, but Mom's broken cookies were a loss that silenced all the jabber and play.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Christmas memories Part One

Yesterday was sunny and breezy, with high wispy clouds in a bright blue sky, a perfect winter day. I sat on my back porch and watched the clouds awhile, overcome with imprinted sensations from another place and time. I was a child again, bursting with excitement, walking to Grandma and Grandpa's house. Cold air bit at chubby cheeks and knees. I wanted to break loose and run, but Mother firmly held my mittened left hand. I skipped and chattered at her side, hoping Santa Claus would greet me at their door, asking Mom if Santa visited everyone or just Grandma's house. My memories of past Christmases may not be on a par with IDEALS magazine, all beautiful in their perfection, but they're mine and I want to start the season by sharing them.

In December 1945 I was three going on four. The world war was winding down, but I knew nothing about war in those days. What I DID know for certain was that Grandma's house was bright with shiny decorations and a fat cedar tree with piles of gaily wrapped packages under it. My child's mind reasoned that a fair number of those presents would be mine! I had been a very good girl, nice not naughty, so Santa surely had not forgotten me as he flew around the world with sleigh and reindeer.

Grandpa met us at the door that day, smiling ear to ear. He picked me up and swung me around the living room, then held me high so I could touch sweet Angie the Christmas Tree Angel at the top of their tree. The air inside their house was moist and fragrant with scents of a baking turkey and dressing. Piled high and colorful along the buffet in their dining room, Grandma had arranged home made cookies, pies, candy, and frosted molasses creams. Now if there was anything I loved better than presents, it was food, especially desserts. Grandpa knew that, so after he piled my coat, hat, and mittens on the bed in their back bedroom, he snuck two cookies from the pile. He had a colorfully decorated snowman and I had a reindeer. Grandpa was the absolute BEST at sneaking goodies behind Grandma's back so I learned that technique from a master.

That year Santa brought me a doctor kit, a gift I put to immediate use. Uncle Don and his friend Earl Elliott ate too much and needed doctoring. Uncle Don crashed on the couch, moaning and groaning and rubbing his full stomach. Earl sprawled on the floor beside the couch, swearing he would die at any moment. Lucky for them, a fledgling doctor/nurse was on the scene to administer emergency treatment. With the little stethoscope around my neck and a fake plastic thermomenter in my hand, I listened to their hearts and lungs and gurgling tummies, then took their temperature. Both patients lived and are still alive today as a testament to my skill in 1945. No need to thank me now, Don and Earl. I was just doing my job.

One of these days soon another memory will take hold. Stay tuned until then.

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I enjoy good writing by writers and poets who are not famous. My mother said I was born a hundred years too late. The older I get, the more I realize how right she was.

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