Saturday, October 30, 2010

Uncle H – A Childhood

I don’t know if I am just a lazy writer or that I enjoy my uncle's own words best. This post are all excerpts from my uncle's writings. This first vignette comes from his early years and seems to me like it could have come right out of the show, ‘The Little Rascals.' You will see in this post Uncle H was a little rascal at times.

"When I was in the first grade I received my first kiss from a girl. I came in from the playground after recess and just as I came into the classroom Constance jumped from behind the door and planted one on my cheek in front of the whole class. I was embarrassed to death. Little did I know the role her family would play in my near future. One day while playing outside during a school recess we were sliding down the slippery slide, running around and crawling to the top as fast as we could and repeating the process. Just as I got to the top and was about ready to slide, I got pushed from behind. Unfortunately, it was to the side and not down the slide. I fell off of the top and landed face down onto a rock knocking all of my front teeth out. The one that had pushed me was Constance’s brother. We all went running to the teacher and she immediately told us to run to the doctor. It just so happened that the doctor was the father of Constance. We all took off running for the doctor across town. As we rounded a corner there was a truck parked in front of the hardware store and just at the last second I noticed a pipe protruding from the back. I ducked just in time to avoid a collision but one of my friends did not. The pipe caught him just under the chin and decked him. Now the doctor had two patients. I will never forget that experience at the doctor’s office. He was a doctor who had served in foreign countries and apparently was used to doing his thing with no pain relief. He swabbed my wounds with something that stung like hell and proceeded to stitch me up with no pain killer at all. That hurt!

“Even though we were quite poor, we always had food to eat. Sometimes it was only bread and milk. We also ate a lot of popcorn. Actually, we had bread and milk quite often. Mom always baked the bread we had at home. By the end of the week, when it was about time to bake again and when the bread was fresh, we would have milk and bread for dinner and that was about the best way to eat it. Mom also made butter and cheese. Her homemade cheese is still some of the best I have ever eaten.

"We always had a garden so Mom canned a lot. Of course we all had to help in weeding and caring for the garden. Nothing seemed to go to waste around our place. During the Second World War many things were rationed. So, Mom acquired some honey bees and we ate honey instead of sugar. She acquired an extractor to remove the honey from the comb. The caps of the comb were cut off and the comb with the honey was placed into the extractor where it was spun to fling the honey out and into a container. My brother Floyd and Mom were the main bee keepers. They would wear face protectors and long clothing to try to avoid the stings. Sometimes they weren’t careful enough and I remember seeing Mom with her lips all swollen and one time her eye was nearly swollen shut. They had a smoker, this was a device that could hold a smoldering fire in which when the back part was squeezed it would force smoke out. The smoke caused the bees to be docile and allowed them to be handled more safely. Floyd was pretty good with bees. He would find swarms of bees catch them and bring them home to place in the extra supers. The honey that was extra Mom would sell to get some money. We all got our share of bee stings.

"Our garden was a large one. There were so many vegetables that Mom couldn’t can everything so she sold the extra to bring in some money. I always liked the vegetables to eat and still do to this day. Shelling the peas was a dull task. To make it faster we would run them through the ringer of our washing machine. When the pod was placed into the ringer, stem side first, the peas would just come popping out into the container. We all got to help put peas into the ringer.

"Since our garden was so large, Mom bought a rototiller. I suppose she figured the tiller should be put to good use and lined up other gardens for us to till. When any of my older brothers weren’t available, I was the one to run the tiller onto the trailer and Mom would haul me to various gardens and I would plow while she waited to haul me to the next one. I still wasn’t old enough to drive a car. We could get our license at 14 years old then.

"I had a bad habit of throwing things when I was a kid. I loved to throw tomatoes at passing cars and at the neighbor’s house. Mom would go get a branch from a tree and blister my butt. I even crawled into a large tree on the corner of the road and would drop green apples onto passing cars. Can’t believe no one caught me for that. I also had fun by tying an old wallet to a fine string and placing it at the side of the road. I would then get back into the garden and lie down between the rows of potatoes and wait while I held onto the end of the string. When someone stopped to pick up the wallet, as they usually did, I would pull it into the garden away from them. Most people laughed and took it for a joke but one time it really made a man mad. He took off after me and I lit out for the barn. I was faster then he was thank goodness. As I rounded the barn I dove into the field of sugar beets we had there and hid between the rows. He looked and looked from but never found me. I think he thought I had gone into the barn. After saying a few choice words he finally left and went back to his car. I was a little more careful after that.

