Part four in a series of essays by Guest Gero-Punk
The county road was graveled but a plume of dust followed every car. When we heard a horn blowing from the blind curve at the far edge of our property we always knew it was Daddy. Most of the fruit farmers along the Walla Walla River had some sort of motor transport but they used horses to pull farm machinery. Not everybody in the family had cars – Grandpa and Grandma Saunders didn’t buy one until after we moved to town. Grandma took lessons and learned to drive and thereafter drove Grandpa to his Baker County Commission meetings and wherever else they wanted to go. The kind of a car one drove was somewhat of a status symbol even then, as the first of our cars I remember was a Chevrolet with an open top. It ranked low though it had been sporty for a young man. Mama thought it was dangerous for children and maybe it was on those rough roads with the top folded down. Seatbelts had not been invented. Grandma and Grandpa Gray’s car at that time was a Model T Ford, considerably nicer than ours; Uncle Elmer’s was nicer yet as he used his car to deliver mail. Mama’s oldest sister Mabel was married to Uncle Chester Frazier and their kids Jo Anne and Janette were our closest cousins. Their grandfather, Henry Frazier had crossed the plains in a covered wagon as a young man. He was one of Milton City’s prominent bankers and owned a big Chrysler with shiny spokes on the wheels. Uncle Chester had a dark blue Dodge, not as nice as his father’s car. None of the cars I rode in had effective heaters; we expected to be cold in the winter and hot in summer and we were. After harvest in 1929, both sets of Grays bought new cars: ours a basic black Model A Ford but Grandpa and Grandma’s Ford was a smart olive green, effete with cut glass vases for flowers and braided silk tassels to hold on-to on rough roads. Daddy hauled farm produce and supplies in the Model T Truck and once he let me drive it through a barbed wire gate that was too hard for me to open. Oh, that was a thrill! I was eight years old. The upholstery in farm cars suffered from being used in a pinch to transport feed sacks and the luxury of Grandpa and Grandma’s green velour interior was eventually grayed with dust and smelled of chicken feed.
One family on the River was the only one still using a horse and buggy. Grandma Gray would not permit anyone to mention the idiosyncrasies of that lady because during the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (while Daddy and his brother still lived at home) she had come and nursed our family when everybody was sick with the flu and pulled everybody through. Grandma honored her for that. Her peculiarities were entertaining, however, and were mentioned behind Grandma’s back. We knew that the lady kept her eggs until the price was right no matter how old they became, that a brand-new Model A Ford was jacked up in the barn because she wouldn’t let her husband drive it, and that her husband and daughters did not dare have a mind of their own. Years later, after her death, the car, still new, was sold to the Fuller Brush man and he drove it in the Pea Festival Parades.
My grandfathers were the last generation in the family to wield the absolute power of male superiority. Their opinions were respected and nobody expressed a contrary view. This was demonstrated after my first child was born. He was standing in his playpen, rocking back and forth. Grandpa Saunders said, “That baby wants to sit down.” Four of us: mother, grandmother, grandaunt, and cousin of the child in question, were on our feet at once to help the infant plant his well-padded bottom on the floor. Since these men had such power, it was lucky for our family that they were both good men.
Grandfather’s word was law, however quietly given, and almost always obeyed. Once, though. I didn’t do what Grandpa Gray ordered. I had a calico kitten, very young, that hadn’t made it out-of-doors (litter boxes hadn’t been heard of in our family) and made a smelly mess on the enclosed porch. Grandma told me to clean it up. I approached it and realized that any closer contact with those odorous excreta would make me throw up. Grandma asked again me to clean it up but I told her I couldn’t – it would make me sick. Grandpa turned his head and said, “Velda, you heard what your grandmother said.” I offered the same explanation to him; he shuffled his newspaper, cleared his throat, and went back to reading. Grandma did the clean-up, gagging while she did it.
I asked Daddy what was the difference between Democrats and Republicans. He explained that the Republicans stood for high tariffs so that manufactured products would not be imported and that Democrats stood for Free Trade. I could tell from his tone of voice that he thought the Democrats were right. Grandpa Saunders was a Democrat. He said he always voted for the man and not the party but the man he voted for turned out to be a Democrat ten times out of ten. Grandpa delivered his opinions quietly but so firmly that everyone always knew what he thought and nobody in the family dared to disagree. Daddy changed his views later in life and didn’t vote for FDR for his third term. I don’t remember whether Daddy supported Al Smith when he ran against Herbert Hoover but Al Smith was Catholic and that could have made a difference to Daddy. Politics were not important enough in our family for me to remember Warren G Harding who was President when I was born. One night after I had started school, our family went to a political gathering on the grounds of Forks School where there was a roaring bonfire with free hot dogs. The smiling politician shook hands even with children, and the overall good feeling generated made me wish I were old enough to vote for that nice man who wanted to continue to be our representative to Congress.
The big irrigation ditch came in from the Walla Walla River at the back of our place and ran along the boundary between our farm and that of Grandpa Hopkins, passing alongside the apple orchards, chuckling behind the chicken house and the calf barn and flowing through a little wood that made a private place for the more sacred aspects of our play. We took turns baptizing each other in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost – at least Marjy and I did. Donna was never mature enough to conduct a service but was willing to be baptized whenever we decided to. Sometimes we sprinkled like the Methodists, sometimes we poured, and on summer days we immersed like the Baptists but Marjy eventually felt this was sacrilegious and we had to stop. Marjy was always so good – so down-to-earth really good and I loved her so much that I didn’t resent her even when my parents held her up as an example and asked, “Why can’t you be more like Marjory?”
Marjy didn’t object, though, to funerals for cats, no matter how holy we made them. I had bad luck with an orange kitten named Dandelion one summer. The service we gave him was so enjoyable that we dug up that kitten three times one sunny afternoon improving our choice of memory verses, hymns, and solemn remarks as we went along. We made the grave beautiful with flowers and little stones. We were all regulars at church and Sunday school but none of us had attended a funeral and nobody we knew had died. Death so far in our family had been long ago or far away: little Rankin and Great Grandma Cundiff had died. Mama cried but that was far away.
Velda Metelmann is a student in the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program at Marylhurst University. She’ll be commencing her thesis work on “a good old age” this fall.