The task I set myself is — I find — a rather melancholy one. I didn’t know it would be. All I set out to do was clear out stuff from the garage that I don’t need and that no one else (I know) will need.
The last box of “memories” has been the best and the hardest. During the time before my mom was completely awash in bitterness, she made two photo albums. One photos of her side of my family and the other of my dad’s side of my family. She was interested in genealogy as well and had in mind that I and whoever came after me would see how things changed over time. She never imagined anything like Ancestry.com or taking photos of photos with a cell phone and uploading them so that anyone who’s interested can see.
I have been doing the 2017 version of what my mom did in the 1980s. It is all online now so that the great-grandchildren of my aunts and uncles can see the family.
There was an old log and sod cabin on the plains not far from Billings, Montana, that we used to drive out to sometimes when I was up visiting family. It was always called, “The house where Pat was born.” Pat was the second oldest daughter in the family of 7 girls and 3 boys.
Today, as I looked at these photos, I realized that most of the kids were born “in the house where Pat was borne,” not just Pat. Pat was ashamed of being born in so poor a place, and so they teased her. The only thing worse than being born into poverty was being ashamed of who you are. “You’re as good as the best, and better than the best,” was one of my grandfather’s philosophical tenets. And so my aunt was shamed by her sisters for her shame. “Be proud of who you are and where you came from!”
My mom is in the first three pictures. In the first two, she is the youngest kid. In the third she stands in front of my grandmother, between the littlest one and the one older sister who never seemed to feel comfortable on the earth. My grandfather — who regarded himself as a philosopher — poses as one. My grandma looks tired with the sun in her eyes. One uncle is missing, the other — who was a cowboy and worked on wheat ranches — stands in front of his own car. Once the older kids grew up, moved out and got jobs, life improved for everyone.
My grandmother made all their clothes, the dishcloths, dishtowels, sheets, pillow cases, rugs, quilts and pillows herself. She drove the wagon that was the school bus on weekdays and the church bus on Sundays. She took care of the chickens and other fowl. Grew food in her garden and “put it up” for the winter. She milked the cows and made butter and cheese. I can see why farm families need to be large. Sure they have to find a way to feed all those kids, but the man power is important, too. The view I’ve come to about the philosopher is that he didn’t do much, but he was interesting. I don’t know very much about him. Those to whom I was closest did not have much to say. He was already in his 50s when my mom was born and it could be in his younger years he was not so much a philosopher as he was a farmer. He ran for political office in Iowa some years before the move to Montana.
Obviously their life was hard even before the Great Depression. My mother used to go on and on about the hardness of their lives until it was beyond bearing and I could no longer listen. It seemed that the difficulty of her life (their lives) was beyond the difficulty of anyone’s life ever before or after.
I’m done with this task now. I don’t ever want to do it again. It may have been a mistake to go through that stuff. If I had just left it until I died, someone who didn’t care would not even have looked at it. But if I hadn’t done this, I would not have found out some things I am glad to know, and I would not have found a couple of treasures that were tucked away for me to find.