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Sunday, September 18, 2016

O Pioneer! Dorothy Rae Lewis, March 13, 1916-July 16, 2016

"It takes life to love life."
"Lucinda Matlock," E.A. Masters' Spoon River Anthology

What a run you had, Ol' Gal, a centenarian you were and you wrung life til it hurt every day of those one hundred years. March 13, 1916, you came into the world. What must that desolate Dyer Hill day have been on the cusp of winter and spring? I imagine snow drifted wheat fields and sagelands and a Dyer westerly, cold enough to freeze cattle, rattling the eaves of that rough hewn homestead that heard your first cries. You had your dad Bert Baumgardner's spirit, Ol' Gal, your father, exasperated when basalt cobbles repeatedly tripped his plow, halted his team, shook his fist at the heavens and dared the Creator to come down and fight him like a man.
You were one of five girls: "Bummie's Boys neighbors called you and I'll bet there wasn't a country boy miles around that could keep up with you or your sisters. You scraped together pocket change by trapping skunks, skinning them out and sending the hides to Sears and Roebuck. You told me an occasional cat skin somehow found its way into some shipments. ("There wasn't a cat in the neighborhood," you told me. "Dad would have skinned us alive if he found out.")

You learned your three R's at the White Swan School and received perfect attendance/never tardy certificates in spite of doing morning chores before you walked to school. ("On bitter weather days, Dad would pick us up in the sleigh after school and we'd bundle ourselves in warm blankets for the ride home." An eighth grade education was all you had, Ol' Gal. The nearest high school was fifteen miles away in Mansfield and further education was out of the question. According to your eighth grade diploma you scored highest in "arithmetic," lowest in "spelling." (How many times in your letters, Ol' Gal did you apologize for your spelling? Which of the teachers who signed your attendance certificates slapped your wrist with a ruler because you misspelled "come?")

For the first time since that March day a century ago, Ol' Gal, you are now truly at rest. There is so much I want to say to you, old friend, as you lie there, but writing is difficult because words to describe you and your life just don't seem equal to the task. I've always told myself if I were to write about the inspirational men in my life, you, Ol' Gal, would be among them. Gently I press your hands, folded one upon the other and think about the lifetime of work they've done, your left hand missing the little and fourth finger, severed by a friend's power saw ( you were doing a good deed for a friend because she didn't know how. You had the doctor remove the fourth finger stub because, you told him, you didn't want it catching on things as you went about your work...the severed finger retrieved from piles of sawdust and saved in a jar at your request now lies with you for eternity.)

You were a part of my life for six decades, Ol' Gal, yet as down to earth as you were, in some ways you were a mystery. Things I know for sure: you delighted in work (and work it was that really defined you; on your 100th birthday, four months before you passed, I gave you a box of walnuts.
It took you three days but you shelled them all); you were a good neighbor, helping those in need, whether it meant delivering a child, a meal, mowing a neighbor's yard, or taking the time to put your work aside, sit down and chat; making things grow: your apple trees or vegetable garden (the best in the county, the success of which you attributed to the Farmer's Almanac, but really Ol' Gal, it was that ton of manure you turned under in the plot every spring... admit it now). By mid-February your windowsills were a grove of tomato plants itching to get in the ground the day after the last frost.

You were a collector of stuff, Ol' Gal, "stuffed" stuff: dolls, animals, commemorative plates, salt and pepper shakers, glass figurines, a full-sized wooden doll from Thailand (through whose wooden neck you drilled a hole for a necklace chain and stuck her in a corner where she could stare out at your company through your dad's old wire rimmed glasses.

You were a curator of oddities: a mummified squirrel's foot from a roadkill, a hornet's nest, a life sized cardboard stand up of a scantily clad woman, chainsaw art.... The letters I sent you were addressed to the "Dorothy Lewis Roadside Museum, c/o Dorothy Lewis."
(Our personal joke). Two or three days a week you sold items from your "thrift shop" across the street. I called your flea market "the perpetual garage sale."

And I, a teenager at odds with his parents, you took me in, gave me free room and board while paying me wages for the work I did. ("You write your mom now," you insisted during my two month "vacation" from family. "She loves you, you know."

