There’s something special about meeting someone nice for the first time. If that spark is in the air, you want to know everything about the other person. By the end of the evening you know all sorts of things about the new someone. Those stories become the foundation for a new, wonderful, relationship.
That sharing of stories didn’t happen between my mother and me until I was over forty years old. So many things seemed more important for those first forty years. I needed my allowance a day early, or it was time to get a driver’s license, or my own life filled my brain. Then I met Judy and stories about the past no longer mattered. Stories about Judy became my goal.
Since Grace died twenty years ago we’ve visited the Kunkel farm where she grew up a couple of times, and I’ve often visited the Fairview Cemetery where she’s buried. In the summer of 2015 the extended family gathered at the Luehr plots in Fairview to bury Grace’s older sister. The wind blew off our hats, and swept our words onto the wheat fields. Grace and her parents experienced that same wind, on those same hills in the first half of the twentieth century.
As much as the climate was similar, just about everything else was different.
To my four dear sons, their wives + children,
I want to start this story with some events that shaped my life before I was born
The story I’m enclosing was told to my sister-in-law Elaine. It’s about the farm where we lived in Buckeye township south of Lake Williams, North Dakota. Continue reading
Lucy was born on a farm about a hundred years ago. In this, the first of the letters Judy’s mother Lucy wrote to me in 1991, she shares her earliest memories of growing up on a farm near Gardner, ND.
Two things stand out for me in this letter. First is her description of walking around in the farmyard, feeding chickens. A hundred years after she fed those chickens there is a national debate about how to raise chickens, most loudly argued by those in favor of “free-range” birds, just like those in Gardner.
The second is Lucy’s handwriting. Longhand. My grade school teachers tried to teach me to write longhand, using the Palmer Method. They failed. I couldn’t learn to write neatly. Never did. Typing was my forte. Lucy wrote beautifully, and her daughter Judy’s hand writing is even more incredible. The Palmer Method of handwriting is no longer taught. How long will it be until Lucy’s letters are illegible in their original form? Do you have as much trouble reading the letter below as I do? Handwritten letters from the 1800’s are difficult to read, and it’s even worse for those written a hundred years before that.
How long will it be until even the words I’m writing today are illegible?
Originally published 2014-09-29
Memories – My earliest memories are of life on the farm – I remember walking in the yard with my mother and being given a little pail with wheat in it – she also had a pail and we would feed the chickens, they would come so close to us we would have to bat them out of the way. She would put her hands under them on the nest – I thought “Even the chickens love my Mom.”
Play things were orange boxes with a divider in the middle for a cupboard and it could hold colored stones. (Yes Lon -I even liked stones when I was small.) Mud pies made of water and dirt-graced the shelves.
The first house that I remember was a little pink bungalow in Jamestown along the James River. 455 3rd Street SW to be exact.
Front view of the Pink House.
To get to the master bedroom, you had to walk through the bathroom. In my youngest years the furnace burned North Dakota lignite. Not only was the furnace fired with lignite, but so was the water heater! It was a cute little thing, kind of like a Franklin stove with many pipes running back and forth inside. Grandma had to light the fire to get hot water.
On the west side of the house was the alley, and that had the coal chute to the coal bin. What a dirty mess! Weyerhaeuser Lumber delivered the lignite. They had a large yard down by the railroad depot with several buildings full of coal. They were right underneath the railroad, just south of the tracks. Apparently the hopper cars could drop the coal directly into the buildings.
My mother was an incredible gardener, and along the river was the perfect place to raise flowers and a vegetable garden. The front and back yards were full of iris, tulips, zinnias and who knows what else. My favorites were the tiger lilies with their orange blossoms and black seeds growing in the leaves. Besides having flowers, my parents planted a bathtub one summer to hold gold-fish. By the end of the summer the fish seemed pretty big to my eight year old eyes. Maybe that pond is why my brother Linn and I have back yard ponds today?
The property was split in half by the chicken house, where we kept rabbits. (Don’t ask.) The chicken house was a very large building. (It seemed that way to an eight year old.) There were cages for hundreds (it seemed like hundreds) of rabbits that my grandmother raised for meat.
We always had a cat in the house. One of them helped me get into trouble. Once after a snow storm, I was shoveling the porch by the French doors in the dining room. The cat was watching me through the panes of glass. It likes to play with the cat, so I feigned hitting him with the shovel. Too bad there was glass between the shovel and the cat.
