Of the eight children in my mother’s family, only two were girls: my mother (born sixth in 1918) and Clara (born first in 1906). Because she was the oldest, Clara became her mother Emma’s right-hand helper. She was an indispensable girl who helped raise her younger brothers and sisters and do the chores that were women’s responsibility on a farm.
Clara, like other children around Carlisle, went to a one-room school through eighth grade. At that point, any child wanting to go on for more schooling had to move to Fergus Falls and work for room and board with a town family while attending classes at either the public high school or Park Region (formerly Park Region Luther College and now Hillcrest Lutheran Academy) from 9th through 12th grades.
After 8th grade, Clara found a place with a town family and started classes at Park Region. However, a few months into the school term, her mother Emma became ill and Clara at age 14 went home to take over the household. (At this time, there were probably three pre-school aged children in the family.) Even after Emma improved, Clara never went back to school. Instead, she stayed home and became almost like the second mother to her brothers and sister.
Clara immersed herself in the Carlisle community. She was the Sunday School superintendent at Hedemarken Church for many years. She was an active 4-H club leader. She often helped her aunts when they had to feed threshers or can meat after butchering. She worked hard at home, but Clara was also a busy, well-respected, and important member of the community.
Clara had chances at marriage, my dad remembered, as several local men expressed interest in her. However, she was very particular and could find fault with all of them. Besides, Clara felt she was needed at home as her mother often had health issues that sent her to her sick bed.
In the summer of 1948, Clara was 41 years old and still living at home.
One night, when the Ottertail County Fair was in full swing, my parents offered to pick up Clara and take her with them to the fair. Clara took them up on their offer. While the three of them were walking around at the fair, they met my father’s sister Eunice and her husband Tony who lived near Underwood. My parents swear it wasn’t pre-arranged, but Eunice and Tony had brought Tony’s bachelor brother Albert with them to the fair.
My parents laughed as they remembered how those two 41-year-olds stuck like glue to the sides of their respective siblings, fearing (my mother supposed) that someone would make them talk to each other. Clara and Albert had known each other for years, but Underwood and Carlisle were a long ways apart and they saw each other only rarely. Besides, Clara had later confided nervously to my mother, “Albert is so BIG!” Although Clara was no small woman herself, being next to the 6’4”, 300-pound Albert made her very uncomfortable, especially when she was used to her much smaller brothers.
Even though Clara had some initial misgivings about Albert’s size, it was the meeting at the fair that got a fire lit under Albert. He was living on the family farm with his aging Aunt Neena who kept house for him. So the very competent 41-year-old Clara from Carlisle looked very appealing and certainly worth the long drive to Carlisle.
Albert and Clara were married in October of 1949 when they were both 42 years old. My mother, pregnant with her fifth child at the time, nervously compared the waistline of her bridesmaid dress hanging in the closet to her expanding waistline, hoping it would still fit on Clara’s wedding day. Clara and Albert’s three nieces (including my 3½ -year-old sister) were the “very active” flower girls and Tony was his brother’s best man.
Clara moved into the big farmhouse on Albert’s family farm in Underwood, and Aunt Neena happily moved into Underwood. But out of habit, Clara never stopped cooking for her seven siblings (quantity-wise anyway). Her huge freezer was always full to the top; and whenever a family holiday was held at her house, the food never stopped appearing on the table. It became the family expression that if we wanted to describe a cook who over-estimated the amount of food her company would eat, we would call her “Aunt Clara”!
Albert and Clara never had children of their own, but they were always very interested in their nieces and nephews. I remember going to their house growing up: playing Cootie on the dining room floor, sitting at the foot-pump organ in the living room, reluctantly using the chamber pot in the closet—and, of course, partaking of the loaded, bountiful table as Clara showed her love for us all by stuffing us full of her wonderful cooking and baking.