difficult childhood

Reflecting on an Evening with Family

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Just thinking.

Wow, what a giant step from the poverty of the 1930s Dust Bowl to a 2014 upscale restaurant with delicious leftovers.

The young woman shown in the background, my granddaughter ‘elect’ and mother of the two young children pictured (my great grandchildren), set a good example when she asked for take-home boxes for the leftovers.

She was thinking of her husband (my grandson) who would be arriving home tired and hungry later that night from his job as an airline pilot.

I’m so grateful to have such wonderful family! Also pictured, my daughter and my husband, Bob.

Looking Back on 89 Years

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Bob and I at his 90th birthday party last October!

 

My birthday is later this month and I will be 89 years old. Since I first published my book THE DIRTY DAYS two years ago, many have asked me if I would go back and change anything about my life if I could. My answer is usually well, yes–but then again, maybe not. So many of the events that changed my life forever were never under my control. I was born the oldest child of a tenant farmer during one of the most difficult times in our country’s history. A great depression, the dust bowl, and then WWII. All of these events had a profound effect on who I was and would become.

As a result of our hard times, I learned the importance of friends and family (on whom we often relied), the necessity for resilience and tenacity (giving up was not an option), the need for charity and faith (someday things were going to get better–they just had to). My daddy and mother taught me integrity, the value of hard work, frugality, and pull-togetherness.

Do I wish my little baby sister had not died, causing my daddy to weep behind the house so no one would see him; or my mother seemingly lost and inconsolable over a tragic death that could have been prevented had we had the money to seek the best medical help possible? Do I wish I could have had store-bought dresses to wear and bakery-bread sandwiches to eat? Do I wish I could have had enough to eat–so often I went to bed hungry, yet never told my folks. Yes, yes, yes, and yes!

What I did have was a close-knit family that worked together, played together, grieved together, and stayed together. There’s no question I grew up with more hardship than I’m fond of remembering, but I also grew up in a house filled with love, courage, and hope. Would I ever want to change that–of course not!

Just some observations from a woman who has lived 89 years–and I’m looking forward to stacking up my 9th decade!

Recalling the Death of a Heroic Mother More Than Eighty Years Ago

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Seated in the center of this picture is Mildred Klanderman Wubbels, a teacher, with her students in a one-room school called Carr Creek.

 

Author’s Note: Many of you living in western Wisconsin are third and fourth generation of the Dutch immigrant families whose names were Klanderman or Wubbels. Some of you in Wisconsin, Michigan, and other areas might have seen this picture long ago and may recall that one of the students in this picture was pointed out to you as being one of your ancestors. If you recognize a relative in this photograph, I would love to hear from you.

A Tribute: Mildred Klanderman married Harry Wubbels in the early 1900s. She was the mother of now-deceased Harley Wubbels, Maurice Wubbels and my future husband, Robert Wubbels. She also was grandmother and great-grandmother to numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren that she never got to know. Now with that basic data on Mildred, and as the mother of two of her grandchildren, I would like to pay a tribute to her.

Mildred was a bright, young woman, as most Klandermans were (and still are) and she wanted a teaching career prior to marriage. She attended River Falls Normal School, at that time one of the finest teacher colleges in the state. She taught until she married and then resigned, as women teachers were often expected to do in those days. Barely in her early twenties and her beloved teaching career was over!

She and Harry lived happily on a farm a few miles northeast of Baldwin, WI, which to them in those days seemed a great distance when traveling to town by horse-pulled wagon, or by horse-drawn sleigh.

Harry worked hard, was well-liked and respected in the community. Mildred worked hard, too, managing her home and mothering her three young boys. She was every bit as quietly warm and friendly as she appears in the picture surrounded by her students.

One chilly late September morning when Mildred rose from sleep, she discovered Husband Harry was already out in the barn doing the milking. The house seemed especially cold and she thought she should not wait until Harry finished his milking to build a fire in the wood-burning stove. She wanted to take the chill off the living room for the two older boys when they awoke and dressed for school near the stove. Little three-year-old Bobby wouldn’t wake up until his brothers were off to school and the warmth of the stove had spread throughout the house.

Fortunately Harry always kept a good supply of kindling wood and a few split logs all cut to the right size in a box just inside the back entry. Unaccustomed as she was to building a fire, she put the kindling into the stove first, then lifted the nearly empty can of kerosene and doused in a little fuel. But before she could strike a match to set the kindling ablaze…. Well, she never had a chance to even strike the match.

