mom's mother story

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notes from mom about her mother, mabel spring 1999

mabel amazed me, more as i get older. she was born in 1894, grew up in a large farm home, with 2 sisters and 3 brothers, a father we never heard much about and a petite pretty mother hattie we only knew as a gentle senile elder. mabel went to country school, graduated and went on to tobin college in fort dodge - that was the step out of the rural community, and broadened one's education. she studied latin, philosophy, history, was an eager reader. a pretty, lively young woman she played basketball on the first women's team in iowa. as a friend, mabel was a winner - she had her group of friends she kept all her life - one of the advantages of living in the same area all your life. the pictures show how the girls clowned around - even as young women dressing up, posing, picnicking, traveling to visit cousins all the way to davenport, rock island, colorado and minnesota - by train since there were no planes and roads weren't very good. how much effort was involved - the clothing which needed care - no drip dry permanent press fabrics, hairdos for the long hair - no short cut "bobs" until the 1920's. mabel was so glad to cut her long heavy hear because it gave her headaches from its weight - what freedom for women in the 20's when fashions lightened up - shorter dresses, simpler styles, smaller hats - and the freedom that insued. issues - the right to vote, prohibition, birth control campaign, real careers for women. the 20's were exciting times - electricity, cars, post war excitement, darwin vs. religious fundamentalists - no wonder paul and mabel became intellectuals - radio reached out to the country. they had electricity by 1920 - as well as plumbing in their remodeled, rebuilt home on the farm. paul and mabel got the farm and john s. and emma moved to gowrie, to a house right west of the lutheran church.

compare a new bride's task now - nothing compared to what a young bride had to know then - farming, butchering, canning, preserving, baking, fire building, sewing, tending lamps and lanterns, nursing the sick, all the while cleaning and preparing 3 meals a day plus "lunches," caring for animals, gardening, hitch the horses, saddle the horse, then eventually add the pressures of child bearing, nursing and caring for the babies and children, teaching them the ways of life - the telephone was available but who had time to enjoy it - it was strictly an instrument of business - and very little of that if you didn't want the neighbors to know all yours.

the mail was left 3/4 of a mile away at the south corner so sometimes everyone was too busy to get it during the day. mabel would take an evening walk after the children were in bed and the work was done to get the mail, and to have some quiet time.

as a young teacher she rode a horse to her school 2 miles from where she boarded at the john s. anderson farm. at the school of course, she had to start the fire, clean, dust, teach, be alert to health problems. she even scrubbed heads with kerosene to kill head lice when parents didn't take care of the problem. was glad zippers weren't around - much harder than buttons! mind you doing all this in high necked, long sleeved, floor length dresses, with your long hair piled up on your head - and then rode your horse home over mud, snow, ice, dust, rain!

now, to get this high class job as a country school teacher, you went to what was called "normal training." this was a year or two of schooling, followed by a test that certified you to teach.

if you married you ended your 'career' but then, being a wife and mother was a full time job before the advent of freezers and the various electrical appliances. churning butter was done by the children's muscle power cranking the wheel on the churn, under mabel's supervision - in the kitchen while she did her baking or other daily chores. what else did i help with? washing the separator in the milkhouse - not especially fun, but independently done meant you were old enough for the responsibility - i recall "keeping mabel company" - i was the little kid left alone to tag after mom - she taught me, let me help - then - i got the job.

how kids kept busy:

of course hunting the eggs and feeding the chickens and ducks was kid stuff - as soon as you could carry the egg basket, then the grain and water buckets. most of the eggs were in the chicken house, because the door was closed at night, to deter foxes and skunks who preyed on them, but some broody hens would find places to nest and lay many eggs - like under the corn crib - and i got the job of crawling under in about a 2' high crawl space, or into the straw loft above the hen house - dirt, bugs, lice - gross! i'd run for a shower when i was done - and frequently the eggs were rotten so we got to bomb the hog yard with these odorous missiles! also gross - paul hated sparrows and pigeons, so we were encouraged and taught to destroy their nests, eggs and nestlings! the hogs loved them.

the children took on tasks as they grew into them - pitching hay from the loft, silage from the silo (when you learned to respect the toxic gas it gave off), milk cows, feed calves and horses, lead the horses to the water tank, and be sure you retied their tether rope correctly.


it was a sexist household. paul did no house, garden or chicken tasks, except to keep them in good repair and plow as needed - corn and vine crops were grown in the edge rows of a cornfield. watermelons were secretly planted where an old straw stack had been (great compost).

milking was done by the children and the hired hands, not by paul or mabel. paul considered it 'women's work' since he had so many sisters, perhaps, or it was traditionally so, because the men were kept so busy in the fields before tractors and multi-row equipment. mabel didn't milk cows until later years, when there were no hired hands or children to do it. i was still at home, but she gave me the housework and she milked, maybe for the 'quiet time' alone.

there aren't many pictures of mabel in the 20's. those must have been very busy years - the few there are show her with children. she didn't have many clothes, but by today's standards, that was not unusual. social events were few and special - family gatherings for summer picnics or christmas reunion at the johnson farm. later years the neighbor ladies created a 'birthday club' once a month to celebrate - each lady getting a chance to serve a nice afternoon 'coffee' and show off her dishes and house. extra chairs were set around the living room and dining room if necessary. the daughters helped serve if they home.

