My last story about walking to school brings to mind a recent sugarhouse visitor I had. I was just finishing up a tour for a group of visitors from England when an older woman approached, “Burr Morse,” she said, reaching out her hand like a thirty-something.
“Barbara Nelson,” I said accepting her hand. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
We had never officially met but seemed to know each other anyway, sort of like a Vermonter knows a maple tree. Folks sometimes come up to meet me, you know, the old guy who writes for the paper, but this time, the honor was all mine; Barbara Kelley Nelson’s been a fixture around here for 91 years and comes from a venerated and well-respected family.
I knew her brothers, Harmon and Norman, and learned volumes about the history of this area from them. Barbara proved to be cut from the same cloth. She wasted little time that day in my sugarhouse telling me a story about the old days of “doctoring” here in Vermont. Her story especially piqued my interest because it included the woods just up the road from our place, the scary woods that I used to run through on my way to school. In Barbara’s words:
“February 14, 1935, was a typical Vermont winter day on County Road, going north from Montpelier, with deep snowdrifts in the Bliss Woods, just above where the Sugar Shack now stands.
“About 7:30 in the evening,” Barbara continued, “Dad had made cocoa for the family and took a cup into Mother, who had felt a bit tired and had gone into their bedroom to lie down. Even though she was breathing regularly, Dad was unable to rouse her or to get her to speak and he realized that, at the age of 39, she had had a massive stroke. He immediately called Dr. Harriman (doctors made house calls in those days) who agreed to come to the house to see Mother. However, he wondered about the depth of the snow in the woods so Dad agreed to meet the doctor part way at the drifts. The drifts were so bad that the doctor had to shovel from the south side and Dad had to shovel from the north side for the doctor to even be able to walk to Dad’s car.”
She went on to say that when Dr. Harriman was finally able to see her mother, he could not do a thing for her; Mrs. Kelley’s right arm was permanently paralyzed but, Barbara added, “she lived a full, rich life until the age of 80.”
Her mention of the paralyzed arm suddenly rang a bell with me. “Didn’t your father have a missing arm, too?” I asked, and off to the next story we went.
Barbara’s dad lost his arm at the age of 10 in a wool carding machine.
“He saw something in the wool and reached down to grab it,” she said. The gears of the machine pulled him in and severed his arm. She said the wool clogged his arteries and saved his life. She said her parents never considered themselves handicapped. She washed and hung cloths and he shoveled snow and caponized chickens. Caponizing a chicken is something I’ve never done in my life, but I can imagine things male on chickens are a bit on the small side. Here this man not only caught the rascals but held them and caponized them with only one arm.
That story not only brought back memories of our woods to the north, the Bliss Woods, where I now cut firewood and tap maple trees but it also brought an interesting contrast to the “then and now.” These days ambulances go just about everywhere and whisk folks off to modern hospitals with nary a concern over snowdrifts. Doctors, seemingly allergic to house calls and maybe even snow shovels, stay put in their “workplace” harried by headaches and paperwork. And drying cloths is as easy as closing a door and spinning a dial; imagine that poor woman with one arm, coaxing wet cloths onto a line and pinning them into place.
Yup, we’re lucky these days. Or are we? It seems many of our real life experiences have been softened or even removed. These stories speak of experiences that were rarely comfortable but always strengthening. Folks back then were busy as, well, one-armed paper hangers because they had to be and they always got the job done one way or another. It seems the attitude these days is to remove the struggle, which concerns me a bit about our future.
As the wise Frederick Douglass once said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
Burr Morse lives in East Montpelier.MORE IN Commentary
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