Thursday, April 02, 2009

That's how it was and that's how it still oughta be?

Up at 5 this morning, keeping farmer hours but with no cows to milk, I got to listening to country radio. Like I've said before, there is no topic under the sun that country musicians somewhere have not had a go at and that's one reason why I listen and enjoy.

The song that caught my ear this morning, by Arkansas/Missouri native Trent Tomlinson, is entitled "That's How It Still Oughta Be," and the refrain runs like this:

Yeah, the world was much safer, you could count on your neighbor
And a stranger was someone you just hadn't met yet
And we trusted our preachers, our heroes and teachers
and believed every word that they said.

There's a heck of a bunch of magical thinking here and believing every word that our preachers, our heroes and teachers said has gotten us into a few fixes. But it's still a nice song.

Nostalgia's a useful tool and I go back in my head sometimes to the good old days, too. On the other hand, I never recall my folks waxing nostalgic about the great depression of the 1930s. Nor have I heard tell of a kid abused by a preacher or priest, hero or teacher he or she trusted who felt that was the way it oughta be.


I have always lived with furniture the had names, a result more of thrift than nostalgia, and have made it my business to learn something about the folks whose names that furniture bears. I'm obligated to those pieces of oak and cherry, walnut and lesser woods, and tend to them as best I can.

So it's made me happy lately to have my Great-aunt Laura Love's kitchen chairs back home and grouped around a table in Lucas County again.

Those old chairs are survivors. Absorbed into my grandparents' house in 1944, they were passed on to my mother when she married. They have been stained and varnished, stripped and painted, repainted in a rainbow of colors to match bedroom decor when moved out of the kitchen, then stripped, restained and varnished again when I brought them north. They are survivors, outlasting dozens of other chairs and recalled to service, stressed but never broken.

Aunt Laura was my grandmother, Jessie's, elder half-sister, born Laura Rozella Prentiss 2 July 1857 just north of Corydon to Moses and Chloe (Boswell) Prentiss. Laura was 8 when her father was killed and 13 when Chloe married Joseph Brown, 22 years her senior, and they moved to Columbia, just north of the Lucas County line in Marion County. Grandmother Jessie was born five years later, when her father was 64 and her mother, 42.

Three years after the move to Columbia, when she was 16, Laura married Uncle Al Love --- named Alpheus Elkanah Love by his parents, but never called that. By all accounts this was as happy and mutually respectful a marriage as any but not a union blessed with affluence.

Uncle Al was a native of North Carolina, born 17 March 1854 to Nathan and Asenath Licena (Lowder) Love. Dirt-poor, Nathan enlisted in Co. B, 45th North Carolina Infantry (Confederate) in 1862. He was captured during the battle of Gettysburg July 1-3, 1863 and later exchanged. Although there are varying accounts of why Nathan did not return to duty with Confederate forces, he is listed --- justified or not --- as a deserter in surviving records.

Sometime in the late 1840s, Licena Love's parents (Joel and Didema Laxton Lowder) had come from North Carolia to Lucas County and settled in Cedar Township. In 1870, Nathan Love and his eldest son, Joel, headed for Iowa, too, to make a new home for their family. In 1872, Nathan wrote to his wife and younger children, telling them that new home was ready.

Licena, Uncle Al and his sisters, Frances and Lenora, traveled from North Carolina to Indianapolis by wagon, took a train from there to Melrose, then walked from Melrose to the hills and hollers south of Columbia in Pleasant Township, Lucas County, where Nathan and Joel had settled. That's a heck of a walk!


Now Uncle Al was a man of many talents, but making money was not one of them. He was a farmer and coal miner, a musician who could master while hardly trying any stringed instrument violin to piano, professional photograher, organizer of town bands across southern Iowa and into Nebraska, a giver of music lessons to the children of immigrants in the mining towns of Olmitz and Tipperary and to many others far beyond. Always broke.

My great-grandmother, Chloe, lived in fear that Laura and her children didn't have enough to eat in those early years when they lived down in the hills south of Columbia and Uncle Al was roaming, loaded baskets with food and sent her youngest children, Jessie and Joe, off on horseback to deliver the provisions.

Later, Al and Laura moved into Columbia, into a tiny and surprisingly durable house that survived until two or three years ago, and acquired among other things the chairs now around my kitchen table.

Al and Laura had four children who survived infancy, Byron, Eugene, Raymond and Alma, and one who didn't, John Nelson. Because of some genetic convergence, the Love children were astonishingly beautiful.

But Alma made two bad marriages, producing a son by each before dying in childbirth in 1922, age 28. Al and Laura were able to claim and raise one of the boys, but the other was abandoned by his father and placed in an orphange. The Love boys, then living in Montana and California, retrieved him when they got wind of this and took him west to raise themselves.

Uncle Al died flat broke in 1934, having sold his only valuable possession, a violin. Laura lived 10 years more, until 1944, supported by her sons in the West and looked after by my grandparents, who brought her to their home in English Township to spend winters.

When Laura died in her rocking chair in Columbia on the 21st of November 1944, found by the little boy who came every morning to carry coal into the house for her, just before she was due to leave for a winter with my grandparents, the boys came home of course. But they had no need for most of her belongings and so when the house was sold its contents came home with Jessie and Will Miller, including the chairs.


One of the points here, I guess, is that while I have great respect for Laura and Al Love and treasure what I know about them, and their chairs, I am not nostalgiac about their hard lives and hard times. That may have been how it was but not necessarily how it oughta be. Like those old chairs, on the other hand, they were stressed but never broken. That I'd say is the lesson to learn and the thing to remember.

The photos are (top) Laura and Al Love's chairs grouped around my kitchen table; (center) Laura and Al with daughter, Alma, in front of the little house in Columbia where the chairs originated; and (inset bottom) Eugene Love, like all the Love children an object of great beauty, with an unidentified admirer, a beauty herself.

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