another social occasion was the quilting party - just an afternoon of quilting around the big frame set up over the dining room table, then coffee breaks served with a nice cake, or for my mother, pie because that was her specialty.

mabel kept a very neat home. always cleaned up - no litter, not many knick-knacks, decor nice but simple, classics drapes, furniture, a few house plants. even when she sewed it was cleaned up and put away. i attribute this to personality, but also necessity - that many people in the house left no room for projects to be piled around. even in the bedrooms we did not leave our clothes lying around. paul had his closet upstairs, mabel kept her things in the downstairs bedroom and its closet. a few small dresser drawers kept her gloves, handkerchiefs, lingerie and cosmetics - unbelievable! she had a wooden jewelry box she kept on the shelf in the closet - the amber beads, a sliver parrot pin, her chain and watch from her 8th grade graduation. i don't recall any rings except her wedding ring (and a simple solitaire she secured from the hard daily work). i think there were pearls and a few simple earrings.

mabel was thin, she told me, until her late forties, so thin her clothes "hung" on her. she appreciated pantsuits when they became the style - end of corsets, slips, stockings, chilly housedresses - but she never wore jeans, that was farm work apparel. she had a coonskin coat in the 20's, a practical item, plus mink muff and fur hats. later she used the muff to trim a cloth coat and hat. (paul had coonskin coat too, i played with them after they were worn and out of style).

mabel was so organized - one had to be - there was so much to do. but she took her afternoon nap - to read the paper, a book, and then fall asleep under the paper. she used the paper over her legs in the summer to keep flies off. the house was screened, but still a few flies got in - for a while.

she sewed, quilted, made carpet rags to take to a weaver for rugs. later she did some embroidery, but never knitted or crocheted. i think she preferred to read or garden and by then after i was away from home, she had the complete load of house, chickens, cows and paul, and making sure farming arrangements were completed. she kept the chickens and cows for weekly money. and keeping up correspondence weekly with her 6 children. she belonged to a garden club, and specialized in different plants over the years - irises, roses. she also belonged to the gowrie women's club, and presented book programs. and kept in touch with relatives and lifelong friends. mabel and paul had many friends in fort dodge, through politics and paul's membership in the elks club.

since they were not part of the religious community, mabel and paul filled their lives with family, building a beautiful prosperous farm, politics and a different social life in fort dodge with professional, educated people, and in des moines when paul was state senator. mabel was able to go to des moines with paul because they had a wonderful, competent hired man and hired girl - earl may and mildred milligan - who later left and married.

we children must have had the chance to go to des moines because i can remember playing paper dolls in the aisle of the senate chamer and staying at the fort des moines hotel - the place to stay in des moines.

mabel had hard times/work dealing with the deaths of all parents, some sisters, brothers, while she had a young family to care for. in addition to caring for everyone's health - including the immigrant swede farmhand who was gassed in world war I and returned to the farm until he died; john's childhood foot injury, raging poison intake and appendectomy; my knocked out front teeth at the age of 4 from climbing; paul's appendectomy, head injury from horses wild kicking; having a son and two (future) son-in-laws in world war II; measles, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough, cuts, infections; snow storms, mud roads, rain, drought, and everyday hazards of farming.

mabel did not look back - she did not talk about her youth. she did not gossip, and cautioned us to guard what we said in public on a personal level. mabel that's why we talked more about worldly affairs, not personalities.

mabel did not lecture, tell us how to behave. she taught by quiet example, gentle suggestion and by being in control, but not controlling. there was no "rebellion" because there was nothing to rebel against. there were expectations unspoken - reasonable, intelligent behavior assumed. an inappropriate friend she gradually showed us the light - how much did she worry, waiting for us to understand?

her own health - gall bladder, surgery, appendectomy, ulcer, false teeth, but basically long range good health, mental and physical. i don't remember her ever losing her temper, yelling, swearing or spanking.

she had more children than anyone else in the relations, but was an advocate of the margaret sanger birth control movement (maybe that's where my name came from!) irony! her only comment on my large family - what a lot of work and responsibility.

she knew how to work, and how to rest.

when doug arrived maybe a month early, when hattie's cesarian scar ruptured, mom and ginny wound up on the farm with jeff, amy, ellen, jd?, and polly's four (because they were off to a convention somewhere), and then the electric stove and water heater quit, in mid august of course, and hattie was in critical condition - but eventually all recovered and doug was a very good baby!

i went home after sui graduation, and that summer signed a contract to teach in durant, $3,000 (1952). I stayed with dad (paul) so mom could go to the national democratic convention in chicago, maybe with almeda. mabel had become active in democrat women's club, and was precinct committee woman and county chair - she worked at the polls sometimes. as paul retreated from life, mabel quietly maintained her own.

i'm sure it was her encouragement for us to participate in school activities - journalism, music, sports - to keep us busy, challenge our talents, establish self-esteem for us not part of a strictly religious milieu - to reinforce the intellectual approach to life.

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