Most of us living in the US are the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren (etc.) of immigrants. In my case my family originally came from Germany, Russia, Poland, Scotland, England and Ireland (and that’s only the part that I’m aware of). That said, I don’t really identify myself with the cultures of those countries. Sure, each of them probably had some kind of influence on my family’s habits, customs and norms, but the immigrant culture itself is stronger. These people were explorers, pioneers and entrepreneurs, some of them willing to risk it all for the dream of something better.
Some were real Oklahoma pioneers and some of the first to settle the state (more thoughts on that here.) I’m thankful that I’ve gotten to hear some of those stories before they’re lost to time. In addition to my own grandparents, one other woman in particular, my Great Aunt Lula, made a lasting impression on me. Lula was my grandfather’s big sister, almost 20 years his senior. I have heard only a little about Lula as a young woman, but I know that she was a teacher, and that as a young woman she taught school in a genuine one-room schoolhouse in Oklahoma. While she never learned how to drive a car even though she lived well into the 1990’s, it’s apparent from this photo that in the early 1900’s she could drive a horse (and plow?) like a champ.
I was in awe of Lula when we went to visit her when I was young. Even in her 90’s she kept a massive garden and henhouse, mowed her own lawn and butchered and dressed her own chickens. She was a strong woman, but truly one of the nicest people I’ve ever met – she always had a huge infectious smile on her face. I was happy to discover the photograph below of Lula as a young woman and compared it to my own photo from 1995… same great big smile.
Even as an older woman, Lula was sharp as a tack. We often talked about the books she was reading and about current events. Although she kept up on events and progress, she seemed unconcerned that she didn’t participate in much of it. She lived life on her little farm and enjoyed it, and seemed to defy old age. Even with a limp and arthritis she did most all the chores and kept her massive garden in year-round production. I remember her once commenting on her age, “You know, I must be getting old. I can’t seem to twist and snap those chickens necks like I used to!”
I’ll never forget one visit to Lula’s house in particular. My sisters, mom and I were sitting in the kitchen talking when we noticed that she was missing two fingertips on her right hand.
My mom gasped, “What happened to your fingers, Lula?”
“Oh,” she sighed, shaking her head, “You’ll never guess what I did. I’m so clumsy. I was mowing the lawn, and I hit a rock and the stupid machine turned over on its side.”
Folks at home, please keep in mind that this mower she’s referencing is a scary medieval looking push mower with exposed blades and no safety mechanisms to speak of.
“Well,” she continued, “I reached down without thinking to grab the rock out and the blade started again and it cut these two fingers clean off.”
She smiled her big smile, showing us her hand, as our jaws dropped in awe. She chuckled and shook her head as if she was telling us a funny story about how she burnt the popcorn in the microwave the day before.
“I couldn’t believe what an idiot I was! But, as I was standing there looking down at my poor little fingers, I remembered that I had a can of kerosene in the cellar. So, I went down there and stuck my hand in it, and it worked real good. You know, kerosene is what we all used to use. Well, I got up back to the kitchen and called my son in law, and he came over here and took me into town to the emergency room.”
Lula often gave us canned goods and vegetables and plants from her garden, including several of her blackberry bushes that we transplanted into the sandy soil on a hill behind our house. They’re still there.
She had gorgeous flowers, especially her multi-colored irises. Once I told her how much I liked them and she insisted that we go out into the garden together and dig up a handful of the bulbs. She gave them to me as a gift in a brown paper bag. I was probably about 13 years old at the time. When I got home I went out and planted those iris bulbs in a small patch north of the house and waited for the spring. To my delight, the first one of Lula’s irises, a bright sunshine yellow flower, bloomed that Easter morning (no lie). I tended the patch of Irises for a while, but of course they’ve since been left to grow wild, multiplying and spreading under the trees. But, in a simple way, that little patch of Lula’s irises will always be a living memorial, growing back like clockwork every spring to pay homage to an incredible woman.