Stories And Memory Pictures From The Past
by Bertha Mae Howald Benham
My Mother Helen Louise Whitfield Howald was born in 1909 on a farm in Macoupin County, Illinois. She was the last of nine living children. Chubby, freckled and sandy-haired, she was spoiled and ignored at the same time. She arrived at a great transition time in my maternal Grandparents' life. Sons and daughters leaving home, other life styles and work opportunities. Tractors instead of horses, cars instead of buggies, but itinerate peddlers and country schools still were a big part of American life and the farm was the center or heart of it.
In the summer, Great-Grandma Mary Elizabeth Wood Coffee LeMay, Mother's maternal Grandmother, came to spend several weeks on the farm. She slept upstairs over the kitchen. Mother shared her bed and helped Great-Grandma fill the coal oil cans the bedstead stood in.
Because Grandma Clara Olive Coffee Whitfield had such a reputation as a good cook, all the Watkins men and pan and skillet menders arrived at her doorstep in time for supper and an overnight stay. After they left, all the bedding was washed and the springs wiped down with coal oil and the bedstead refilled with coal oil. Bed bugs often traveled along with the peddlers and Grandma Clara liked to believe she had never refused anyone a good meal and never had a bedbug. My Mother's childhood memories are mine. It's as if I lived them, too.
Grandpa James Lincoln Whitfield is always a background person in his daughters' stories. Stern, reading his paper, making Mother sit on a chair, because she'd been too noisy, 'til he said she could get up. A person who embarrassed one of his daughters-in-law when he called her biscuits "gun wads".
In summer, a huge garden was planted and weeded by Grandma and daughters. Canning in the summer kitchen, interspersed with washing and ironing clothes and sewing filled the day. Giant meals were prepared and served, carried back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room by slim daughters. Company all the time. A favorite story is one of a cousin who would eat 'til all was finished, then rear back in his chair, lock his fingers across his stomach and say, "Clara, I've had a killing sufficiency!"
When summer storms moved over the Illinois prairie, Helen and Dorothy (Dorthea Alice Whitfield Link) would grab an old rug and run for the barrel stave hammock strung between the big elm trees. They'd jump into the hammock and pull the rug over their heads while the lightning and thunder and finally the rain washed over the orchard, the yard and finally away over the fields and pasture. What did that rug look like? Was it braided from pieces of long ago coats and dresses, pieces of papa's barn coat, a bit of Grandma Clara's favorite apron? Did it smell of kittens, the old dog, wet chicken feathers, hot bread? Or just two little girls swinging in the wind.
When he was in his 60's Grandpa bought the Moses True house and moved Grandma, Sis Clara Elizabeth Whitfield Mason and Helen to town. Why he left the farm for town always remained a mystery much discussed by the sisters, because he was very unhappy in town and arose early every morning and went out to the "home place". His unhappiness made him blind to the needs and wants of others. The sisters always said this. No matter which one was talking or what the story was being told, it was always the same "Papa wasn't happy in town."
One Great-Aunt Jennie C. Le May Middleton went to California to visit her Uncle. Great Grandma went along. They went on the train. While they were there, Great-Aunt Jenny met a man (John W. Middleton) who was widowed with twin boys. (This story was usually told after dinner at a time when all the sisters were older, married, with children and experiences of their own.) They married and lived near the river. One Thanksgiving after dinner, the little boys went to the river to play (we always wondered why) and when night came they hadn't returned. A search was made and it was discovered they had both drowned. The Father was grief stricken and believed God had punished him. He gave up all his work and earthly possessions and became an itinerate preacher, moving from town to town, spreading the word of God. Great-Aunt went with him, bore him three children, nursed him in his darkest hours, and worked, worked, worked. Her children loved her beyond measure and all the women around the table through the years spoke of her with love and reverence in their voices.
In 1867 the woods and fields of the South central part of Illinois where Great-Grandmother and Great-Grandfather (James Amos Coffee) lived were still wild. Maybe wolves prowled the forests, and deer certainly were plentiful along the timber edge. Great-Great-Grandmother (Elizabeth M. Hilyard Wood) and Great-Grandmother and her husband lived in a house by cleared fields (now the location of Wood Hills). We could still find its foundation outlined in the fields when I was a child. One season in the early years of the marriage, Great-Great-Grandfather (James Monroe Wood) and Great-Grandfather left the farm in a horse drawn wagon to go up state to look at some farmland. The women waited as the days passed. Great-Grandma standing in the doorway or sitting on the stone threshold watching the country lane. One little boy setting beside her, another child "under her apron", as the aunts would say as they told this story. Time passed, and finally one late afternoon the wagon appeared across the little hills. It was coming fast and seemed to be carrying just one person. Both women stood in the doorway. Hands clutched, holding a dishtowel or folded over the belly they waited. When the wagon pulled into the yard, the poor horse stood head drooping, white drops of foam flecking its mouth. In the back of the wagon was a coffin. Great-Grandpa has died suddenly, everyone said it was his appendix, and his body had been put in the coffin and brought home to the women.
Our Grandma Clara was born the following December. Some years later Great-Grandma married again (to Joshua C. LeMay) and bore several daughters. Until we were grown adults, we never heard anything of the burial, of our Grandma's birth, or of their lives for the time before Great-Grandma had begun raising her second family.