My Grandmother Millie
© Copyright 2015 by Kathy Wolfe
Honorable Mention--2016 Biographical Nonfiction
Mildred Grace Chamness was born on May 30, 1916, the 3rd oldest of six children to a farm couple. There was only one brother to five girls! Grandma will still tell me stories of growing up as clear as if they happened yesterday, although she can’t remember eating five minutes ago. I can remember a Saturday sitting with her to give my Aunt and Uncle a day off. Grandma forgot who I was at least three times! She wrote me and perhaps all of her grandchildren many letters over the years. There are many nuggets of historical value and personal history in these letters. This essay shares with readers a few of these wonderful letters.
You see my folks; mom and dad lived on farmland they rented out in the country. The roads were just graded dirt roads mostly and some were gravel. They planted corn, oats and wheat. In 1923, no soybeans were grown. The only livestock they raised were cows, just for milking purpose. Calves were sold, except for female heifers, which were add to the herd. Hogs were kept for fattening up and sorted to sell. The gilts (female pigs under one year old) were kept for raising breeding sows. Once or twice a year they were butchered for food. Four or five of their horses were used to do the farming, and to go to town or to the doctor when needed. Fowl (chickens, ducks, geese) were also raised for produce to eat or sell. A garden was planted and used for food along with berry picking in which mom made jelly and preserves. We depended on mom to can our summer ripened food and bake breads.”
My memory as a small child, was of mother telling of us having scarlet fever. I had it bad. The first one to get it, I was about one and walking about. Mom said I nearly died. Elsie and Ruth had it to, but not nearly as bad. The doctor quarantined us and we had to stay inside the house; all except dad. He stayed in the kitchen where he could go out and tend to the stock. Mom and the rest of us stayed back in the living room and the rest of the house behind closed doors. Mom put pillows in a rocker and laid me in it. She stayed with me day and night sleeping on the arm of the rocker. She said that she fed me with a turkey quill. My face was so swollen you couldn’t see my eyes. Mom got the fever to break though. It left me with a busted left eardrum. The ear festered and ran with pus many years afterward.
It was terrible when I went to school. I was so hard of hearing I couldn’t hear the teacher give me the assignments to do the next day. A girl in the class noticed my frustration and came over to show me what the teacher mumbled for us to do. I was Oh so happy! I thanked her for helping me.
Once when I was about 5 years old, my dad was working in the field and it was time to come in for dinner (noon time). I begged him to let me drive the horses back. He unhooked the horses and put the lines about my neck and body like he did, and let me “drive” back to the house. Well, the horses started to trot and went faster and faster. Finally, I fell down and they dragged me for a bit before I slipped out of the lines and they galloped away toward the house. I never again asked to drive the horses. Mom had come out to head them off.
Dad took me along with him on the wagon. He put me on the running board seat and he’d walked along beside the team and wagon all the way to where he went to buy or sell a load of corn. While we were there, a Mr. Buzzart brought three or four puppies over to me and said I could have one. I looked at daddy and he nodded his okay. I picked up the smallest one with a pretty face. I didn’t know if it was a boy or girl. When we got home though, mom really scolded dad and made me take the puppy out to the wood shed. I fixed her a bed but she whined, so I took her to my bed and mom warned I had to clean up after my puppy. I named her, Tricksey. She turned out to be a very good healer cow dog. She stayed behind the cows when we needed to take them from pasture to pasture or back home again. She kept the cows out of the corn field when we had them grazing the oat field after thrashing time was over. We had her about five years before someone poisoned her. While she was alive, my dad would put her in the haymow when she was in heat to keep male dogs away from her. Once, after we moved though, we were all so busy that she came into heat, got with a male dog and had a litter of pups. Dad gave Nat Swisher a very pretty red female puppy and we kept a white and brown spotty male. He turned out to be a Healer to. He ran after cars though and got ran over, getting hurt bad. Elsie tried to doctor him but he had head injuries and died in her arms. Later, we heard that Nat want to give their Willy away because she was cross and he was afraid she would bite someone. Dad went and got her and put her in a cage in the smokehouse. We children would go out to feed and water her and to talk gently to her. We never hit or teased her because we wanted her to like and love us. After many weeks of going out, I ventured to put my hand in and she licked it. So I kept on this way until one day I just opened the door and got inside with her and pet her. Elsie came out and saw me in there with Willy. She looked shocked but just smiled at us and went to tell the folks. They just told me to come out. They all petted her and from then on she was set free.
