My only male cousin, Charlie, died on Tuesday. He had been plagued all this life by bad asthma. I can still see in my mind’s eye, my small cousin struggling to breathe in the middle of a summer night at my Grandma’s farm. His cardio/pulmonary system, after being under assault for all of his 64 years finally gave out and now he is at peace after so much illness. I am relieved for him but sad for myself and others who loved him so much.
Memories of better days as children come flooding back and they all center around summer at the farm near Rollag, MN where the 5 cousins spent so much time with our Gramdma and our aunts and uncle. We were a very small family with only 3 of the siblings in my Mom’s family having children—- so there were only 5 of us….4 girls and Charlie. We all got along and never fought like many youngsters do, at least occasionally.
The big spreading tree by the lake: We spent hours at "the tree"….it was a short-trunked, low-branched tree , probably just a Boxelder but it was magical to us cousins. We could sit in its low branches and dangle our feet while we watched the small lake on our Grandma’s farm. It fed a creek in the Spring which in turn fed a weedy swamp and the next lake to the west. We delighted in watching for fish that traveled in the creek to the other lake. My little sister at one time, was so terrified when our Uncle grabbed a huge northern pike out of the creek and slapped it up on the land where it flapped around dramatically til my uncle returned it to the creek….my sister, who was about 6 years old at the time, began to run blindly, screaming, "It’s an alligator!" and I ran to stop her from running into the little gravel country road where there was not much traffic, but I had been trained to take care of her. Everyone but my sister had a good laugh over "the alligator". Charlie liked to go fishing with my Dad who had built a small green flat- bottomed tipsy fishing boat called "the pram". It was prefect for one or two to sit and fish and I spent a good amount of time in that boat on various small lakes waiting for the walleyes to bite. On the lake at my Grandma’s where Charlie would fish with my Dad, there were only Northerns that my Dad and some of his fishing friends had planted in the small private lake. After a number of years there were some real "lunkers" to be caught and my Dad hooked one when Charlie was on board with him. It must have weighed between 10 and 15 pounds because the catch was a real struggle between my Dad and the fish and also with my Dad trying to keep the boat from tipping too badly. That flat bottom caused a lot of troubles. Charlie stayed calm for a 10 -year old and helped my Dad land the huge fish. It was an experience that Charlie never forgot and he loved to remember that day.
My sister, who found a sympathy card a few days ago, chose one that had a spreading tree by a body of water….it looked just like "our tree" by the lake at Grandma’s farm. It brought back so many good memories when she showed it to me. It is so appropriate for a memorial card for our beloved cousin.
My sister and Charlie were only two years apart in age so they were natural playmates at the farm. Charlie’s sister and I were both born the same year so we were also playmates…but all four of us loved to help our Uncle when it was time to "go haying". Charlie was mechanical from the time he was a child, so he was the one who got to drive the tractor slowly up and down the hayfield, while my Uncle, who had the muscles and the stamina, followed on foot picking up the bales and slamming them up on the hayrack. Then we girls took over, and either picked up, or dragged the bales into place as we filled the hayrack . Before my Uncle got a baler, we made "loose hay" and it had to be put into a huge canvas sling to be hoisted up to the hayloft where we helped distribute it evenly throughout the loft. When the loft was full of new hay, Charlie and my sister figured out how to turn this upper loft of the barn into a playground. What farm kid has not figured out a way to jump in the soft hay? Charlie would operate the rope that moved the sling across the loft and he would get my sister into it from her perch on a high ledge in the loft. Then Charlie would pull the rope and the sling, carrying my sister, would move from one end of the loft to the other….when they were over the deepest piles of hay, Charlie would release the sling and drop my Sis into the hay. It was repeated over and over with him teaching her how to operate the rope and release the sling so he could take the thrilling fall into the hay. Those nights must have been asthma "hell" for him, but it did not stop him from doing it…it was just too much fun and I doubt the adults knew, unless my Uncle had been in on it at one point. Our Uncle knew how to introduce us to fun on the farm—including letting the young calves in their summer pen, suck our fingers after we had fed them from the calf buckets. We also got put on the broad backs of the two work horses—-monstrous horses who were of Belgian/Percheron or other large work- horse stock….and we would get to ride to the lake where the horses drank after a hard morning in the field pulling the farm equipment in the early days of our farm days. The horses’ names were "Katie and Jerry" and I always wanted to ride "Katie" because she was such a beatiful brown color. Once in excitement, I yelled at one of my Aunts…."Look at me! I’m riding Katie!" Katie, who was not used to small people on her broad back and especially small people who yelled loudly, reacted by starting to rear up with me aboard clinging to her mane. Fortunately my Uncle had the reins and stopped what would have been a very hard fall to earth for me. My Uncle and my Gaurdian Angel were both on watchful duty that day. Another highlight of our day was picking eggs from the chicken house or in places the hens would lay them outdoors in their own hen-made nests. We all wanted to find the most eggs so it was a contest and a wild one at that. Somehow we obeyed the adults and did not break any eggs. We also had to wash them as often they were pretty dirty—-chicken manure—but we put on our "bravado" and stuck out hands in the manurey water bucket for egg washing!
