Memories of Mama and Papa Seals - By Eva Rae Metcalf Geaslin Howard - August 1993
Contributor: crex Created: 1 year ago Updated: 1 year ago
Mama Seals loved me best! I knew that I was her favorite grandchild.
I knew because she showed me in a thousand ways. Didn't she like for me to sit by her as she rolled out huge mounds of her wonderful cookies, and let me eat all the raw dough I wanted? Didn't she put aside my favorite piece of the chicken for me? Didn't I get to sleep with her, surrounded as much by the warmth of her love as by the deep, cocoon-like feather tick on her bed?
Didn't she let me help pump the old treddle sewing machine with her? Didn't she show me how to feed the chickens and gather their eggs from their hiding places in the current bushes; gather them in the corner of my skirt like she did in the corner of her apron? Didn't she share with me her love for her yellow roses?
Didn't she let me curl her hair and put makeup on her amazingly soft skin? (How could it have been so soft after so many years exposed to the harshness of that western Kansas weather?) Didn't she send me birthday cards, and teach me, and show me so many things, so many why's, and so many how's?
I was very many years old, and she had been gone a very long while before I realized that several dozen of her other grandchildren felt the same way as I did--that Mama loved them best. And that was what was so wonderful about her. She had an abundance of love and nurturing.
She was without so many things; so many things that perhaps made it uncomfortable or undesirable for some newer family members to want to come and be there on the homestead. But the abundance of the more important things went far beyond the lack of running water or electricity or other comforts. One of the truly great blessings of my life is that I knew Mama Seals; really knew her, and that I had a chance to grow up near her so much of the time so I could be blessed by her love and presence.
Presence is a good word, because Mama had "presence." She has always been to me like a fine thoroughbred who was out of context with her surroundings in many ways. I've thought a lot about the courage (and, I assume, love for her husband) that prompted her to leave her home in Kentucky and move to such a barren place. I understand that Kansas had not been her and Papa's original destination after they got married. Nevertheless, there she went and stayed, and there she adapted and contributed--though she never lost the gentility and presence that was part of the other world she had come from.
When my mother, Anna Evea, and stepfather, Tom Geaslin, took Mama and Papa back there to Kentucky when I was young, I was impressed that Mama would leave such a green and beautiful place and go so far away--knowing that she would not often or easily return. I was out home and remember when she received the notice--I think it was on a postcard--that her mother had died. Her mother had died and was buried before she even knew.
The house on the homestead "shrunk" as I grew. As I've gone back over the years, and seen again how small it really was, I've continually been amazed that it contained so much and so many.
Although it wasn't the most important part of my experience there, living under more Spartan conditions and doing without some basic conveniences have increased my awareness and appreciation for what I have now. I'm grateful for those things I learned and was exposed to on the homestead--things that most people my age haven't experienced.
Almost none of the people I grew up with, except those in that community, knew what it was like to have no electricity or plumbing, or what daily life and chores were like in a place like that. More than I would otherwise, I now appreciate warm running water in a shower; the press of buttons to wash my laundry; the turn of a thermostat to keep my home warm.
In continuing to remember, I continue to appreciate--appreciate not only what I have myself, but more especially appreciate those dear ones who bridged the gap in time (and in that space) so that I could come in my time. In addition, there is great pleasure and intrinsic value in the memories I have of what I considered my home during much of my growing up years.
I remember the huge cooking range in the kitchen with the water jacket on one side, where water was heated right in the body of the stove. Trips to Lamar, Syracuse, and elsewhere were marked by stops while someone jumped out of the car and retrieved from the highway or roadside pieces of blown-out tires to feed the stove. Those rubber remnants burned very hot. (On trips to Lamar we also stopped to gather sugar beets that had fallen as the railroad cars were being loaded there.) Across the top of this marvelous black monster stove was the "warming oven." Plates of leftovers or platters piled high with food waiting to be served were placed in this special compartment "Boilers" (long, skinny tubs) were brought in and filled with water to heat as they sat across the stove. Sometimes clothes were put in them; sometimes water was carried out of them to use in washing elsewhere. Part of the time I was around, Mama had a gasoline washing machine. It had a long metal hose, looking much to me like an armadillo's back, which stretched outside through a door from the North Room. At the end was a little vent from which puffs of smoke came in measured spurts as the machine chugged away inside.