There was a field that the folks planted a lot of pickles in and all of us except mom had to pickoff the pickles every other day. We sorted them in a scoop-like contraption to different sizes. It was four inches for dill, three inches for sweet & sour pickle or bread & butter, and two inches for jerkins. We did this while dad hitched up the horse to the wagon so the sacks could be hauled to the pickle factory in town. It was a tiring job and had to be done early in the morning just after the dew dried up from the sun. It got hot before we could pick the whole patch over. Several were missed and they would turn big and yellow. Mom made these into chunk pickles or sliced them into vinegar for the dinner table.
There was also the sugar cane (sorghum). When it was ready, three of us girls took wooden knives (a scythe perhaps), and knocked off the leaves. Then mom and Elsie would use a one-horse pulled corn slicer that sliced off the stalks to lie flat on a platform through the rows. Then they would be put on the hay wagon. They would take the sugar cane over to my grandpa’s (Mom’s dad). He had a sorghum grinder. It was pulled by a horse fastened to an extended pole sticking out from the grinder. Sometimes grandpa would let me ride “O Charley,” as he went around and around the grinder squeezing the juices out of the stalks. The juice was green and foamy. It ran off into a big kettle over a fire and boiled and boiled until it was a very thick, brownish color called sorghum-molasses. They poured it into jars and bottles. Neighbors and friends would come to buy gallons of it. Dad would take some for our own use. Mom would make cookies, cakes and pudding with it.
Note: Once, I watched an episode of the Walton’s where the Walton children made this “Poor Man’s Sugar” from the wild sorghum during the sugar cane shortage in Wartime. My family and I had the privilege to see this process at the Indiana Dunes State Park on their homestead. They used an antique tractor instead of a mule though to run the press. It was definitely a fascinating process as were the broom making and various other demonstrations. There was also a dug out root cellar there and on the fruit trees were tin cans with sorghum to trap pests.
Grandpa had many fruit trees; peach, apple, and plum. He also had grapes. He’d make wine, brandy and cider which he sold for extra money along with the honey he collected from his bee hives to. He also made strawberry wine, which was very good. I liked his grape, but he wouldn’t let us kids drink very much. Grandma, in her early years, would make jellies, jams and preserves to sell at the same time. She would also make homemade soap for laundry, and sweet smelling face and body soaps. My grandparents owned their property so it was better for them to take advantage of their property any way they could to get more out of it. My folks only rented a few acres and had to plant and give the landlord half. It wasn’t enough to get by through the year. There was us children who needed school books, clothes, shoes, raincoats, and boots. We had to walk two or three miles to and from school.
Grandpa would take a jug of grape wine with him when he walked behind the horses to plow, disk or harrow the ground or plant corn. He would place the jug in the ground under the sod or shade tree/bush to keep it cool, then drink when resting his horses. Grandpa never drank water, just wine. He lived to a ripe old age.
One summer I stayed with my grandparents. Grandma and I went to pick blueberries or some folks called them huckleberries. They were the kind that grew close to the ground. It was a short bush bearing plant. There were two kinds; one that was very low with a powdery blue, soft delicious flavor, and a taller 18” or so plant with hardy leaves and stems that had a dark purple or blue color berry. These were the huckleberry type that made better baked pies. Anyway, I was so interested in picking that I never noticed grandma had wandered off into the bushes. When I looked up, she was nowhere to be seen. She answered, “Over here” when I called to her. I followed her voice but kept going away from her.
