My Mother, the Farmer’s Wife
My mother was 43 years old when I was born. By then she had borne 10 children (the first having died in infancy) — all at home on the farm. As I grew up, I always felt Mom was closest to her father, a farmer himself, especially after finding only one photo of her and her father taken at a studio when she was around 12 years old, the baby in a family of seven. Mom’s father believed in educating his children and they became teachers. Mom refused a college education, but worked as a housekeeper after her graduation from high school.
It wasn’t until I became 43 that I started asking Mom questions, the nights it was my turn, as a sibling, to help care for Pop after his stroke. Mom met Pop at a church social after he and his twin brother returned safely from WWI, Pop having received the Purple Heart. The young couple fell in love and planned to get married. This is when she told Pop, who was working in a mill, “I want to be a farmer’s wife.” I guess he couldn’t help himself as he gazed into her sparkling blue eyes. He hired himself out on her brother, the teacher/farmer’s farm, to learn the trade. And that is how my mother became the farmer’s wife.
Although I was the youngest, I grew up, albeit a love/hate relationship with Mom as a teen, I did know she loved her chosen career. She took everything in stride from baking, cooking, gardening, canning, and butchering — all this in between tending to her children. And she didn’t wait for Pop to come home when a horse fell through the second floor of the barn.
She got a rope and tied the feet and tried to pull the horse up, but to no avail. The horse died in a few days.
As the baby in the family, I had more material things then the older siblings, but, I probably didn’t appreciate it. My sister, Anita, told me, “We didn’t’ have much money but I never felt poor. Mom was the first to give up something so we could have more. I recall on walks to church I could see Mom’s feet bleed because the shoes given to her were too tight.”
I admit I appreciated Mom more as an adult and raising my own children. I know Pop had to be careful with the money, not knowing if the crops would bring in an income each year. As a kid, I considered him stingy. It was also in the 40s and 50s that some men believed they were in charge of the money. That didn’t deter Mom from earning her own. She never learned to drive a car, but she did know how to “catch” the bus at the end of the lane. She went into the city and found a job cleaning for someone. On this jaunt she’d sometimes shop for me. As a teen, I was surprised she had good taste. Yet, I wonder if I thanked her.
Mom also earned money butchering chickens and ducks and selling them. I don’t know how long she saved but one summer she announced, “Pop, we’re going to visit Lester (a brother) and his wife, Ruth, in Florida. I have enough money saved for both gas and a motel. I’ll pack the food and water. “I think Pop was so flabbergasted that Mom could save so much, that he actually relented and they, with four of the kids, traveled to Florida.
At some point, Mom gave up cleaning houses in the city and got a job cooking for a restaurant in town. I often walked over to her work place, after school, to wait for Pop to pick us up. He always grumbled about having to leave his work.
I can’t forget the boarders that rented rooms. I didn’t like it at all as I had to share the upstairs bathroom with them. One time it was a man. Another time an old lady, who I think was in the early stages of memory loss, and complained daily to Mom that I stole her hairbrush.
There were also the family boarders for the festival in town. Mom loved people and many families stayed in what we called “the old kitchen” in the back part of the house. Again we had to share a bathroom. But at this time, Pop had a toilet installed in the pantry area. Mom raised peafowl and not one of her boarders left without peacock feathers, mom’s pride and joy.
Mom wasn’t just friendly to boarders from the festival. She’d often have my “spur of the minute” friends come home with me after school. She never scolded, just fed them and left them sleep over. Our large farmhouse was always a party place for our church youth programs,. Mom helped us make the home into a haunted place with neat ideas of her own. Other times our kitchen table held ping pong games, while French fries were our treat.
We kids didn’t mind so much when Mom was good to our friends, but every Sunday, no matter who stopped to visit Mom would say, “You’ll be staying for supper, won’t you?” We’d cringe knowing we’d have all those extra dishes to do. Mom always did the cooking.
Another thing, us kids didn’t like, was that Mom was always trying to make things look nicer outside. She was done raising chickens, on the piece of land near the house, that had the small pond. She got the idea that the area should be cleaned up for family picnics. It’s not that she wasn’t out there with us pulling and tugging weeds like us, we just felt our yard was enough yard.
Even across the street in front of the house was a bit of a knoll that she liked for it to look nice and grassy. Sometimes she had a goat tied to a tree to eat the high grass. She eventually got it down to her specifications and we could mow the area.
Growing up, I vowed I’d never marry a farmer. I never did. I felt farm life was nothing but work, work, and more work. And then, when I was about 25 years old, married and children, something changed. I was in a store when someone I knew came to me, “Carole, do you know your barn (Pop had sold the farm and built a new home in town by then) was hit by lighting just now and is on fire?” Since I wasn’t but a few miles from the farm I drove there. The police wouldn’t’ allow me to drive down the lane, but they did let me walk. As I headed closer, I saw the barn in flames and burst into tears. It was then and there I realized how important my farm life had been — work and all.
There is only one woman I can thank for my farm memories and that is my mother, the farmer’s wife.
Mary Kohler Christman