I will forever be grateful for the people (mostly women) in my family who took the time to write a little bit about their lives. These writings are irreplaceable. Their experiences. In their own words. You can’t find this information in census records. How else would I know that great grandma loved cooking as much as I do? This was written by Aunt Alta. Alta Fleak was my great-grandma Nelle Fleak’s baby sister. She was born in Idaho in 1908, but was raised on a farm near Guthrie Center. I would love to have known Aunt Alta – she seems like a hoot!
My entry into the world was rather a surprise to my mother who was forty-seven at the time. She had four sons and three daughters before me so had good reasons to believe she was through with birthing babies. Some in the family – including my mother – thought I was a tumor, but those things don’t come with freckles and red hair. The courthouse and my birth certificate burned shortly after my birth…. so maybe I wasn’t supposed to be on the planet and reared on a farm in Guthrie Center, Iowa. I’m sitting now in my granny rocker at Daystar, my retirement home of some eight years. As most grannies, I wander around in the cornfields of my past — especially when the soaps aren’t steaming up the tube. I’m in a cornfield wandering mood now. I don’t get into them often so I’ve decided to sit back and have a strawberry Nutri-grain bar as I wander.
I was called Alta. My mother, Jennie, gave me Swedish blood and my father, “Link”, as he was called, gave me my Irish blood. I grew up on a farm just outside of our town. We farmed 280 acres of field corn and oats. We had ten Short Horn milk cows and sold the cream. I started milking at the age of eight, which made me a friend of every cat on our farm and maybe from farms around. I was born with a gift for “aim” and never caught a single cat in the eye.
Our house had a big kitchen and inside water, a blessing from the gods. Another blessing was our Aladdin table and wall lamps — great for reading, but cruel when they showed up all my freckles. I had so many I couldn’t have found a spot big enough for the point of a pin. I never counted them, probably because I was afraid I’d grow more. I hated them, and by the time I was in high school I was secretly using freckle cream.
During my years in the country school, freckles weren’t on my mind so much because I had a lot of boyfriends and loved my teacher, Zelda, and she taught me for eight years. She rode her horse to school and had a coal fire warming the learning room when we all arrived. Two students carried water in a pail from the neighbor and all twenty-five kids drank from the same dipper. No one got either my Swedish or Irish blood, and certainly not my freckles. But I was a good kid and wouldn’t wish freckles on even Clarence, the boy I hated most. We had long desks with four sharing on desk and because the gods were with me, I never had to sit by Clarence, and I always voted for him to carry out the stove ashes and make the snow sizzle and steam. When the weather was too cold to walk to school a mile and a half, I got to ride in my neighbor’s horse-drawn wagon which thrilled me because while resting my leg muscles, I sat next to Arthur, my red-headed heart throb, whom I married at seventeen. The freckle cream hadn’t worked, but I was destined to be taken.
My father died when I was two and a half. When mom married “Oscar,” [Hafner] we lived on his farm with my new gramma and grandpa. Gramma taught me to make “RIFFLES” for potato soup – a dish from heaven. When I was ten, Grandpa let me shave off his gray whiskers with his straight-edged razor for a quarter — again freckles proved not to be a handicap, and a quarter was good pay then.
My first big chance to get off the farm came when I was eleven and my sister, Nelle, was about twenty-six. [Nelle was only eight years older than Alta – she would have been closer to 19 at the time.] I was troubled with horrible earaches. My brothers would blow tobacco spoke into my ears to ease the pain. Finally, it was determined my tonsils were enlarged and had to come out. Nelle decided to have hers removed also, so mother went with us to Des Moines to the nearest hospital, fifty miles from Guthrie Center. We rode LIZA JANE, the morning train. The engine was fueled by coal, and the smoke and soot blew into any open window. For some reason the doctor gave me an anesthetic and my dear sister got only a local. When I awoke I thought I had died and was whisked off to heaven and the angels. Nelle though she had died also but had gone to “the other place,” as she phrased it. If an anesthetic could put me in heaven and bring me back, I wondered why it couldn’t cure freckles.
During my high school years, I lived with Nelle, who hated to be called Nellie. She also hated cooking, and I couldn’t sew. When we switched talents, Nelle also did my required high school sewing and always made my bed. Nelle always said, “right is right, and wrong is wrong.” She believed in regimentation and planned her week. Monday was wash day, and the world would end on Tuesday if the wash wasn’t on Monday’s line. Tuesday she ironed; Wednesday was mending, and on Friday she baked. Nelle taught me many things, but I think mostly she taught me the meaning of fairness and love.
On the school weekends, I went back to the farm where I learned more about love, even in mother’s garden. She taught me to care for the blackberries and raspberries, all the while her skin pores were blocked by a cup of facial powder to protect her face from the cruel, demanding Iowa sun. She never lied so when she told someone she could eat ten ears of corn at one meal, it was truth. I saw her do it, even with the field corn, grown mostly for cattle food.
Even though the fast cars and noise of Des Moines frightened me at age eleven, I was to end up in a much bigger place nestled among the mountains, and I came to think of them as protecting giants. Arthur and I moved to Seattle in 1937 when Iowa corn was going for ten cents a bushel. We were married for thirty years and had two wonderful sons to love.
I often think of my Collie, Nag, who pulled me to town on my sled with a rope in her mouth and helped me find my lost baby ring. I remember the mean north wind once freezing my face, and I’ve since lost count of all the rabbits I caught in the snow fields after school. I remember outrunning all the boys in school, even Clarence, and I never have once wondered what life would have been like with him, and that’s the truth — for like my mother, Jennie, I never tell a lie.
My oh my! Where does all the time go? The “soaps” are on and I need another Nutri-grain – blueberry this time.