January is a hard time for funerals. As if there’s an easy time.
We buried our Great-Aunt last week. The weather, after four days of sub-zero temperatures, cooperated. The skies were clear and the sun was bright. But a cold January wind swept through the cemetery.
She was 83 years old when she passed, and had been married to my Great-Uncle since 1946. The two had been inseparable since meeting in high school. They had three daughters and many grand- and great-grandchildren.
They grew up during the Great Depression, living a life I can only imagine, never understand.
Consider this – consider hoeing beets every day from planting to harvest, starting in the fields as soon as you were able to pick up a hoe. All day, every day, except when school was in session, when you worked the fields before and after school. And except for a few hours on Sunday when you went to church.
Before heading to the fields in the morning there were chores to do – a cow or two to milk, horses to feed, hogs to slop, chickens to feed and eggs to gather. And the same chores in the evening, after a day in the fields and at school.
Consider living in a one-room shack with your parents and a dozen siblings. A home where German was the tongue, but where the children were expected to master flawless English.
Where there was no indoor plumbing, just a hand well and a privy. A single cast iron stove for warmth. Consider spending the daylight winter hours gathering coal along the railroad tracks, one lump at a time, to burn in that stove, to stave off the killing cold.
Consider the deep terror caused by a winter sniffle when there was no money for a doctor and the doctors had no antibiotics.
Consider living and working in those conditions and being expected to be neat, clean and polite, to show and live your family pride and thrift and honesty and integrity.
No computer. No I-Pod. No television. No Radio. No refrigerator, microwave, toaster (let alone toaster oven!), no range. Just a wood stove. No car. No bus to ride to school.
Yet they were clean and neat and polite and well fed and didn’t see the hardship of walking to school and to the fields.
Consider the courage and the deep and abiding love it took to get married in 1946. Consider the scrimping and saving and the hard physical labor it took to acquire land and machinery and start to farm while raising a family. Consider the delight and the warm glow of success at being able to purchase your very own radio.
Consider building, with the labor of your family alone, a modest but successful farm and ranch. Building your own barn. Your own home. Hiring laborers. Putting in one of the first pivots in the county. Watching your daughters grow and marry and start families of their own.
Consider working hard and building every day throughout the long but oh-so-brief years. Feeding the county, and the state, and the nation, and the world. Building and keeping an honored and honorable name.
By the time I came on the scene killing labor was a thing of the past, the depression only a word. But the reality of those things remained in the weathered skin and strong, ropy muscles of those who had lived it. And in the stories they told of “hard times.” Stories told with honest laughter and verisimilitude only those who’ve lived it can bring.
I am blessed with countless sweet, loving memories of these people and the way they lived their lives, working hard and without complaint. Clean, neat, well dressed, honest, forthright, giving. Loving.
Today when I work hard and the sweat runs heavy and muscles strain and heart pounds and the breath rasps in and out like a steam engine, I am blessed in knowing that I’ve never worked as hard as my grandparents and great uncles and great aunts did. I’m blessed that I never knew the terror of illness or the numbing cold of coal picking. Blessed that I never hoed a row of beets beneath the hammering sun. But blessed most of all that I knew those who did, knew their strength and character and love. And that today I am in some way a small fulfillment of their love and their courage and their dream.