Mailboxes and Old Barns Guest Post: Some Assembly Required, by Maxine Lee

Maxine Lee is grandmother of our good friend carterzest. We will continue to share the narrative of her family’s history as presented in the book she published in 2005 entitled Some Assembly Required.  The gathering of her stories in the book was a result of her dream “to leave a printed account to my family, of my beginning, my birth place and childhood, and a few of the lessons life has taught to me.”  Thank you, Maxine, for sharing with us what you gathered for them.
Links to previous posts in the series will be shared at the end of each Sunday’s post.

Baby It’s Cold Outside

rosy roseMinnesota gets cold, bitter cold. Blizzards roar in without warning. We walked three miles through the swamp and over a couple of high hills to school. We dressed for the cold. We wore long underwear, shirts, wool socks in our shoes, and sometimes even over the shoes. We bundled up in trousers, snow pants, snow jackets, a snow cap, earmuffs, gloves and rubber overshoes to keep out the wet snow. Off we went, my sister, my older brother and I. Dressing up like this and spending lots of time outside really makes you appreciate when you get back home and get warm under the best patio heater, drinking a tea or hot chocolate.

One winter, when I was in first or second grade, I had not broken in my new shoes. It was a cold day and the snow was deep, and I wore snow boots over my shoes for the long hike snowto school. I was alright until about half way, when my feet began to hurt. My new shoes did not allow me to wiggle my toes and they began to get very cold. The teacher could hear me howl all the way to school. She met us at the door and hurried me inside. She removed all my clothes, down to the shirt, sweater and inside trousers, then my rubber overshoes and my new shoes. My feet were bright red, frostbite was setting in. The cure for that was to rub my feet with snow until they thawed out to prevent serious problems. I can still remember how it hurt to have my feet rubbed with that soft-looking snow that felt like sandpaper on a raw wound.

When we were older – I must have been 12 at the time, we walked a distance on a highway to school. One cold, cold morning, our dad came down the hill, stopped us, and announced that we did not have to go to school that day. The temperature was 12 below zero.

On another winter’s day, we had started to walk home when school was out. The teacher should not have let us go because of blizzard conditions. It was getting pretty bad, and we still had more than two miles to go. It was so cold, it froze the mind. It made you dizzy. Again our dad came to the rescue. He came after us and picked us up in the car. We would have frozen to death, I am sure.

Music and Dancing

My mother had a pretty voice and sang Irish lullabies Over In Kilarney among them.

My dad sang Swedish hymns. Somewhere in the middle they met, and learned to harmonize. Dad also played the accordion and the harmonica. Not at the same time, of course. He would take a glass and hold it over the harp next to his mouth and make a beautiful far-away sound.

On Saturday night, we listened to Grand Ol’ Opry on the old battery radio. I learned to sing along with Lulu Belle and Scottie. I cried to Roy Acuff singing Put My Little Shoes Away and There Was Blood on the Highway (but I didn’t hear nobody pray).

(I couldn’t find a recording by Roy Acuff, but here’s the Chuck Wagon Gang with Put My Little Shoes Away – Sharon)

My father discovered I could sing along with them and carry a tune at a young age. He had me sing one night by myself. I was so scared, but I was scared to not sing, too. His favorite song was “That Silver-haired Daddy of Mine.” I learned to harmonize with my parents. Those many nights when we ran out of kerosene for the lamp, we took the lid off the wood stove and sat around it, eating home made ice cream, shivering and singing.

On Sunday, we listened and danced to the Yankee Yahkavitch and his Scandinavian Orchestra. The group used accordions and harmonicas, played jumpy polkas and Shottish music, and I danced with my dad and loved it. We hopped around, up and down in time to the music.

When I was in high school, I wanted to join the other kids dancing at noon recess on a rainy day, but no one asked me to dance. I was very shy, and didn’t have a cashmere sweater and was out of the loop. Neither did I have wooden shoes when they came in style or brown and white saddle oxfords.


A chimney fire was a big event in our lives. While the flames shot out of the top of the chimney over the roof, Mom would run outside and look up while Dad watched inside. chimney fireThen Mom would run inside and Dad would run out and look up at the roof, until the chimney fire burned itself out. We kids just watched in fascination. We also had a hay stack fire.