On the stove we also put the flatirons. When they were hot enough (since there was no temperature regulator, the irons were run across newspapers first to test for temperature; ironing time was marked by the smell of scorching paper), we ironed the sprinkled shirts, dresses, and pillow cases. I did a lot of our family's ironing from the time I was small. I remember ironing like this a lot. My mother said that, as the seventh child of the thirteen, she could remember the time when my genteel grandmother still ironed her sheets! Incredible!
Mama Seals had a sense of humor, much like my mother. She was quick to smile and join in with some good fun. She was mild, though, and I never recall her being boisterous or loud. I never heard her swear or say anything off-color or inappropriate. I'm sure one of her children has recorded how part of her thumb was accidentally sawed off by her father when she was a little girl, and about the rattlesnake that sunned itself near where she lay after delivering her firstborn, Chester, while Papa was gone chasing stray cattle.
My mother said she slept at her mother's feet the night Mama got word that that son--grown up and in Utah, many years later with his wife and three little girls--had been killed, and listened through the night to her sobbing. I think it is remarkable that Mama and Papa Seals were blessed to be able to rear to adulthood all thirteen of their children.
The house, when I knew it, had four rooms and the North Room. There were the kitchen, the main room (combination of Mama's bedroom and the dining/living area), Papa's bedroom, and the room that most of the time seemed to be June's room.
Papa's room was filled to capacity, beginning with a huge "sideboard" with a mirror above it where he shaved, his leather "strop" beside it; his bed--with the heaviest quilts I can imagine on it (more than I could shake out as a child); piles of other things; and a wonderful old Victrola. I recall playing that a lot and particularly a record of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles." How I'd love to have that old fun machine and the records we used to play. We always laughed when it began to run down and the sounds became distorted and strange. I wonder where that Victrola is now.
The milk separator was just inside the west door in the North Room. I never liked to wash the parts to it. They were hard for me to clean. It seemed the water was reluctant to make enough suds. Too hard, I guess, so it was difficult to get the parts non-greasy. I never liked the smell of the containers either. There is a peculiar smell to old milk containers. One had to be careful to turn the separator at the proper speed or the cream would be too thin or too thick. June seemed to know the secret of how to do that just right.
There was some type of floor coverings, as I recall, on the rest of the house, except for the North Room. It had board floors, patched here and there with license plates and pieces of metal; sort of a modern art form; maybe more pop art. Beside the kitchen door in the North Room was a table with the water bucket on it. It was always there with a long-handled dipper in it. Everyone drank out of the dipper and returned it to the bucket. The water came from the well out in the yard. There was a pump with a can of water on it to use to "prime" the well. There was a large old water tank, originally used for cattle, by the well. It had been filled with soil and there were hollyhocks growing there most of the time I was around. Water was pumped from the well through a little metal trough into the tank to water the growing things.
A locust tree grew nearby, too. I loved the sweet, heady fragrance of the blossoms. There were the wonderful yellow roses, of course, and I remember one cherry tree also. There could have been more. Looking back, I realize the cherries were small and stingy and sour, but they were appreciated. I had never seen the kind I'm used to now, so I suppose I didn't compare them.
Huge cottonwood trees grew east of the house. Mother said many of them grew from the sticks used for fence posts by Papa when they moved there. They shaded part of a pond to the east of them. It was muddy and had water snakes in it. The pond varied; sometimes it was nicer and fuller than at other times. Mother told about it filling up when "the creek came down." That always fascinated me--the creek coming down. I never saw it; I have a difficult time even imagining a wall of water coming down from the rolling hills around. Mother spoke about the family swimming there often when they were growing up; I never did much.
Chickens ran around the place; large red hens, mostly, and frequently tiny fuzzy yellow chicks. They laid eggs not only in the hen house, but also hid them among the current bushes and other places. It was like an Easter egg hunt every day!