There is a book, a novel by Minnesota Gary Pausen, titled HARRIS AND ME, that is a lot like the adventures we had on our farm. In the book, the narrator tells of his adventures with his cousin Harris on a northern Minnesota farm, and the story is a lot like our days on our Grandma’s farm. I bought a copy of the book because it is so entertaining and in so many ways so true, of days spent in days past, on small farm in Minnesota, just like we 5 cousins did in our summers long-gone.
All five of us cousins liked to go to the pasture in the late afternoon to bring the milk cows home to the outdoor milking pen. I remember jumping from one soggy hummock to another with my cousins…Charlie leading the girls—-as we hoped the cows would not already be on their way home. It was much better when we had to go deep into the woods to find them and follow them home. One of the adults—an uncle or an aunt— would go with us all the time…we did not realize that they were looking out for us as we were prone to do the wrong things with the cows in our enthusastic "cow-hunt" and could have been kicked by a cow when we got too enthusiastic about getting them home for milking. Then we would all get a turn to try our hand at real milking—no machines existed at that time on the farm…REA did not make it out to southeast Clay County til the late 40′s and early 50s so milking was all done by hand on the little farms up and down that old narrow gravel road that ran from the school house on the hill, past my Grandma’s farm and all the way to the end of the road about 2 miles south. Most of the summer milking was done in the small milking pens where each tame cow would wait for her turn with a milker. We always stood next to one of the aunts or my uncle, along with the farm cats—all of us waiting for the moment the Milker would squirt a stream of milk into our open mouths. Sometimes the stream went awry and we got it in the cheeks, the eyes or our hair. This was always a time of hilarity among us.
Then we all took our turns cranking the "Separator" in the milking shanty. We were all fascinated by the amazing thing that would spout blue milk from one tap and rich yellow cream from another. The cream was kept in large tin cream cans that were lowerd into a specially dug keeping pit down by the well where it stayed cool til it could be brought to town to "the Creamery" and there it was churned into butter, in the small town near the farm. All the small towns had creameries at that time. All the farms had small herds of cows and all the familes brought their full cream cans to town each week or twice a week. How different it is now. None of this would even be allowed by current regulations but some of the best butter was made in those small town creameries. I now have the oaken table that sat in the milk shanty and held the cream cans. It had come from our Great Grandparents farm and I now have it in my home—all refinished and beautiful in spite of its many years in the milk shanty where it got a huge crack on the table top and had its legs painted Allis Chalmers orange!
I particular remember a hot humid day in July sometime in the late 1940s or very early 1950s when we were all going "to the Fair" at Barnesville on that summer night. The excitement was papable all day long as we did our chores and helped get ready to go to the fair. All of us were nearly unconscious from anticipating the "wild rides" on the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Merry Go Round, the Ferris Wheel and the treats of popcorn, cotton candy and carmel apples. It was almost more than we could bear all that long day. Then in the afternoon, all of us were brought outside for baths and shampoos ….rain water was taken from the barrel by the lean -to kitchen and warmed up in a huge boiler in the kitchen. Big laundry tubs were set up in the grass on the side yard by the milking shanty. We all had our turns getting clean and I remember I was the one who shampooed Charlie’s soft brown hair. There are wonderful black and white pictures of our preparations for the Fair. I know all our excitement was rewarded with an absolutely wonderful night at the Fair with my cousins and my Aunts and Uncle. By that time Grandma was pretty badly affected by Parkinson’s Disease so she never went with us to places like the Fair….she stayed home with the many cats and the faithful dogs "Pal" or "Tootsie".
All these great memories are running through my mind as I consider the passing of my cousin, Charlie. We had so much fun together when were kids and then we all grew up, and our lives took the inevitable adult paths….we went to school, to work, three of us became teachers and one a skilled mechanic.. another became a Biologist—-and we did not get to see each other as much as we would have liked.
One treasured time in past two last decades. was when Charlie came here to meet old friends from his high school class. He stayed with my Sister in their temporary apartment while a house was being finished. I came into town to see Charlie too, and we had a wonderful afternoon talking and laughing. Charlie and I did the dishes for my sister…I washed and Charlie wiped. It is now a precious memory of a day of simple companionship and much love between cousins.
We are so diminished now. There are four of us now instead of five. And we are poorer for it— with our Charlie gone from this earth.