Northern Exposure

Today when I left my house it was 12 degrees below zero. That got me thinking about our dad’s mother (my grandmother) and her life out on the Minnesota prairie. When our father talked about his time growing up in Minnesota, it was to tell about something humorous or interesting.  Seldom did Dad go into detail about the harshness of the climate, or the miserable conditions of life on a Minnesota farm in the winter. So, mix sub-zero temperatures, a prairie with no hills much less mountains to slow the roaring winds, the joys and wonders of farm life during the Great Depression, with World War II just around  the corner. This was Dad’s early life.

My grandmother always had cows and pigs on her farm and she was required to see that they were fed each day. Personally, I can’t imagine going out to a cold barn to milk cows. One of Dad’s favorite stories was the one he told about one of the neighbor boys, Arnie Weiss. Arnie and his family would come out to the farm to visit. Arnie would tell my dad and Uncle Wayne that he was wearing his “Sunday best.” Dad and Uncle Wayne were not real sure what a “Sunday best” was, but they knew they didn’t have one. As Arnie continued to brag about his clothing, Dad and Uncle Wayne would walk him around the farmyard–right through the cow-pies. His “Sunday best” became something a little less desirable.

Dora, who was Arnie’s mother, thought that Arnie had a great voice.

He sings like a little angel.

Dora would say, inevitably followed by her words:

I’ll have him sing something.

and he would begin singing “When it’s spring-time in the Rockies,” in a horrible, squeaky voice. When my dad would imitate his voice, my sister and I would roar with laughter.

All of these events occurred during the Great Depression. It was a time when people did not have a lot of money and had to do whatever they could to make ends meet. Dora Weiss and her family scoured the dump for whatever food was still edible.  Sometimes grocery stores would throw out canned foods with a torn or missing label. Dora would bring some of those treasures out to the farm, and everyone would delight in seeing what was in the cans. Sometimes it was vegetables, which were not a big favorite; but sometimes it was peaches which were greatly appreciated.

Dora also made home-brew which was a nasty concoction made to taste something like gin. It was sometimes made in a bathtub and therefore often called “Bathtub Gin.” Prohibition was on and the only way people could obtain alcohol was by going to someone who illegally made and sold the stuff. Dora not only made the stuff, she also allowed her so-called customers to consume the drink. Sometimes they drank too much and passed out, which was Dora’s opportunity to go through their pockets and remove the cash.

She was telling my grandmother about it one day and my grandmother said:

Oh Dora! That’s stealing and it’s wrong.

Dora didn’t miss a beat and replied;

Well Vera, like the Good Book says, ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves.’

Nowadays the winter may be harsh, but it is nothing compared to what our family put up with back in the “Good Old Days.”

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