Finally, she called, “Mildred! Stay where you’re at and I’ll come to you.” She called to me and I answered. There she came through the bushes! “You kept going away from me!” She said. It was because of my hearing loss. One ear threw me off in the wrong direction. Even today I have to depend on the sun and know my north from south and my east from west.
My handicap hurt me in school. I didn’t start when I was six like the other kids. I was still too weak from the scarlet fever. You see, I had to start from the beginning. I had to relearn how to crawl and everything. So my folks didn’t let me go to school as my sisters walked two miles and down railroad tracks besides.
One time they were caught between two trains! Elsie said she pulled Ruth down beside her and they laid flat on the ground between the two tracks as the trains rolled by. She said she was scared to death! At that time Elsie was 10, and Ruth 8 and attended Denham school near Winamac, Indiana. I don’t know why my dad didn’t take them to school. I did not go until I was seven years old, although my birthday was in May of 1922. So, I went after my folks rented another farm the next year. There we rode in a horse pulled hack. The hack driver was Mr. Heath. The roads were mostly dirt except the one going into Winamac. At the time it had some graded gravel. It was all of three miles or more to pick up the school kids. Once, toward spring and the snow was melting, the driver had an accident. Mr. Heath had Mr. Hodgen’s permission to turn around in his barn lot so he could go back the way he came. Well, that was fine when ground was frozen, but when it thawed out, the wheels made the barn lot a mud hole. Mr. Hodgen told him he had to stop using his barn lot and go around a mile. Mr. Heath didn’t heed this warning and still used the barn lot until the owner padlocked the gate. Of course this made our driver mad, so he tried 1```` to turn around right in the middle of the road! The horses lines got tangled up and they just back up and down the bank of a 15-foot ditch. 8th grader, Lillian, jumped out before it went down and ran screaming down the road. A kid in front got his ear cut off from broken glass. His sister broke her finger and Ruth slid out the back. Elsie rammed her head through the black curtain used along the side of the hack. It’s a good thing it wasn’t glass. I fell out the back-end and hit a big rock on my tailbone. It knocked me out so I don’t know who carried me to a house and called Dr. Carneal from Winamac to look at me. I faintly remember stripping off my clothes and putting on boy’s underwear. The doctor examined my injuries and I was taken home. I had to stay in bed for a week and out of school I guess. I was just in the 1st grade then. My back has bothered me ever since then. Mr. Heath was taken off his job and Mr. Harrison started driving until school was let out.
I got promoted to 2nd grade and went to Brush College for seven months before we moved again, this time to Medaryville, Indiana. I continued my schooling there for five years and we moved to Beaver Township, onto a bigger farm. I continued my schooling through 8th grade there and then quit New Idea School. I helped with the farm work until I went out to get paid doing housework.
The folks bought a smaller farm of their own, east of Medaryville. They continued there the rest of their lives. This when I got married to Albert J. Stoll in 1938.
There was a time my sister, Elsie and I were taking cows to pasture and the next door neighbor’s geese chased us. We chewed sassafras and spit it at them. Another time, coming back from school on the school hack that was driven by horses, we were let off to let the neighbor girl get her cows from her parent’s pasture. Lillian, Elsie, Ruth, and I went with her walking by a big ditch over to where the cows were grazing. In rounding the cows, Lillian noticed I was wearing a red dress and that their bull was among the herd. Lillian pulled me over to her and threw her skirt over me because that bull would attack anything of red color. So I had to walk “under cover” all the way to her place. Whew! It was hot under there! But I was safe from that big “O” Bull!
Elsie and I watched the cows along the roadside about every day. Grass was taller there so the cows could wrap their tongues around the grass and pull it out because they didn’t have any upper teeth. The pasture grass was shorter because the horses grazed in them when they weren’t working. They tended to eat the grass way down since they had upper teeth to snip it off. The hogs and pigs had to be watered and fed every day to. That was also our chore. Both of us girls worked outside with our Dad and Ruth helped Mom with the younger children and with the housework. We all took turns doing the dishes or carrying in wood for the heating and cooking. We all helped with the wash, like preparing the water and such.