When Mama Seals wanted a chicken for dinner, she caught one and cut off its head. After the chickens were killed, they were scalded in boiling water, plucked, singed over a flame to remove hairs, and then cleaned. There is a distasteful odor to wet, scalded chickens. I learned to clean chickens from scratch--insides out, etc.--but I was always so repulsed by it that Mother was usually willing to do that job. I plucked and singed them though, cut them up, and learned how to cook them properly from my mother.
Mama Seals used to do something occasionally that didn't seem at all strange at the time, but surely does now. Knowing how much my mother appreciated her nice chickens, from time to time she would kill and clean one, wrap it up, and send it to us raw in the mail! My mother was always so careful with food. She would never leave food in a can after it had been opened, or a spoon in food that was left over, but there was never even a question about using those chickens. Whether they were good or not was never even brought up. I never remember one spoiling. They were an infrequent but very special treat when we got one.
Mother said that she and her sisters specialized quite a bit in some of their homemaking responsibilities when they were growing up. For example, some of her sisters sewed a lot, but didn't help much with the cooking. Mother cooked, but never sewed much. Mother was a wonderful cook.
Something funny (afterwards) happened during one of the times we were on the homestead. We got up in the morning and got ready to go hoe sunflowers out of the rows of corn. June was there, and Mother and me. I don't remember who else, but there were others. Anyway, as the morning sun rose higher and higher and we got hotter and hotter, the perspiration began to run down our faces, and someone mentioned that something stunk! There was some teasing and pointing fingers, and checking shoes. Time went on, and it got to be not so funny because it was getting worse and worse. Finally, as everyone kept looking at everyone else, attention seemed to focus on Mother. Upon investigation, she took off her straw hat, and we saw inside where a cat had been--and what it had "done." We took Mother back to the house and stuck her head under that pump and pumped and pumped cold water over her hair as we shampooed it. I think we all felt we would never really get it all out. We've laughed about that incident for years.
There was never any electricity--at least on a regular basis--on the homestead. I think it was Uncle Kyrle who put up a windmill and a generator once, but I don't know how much it worked because I don't remember ever having electricity when we were there. I never recalled anything but kerosene lamps. Too bad, it seems that somehow something could have been worked out.
The outhouse was quite some distance from the house, obviously. During the night, one either used a "slop-jar" (terrible name) or went out behind the house. This, of course, was only under certain circumstances and needs; only wet spots were left! I never remember anything besides catalogues in the outhouse--Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Wards. I learned very early that the yellow index pages were the best, and the slick fashion clothing pages the most difficult.
There were always a slew of cats around. Milk was poured into a row of containers outside for them. They supplemented their diets with mice. One of the cats disappeared once. Her absence caused some notice because she was fat and due to deliver kittens soon. She was not seen for a couple of days. Then someone heard a meowing as he was out in the outhouse. Not seeing her outside, the inside was checked. There the new mother was, in a corner down underneath in a precarious, but out of the way spot, with her new little family. What a place to pick, and I wondered what her thinking was when she selected that spot.
We hung clothes some ways from the house. There was a clothes line which was unlike any I've seen since. It drooped down quite low in the middle. Clothes were hung on it and then one end of a pole was attached to the middle to the line; the clothes line was then hoisted up high in the air as the other end of the pole was balanced on the ground. I just supposed when I was young that that was so the clothes would be higher and catch the wind and dry better. That doesn't make sense; catching the wind in Kansas? Yet it stayed that way for years, so I hadn't thought it just needed tightening up. As I think about it now, maybe it was so people of all sizes and heights could reach the line to hang up clothes.
All the laundry couldn't be put on the line, so the rest was spread out on the tamarack trees. It was sort of fun to gather them off the bushy branches later (unless they had been blown off) and see their funny, bulgy shapes where they had dried over the branches--little bumps and distortions here and there. Funny the things a child will remember.