"I was sandwiched in age between two sisters. Above us were four older brothers, all in a row. It seemed like I was never old enough to do what my brothers were doing. It was always, ‘When you get older, you can do this, or when you get older you can participate.’ It seemed like I was never old enough. They would go on hunting trips and I could never go along. I remember one time when they all went pheasant hunting, and of course I couldn’t go. I was determined to have some hunting too. So, while they were gone Ruth and I dug out the 410 shot-gun and we took off along the edge of the corn field that was nearby. Sure enough, a pheasant flew up and I nailed it. I was so proud of myself for getting my first pheasant. I went up and grabbed it by the tail, put my foot on its head and proceeded to pull its head off. The only problem was, I pulled all of his tail feathers out instead. Talk about someone being embarrassed. I had to take my prize home with no tail feathers. It is interesting that Mom allowed us to have guns at home, but I guess it added up to having more food on the table. I do know that we ate lots of rabbits, pheasants and ducks because of the guns. I don’t know how old I was at that time. I was probably ten or eleven and in the fifth or sixth grade. I think we all learned to shoot at an early age and guns were around, but there were never any accidents because of them."

To be continued…

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Uncle H - The Beginning

Recently I received an email from my Uncle H. Attached to the email was his memoir. I was anxious to read these pages and peer deeper into the heart of my Uncle. I did not tell him I had a selfish reason for wanting to read his story but I did. I knew he had gone through several tragedies during his life and I was curious how those experiences had impacted him. His story did not give all the details I had hoped for but when the story was read in its entirety, the composite of the man shouted volumes to me about the man’s integrity and my respect for him grew. It is my hope to give you a bird’s eye view of this man and I also hope his story inspires you as it did me.

Uncle H had a rough go starting out. He came into this world in 1936. At the young age of two, child number ten, he watched helpless as his family fragmented. His father left the home abandoning the family after siring child number eleven. I don’t know all the reasons the marriage failed but repeated infidelity was certainly a big part of the break up. At the time the family was a member of a conservative Mennonite community. For the time, 1938, a failed marriage was rare and even rarer in the strict Mennonite community. Great shame was attached to the family and all in the community knew something dreadful had gone wrong. Every quilting bee, every met up in the market or at the feed store released gossip and suspected evils were soon turned into truths real or not. The cloud of inward and outward shame hovered over the family. Little Uncle H, recalls being referred to as, “Oh, you are from that broken home.”

In today’s society where divorce is said to touch every extended family and occurs in one of every two homes; the tendency is to often gloss over and minimize the individual significance and the accompanying damage. We humans are interesting that way, we quickly attach more significance if something is rare but if the rare becomes common we tend to discount the damage both to the individuals affected and to our society as a whole. The cost to my Uncle was significant. He states in his writings that he never once in his life ever received a single correspondence from his father. I am not totally clear how this loss affected my Uncle but it is clear the loss carried with it obstacles. As I read his memoir the theme I kept reading was he overcame. This became a poignant trait throughout his life and maybe it is what I admire most about him. One thing is for certain, the man he became was great, nothing like his father.

In a family of eleven children I suppose it would be easy to lose track of a child now and then. My Uncle’s own words illustrate this best. “I don’t know how old I was, but I was pretty young. After church one Sunday evening I found myself alone at church and all the rest of the family had gone home. Mom had gathered her brood and gone home without me. There were so many in the family that no one even knew I was missing. I had to walk the two miles home from church in the dark. Needless to say, I was an unhappy camper. They were all eating pop corn and having a high old time. Until I came in, I hadn’t even been missed.”

The absent father did not send any monies to help support the large family and to say they were poor would be an understatement. Uncle H being the youngest boy was way down the list for hand me downs. At times his britches had more patches then pants. My Grandma was a master at stretching clothes.