Unbeknownst to her, there was a small live cinder underneath the ashes from the day before, and when the fuel….

I shall not write the details. I’ll just say she managed to slam the stove door shut against the sudden burst of angry flames and toss the flaming kerosene can outside. Then she rolled herself inside a large rug to extinguish the flames on her clothing.

She had kept the fire from spreading and she had saved her sleeping children’s lives, but they lost her several hours later.

Little Bobby, who became my husband about twenty years after that sad day, once told me he remembered standing at the foot of her bed with his father and two brothers. The doctor stood beside his mother’s bed sadly shaking his head, saying, “If she makes it until morning, she might survive.” But she didn’t. And those words stuck with my husband all his life.

Yes, it made him sad to recall that tragic scene–and to remember overhearing talk of how his mother died; yet it meant a lot to him to recall the story he had heard of his mother’s quick-thinking heroism that saved the three young boys that long-ago chilly September morning.

Mildred, on behalf of your progeny, this brief story is to honor you as a good Christian, a dedicated educator, wife, mother and a truly heroic woman.

 Thank you, from your family of many generations and your community, too.

MY JOURNEY HOME—The Homestead

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In Search of Turkey Creek

We left Rock Cemetery in search of Turkey Creek (Teal Creek, in my story).  I knew if I could find Turkey Creek, I could find the homestead.  On sheer instinct, I directed my son, Dan, to drive straight down the country road we approached as we left the cemetery.

We drove about 4 miles, crossed over the road that led to the town on the right, then drove another mile or two.  And there it was—Turkey Creek.  I felt a number of emotions.  Pride and surprise that I could so easily find my way after almost 70 years—and nostalgia that I was only a few miles from my childhood home!

Turkey Creek (Teal Creek in THE DIRTY DAYS)
Turkey Creek (Teal Creek in THE DIRTY DAYS)

The Homestead

We crossed Turkey Creek, then turned left onto an unmarked road, which I knew in my heart, was the road to my old home.  To the right of us, once we made the turn, was a large empty field where one of our neighbors once lived.  All that remained was an old oak tree that once stood next to our neighbor’s home.  I knew a mile to the left further up the road, I would find my homestead.

When we got there, the tiny house, old barn and chicken coop no longer stood where my former homestead once was, and the reality of “that was then, this is now” competed with my nostalgia.

The entire area was cordoned off by a four-wire line of barbed fencing, and in front of where my home once stood was a locked steel gate.

Ginger expressed surprise that the distance between the house to the corner of the main road where the school bus picked me up in the mornings and dropped me off at the end of the school day seemed a longer distance than described in my book. I agreed. Dan was surprised to see the creek so close to where my house had been. I thought to myself, it did look closer than I remembered.

Although there was nothing left but the fields of green, no longer brown, I could close my eyes and see the barn, old Nellie, the chicken coop, and our tiny three-room home.  No running water, no electricity!  I was both saddened and warmed by my sudden memories.

The old homestead (house, barn, and chicken coop now gone).
The old homestead (house, barn, and chicken coop now gone).

My children were disappointed, as was I, that almost all buildings from my youth were now gone.  Not surprising, I guess, after almost 70 years.  I mentioned we should drive up the road to see our closest neighbor.  I’d heard from old friends that the house might still be standing.

A Neighbor’s House

As we started up the road, we could see in the distance a house silhouetted on the horizon—and it looked to me as we approached it just as it did in my youth. But as we drove up to it, what I saw was a shell of a home sagging and crumbling with windows and doors agape and long ago deserted.

Still, my daughter and son were ecstatic to finally see a remnant from my youth.  The neighbor’s house, now in disrepair, was years ago much nicer and bigger than our tenant farm home ever was.  How I wish I could have shown my children my own home and farm!  How I wish I could have seen it again—for myself!

Old abandoned home of our closest neighbor.
Old abandoned home of our closest neighbor.

So after a long but exciting day we left the area and headed back to Altus to our hotel.  Along the way, I pointed out the location of the gas station, now gone, where I waited each morning for the school bus.  I drew my children’s attention to the bridge where my brother Jr. jumped and broke his arm.

The Way Back

I must say that although visiting the place where I grew up was for me a sentimental journey, I think my children felt it was even more awesome visiting the sites of my youth than I did.

I could imagine that to them, the area looked rather flat, beige and bleak, and I’m sure they couldn’t help mentally and emotionally comparing their childhood setting in the north, where amid lush green rolling terrain there were tree-shaded, two-story white farm houses complemented by tall silos flanking huge, red barns and other farm buildings.

Such scenes were within walking distance, or a quick drive, or bike ride from their home where they grew up in a western Wisconsin town.

So that’s the story of what is likely to be my final return to my childhood home. But it’s certainly not the end of my memories or my stories about growing up in the 1930s Oklahoma Dust Bowl!

Next week:  MY JOURNEY HOME: Final Thoughts (a short video)

MY JOURNEY HOME—The Road to the Cemetery

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My Baby Sister, Betty Louise

My baby sister, Betty Louise, died more than 80 years ago.  I write about her delightful personality and her winsome ways in my novel, THE DIRTY DAYS.  I also write about her devastating and sad death in infancy and the effect her early death had on my daddy, Mother, and me.  Her funeral and burial—as well as the gentle care our kind neighbors gave to my mother in her shock and grief—are also documented.

The road to Rock Cemetery.
The road to Rock Cemetery.

To this day, at 87, I’m still deeply touched by the loss of my baby sister.  She died during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, but not from dust pneumonia or other weather-related disasters.  She probably could have been saved if my parents had been able to take her to a distant hospital for care.  The local doctor did the best he could under the circumstances.

After all these years, I needed to visit the gravesite of my baby sister on what was to be my final journey home.

The Drive to the Cemetery

We left the little town of my youth to drive the 5 or 6 miles to Rock Cemetery in the countryside.  We were traveling not by map, but by word-of-mouth directions from the manager of the store we had just visited earlier, the only active business in town I could recall from my childhood.

My sister Jane and her husband Charlie and my son, daughter and I got into our respective vehicles and journeyed down a country road until we came to a sign that simply said, “Rock Cemetery.”

Inside the Cemetery

Rock Cemetery.
Rock Cemetery.

The cemetery looked abandoned from a distance, but once we drove in, we could see both very old and newer headstones.  I pointed out the grave marker for the doctor who had tried his best to save our Betty Louise so many years ago.  And I called out to my daughter, “Look, Ginger,” when I saw several tumbleweeds, now worn, dry and less round, but still skipping over the cemetery grounds.  Ginger had just asked me the day before if we would get a chance to see a tumbleweed.

One of many tumbleweeds blowing across the graveyard.
One of many tumbleweeds blowing across the graveyard.

I struggled to recall the location of the grave of my little sister.  I knew from Mother that my youngest brother Billy had placed a modern marker on her gravesite several years before Mother died at the age of 94.  Billy had told me Mother could hardly manage the walk from the car to the gravesite to see the new headstone —not because of her age, but because of her overwhelming grief, even after all these years.

Betty Louise's modern headstone that replaced her worn-out 80-year-old marker.
Betty Louise’s modern headstone that replaced her worn-out 80-year-old marker.

We walked past several tombstones searching for the place I recalled

as the spot where Betty Louise was buried.  I knew from my childhood that she was buried somewhere toward the front of the cemetery on the left.  It was a struggle in the cold and wind (an unusual Northerner was blowing that day), but we found her.  I leaned down to touch her gravestone—and tears stung my eyes as I noted the date of her death and recalled my grief at six years old.

My sister Jane and I at Betty Louise's gravesite.
My sister Jane and I at Betty Louise’s gravesite.

In my story, THE DIRTY DAYS, a young boy

named Frederick had stolen my heart in grade school, then died in the 1935 Black Sunday dust storm.  His real name wasn’t Frederick, but he was buried next to Betty Louise’s gravesite.  His parents, who were quite well-off, in their grief, had cemented some of his favorite toys into his concrete headstone.  I searched and searched for his tombstone beside my sister’s marker, but could only find remnants of concrete scrambled on the ground.

Time to Leave

It was time to leave the cemetery—and Jane and Charlie had a long drive back to Oklahoma City.  They needed to be home before dark.  So we said our good-byes, and my son, daughter and I, just the three of us, headed for the homestead.  We had no directions or map.  I would need to rely on my memory of how to get there after many years.  My mother used to say, “Norma, you’ll always be smart in your books.”  I guess that meant I had a good memory.  Well, we’d see!

Next Week’s Episode:  MY JOURNEY HOME—The Homestead