Grandparents and Strawberries

21 May

He was a farmer, a fisherman, an ice harvester, and a gin runner… but by the time I met Chester, my great-grandfather, he was an old man who liked to make jokes, lived in the house he built, and loved his kids. And in his 80’s, he still grew a field of strawberries.

I was lucky in the fact that I remember six of my great-grandparents. Chester is probably the most colorful of them all. All eight were farmers; all of them moved away from their parents and bought their own farm. I didn’t know his wife, my great-grandma Helen, because she was 5 when she died of cancer. We were living in Kansas at the time, and I don’t remember going to her funeral, so if my mom went, I wouldn’t know.

That branch of the family is the most settled out of all the clans. The Crosses moved out to Illinois in the 1850’s and as their kids grew up, married, and farmed themselves, they only spread out in a eighty-mile radius. Not an easy visit, but completely do-able from the histories I’ve read at the time. When I went to visit Cordova, I found I accidently ran into my fourth cousin! I make a big deal about this because every other branch of my family moved to hell and gone away from their family. I don’t think this was on purpose–it’s just where the affordable land was.

My family didn’t tell stories of how Chester and Helen got together, but they did, and settled on land right on the Mississippi River. It wasn’t the best place to farm; it would flood every five to ten years. Even the nearby city dikes weren’t built until the “hundred year flood” back in 1965. (I once filled sandbags at that property.) They were poor… really dirt poor, and he had three daughters, one of which was my grandma. During the Great Depression, she told us kids about the time when they made biscuits, but cheese was expensive, so they would hide a bit of cheese in one of the biscuits and it was a game to see who got the cheesy biscuit. That was the treat.

When you’re a poor farmer, you do what you can to get by. During the winter, he would join the gangs of men who would chop ice blocks out of the Mississippi River. Before refrigeration, insulated ice boxes were what you used to keep your food in, and that required harvesting and storing ice in ice houses for the rest of the year. Going to the ice house during the summer was a big deal, especially in places like Texas, but Illinois can be just as humid.

He was also known to do a little petty theft here and there. He probably helped run booze during Prohibition across the river, but he didn’t talk much about it. Chester was always great with a joke and loved to laugh. His three daughters married well–my grandma was the oldest and became a farmer’s wife… until they couldn’t afford to farm any more, and became a factory secretary. My great-aunt Doris married the publisher of the local paper, so she did well, but made the grievous faux-pax of marrying a Dutchman. (gasp) They built a house right next to her dad and hated every minute of her country estate living right next to a moldy old shack. But she watched out for her dad in his old age, but tore that place down the week after he was buried. The third daughter, great-aunt Nancy, had the misfortune of outliving four husbands… she’s still alive and living in a nursing home in my hometown.

Chester didn’t have much, but he loved his family, and did everything he could with what he had… even if it wasn’t legal. But I remember him taking us out to the strawberry fields, looking at Helen’s collection of spoons and tchotchkes, and being fascinated by what an older man could see in his great-grandson. I hope you have some good memories of your great-grandparents; share them in the comments below! Then check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too steep for your wallet, go ahead and download one of my stories for free.

2 Responses to “Grandparents and Strawberries”

  1. Tony Payne May 21, 2021 at 12:18 pm #

    That was a great read, Chester sounds like a great character, the sort of old man you could just sit and listen to for hours.

  2. Tony Payne May 21, 2021 at 12:19 pm #

    Reblogged this on Poddys on WordPress.

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