Thursday, May 6, 2010

Idora Tucker: "Mom"

Gertrude Small
Today begins a series of excerpts from the writers' memoirs about their mothers and grandmothers. The first is from an essay by my mother—it was she who motivated me to organize the Hale Street Gang in the first place. I wanted to help her finish writing down her life story, which she had begun and put aside. She has now published one memoir and written three more, one of which, "Wartime," will be published this spring. And she's still writing. Here's an excerpt from her short memoir about my maternal grandmother, Gertrude Small Cooley, who died when I was an infant. It is entitled, simply, "Mom."

Gertrude and Harry Cooley.
I don't know how Mom felt about becoming a farmer's wife. Had she envisioned that at the time of her marriage? She never told me. It is a hard, demanding life, with no time off if your farm is a dairy farm. Mom's responsibilities did not include milking cows, feeding chickens, or driving horses during haying. There was more than enough to keep her fully occupied about the house. A farm wife, even one who does not work caring for the animals or growing crops, has a house to keep clean, meals to prepare, laundry to do, and children to bear and care for. In Mom's case there were eventually five of us spread over eight years. Our house was more modern in some respects than most farm homes of that era. We had a limited amount of electricity furnished by a set of Delco batteries which sat on a high shelf in the dairy barn. We had electric lights, a washing machine and a radio, and the barn had milking machines run by electricity, but that was it. The cook stove was a wood-burning Glenwood model. The hot water was heated by a kerosene burner located in the bathroom, or in a kettle on the top of the wood stove. The washer was the old-fashioned wringer type and the clothes were hung on lines outside to dry. No clothes dryers, of course. Everything was ironed with irons heated on the wood stove. (Better choose a cool day to do the ironing.)
Gertrude with Ruth, 1922.
An ice-box located in the cellar contained a big chunk of ice, cut in the winter and stored in sawdust in an icehouse. In the days before we had an electric refrigerator that was the way we cooled our food. The house had no central heating, but was heated by wood stoves. Most of the work related to heating with wood was men's work: the cutting of the wood from our woodlot, the splitting of it for the stoves, even the carrying of it from wood box to stove and removal of the ashes, was for the most part up to the men and boys in the family. We had a phone (party line) and indoor plumbing. We had few labor-saving devices—no vacuum cleaner, for instance—but considered ourselves to be well off, and were so considered by our farmer neighbors.
Idora, on the farm at Randolph Center.
Today I can begin to feel like a nap just thinking about all the meals we prepared and dishes washed; all the clothes laundered, hung out to dry, ironed and put away; all the furniture dusted, floors washed, windows and curtains washed; and I haven't even mentioned the harvesting and preserving of food which we produced ourselves and ate during the long winter months. All hands were expected to contribute to whatever food harvesting and preservation project was scheduled for the day, but of course Mom was in charge, the one who did the scheduling and assigned the chores, according to the needs of the family and the abilities of those able to assist. She also incubated the babies and was in charge of their care, including breast-feeding each one in turn. To think that she was considered to be a frail child! What a lot she had to learn in a short time.
Gertrude with grandsons.
Most of the time Mom appeared quietly serene. I do not remember seeing her angry, but when I asked some of my generation what they remember in this connection, they were able to tell me of a couple of incidents when she was more than a little angry. It must have been the exception to her usual manner, as the memory has stuck with them over many years. My sister tells of an occasion when our brother Charles was in his middle teens. He was called from his bed in the early morning to chase the cows. Our dairy herd would sometimes find their way from their pasture into some place where we didn't want them to go. The vegetable garden was one of their favorite spots to trespass. It always made everyone very angry when the cows failed to observe their limits and all available children and adults were pressed into service to chase them back where they belonged. So when Charles was roused to do his duty, he thundered down the stairs from his bedroom, cursing vehemently. Out the door he rushed. When he came back, having accomplished his mission, Mom was waiting at the door brandishing the big iron skillet. "Charles Cooley," she shouted in a voice we seldom heard, "if I ever again hear you use such language, I'll let you have it with this skillet." My, oh my.
Gertrude and her daughters: Ruth, Marian, and Idora.
The other incident came from the memory of my sister-in-law, and happened several years later. By then Mom's cancer had advanced to the point that she was confined to a wheelchair. Some of the family were gathered in the living room of the house where my parents were living. Among those present were another sister-in-law and her toddler son, who was staggering about the room where a small rug presented a hazard to his ability to stay on his feet. Mother, wanting to avoid any possible accident, asked Dad to pick up the rug. Dad was oblivious to her request, and did not move. Soon Mom repeated her request, and was again ignored. Whereupon she stated in a voice both loud and angry, "Harry, if you don't move that rug, I'm going to get out of this wheelchair and move it myself." Dad moved the rug.

A Christmas present.
By 1954, when Sara was an infant, Mom was having severe pain in the hip, and diagnosis revealed metastatic cancer. The prognosis was not good, as the cancer had affected all her bones. From then on, she was in a wheelchair, requiring help to run her household and eventually requiring nursing care. She bore all this stoically. . . . One evening at the end of 1955 I gave her a sip of water at her request, and soon after that she slipped away from us, leaving a big hole in our lives. She was not quite 65. We were lucky to have had her as long as we did, because her first bout of cancer had taken place nineteen years before she died, in a time when a diagnosis of cancer was considered a death sentence. At the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her children ranged in age from seven years to fifteen years. She must have been very frightened. Over the next nineteen years all her children grew up, went to college, married, and had children of their own. Mission accomplished.

For the last ten years of her life I had been in daily contact with her. On the days when I didn't see her, we spoke on the phone. I frequently asked her for advice on running the household or on the care of my two oldest children. Years would pass before I stopped thinking to myself several times every day, "I must remember to tell Mom about this," or "I must ask Mom about how to handle this situation." Then I would realize that I would never again be able to share a laugh with her, or ask her for advice. In some ways, death is utterly final. No more phone calls. No more visits. But I have wonderful memories of my Mom that will be with me always.
Gertrude, grandson Brian, and Idora.

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