For some reason, Dad had put a haystack a few yards from the house. We used to play on it sometimes when my big brother decided to try smoking. The haystack was a convenient hiding place. Unfortunately, he dropped a match and that dry hay took off and turned into a spectacular fire. It was like a great party. Neighbors came from miles around with goodies, when they saw the flames. I am sure they thought our house was gone. The men poked at the smoldering haystack long into the night to be sure the fire had burnt out. Fortunately, the house didn’t catch on fire, but I will never forget how exciting it all was.

Let’s Talk About The Weather

Some people find the weather a boring subject and use it only to make light conversation where nothing else comes to mind. I have never found it so. As a child I used to lay in the grass in the sun on the hillside with a breeze blowing over me and watch the clouds move across the sky.

The early morning sun, and the dew on the grass were interesting and beautiful to me. I could smell the rain coming, or the snow, and watch a blizzard building up; those dark, fierce looking clouds were exciting. The dark rain-loaded ones dumped rain by the buckets. It rained so hard our rain barrels ran over. When it rained in Minnesota, it was serious. We rarely had gentle showers, only downpours that were warm. We children put our swimsuits on and went out for a shower.

tornadoTornadoes touched down not far from us once. Lightning struck a tree in front of our little cabin and split the trunk right down the middle, I saw black clouds filled with hail stones the size of walnuts rattle on the roof of our home. They covered the ground long enough for us to pick them up after the storm passed.

I loved to hear the wind blow in the treetops, creeping around through the woods and pushing to get into the house. It made me feel cozy and protected and sleepy to hear the wind whine and howl and complain as it piled the snow in huge drifts, then came back and moved them to another spot.

We lived in the cottage on George Lake the winter of 1939 that produced one of the most treacherous blizzards ever recorded in Minnesota weather history. Temperatures fell suddenly, to 30 below zero in two or three hours. Our wood was stacked in a shelter about twelve feet from the house. The storm hit like a truck whirling across the lake and into the side of the building. It was in October, early for a blizzard. Some men duck hunjting in the northern part of the state, and were frozen into the water where they stood. My father had gone to town for staples and mother was concerned that he would try to get home and get caught by the blinding storm.

Mother had us take turns bringing in firewood. Bundled up fit for Alaska, we darted out, holding our breath all the while, because it was too cold to breathe, grab an armload of wood and race back into the house. It stayed cold for a week before my father was finally able to make it home, wearing a borrowed fur coat over his clothes.

I still enjoy watching the weather arrive. I find it fascinating. I can watch the changes come over the Callahan Mountains to the west of us. I can still smell the rin or occasional snow on its way over the hills. I do miss the snow of Minnesota, but not the cold, and I don’t miss the sticky, hot Minnesota summers, where even the nights stayed hot, nor did I like the huge, pesky mosquitoes. We had fun catching the little fireflies into a fruit jar and watch the mysterious little flashing light they delivered.

Maybe the variation of the weather in Minnesota tweaked my interest in the much more even temperatures of Oregon. I have never found the weather dull, or seen a day that I didn’t think it was beautiful.

rose divider

(Maxine’s faith is part of her story, and included in the book are Scripture lessons which are illustrated with stories from her life)

My Help Cometh From the Lord 

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2)

This morning, there is fresh snow on the low mountain range west of our home. Not a lot of snow, but enough to make it look like early winter, even though it is spring. Those mountains are called the Callahans, and present a popular challenge for rock climbers, hikers, bird watchers and mudders. Some people who own four-wheel-drive vehicles delight in driving back in totown covered with mud to prove their prowess with their automobiles.

In the late spring, you can see shades of white where the wild dogwood blooms. Those hills are the backdrop for beautiful sunsets when the clouds sit on them just right. Often you can watch the weather and see the approach of a rain or hail storm come over those mountains.

Some bare areas on the mountain sides testify to the act of clearcutting by the loggers who haul out the timber. Some spots show signs of the new growth of trees, replaced by the company who harvested the first cut.

