Stories of my father’s grandparents

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“There were certain things about the farm which Ma understood better than anyone else. For more than her husband and son, whose romanticism often got the best of their practicality, Ma was a real farmer. She knew with certainty where the best apple pies and tart pickles and cream and butter came from, what made them perfect and what didn’t. She could pick out instinctively with her sharp, searching eyes the good cattle from the bad and tell what had caused a field of wheat to grow thin, or to rust or lodge.”

— by Ellen Bromfield Geld

The Heritage: A Daughter’s Memories

of Louis Bromfield

All of my young life, I enjoyed listening to my father tell wonderful stories of his grandparents. He had been blessed to have been born in the upstairs bedroom of a lovely old Victorian home, built large enough by his paternal great-grandfather, to house two generations quite comfortably.

And so my father grew up in half of that large, rambling home, while his paternal grandparents lived and worked in the other half. My dad said his mother had her own kitchen, with firewood kept just outside of their own personal entrance for her stove wood, and they used the lovely, sweeping staircase to go to their bedrooms which opened off of a large hallway and contained the impressive front entrance and foyer.

Sliding down the banister

I remember secretly sliding down that well-polished banister with my sisters when I was still quite young, even though we had been forbidden to do so. Part of the challenge my daring older sister had put in place for us was that we were to reach out and try to touch the stuffed deer head hanging on the wall as we went flying down. I realize, in retrospect, that deer head had to have been at least 10 feet away.

It wasn’t until my own paternal grandfather passed away that I walked up the enclosed staircase which my dad’s grandparents would have used to go up to bed each night. It was behind a simple door off of the kitchen, and there was nothing lovely about it. It seemed stark, though sturdy, and led to two much smaller bedrooms.

Compared to the bedroom where my father had been born, with its lovely bay windows and fancy woodwork, these small rooms looked as though they were built to be servant quarters, and it may be that was their original intent.

Paternal grandmother

Although the vast majority of my dad’s stories of his grandparents focused on his paternal grandfather, I realize as I have gotten older that stories of his paternal grandmother stay vividly alive in my memory. She was a tiny woman, always up and doing. After my dad’s mother died at age 36 of a tonsillectomy gone horribly wrong, the children ate most of their meals in their grandparents’ kitchen.

“She was a good cook — so good you always wanted seconds,” Dad once said. “But she was always in such a hurry to clear the table and wash the dishes that you pretty much had to protect your plate or she would suddenly sweep it away from you before you were close to being done.”

Determined dynamo

Grandmother Ethel Young was a determined dynamo, a woman who didn’t see any sense in sitting still. She instilled in my father the motto that only the dying were to be caught lying down for a nap in the middle of the day. Dad felt certain she could accomplish more in a 10-minute span than some people did in a full day. He loved the stories of her life long before his birth, and we enjoyed hearing them.

In the days prior to the famed flood of 1913, Ethel’s sister Mary had come to help the family with the spring work. It had started raining and didn’t stop. Mary wanted to get home, so Ethel hitched up Old Pet, the family’s gray mare. She got her sister home safely, then headed for home in the driving rain. She came to a bridge that was washed out, so she turned Old Pet around, trying another road that would cross the same creek further down.

When she got to the bridge, a man flagged her down and told her to turn back, saying the bridge was about to wash away any minute. Ethel was determined to get back home to her young children, so she used the whip to order Old Pet across that bridge as fast as she could fly. She made it over, but not by much before it washed away.

That same year, later in the fall, Ethel’s husband was nearly killed in a tragic rip saw accident which rendered him unconscious, sent him in to a two-week coma, having knocked out his left eye, crushing his jaw and cheek bone. Ethel, as the stories are told, became even stronger after that, and folks said her husband was never the same after having survived this massive head injury.

Most vibrant story

The most vibrant story that stays with me is of the day the men in the family had gone away on a fishing jaunt. A few days earlier, my great-grandfather had turned some of their finest feeder cattle out on to lush pasture on the far side of the farm. Grandmother Ethel, always looking for work to be done, walked out to check on the cattle in the middle of the sunny afternoon.

She found the cattle lying bloated, certain to die. She hiked all the way back to the house, found her best long butchering knife, and saddled up a horse to return to the back pasture as quickly as possible. She knew the only way to save the bloated cattle was to relieve the built-up gas. She swiftly stabbed each of the bloated animals in the hollow of the back hock and rode back home, knowing she had done all she could do. Every one of those bloated cattle survived.

No wonder

Dad always said he remembered both his maternal and paternal grandmothers as being stern, severe, unsmiling. “When I think of all they had to accomplish each and every day, I guess it is no wonder!” he often said.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college.

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