We were all taught in our family to accommodate in doing the work about the home, as it out of respect to our parents and ourselves. It’s not like today where children are allowed to boss their Mother and Father around. We did what we were told and there was no sass or we would get the stick or dad’s strap. We did not desire either one! It was much easier to do what we were told than get a whipping. Anyway, I always liked helping to do these chores because we never had many toys or things to play with. My dad would make us some stilts to walk around on. He built us sleds and wagons to help take in the wood from the wood pile, or to carry a load of corn or oats from the grain bin and out to the pigs and hogs, or to the barn for the horses and cows when needed.
It was work we enjoyed doing because it gave us energy, built us up, and kept us healthy. The way we lived back then was so different from the way we live now. I definitely believe it was better in many, many ways. Children today have so many toys that they have no room to create anything on their own. So, as they become teenagers and adults, they are confused with the real world they live in and have to tolerate the fast paced society we live in.
Note: I can’t remember how Grandma met Grandpa m. He died before I was born. She would tell of getting meals from behind grocery stores out of their garbage bins during the depression. He was a Navy man during World War II and her father had served in World War I. At least three of their children were conceived while he was on leaves. When my youngest Uncle was 9, Grandpa was killed in a factory accident. Grandma took the settlement money and bought a two story cracker box house in a small one main street town in Indiana and got by on social security for the children and military money. It was while she raised her children as a widow, gale force winds put a straw straight through a telephone pole along their long driveway.
In 1942, Edward, my husband, decided he was going to join the military. Two of his older brothers had already been drafted and another was in the United States Air Force. He had another brother who would have been drafted on his 21st birthday, but was killed in an automobile accident during haymaking time.
The years before the war were rough. Jobs were hard to come by. Many families suffered trying to make ends meet. Edward’s brother, Andy, came to live with us and tried to get a job in the city. Their mother had died when his twin brothers were two years old. Their dad tried to raise the family. The oldest sister married and moved from home. He sent the younger sister to his parents. Later, she studied to be a nurse.
Edward, had a semi-truck and was working for the “Standard and Press” newspaper. He delivered to several towns for two or three years. Then they had a lay-off and he went to work for Tri State Construction where he used heavy machinery such as the bulldozer.
In 1943, he enlisted in the United States Navy. We moved to a house not far from our current residence after the birth of our third child, Virginia. That was in March. Edward then began training in October.
In December, he was transferred across the state. Right before Christmas, he came home for ten days in route and there were only three days to celebrate! Then Edward went back to San Francisco, California where he boarded a ship for an overseas assignment.
Edward landed in the Philippines where the Japanese had recently bombed. Then he headed to the Hawaiian Islands. My grandma commented that President Franklin Delaware Roosevelt was pushing hard toward an end to this World War II. Grandpa was enlisted from 1943 until 1945.
They used to have these sock hops at various neighbor’s households when I was a teenager. Once a year, spring cleaning was done at the neighborhood homes. Each household in their turn would give an invite to all the young people. The young men would move all the furniture up against the walls and the young people, in their socks, would dance to the music of the Victrola or a radio. In the process all those cotton socks would collect the dust balls and dirt from the floor. When it was over, the lady of the house could mop and shine her floors.
I went on a blind date once to one of these sock hops. We crowed into the car with two of my sisters. Well, he kept disappearing throughout the night when I noticed that Ruthie had disappeared to. Going upstairs to freshen up, I discovered the two of them kissing each other. You could cut the tension with a steak knife on the way home. To say that young man and I never went on a second date was putting it mildly. I guess Ruthie and I realized what a two-timer he was and wrote him off, our relationship never the worse for the experience.
