Saturday, July 10, 2010

Generations Ahead

My grandpa was born in 1893. He and my grandma had ten children, one at a time over twenty-eight years, and twenty-one grandchildren, only four of whom are younger than me. The only one I never knew was my aunt, their first born, who died of cancer at age thirty-eight.

My grandparents lived in the same home for seventy years, four rooms plus a bathroom, the toilet only added after I was in elementary school. The four oldest sons settled within a mile of my grandparents' home. When I was a kid, the uncle around the corner also only had an outhouse, but the one up the hill had an indoor toilet, but just for "number one" until they added a septic tank years later. At the outhouse you always checked for toilet paper first, or you really would be SOL. These were important things to know as the granddaughter from the "city" who spent a week and a lot of weekends at Grandma's house most summers and could choose when to spend afternoons or overnights with cousins.

During those summers we built forts in the woods and chased fireflies and locusts in the evenings. I helped bring the cows home at supper time, worked in the acre garden, emptied the drip pan on the ice box, brought canned items up from the outside cellar, gathered eggs, shucked peanuts for fifty cents an hour and helped do the laundry with a wringer washer - filling the tub with a hose and soap, washing and wringing the clothes, then emptying the tub to refill with clean water for rinsing and wringing again. I never did get the hang of milking. I watched my grandma with awe as she caught a chicken, wrung its neck, chopped off its head and feet, plucked its feathers (saved to use in pillows) and cooked it for supper.

When I was being ornery, I would eavesdrop on party line phone calls. Two short rings was one uncle's house, one long and one short another, etc. There may not have been electricity in every room, but telephone conference calls were a snap - just everyone pick up their phone at the appointed time. (And that would be phone, singular.)

In the winter, the living room was heated with a wood burning stove vented through the ceiling. I still remember the winter weekend my parents and older cousins ice skated on the pond beside the house while I was stuck in the house with a cold. Resentful, I played in the fire and tossed in kleenexes to watch them smolder, then erupt. I sure didn't go play in the unheated bedrooms.

One time, when I was five, I got to go to school for a day, riding the bus and everything, with my two cousins: Deletha, five years older and Linda, ten years older. The school had an elementary room and a secondary room. I sat and watched the class, making paper chains and paper dolls to keep busy.

When I was growing up, everyone went to Grandma's for Christmas Day dinner, i.e. lunch. No matter the four rooms, probably about six hundred square feet. The house was big enough to hold the fifty or sixty people usually there. Only two of the ten kids ever moved out of the area. The women cooked for hours. The men were served first, the children second and the women last. The women did the dishes.

Those were great times, the bustle of a large multi-generational family. (I don't recall there being much hustle, though, especially during the hot, hot summers.) The four grandchildren younger than me, including my brother, didn't have these experiences. Modernity had encroached by then - complete plumbing, a propane stove, even a window air conditioner.

I am privileged to have been so much a part of the past. I am sorry my children don't have anything like that.

When you are a kid in a big family as I was, someone always comments about you. You've gotten tall or fat or skinny..... You are constantly told who you are the spitting image of. I didn't believe that part at all. I was always told I looked just like my cousin Mona Faye (three years older than my mom!) and my cousin Linda. Well, my aunts and uncles were comparing me to the children they remembered. I would look at my cousins and think "no way." But then I got a little older, and sure enough, I do look remarkably like Linda. I saw that when I was in my thirties and she in her forties. She died of breast cancer at fifty, so I don't know how the trend would have continued. At an uncle's funeral last year, when I was close to the age of Linda when she died, her grown daughters were taken aback by our resemblance. They told me they could almost see their mom one more time.

I probably would have caught up to looking like Mona Faye, too, in another ten years or so. But she died last week. One day she was cooking and sewing and volunteering and enjoying life, the next day she collapsed and they discovered two tennis ball size tumors in her head. She would have been seventy-nine in a few days. I was not quite up to the long drive necessary to attend her funeral. It would have been interesting to see her one more time, a glimpse into my own future.

It is very practical being on the low rung of a long family ladder. I've watched my aunts and uncles and older cousins age from their twenties and thirties to their seventies and eighties. It gives me direction. I know where I'm going and have a pretty good idea when I'll get there. I've watched them navigate the world's technological changes and their own inevitable physical declines. I'm proud to say that in most cases, my family has managed it with grace and humor and no unreasonable expectations, a very good roadmap to follow.

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