And the stories, Ol' Gal,..those hardscrabble years on Dyer. How a young nephew was dragged to death behind a horse, a niece who drowned in a freak ferry accident. The time you were at a dance and your partner accidentally bumped a passing couple and was knocked to the floor by her partner. You snatched your partner from the floor and continued dancing as if nothing had happened, he still semi-conscious. When your husband was unable to put down his longtime pet dog, you picked up a rifle and did what he couldn't. (Any stray dog you caught on your property got the rubber band treatment if the trespasser was male.) You were a loyal friend and neighbor, Ol' Gal, but woe be it unto those who got on your bad side. Then it was a view-obstructing poplar "spite fence." Of the son of a bothersome neighbor you said, "I wish I'd a' shot the S-O-B when I was sixteen. I'd just be gettin' out of jail now and he'd be dead.) There are other stories, too, but I won't tell them. I've said too much already, Ol' Gal, And you'd likely not approve, the private person you were.... (Shhhhh, old friend, I Face Book posting.)

I can never recall seeing you without jet black hair, Ol' Gal. You said one time if you were to look in the mirror and see gray or white, you would shut right down and die.
Now, as you lie there, Ol' Gal, your hair midnight black against the white satin, I think about your pioneer toughness: the time you fell from a ladder harvesting fruit and broke your hip. You crawled to the tractor, trailered a load of apricots to the loading dock, and made your son Ivan stack the boxes in the cold storage unit. THEN you had him drive you to the hospital. You would be up at five a.m. moving waterlines, work all day, stopping briefly to fix lunch and supper for the household, then on a hot summer night you would toil away over a bubbling canner full of peaches. You could do the work of two men. I know. I worked alongside you, struggling to keep up.

Years of letters, postcards (from your world travels), nearly two shoe boxes full. Two or more a month.We always tried to outdo each other on the holiday cards. I would send your Christmas card the day after Thanksgiving. And yours was always the first Christmas card to arrive in our mailbox.You loved sending clippings from newspapers and magazines, articles about bees and butterflies--you knew I liked them--silly pet ads to make me chuckle.You continued to write even though a stroke made writing a frustration for you; letter after letter became a challenge to decipher. Your letters continued, though less frequently, envelopes addressed by your daughter-in-law, Joy. Even though the last few were mostly illegible, I loved receiving them because I knew you were thinking about me. May 25, an early birthday card from you, the last card or letter you'll ever send me. Trips to the mailbox will never be the same.

It was your letters, Ol' Gal, that allowed a glimpse into a spiritual life you held private. In one letter you wrote about a full moon, its beauty, how "They should stop fooling with it. It's God's moon. Leave it alone," you said. I marveled that a woman in her nineties would have those thoughts. You did not want the fuss of a funeral but agreed to a graveside service. When in her teen passion your eldest daughter got religion, you told her to stay in her room for a week and "then see who feeds ya." But you knew what was going on in the world: the Middle East, here at home,the mass shootings, storms, floods, the loss of life, the suffering. One of the most commonsense statements I ever heard you make came after the death of Saddam Hussein. Your comment: "He had 'em all in line, that old man, and they went and killed 'im."

You raised five children and one grandson, O Pioneer.
When your first husband left for parts unknown, your in-laws willed you their orchard because they knew it would flourish under your care. And you did it all, Ol' Gal, every orchard task there was to do and yet found time to drive combine during wheat harvest.You never missed an opportunity to do a good deed, whether it was helping a neighbor laboring in childbirth, sharing the bounty from your amazing vegetable garden, taking a hot fruit pie to a worker's cabin--or sheltering a rebellious young man until he got his head straight.You would never admit it, Ol' Gal, but you made the world a better place. And you gave me so much, good friend: memories, laughs, good meals, companionship, a down to earth perspective on life, living, and the importance of  honest, hard work. And don't forget your construction helmet, my legacy from you, symbol of your work ethic, the many times I saw you laboring away, that aluminum helmet glinting in the sunlight as you pruned, thinned, propped and harvested your apple and vegetable crops.

I have to do it, Ol' Gal, one last little jibe at you. Your wooden horse, remember? The one you requested from the chainsaw artist commissioned to carve the stump outside your house? "A horse," you said, "I'd like a horse."
And a horse you had...for awhile, anyway, until one day you looked out and saw your black stallion sawed down and carted off to the high school where it prances yet today. Forgot, didn't you, the mustang was the school's mascot. Should have asked for a cow, I joked. The look on your face as your horse rolled away would have been priceless. I wish I could have been there to see it. 

I miss you, Ol' Gal. Saying good-bye to you is saying farewell to a part of my life. I hope none of what I've written here offends you, old friend, for how I feel, what I've said, is true. I love you, Ol Gal. And you know how much I hate poplar trees....

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1 comment:

  1. Oh dad this is such a lovely tribute to your Ol' Gal. An amazing woman she was. I'll have to read this again after my eyes clear a bit. Sorry for your great loss and thank of sharing a few memories with the rest of us.