Bath time was also an interesting affair and you got a bath once a week whether you needed one or not. Again my Uncles own words: ‘Every Saturday night we had to take our bath. I guess to be cleaned up for church the next day. We had a wash tub that was placed in the kitchen and Mom would heat water on the stove to pour into the tub. I remember one time Mom told me to get into the kitchen and take my bath and I really didn’t want to. It was mandatory, so I went in and just stuck my feet in the water and swished them around. When I came out, Mom said there was no way I could have taken a bath that fast. She said she would go check the water. When she came back she said, “well, I guess you did, the water is dirty enough.” Creativity is a strength my Uncle employed his whole life and you can see he came by the trait early.

To make ends meet all were expected to help out. There were many hours of working the family garden, caring for the chickens, and many other duties that Uncle H did at a very young age. The mother, my grandma, was vigilant in finding work for her boys and at the end of my Uncle’s third grade year, Grandma found him work driving a tractor. Uncle H was too small to reach the brake so he had to jump off the seat when he needed to brake. The gas was a manual throttle and employed a hand clutch, thus my uncle was able to do the work.

Today this could never happen because of child labor laws. But, the life my uncle experienced somehow grew him into a man of high integrity and I believe it was in no small part to these early lessons of hard work and doing his part to help his family.

To be continued….

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Going to a Wedding

Are you ever surprised by someone you meet but in a great way? Let me introduce you to one of my Uncles, Uncle H. My discussion of my Uncle H might take more than one post because I have a lot to say about him. If you have read my blog much, you might remember I come from a large extended family. I have certain aunts and uncles that when I see them, I have to say to myself, ‘now think Grayquill, what’s her/his name?’ Uncle H almost fit into that category because I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen him in my life. The biggest reason my Uncle H does not fall into the group of ‘what’s his name’ is because of what you will read next. This experience printed an indelible impression in my brain of him. Another reason I can remember his name, I was named after him and my Grandpa. So, to protect Grayquill, my Uncle’s name for these posts will remain Uncle H. Relax, I am not telling you my real name. Some might say, shouldn’t you be concerned for your uncle’s anonymity? The folks that have such thoughts just don’t know me well enough. If they did know me, they would have already accepted, that Grayquill cares mostly about himself.

My first memory of Uncle H, was when I was two years old. My Aunt Ruth, Uncle H, my mother, and myself were traveling to somewhere. If another person was along I cannot confirm yay or nay because I was only two years old and I don’t really remember. My mother tells me we were traveling to Uncle H’s wedding in Kansas, which may or not be true because I was only two years old and I don’t really remember a wedding.

But, I do have one memory. Apparently after traveling all day, we stopped at a hotel or maybe it was a motel, I was only two years old, so I don’t really remember. In the room or rooms there were only two beds. I should add this one other tid bit of information. It is possible that my Uncle H’s fiancée was also with us but I have been unable to confirm this because I was only two years old and I don’t really remember. But, I do remember my mother wanted me to sleep in the same bed as my Uncle H. I hear the reason was they needed the space for the women. I would have nothing to do with that craziness. She says, I screamed and threw a fit that equaled and possible exceeded any two year old’s fit that has ever been thrown. I doubt this to be true because even though I was only two and I don’t really remember, that would be so unlike me to throw a fit. In defense of my mother’s version of the story, I hear two year olds can throw significant fits.

After much bribery, adult manipulation and possible threats of personal bodily harm, my mother was unsuccessful in convincing this two year old to sleep with Uncle H. I end up sleeping in the bed with my mother and my Aunt Ruth. I was only two years old and I can’t remember everything but I can remember looking out from under the covers to see if Uncle H was going to come get me. I stayed awake for a long time just to be sure that I was safe.

Some say, because of my angry two year old fit, Uncle H and his fiancée ended up that night sleeping in the same bed. But I am sure that is not true because even a two year old knew conservative Mennonites would never do that. I am sure Uncle H slept in the car, or on the floor, or some other appropriate place but I was only two years old and I don’t really remember.

So, if my memory is wrong and church rules were broken that night and great sins were committed – it’s not my fault, after all I was only two years old.

I am sorry, Uncle H if I told any secrets but that is exactly how I remember it.