It was while we were there one time that Bill was run over by a car. I wasn't in Coolidge when it happened, but I remember Mother bringing him back out home. I had never seen so many scratches as he had--all over, from the face down. He was, I realize now, in shock somewhat, and I still remember the look on his face as he came in. He had, as I understand it, been off the road, but the driver of the car had been drunk and had gone off the street onto the sidewalk area and run over him. From the look of my brother, he must have been dragged quite a distance. His scrapes and cuts were treated with kerosene from the tall, ever-present can--the first aid of choice on the farm through the years.
Saturday's were special times. Most of the time we went to Holly, (six miles from Coolidge across the state line into Colorado). We shopped and got groceries; business was taken care of; and sometimes we'd go to the movie. My clearest memory is of my mother and Mama and Papa visiting with their friends. People often just sat in their cars along the main street and visited with people as they passed. I recall the chunks of round cheese and liverwurst and crackers that was sometimes our supper on such occasions, eaten there in the car. The men usually met outside the bank and sat and visited.
Later in the evening the grownups often went to the Townsend Dance, as it was called, in the Armory. I was usually there with them. Both Mama and Papa went. Papa loved to dance and I thought he was very good. I don't know why, but I can't remember seeing Mama dance. I'm sure she must have, but I have no mental picture of her doing so. Hazel June and my mother did, and I sat many hours watching them dance. They were both very good, and were, as I recall, popular partners.
I went to the third and seventh grades in the tall stone school in Coolidge where my mother had gone to school. In fact, I had a teacher in the 7th grade that my mother had had herself in high school--Mr. Glenn Dobbin.
I don't recall ever having very many set, daily work assignments. I'm sure I did, however; it was my mother's nature to see that I did. I do know that I was busy and did a lot of things around the house and farm. Perhaps I didn't recognize some of the things I did as work. I certainly washed dishes and ironed and helped clean the kerosene lamps. But so many of the things I did like that were things I loved to do--gathering the eggs, helping feed the animals, sometimes going for the cows on the horse with "Fox," the big shepherd, or "Terry," the wiry terrier that belonged to Uncle Buf (Terry could jump from the ground up to the saddle to ride with Buf); turning the milk separator, and occasionally milking.
Papa, as I knew him, was stoic and strong and caring. He was tall, and I always thought handsome except for his eyes. The long harsh years of Kansas wind and dust and weather, and the rubbing with calloused hands, had caused the lower lids to droop. I had never seen anyone else with this condition. It did not disturb me any; it was just Papa. In later years he had some minor surgery which helped with the situation.
I have such a vivid picture of him in my mind sitting in his chair in the corner of that main room which served also as Mama's bedroom (I never knew them when they occupied the same bedroom), and dining room with it's wonderful round table with the massive legs. I knew the legs well for I slept under the table numerous times. Sometimes many cousins were lined up on the floor wall to wall at night. That was fun. It was more than fun; it was good.
Papa's chair was in the northeast corner (if the North Room was truly north). It was a captain's chair--painted light green. There was a stand or table there, and Papa's radio sat on it--the kind one sees only as antiques now, of course--shaped like an arched chapel window. Papa sat at night there and listened to the news. (I don't know how the radio worked; batteries, I guess.) I wish I could remember the name of that newscaster; I would recognize it if I heard it. I often sat on his lap while he listened and felt his scratchy beard with my hand. He shaved only when they went into town on Saturdays.
Papa worked hard; lots of threshing, butchering, milking. I saw him bending over a hoe many times through the heat of the day. One time I saw him walk up to a rattle snake out in the cornfield and stomp on its head with the heel of his boot.
He was 84 when he died, years after Mama. I know my mother's memories, and those of her brothers and sisters, are more varied than mine. According to what I've heard them say, he softened much as he got older. I did not know the harsh part of him that the family sometimes refers to.
I know he always hated to see us leave after we had been there. When it was time for us to go, he was never around. He always headed out to the field rather than say good-bye.
If our leaving was without fanfare or show of emotion, our arriving certainly wasn't. As soon as we had closed the gate at the main road and started down the winding road to the house--not even in sight yet--Mother would begin tooting the horn on the car to announce our arrival. She honked and honked all the way, our excitement mounting till we pulled up to the house and into the arms and smiles we loved so much.