When we return from our morning walk, we can plainly see those beautiful mountains provided the fog is not too heavy. I marvel at them being so still, so stable, and so ancient. But much as I call on them, when I am in trouble, they cannot help me. My help cometh from the Lord, who created them.

Those hills are silent; they do not move; they do not speak. They have no soul or life except for the vegetation which grows in the soil beside them.

If I needed a hiding place, I might find a cave or crevice in those hills that would serve as a refuge or shelter. I could even live for a time off the wild blackberries, and clear springs seeping from its crevices, and if I could catch one, there would be quail, pheasants, grouse, and even black bears. I would avoid the latter.

But the hills will never be able to help me.

When I look at those hills, I often rehearse to myself the verses from this Psalm. First I read, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,” and then continue, “my help does not come from the hills, it comes from the God who put those hills there for me and others to enjoy.”

God is a refuge, our shelter, our help, our all in all. Nothing else and no one else can fill that place in my life.

Those hills remind me each morning, either from approaching them on a morning walk, or the view from our elevated back deck. My help cometh from the Lord. Those mountains cannot be moved. My God is eternal and faithful and always present with me. He is as stable and solid as the rocks of the mountain. He is my help. The hills cannot move to help me at all. God is my help.

And I am His child.

rose divider

Mailboxes along the roads and old barns set back in fields overgrown with weeds often served as landmarks in rural Montana. These landmarks told us where we were, and how far we had to go. Sometimes they signaled “home”  and the end of the road.  At other times, barely visible through swirling snow, they told us we had miles to go.

Maybe you’ve seen some of the same mailboxes along your roads, or glimpsed some of the same old barns through your storms.

In one way or another, anything you read in this weekly feature is a word picture of some mailbox or some old barn, tangible or intangible, seen by the author somewhere along the roads of their memory. Our stories of other times and places become word pictures of our mailboxes, our old barns.

This current series from Maxine Lee has elements of Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Oregon in it. Others have shared MBOBs from Kansas and Texas and Oklahoma and MBOBs from anywhere show up in the threads. Thank you to all who share in the posts and in the threads, and thanks again to Maxine today. 


This entry was posted in Mailboxes & Old Barns, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Mailboxes and Old Barns Guest Post: Some Assembly Required, by Maxine Lee

  1. Sharon says:

    The layers and layers of clothing required to not freeze to death in the north in winter were a challenge for us kids! We knew how to layer our ensembles before layering was cool, but it was of necessity, of course, in those days long before insulated winter wear and down jackets. It was a full blown project to get dressed to go outside whether to play, work, or go to school.

    And the buckle up overshoes – those metal buckles that closed them would become encrusted with ice and snow before long – so that when we came in the house we would have to first take the mittens off our cold hands (because the mittens were more often than not wet and frozen as well) and then with stiff cold fingers, try to force the buckles of the overshoes apart to get them open, get the overshoes off, and thaw our feet out. The pins-and-needles effect of too cold feet and hands warming up…..easy to recall.


    • Dr. Bogus Pachysandra says:

      I filled in for the lead guitarist when he had Mono. I was too Bluesy for them though. Your title reminded me of the song!


