Monday, November 01, 2010


She was 35 years old, had been married 12 years, and had six children under the age 11.

Every Monday, she washed clothes for her family of eight—pumping water from a cistern in the basement, heating the water on a wash stove, and pouring it into her wringer washing machine. In fair weather, she hauled the wet clothes (for a family of eight, including one in cloth diapers) up the basement stairs and hung them on the clothes line outside. In cold or rainy weather, she hung the clothes on lines strung across the basement or over wooden clothes racks next to the oil stove.

Nothing was wrinkle-free; everything had to be ironed. Sheets, pillowcases, dish towels, men’s t-shirts, blue chambray workshirts, overalls, children’s clothing, men’s dress shirts—it was classified either as dry ironing or sprinkled ironing. It often took a full day on Tuesday to finish the ironing.

She baked bread twice a week, six loaves at a time. She grew vegetables in her garden, and either canned or froze endless pints or quarts of vegetables for later use. She bought crates of fruit (pears, peaches, apricots, cherries) and made them into sauce, jam, preserves, canning until the basement shelves were filled with mason jars. She picked apples from the apple trees in the back yard and made pies and sauce enough for a family of eight—and the endless parade of family, friends, and workers that came to her table.

During the summer, she made meat-and-potatoes meals every day from the pork and beef that her husband had raised and butchered. She fed whoever was helping on the farm that day—her own six children plus two, three, four men with hearty appetites: her father-in-law, brothers-in-law, hired men.

She rendered lard, she fried doughnuts, she made cinnamon rolls, she baked endless batches of cookies and bars, lefse and flat bread. She planned lunches for PTA, Farmer’s Club, Ladies Aid, and Home Management meetings. She made turkey dinners, lutefisk dinners, ham dinners—depending on the holiday. She donated her baking to bake sales at the school and at the church. If surprise company stopped by on a Sunday afternoon, they would always be invited for supper and there would always be enough food. If someone in the family had a birthday, 20 or 30 of her and her husband’s closest relatives would show up for a meal and birthday cake.

Our mother in the spring of 1954 with the youngest of her six children, my sister Laurie.

Every Saturday, she cleaned the house from top to bottom. She waxed and varnished the wood floors. She sewed house dresses for herself and play clothes for her children. She sewed “twin” feedsack dresses for the two youngest. That year, she taught her oldest daughter to sew her own clothes, too. For a special treat, she went to town and bought a dress and hat for herself so she would have something new to wear on Easter Sunday. And when she got home, she baked her husband a cherry pie as a “thank you” for her new clothing.

In a spare moment, to relax, she would crochet doilies or knit mittens and scarves for her children. She would read books she borrowed from the Ladies’ Aid lending library at church—books about missionaries or inspirational stories about people who lived their lives in the shadow of God. She sometimes had to study and prepare the Bible Study for Ladies’ Aid. She taught the high school aged kids in Sunday School on Sunday morning. She read books to her own children.

Her children were sometimes sick, and she gathered soggy sheets in the middle of the night. She dealt with one feverish, measle-y child after another (so much simpler if they had all gotten the measles at one time). Sometimes she helped out a sick or busy relative or neighbor, babysitting for their three or four children in addition to her own six.

When a neighbor or friend had a death in the family, she would make a hotdish, a pie, or a cake and bring it to their house.

Sometimes her husband would take the children with him—to town, to a social gathering—and leave her home alone so she would get a little break. But that didn’t happen very often. In July of that year, all eight of them piled into the car and went on a road trip: to Itasca State Park, to Bemidji, to the Duluth Zoo, to the open pit iron mines in Crosby-Ironton, to Brainerd. They stayed in a motel one night and went swimming in Lake Bemidji.

She wasn’t a saint. She didn’t always feel cheerful. Sometimes she felt overwhelmed. But when she looked around, it was the way all the other women in her community were living their lives, too.

I told you I was transcribing my mother’s diaries. This was her life from 1954 to 1955.


Viki said...

I was born in the 50's and I still remember the wringer washer but the water went right into the tub. I remember helping mom hang wet clothes in the attic. When I had to go and get them down they were stiff as a board LOL.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you for that reminder. Grandma Nettie

bd said...

The 50's life of a farm wife. Yes, we've come a long way baby (whew). Thank you God for my washer and dryer, microwave and inexpensive canned fruits and veggies, clothes, etc etc....

Elaine said...

Our mothers were amazing! All the food was home grown and home made. We had seven course meals almost every night. Mom sewed all my clothes and all hers, and then washed all the clothes in the basement with one of those wringer washers. My mother-in-law sewed clothes for eight kids using patterns she had cut out herself, walked to dances on Saturday night and then back home, and walked to church on Sunday morning (with all the kids in tow). My grandma canned everything from the garden, had no running water until she moved "to town" in 1958 when she was almost 70 yrs. old, and she had enough "free-time" to embroider and crochet embellishments on every dish towel, dish cloth, pillow case, doily, tablecloth, napkin, etc. that she used and gave away as gifts. And I complain I have too much work if I have to go to the garage to do laundry or open a can of soup! It was truly a different time and place. Thanks for sharing the beginning of the diary series. I look forward to more installments.

Anonymous said...

If I hadn't seen it happen, I would say such a life was impossible. And, your mother's lefse was the "gold standard" my sister is still striving to recreate.