Note: My Aunt Gin got everyone together two years ago for Grandma’s 98th birthday at the park where we have the annual Chamness family reunions. I got to see nearly every one of my cousins that day! Grandma Millie turned 100 at the end of May. Aunt Vicky threw a party for her in the town Community Center where she still resides in her trailer beside Aunt Janie’s home. She doesn’t get out and go as much anymore. Edema has set into both of her legs. She fell a couple of summers ago while piddling around her beloved flowers one summer. Her green thumb has always been amazing! Even the poison ivy grows lusher in her beds! She has a climbing rose plant that many of us have enjoyed throughout the years. It is a generational whose clippings have been hand-me-downs that are over 100 years old.
Now she mostly sits in her chair. They even set it up for her on her 100th celebration of life. My oldest and only surviving Uncle Bob is living with Grandma and Aunt Janie is right next door to look after her. They attend daily to her many needs. It was greatest thing when Aunt Janie had Grandma buy her mobile home and move onto the property. She was just kind of passed between her children until that time. That’s how I got to spend some of my growing up years with her.
After graduating from high school I moved in with Grandma and got a full-time job to save money to attend college. We had some fun moments together, like when my mom called one day to say she had bought a car for me. A cousin took Grandma and I to moms to pick it up. It was a stick shift! The seat was so low mom had to sew faux fur over an old couch cushion to place in the driver’s seat. Otherwise, I never would have been able to see over the steering wheel! I didn’t do too badly until killing it between shifts in the middle of a busy intersection in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Grandma didn’t even bat an eyelash, she just told me to close my eyes for a second, relax and breathe. We did make it home in one piece, thankfully. Another story of her unending patience with me was when she locked me out because I didn’t come home until way after mid-night one Friday night. She didn’t have to say a word. I understand perfectly well what she was saying. One day I decided to get the recipe book I had gotten as a gift out and cook us an Indian dish that looked interesting. I put it together exactly as it said. The cumin almost set our mouths on fire. Grandma didn’t say anything until I broke down first. She didn’t want to hurt my feelings knowing how hard I had tried to make her proud.
My Uncle Joey died at the age of 19 while hunting with friends. His gun misfired slipping from the tree where it was resting and he bled to death on the way to the hospital. His siblings always suspected that it wasn’t accidental because his ruined wallet showed up in a ditch 6 months later. Or at least that was the whisperings my young mind recalls from back then. I doubt there’s any validity to it. My Uncle Butch died of a heart attack at the age of 49. Grandma says that with her husband and the losses of her children there is a numbness. With Grandpa she refused to believe it a first. She felt like she was walking through a cloud during those days. Everything was in slow motion. I suspect everyone goes through a similar experience when a loved one dies.
Grandma has one surviving sibling. Her heritage is strong and her roots run deep in all of us. All 27 of us grandchildren received a birthday card with a crisp $10 bill and a hand-drawn, self-portrait on our 10th birthday. Even today she can recall nearly all of our birthday months. Grandma lived with us for short periods of time during my childhood. She is the number one V.I.P. in my life next to God, my husband and family. She has taught me a love of learning and the value of following my dreams. Before entering kindergarten, Grandma taught me how to spell my maiden name backward and forward. It was eleven letters long with only two of them being verbs! Grandma actually made learning that fun! In fourth grade when I was having a difficult time committing my times tables to memory, Grandma sat me down to teach them in her own special way. We cut out a rabbit family. You know how those rabbits can multiply! It was a lot more fun than my dad’s method of writing all my times tables out from 0 x 0 to 12 x 12 every afternoon after school.
Millie is much loved by her remaining 9 out of 11 children, 23
grandchildren, and over 100 great and great, great-grandchildren. It
was a wonderful a celebrating a century of her living. This story is
for you, Grandma Millie, with all my love, your granddaughter.
is an unpaid published writer. She been published in The Salvation
Army’s national “War Cry,” “The Young
Salvationist,” and international “The Officer”
magazine. She and her husband of 28 years, Mike, have been Salvation
Army Officers (pastors) for the last 18 years. She enjoys
spending time with their six children, three of whom still live at
home. A son-in-law was recently added to the troupe and she is
expecting her first grand-child in October, along with a new pastoral
appointment to Anderson, Indiana. Her ministry travels and numerous
life experiences have given Kathy a mind field of creative story