Thursday, February 09, 2012

Mildred Carney's stitches

At some point after his 80th birthday, which occurred during November 1955, Will Miller --- my grandfather --- decided to move to town. It's never been clear why, but I think he was bored, having retired from farming some years earlier, unretired after he lassoed a Wyoming son-in-law and hauled him back to Iowa for a year in partnership that did not end well, and then retired again.

The challenge that ended his farming career had more to do with equipment than age. He had never farmed with anything other than horses --- even the hay baler, powered by steam, was hauled around by horses. He did not believe in tractors. When my uncle high-tailed it back to Wyoming, Grandpa was left with a tractor he didn't know how to harness.

Lesser mortals would have bought a house and moved, but Grandpa was not especially ordinary. During the next couple of years, he bought two ramshackle houses at the south end of South 11th Street, then a fairly ramshackle neighborhood, tore them down (more or less single-handed) and built extremely solid but somewhat eccentric houses where they'd been. Eventually, he moved into one with his niece, who also was his housekeeper.

After that, the congregation of First Baptist Church kept Granddad amused by deciding to tear down its grand old brick church southwest of the post office. He signed up to help clean brick --- as much brick as possible from the old building was salvaged --- and that kept him busy for a while. He met his end during 1969, age 94, some months after falling off the ladder he had climbed in order to trim one of his prized apple trees out on the farm.

One aspect of his later adventures and misadventures that I've not been able to remember much about was the identity of the woman from whom he bought the first of his South 11th Street houses --- an unpainted wreck, two rooms up and two rooms down with a one-story dining room and kitchen extension to the rear. The back rooms were uninhabitable --- holes in the roof and holes in the floor, literally falling into the partial basement.

The woman, who I remember as very old (as it turns out she would have been in her 50s) and terribly, horribly shy, had retreated to the barely habitable part of the building --- with her piano. There was no plumbing, nor was there central heating. But I could not remember her name. It came back to me later, after Mary Ruth had jogged my memory, that she also had been an accomplished pianist in her day and was deaf. That may have explained what I thought was shyness.

Come to think of it, I'm fairly convinced now that she actually used an ear trumpet --- she apparently could hear if someone spoke decisively into it.

All I could really remember about her was that Grandpa hired her to repair a tattered family photo album (at the top here, falling apart again) and that, when she moved out so Granddad could tear her house down, she moved into the the former White Swan Cafe building, a small frame structure that had been moved from its original location on the south side of the square to the current north-side location of the Chariton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

So I wandered into the genealogical society library the other day with this puzzle in my head, the book-repair story triggered Mary Ruth's memory and she was able to come up with a name --- Mildred Carney --- an obituary, and a memory or two of her own.

As it turns out, Mildred was someone Granddad would have known since she had been a little girl. Born May 10, 1902, in English Township, she was the only child of farmers Albertus and Carrie (Keen) Carney. Well-educated, she graduated, according to her obituary, from Drake University's Conservatory of Music in 1925, then returned to live with her parents on the farm, giving piano lessons and serving as pianist for Sunday school and church services at Central Christian Church in Williamson.

Although Grandpa was not exactly a believer, he always attended Central Christian (his mother had been a charter member) and made sure that his children did, too. When Central Christian folded, Granddad saw no need for further worship experiences and relied on Rent-A-Preacher thereafter. Shortly before the end came, he gave Chariton's First Christian Church a piano in return for the services of its pastor and lunch for the family --- but never attended services there.

In 1928, according to Mildred's obituary, she moved into Chariton with her parents, probably into the house Granddad purchased from her during the 1950s. Mildred's mother died in 1939 and her father, in 1940, and after that she was on her own. She apparently continued to give piano lessons as her hearing failed, and also mended books for the Chariton Public Library and for people like my grandfather.

Mildred's association in Chariton with First Christian Church is what sparked Mary Ruth's memory. She's a Disciple, too, and and was able to use my scant memory to come up with the name. Mary Ruth remembered, too, that Mildred was very poor, but still managed to put a nickel in the collection plate on Sundays. And that her bed, either in the White Swan building or after it was torn down to make way for the nursing home and she had to move, was a pile of storage cartons.

This, of course, was at a time when old age pensions were minimal and before rental assistance at apartment complexes like Autumn Park and Southgate was available.

It's not clear who wrote Mildred's obituary ("several" cousins were her only survivors), but they recorded in it the fact "she loved music and nature, especially birds and flowers."

And that "she was a quiet, modest person, of retiring nature and never complained although she had a physical handicap of impaired hearing."

Mildred died Sept. 24, 1975, age 73, and was buried with her parents in the Chariton Cemetery. If you look carefully at the lower left hand corner of the photo album here, you can see her stitches. I'm going to remember Mildred's name.

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