My dad had quite the childhood. As the ninth of ten kids he must have gotten by with less supervision than any child I know. I’ve read that a child in those days was five times more likely to die an accidental death than kids today. After reading about what Louie did in that alley and around Jamestown, it became obvious why “accidents” happened.
His shenanigans likely led him to plead the fifth several times. Being his parent could have been a little challenging, if there hadn’t been so many other kids to tend to. These stories do give me permission to be a little more forgiving of my grand children and some of the challenges they put me through.
Posts in the Louie’s Letters category of this blog are copies of the letters he wrote to me in 1991 with his life stories.
In the first of Louie’s letters, he hints at the humorous slant he’ll give to most of his stories.
Originally published 2014-09-24
What you are about to read are a few of the episodes that occurred in my life …
Have you ever summed up your life in six words? Try it sometime, you might be surprised. My story:
“Serendipity is my friend, yet again.”
Was it pure chance that led me to Cal’s Office Supply that day when I needed some paper for a project? Some might say it was the hand of God leading me to the right place, I prefer to think of Serendipity guiding me. I could have gone to the other office supply store in town, but I didn’t.
Jim could have been on the road that day. He wasn’t.
Jim at sea during WWII
I just walked into the store to ask for some paper for a kids newspaper. By the end of that year I had a “substitute” father and mentor who helped me through the challenges of being a teenager, college student, and young professional. Beyond the little newspaper that only lasted a couple of issues, Jim and I enjoyed camping, old Cadillacs, the Red Skelton Show, and so many other activities. He loved writing, and when I asked him for fifty-two stories from his life he lit up, pulled out his portable Underwood-Olivetti typewriter and religiously sent dozens of stories. His first stories describe life on a farm in northern North Dakota, continue to Massachusetts, diverting to the South Pacific for WWII, and returning to North Dakota for a successful career in Jamestown. We saved copies of the letters and had them bound, titling the collection
Short Stories of a Good Life
Below is the introductory letter I wrote and the invitation letter to him describing the story project. He was very proud of his autobiography, sharing copies with many friends.
Most of us were born in town, in a hospital, and grew up on a street with sidewalks and other houses. My mother had none of those luxuries, and a childhood quite different from mine, starting with where she was born.
Grace on the farm
Grace grew up on a farm in the middle of North Dakota during the Great Depression, just south of Lake Williams, ND, south of Kunkel Lake. These are the letters she wrote to me in 1991 with her memories of life on the farm, going to school in Steele, ND, and the first couple of years she lived in Jamestown, ND. The stories end with her wedding to Louie Havelick.
Kidder County hasn’t changed much since the days Grace lived there. It might be worth your time to visit that part of North Dakota. A highlight for me is the Fairview Cemetery where Grace, her mother and other relatives are buried. From the top of that hill, there are almost no signs of civilization. No visible buildings, no houses, few roads, but plenty of sky and birds. One day Judy and I were at the cemetery alone and a solitary pair of pelicans circled overhead the entire time we were there. They were marvelous birds, quiet and graceful. We thought “Maybe that’s Grace and her mother?”
Sunset is an especially captivating time there. Quiet really sets in, which is a surprise since it’s quiet during the day. The wind dies down and stars come out. For a city kid like me who’s interested in astronomy, there is nothing in the world more captivating. Uncountable stars, and the Milky Way. Stars and no sign of civilization. (There may not even be a cell tower nearby.)
Grace’s first letter relates a story of Native Americans on the prairie and how the railroad influenced rural development.
My maternal grandmother lived through the “dust bowl” years on a farm in the middle of North Dakota and raised a family. She also played a major role in raising me in the middle of the last century. Grandma Fanny loved to tell stories of her successes and trials during that time on the farm.
When I went off to college just a hundred miles away I often came home to visit Grandma and friends in Jamestown. That meant listening to her stories. Again. There were perhaps two dozen stories about cars, chickens, and school. I didn’t want to listen to them again.
Grandma had a way of repeating those same stories too often. She lived in her past. It was a great place to live. There were active people and challenges to face, but I didn’t want to listen to that story about Grandpa Ted selling fencing one more time. She had to tell it again. As my grandmother would talk, I’d do something else. Read, watch TV, anything but listen. How many times did I have to listen to a story that she had to finish, with me in the bedroom, in bed, trying to escape the story by feigning sleep? Continue reading