  2. Spar Harmon says:

    It took me a long time to get through this installment, so many were the connections deep into inner territory. After almost 50 years of being elsewhere, I have been back in the region where I grew up since early 2008. So many of the good things, taken for granted then, are now virtually passed away. Maxine and Sharon, and all the others who share about these precious things have helped me to recall to mind and heart the great gifts of my own and my family’s past. It is my present joy to be learning that my home state- the great undeclared state of Appalachia- bigger than Texas, which we virtually founded with our blood- (ahem…) can still tell a tall tale or two to disguise with self-ridiculing mythology the real solidity of calm, Christian values and warm, friendly living which resides here.
    We have a different take on the help of the hills. Our hills smoke in a daily dance of mist settling (that’s 2 syllables : ‘set-lin’, accent on da foist) down into the valleys at night, nestling and cuddling and making the trees drip, then slowly through the early morning drifting up through the wooded hillsides and whipped away off the ridge tops. Looking out over a vista hills for me IS home, refuge, safety where the Presence of God feels particularly strong. Whether foraying out into whatever hills were gathered about my home, or the Sunday afternoon family expeditions into the Smokies, or the frequent camping trips off in almost any direction – woods, hills, and God were the source of renewal and strength for me personally and for the family.
    Since every section of today’s post pitched me into extended reverie, and since my storytelling skills essentially are of the circular oral tradition more suited to slow evenings on porch or at fireside, I thought I might share some general observations Maxine triggered for me.
    I study both formally and informally culture as expressed in language and in how people live where ever I am. How people are. How it feels to live where I am. How hard is it to find acceptance where I am a stranger… That stuff. There are not many places where an old social tradition still obtains :: Homegrown music. One of the excitements of visiting relatives was after-dinner catching up on extended family news where all the tall-tale tellers could wax the shaggy dog, and serious memorializing could be done, and , finally somebody would start singing Old Aunt Mary’s favorite hymn…at the Cross, at the Cross where I fir-urst saw the Light, / And the burden of my sins
    rrro-o-o-o-olled awaaaaaay… and every verse too, you bet. Before the end a guitar would be out , a harmonica, a squeezebox, a dulcimer, a mandolin, a cigar box fiddle or banjo, and maybe a piano through the open screen door. You never knew, but it was always enough to stir things deep inside, and tears would roll down, jaws ache, and a fullness swell the chest and it would go on and on…. Many of us forget, or may have never realized how wide-spread such scenarios were outside urban areas. It doesn’t really matter the ethnic background, the rural people had this commonality : home entertainment knitting families together — a rich oral tradition and music.
    Weather ::: One of the things that always comes up when folks reminisce is weather. Climate change is part of planetary rhythm. Local weather patterns are important matters. I was born in a hurricane and have always been attracted to weather extremes, but I also love attuning to the patterns around me. I was an orchard farmer for 16 years in central California; I have lived some years in the temperate-zone rain forests of Washington, Oregon, and North California; I have lived for 15 years in the back country of high, arid New Mexico, for which I will ever be home-sick; in the back country of Peru I experienced vertical farms, some only a few hundred yards wide, which were tropical down in the river gorge, more and more temperate as you ascended the terraced levels to the grain and grazing levels immediately below the 18 to 22 thousand-foot peaks :: here we are talking about very stable equatorial weather. No matter where I have lived, one of the easiest ways to get easy with folks is to solicit help anticipating the weather. It is always one of my first neighborly gestures is to introduce myself, give a synopsis of why I’ve come to live there, and ask questions about what only they know: the local weather pattern, seasonal pattern, drought cycle, etc. When we got an evacuation notice ahead of possible flooding, neighbors came over from both sides to share their knowledge of topography and the particular degree of danger we were in, enabling us to fine tune our frantic energy expenditure. Nothing like a local old-timer to help intelligently deal with local weather threats. A life-long rainbow chaser, I finally made close friendship with my taciturn, ex-Vietnam Green Beret when he noticed me out after the late afternoon, spring thundershowers, every day with camera and tripod, hoping to catch the magnificent double and triple rainbows arching over the great, spreading valley oak at the head of the driveway — Let me know if you catch it, he said, I’ve been trying for years. The picture on my blog (click my name above) is one somebody else caught and I fully appreciate what a miracle it is to get such a shot. To me that picture is my life journey in a nutshell.
    Well, I guess I’m too “full of it” to get any more out. Thanks, Maxine, carterzest, and Sharon. What a lifting blessing…


    • Cyrano says:

      I’m finally back. I clicked on your name, Spar, to see the picture you spoke of, then began to read, and read, and read….wonderfully lost in your collection of thoughts and remembrances. I’m going back there shortly to stroll a little more leisurely. Thanks for the post.


    • Sharon says:

      Your circular oral tradition more suited to slow evenings on porch or at fireside is pretty well suited to this space as well.

      Wonderful word pictures.


  3. Cyrano says:

    These Sunday morning posts are a godsend to an old cynic like me. It’s like renewall to get up, and look into this mirror of Americana. Thanks go out to all who share. I’m good for another week now.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s