My mother, Jessie, was born in 1906 on a farm in the Michigan Thumb. She was the seventh of eight children, one of five girls. In those days there was no running water in the house, no electricity, and no central heating. Their dad was a good farmer, the land was rich, and everyone had their jobs to do. Farming was done with horses, except when the traveling steam harvester would come by in the fall, and everyone would come together to get the harvest in.
The threshing machine would arrive, with smoke coming out of its smokestack and making a great noise. The chaff blew, and the grain rose high in the air.
A house, a barn, black rich dirt fields, work and the fruit of it.
This is my mom’s account of her life in the 20th century, from the memoirs that were printed in book form for her 90th birthday party.
As I look into my mirror on my birthday, I can see reflections of the changes that the years have made in me. I have had sorrows as well as many blessings in my life. I hope they have made me a more understanding, stronger and kinder person. Memories are a gift of God.
In the beginning, life was simple on the farm. We went to school, to church on Sunday, and took an occasional trip to town and had a treat of candy or ice cream. Primary school was grades one through eight, all in one room. One teacher for all grades! In school we had box socials, spell-downs, plays, recitations, and debates. I remember, in 1920, we debated on the topic, “Should women be allowed to vote?”
Our dad could play the fiddle and could jig too. He played for many square dances. Dad loved the farm. He was so particular, he couldn’t stand a single weed anywhere. The crops were as near perfect as possible. He was an honest man, and liked by all his neighbors.
Mother loved sunsets and the beauty of all creation. She would call our attention to lovely things and tell us to fill our minds with clean and beautiful thoughts of nature. What a wonderful mother she was! I’ll never forget coming home from school to the aroma of freshly baked bread and sweet pickles she was canning.
Verna and I had the chore of bringing the cows up from the pasture after school. Weeding was another job we had to do, and planting in the spring. We were the two youngest girls and we always played together. We never fought and we always got along. We still do. [Jessie and Verna lived together for the last ten years of Jessie’s life.]
My brother Tom was good to me. He helped me out when he was working and I was in school. Ross could build anything. He could do my algebra, although he never took it in school. One time he built us a car with a motor. He built us a playhouse. We didn’t see much of Allen [her oldest brother, who fought in WWI]. He worked in the city because he didn’t like farming. I didn’t see Dad’s love for farming in any of the boys; they all wanted to go to the city to work.
My sister Evelyn and I always fought. She was bossy. Sarah had different looks than the rest of us. She had olive skin and her eyes were kind of green. She was very good to us, but like a big sister she was always trying to get us to do her chores, like doing the dishes. Anna was eleven years older than me, and she would take us places and buy us little things.
I was the only one to graduate from high school. The others got up to 11th grade and quit to go to work. My father died the year I graduated (1924), and my sister Anna and her husband John paid the mortgage on the farm. We moved to Detroit, and ran a boarding house. My Aunt Kate was a teacher and she wanted me to go to college too, but there was no money for that.
I was married at nineteen, to Alec McCombs. I don’t think you really start to live until you get married and have a child. But we had no plans, and went into marriage with no plans. Often, we had to live with relatives. Robert (the oldest child) lived with his grandparents for a while, and became very close to them. Fortunately, our family always helped each other. If one of us didn’t have much, then we would buy for the other one, or help with clothing for the children. We’d buy a dress or a coat or whatever was needed, through the years.
Robert was born in 1926 and Shirley in 1929. Donna was born in 1931, and she died of pneumonia when she was only four months old.
Stella: On March 22, 1936, Jessie’s husband, Alec, was killed in an automobile accident. Her children were ages 7 and 10. It was the Great Depression.
Jessie continues: Carl and I met at Hudson Motors, and we worked together for three years. We got acquainted and he asked around to see if I would go out with him. They said no, “She doesn’t go out with anyone.” But I lost a bet with some of the girls at work and I had to go out to lunch with him. After that we went out sometimes with a group and became friends.
In 1941 I was in the hospital after having my appendix out. It had been a very serious condition. Carl visited me in the hospital and asked me to marry him. We were married on Christmas Eve that year. Because of the war it was the only time we could get away from work. I was 35 when I married Carl, and that is a good age. He was a good husband, and we were very happy. We did things together, and we always had fun and laughed together. We were married for five years when “Stella” was born. It was a surprise because I was forty, but Carl was delighted.
Stella: The month after I was born, my sister graduated from high school, and my brother, Robert, was married in California. Ten months later, my first nephew was born.
Jessie continues: At first I really hated it, to be “grandma”. You see yourself and think, “Grandma?” But I love my grandchildren and great-grandchildren so much.
The truth is, Jessie was a terrific grandma, because she had a child’s curiosity, and seemed to know just what they were thinking. My daughter and her cousin spent a lot of time with their grandparents in the summers, and cousin Kevin said that “Jessie is the party maker; even when there is no holiday, Jessie created one! X-mas in July was a treat I was completely unprepared for! Her “King and Queen for the Day” party gave Jenny and I visions of grandeur from an early age. A ring, a crown, a cape – I think we even went to Lake Huron – what more can a child ask for?”
When I was a teenager, I remember Grandma used to say “You never listen to me!” But Gram, you were wrong. I listened, and I watched and I learned; and I believe that there’s a little magic piece of you inside me.
I know it’s that little piece that makes me stop on my walk to the train in the morning to watch the rest of the sunrise, or pull over to the side of the road to pick up a fall leaf, or smell the lilacs in the spring. You used to cut fruit apart to show me the beautiful patterns inside. You watered the plants and told me to listen to them drink. You brushed the dirt off the vegetables in the garden and bit into them, telling me to taste their goodness. You see beauty and magic everywhere. I believe that you see God all the time, in all the good and lovely things of the earth ………………..
Maybe I was “spoiled” as a child, but I think it’s great that you made me feel like the most important person in the world. Even now I feel your unconditional love and your prayers for me every day. When I can’t sleep, I hear your voice, “Think quiet thoughts.” When I’ve messed up, I remember your wise, “What’s done is done.” Most important, I remember your “I love you.”
Finally, Jessie says:
The most important act of my life was to receive Christ Jesus as my Savior and Lord of my life. Psalm 40: 1-3 says it all. I not only have a guide for life but eternal life as well. John 3: Jesus told Nicodemus “You must be born again. Born once in the flesh, and then born in the spirit.” I long to see my loved ones make this decision for themselves.