Ahead of her—and our—times a century ago
My grandmother was both a woman of her times and a woman far ahead of even our times. For example, today’s electric cars would be a yawn for her; she rode in them “before the war.”
World War I, that is. Grandma (her given name was Ruth) was born in 1902 and lived 86 active years.
Grandma would also fit right in with today’s pandemic-fueled, work-from-home reality. In fact, no one in her family worked anywhere but from home. Her father, Henry, had the longest daily commute of any of them; his livery stable and blacksmith shop was a just a few steps past the sour apple tree in their backyard.
Another modern fact about my grandmother was that she never learned to drive anything with wheels. Not a horse drawn buggy, motorized car, or even a bicycle. She either walked or rode public transportation—first trains, then mostly “the Greyhound”—to where she needed or wanted to go.
And she went often and far. In the mid-1960s, my then-teenaged sister, Peggy, and Grandma traveled by bus one July from southern Illinois through New England, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island before returning to the Midwest through Quebec, Montreal, Toronto and Detroit.
The trip, to Grandma’s easy-to-please nature, was “wonderful.”
One remarkably modern part of her daily life was that she rarely went to the grocery store. In fact, I can’t remember her ever buying groceries in person. Instead, she’d telephone Voss General Store, just four blocks from her house, to give Edna, Dorothy, or Ralph Voss her weekly order. An hour or so later, a cardboard box of her goods would arrive on her screened back porch with a handwritten bill taped to an inside flap.
Grandma bought the family’s meat the same way from a local butcher in the small southern Illinois town of her entire life but only my youth. She favored one butcher shop because it, like the Voss grocery store, was the “Lutheran” one.
I doubt the animals knew the difference but Grandma did and that made all the difference to her.
Milk, butter, and cream came to her with even less effort. For decades, her brother-in-law, the town’s milkman—Uncle Honey, who has appeared in this space several times before—delivered all to the same back porch two or three times a week.
Even more convenient for both was that they communicated in nickels, dimes, and quarters. If Grandma needed more milk or cream, she’d just leave the correct amount of coins for the extra purchase on the porch steps the night before. Simple.
Simple isn’t a word anyone would use to describe today’s complex food network where milk, meat, and other food move hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles to get to our porches, pantries, and plates.
This past spring we learned just how fragile this concrete and carbon spider web really is: In times of even modest strain, it can’t protect its customers or workers from scarcity, profiteering, sickness, and even death.
None of this would have been news to Grandma because she, her parents, two younger sisters, and baby brother all survived the flu pandemic of 1919. All also somehow survived other deadly diseases of their time—like scarlet fever, measles, the mumps, rheumatic fever, polio, and pneumonia—when vaccines were more rare than cures.
I once asked my father, who was born in 1927, if he or Grandma ever worried about him being stricken with polio as a child.
Not really, he replied, because “I was only allowed to go to Grandpa’s blacksmith shop or with Uncle Honey on his milk route without asking. I didn’t go anywhere except school and church unless she allowed it.”
Hmm, social distancing, 1930s edition. I’m not surprised.
Alan Guebert is an award-winning agricultural journalist and expert who was raised on a 720-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm.