Pioneer memories of life and death in the farm house.
I have often thought of the grandmothers giving birth alone or with the help of a relative or neighbor, in a sod hut or frame house on the prairie. My grandfather was born in western Iowa, in the home of his mother’s cousin, and attended by her. My grandma birthed five kids in their farmhouse in Richville, Minnesota. When the last child was born, she had a long labor. The doctor was tending to someone else and was delayed for hours. His transportation was a horse and buggy, likely more reliable than a car to get through snow on New Year's Eve in 1920.
People did what they needed to do. Their resilience, courage, and lore passed from generation to generation.
In that same farm house, the husband of grandma’s sister, Aunt Julia, died. I was told he was headed to St. Paul from Wibaux, Montana, to sell cattle. He took sick on the train and someone came to the farm to get my grandpa, who loaded him onto a wagon, notified a doctor, and took his brother-in-law, Bill, to the farm. My mother remembered being five or six and hiding behind the cook stove as grandpa and the doctor held Bill down and grandma went in and out of the room, carrying pans of hot water in and bloody water out. Many hours later, Bill died of tuberculosis of the bowels and the house fell silent.
Aunt Julia was back in Wibaux with eight little boys and pregnant with the ninth. I can only imagine her fear when she got the word she was a young widow, soon to be responsible for raising nine children, alone. My grandpa went out to Wibaux and brought her and her boys back to Minnesota, and set them up on a small farm with chickens and cows. They raised most of their food. Her son Nathan, my mother’s cousin, used to laugh that they never went hungry, but they had eaten everything that lived in Minnesota, if it had fur, fins, or feathers, although they didn’t always eat it in season! People knew how to survive on wits and work!
After her nine sons were grown, Aunt Julia remarried. Julius was a delightful giant of a man. Grandma and I used to take the train and stay with Julia and Julius for a week in the summer. The farm with all the animals was a delight for a four or five year old. One of my favorite memories is Uncle Julius dancing in the rain as he came back to the house, after milking. He held a huge rhubarb leaf like an umbrella, and his huge feet danced in mud as he literally sang in the rain! He was Dutch, and how loved his cows, sang to them, hugged and kissed them, and told them how beautiful they were. He loved his chickens, named “the girls,” and taught me how to get the eggs they sat on. His hands were huge, and when he held a fluffy kitten in those work worn hands, the kitty peeked out brightly, and knew it was safe. His love was huge and joyous for all creatures great and small. He was blessed with Love for Life and delighted in sharing it. He loved and respected Aunt Julia as generously and tenderly as any woman dared dream of being loved.
He had no material goods to give her, but he gave himself. They lived in the small farm house where she raised her boys. She cooked on a wood burning cast iron range, had kerosene lamps, and china pots under the beds in case nature called during the night. The “icebox” that kept the milk, cream and butter from those cows cool, was the well. That well provided cold sweet water that was better than any bought in plastic bottles today.
He wore bib overalls and she wore home made aprons over her home made cotton house dress. He never had wingtips shined by someone else, and she never had a manicure in a shop. They made do with what they had, earned everything they had, and were grateful. They were rich, not with money or possessions, but with love for each other and the nine good sons who grew to be good men.
One night, after supper and the last milking of the day, Julia and Julius, now in their eighties, were sitting in their rocking chairs. Her chin tilted to her chest, and Julius thought she had fallen asleep. Then he realized it was her final sleep. He wept copiously, but was grateful she had died contentedly in her home with him. He passed shortly after she did.
Great Aunt Julia and Great Uncle Julius were models of lives well lived. I still treasure the bowl they gave us when we married, 52 years ago.