Memories of a Nebraska Childhood
Memories of a Nebraska Childhood
by Elizabeth Callaway
I remember my childhood and youth as a time of long, quiet days, in a leisurely cycle of seasonal activities. I was surrounded by my immediate family (father, mother, 2 older brothers) and a web of relatives (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins through the third degree) and the knowledge of two or three generations past who were referred to and talked about.
My father's parents were Confederates (Missouri and Virginia) and had each homesteaded in Jefferson County, they were the first couple to be married in the county. They had 4 sons and 4 daughters, all of whom lived to adulthood (one son, my mother's first husband, died at 32. None of the family lives in Jefferson County now (1984).
My mother's parents were from the East; my grandmother was born in Pennsylvania. My mother and her 2 older sisters were from the first marriage; a half-sister and half-brother from a second. One sister taught school and put herself through college (Univ. of Chicago I believe) with a Master's degree and never married, living in Washington DC. The brother left early, but the others stayed to be part of the matrix in which I existed. Now, none live there.
Father: Charles Browning Callaway born 1 April 1885; died 22 Dec 1970.
Mother: Elizabeth Henderson Callaway born 14 Dec 1878; died 4 Jan 1967.
Congrave Clinton Callaway born 1835; died 1932
Elizab Browning Callaway born 1841; died 1919
John Henderson dates unknown (he was a Confederate, and a machinist)
Mary Ann Powell Henderson (later Morris) born 10 Feb 1848; died 25 Oct 1935
My mother, in her first marriage, had two sons; Congrave Clinton (the 3rd of that name) and Marion Henderson who died in 1936. Three years a widow, she married my father; I was born 25 Dec 1917.
When I was born, the family lived on a rented farm "the Chambers' Place"; within the year they purchased Meadowvue Farm, five miles north of Fairbury. When "the boys" were ready to go to high school the family rented the farm out, and moved into town (rather than have the boys board in town). For 3 or 4 years we lived in "the house at the Fairgrounds", on an acreage; this land is now part of the Fairground area. Before I started school, at 5, we moved to "the house north of town", an acreage. While I was in college, the folks moved back to Meadowvue; in the 1950s the various mortgages and loans were paid off.
A quarter-section of Meadowvue pastureland is still in my name; native prairie grasses with the ruts of the Oregon Trail still showing.
My Confederate Grandfather
A grade school teacher recommended a movie showing currently at the theater, and my father agreed to take me. Later my mother said something to the effect of "you should really appreciate what your father did for you". I accepted the judgment, and years after realized what it had meant: my father, son of a Confederate soldier, and during whose boyhood Abraham Lincoln was never named in the family, had taken me to a movie about Abraham Lincoln.
My grandfather had been born in Missouri, in a family who had lived below the Mason Dixon line since its arrival on the Virginia shores in the early 1700s. As a matter of course, at the outbreak of the War Between the States, he joined the Missouri Cavalry. One of the family heirlooms (which disappeared into the limbo that old things tend toward) was a frying pan, with a long handle (30 inches perhaps) with a crook in the handle, that had been used to cook over fires in camps during the war.
Grandfather had been a captain, and I remember only 2 stories that Father repeated to me. At one time, some soldier in Grandfather's command had an unruly horse that threatened to become unmanageable. When the soldier was unable to handle the horse, Grandfather whittled spurs out of forked twigs and rode the horse into submission.
For the second tale, the cavalry troop was in a patch of woods surrounded by Union soldiers. Although they were out of supplies, there were wild hogs running in the woods. Either they did not want to shoot the hogs because of giving away their position, or because they were low on ammunition; Grandfather arranged for some of the men to drive the hogs down a path in the brush, and he killed a hog with a rock. And that may have been a more difficult feat than can be pictured by anyone who has not handled hogs.
After the War, Grandfather moved to Nebraska to homestead. He married a young woman from Vifginia, Eliza Browning, whose family had been burned out during Sherman's march to the sea. The family had come through Cumberland Gap in a wagon, with the household things they could rescue, to homestead eventually in Jefferson County. The family menu listed hot biscuits three times a day. Sixty years later, I went off to college ignorant of the fact that anyone could survive on breakfast that did not include hot biscuits and gravy.
In my Grandfather's bedroom, a framed reproduction of a mural showing General Robert E. Lee hugn over the head of the bed, with a silk stars and stripes flag tucked behind the frame. But the music book on th ebiano in the parlor was always left open at the page for "Dixie".
Grandfather and Grandma "neighbored" with the German farmers, immigrants from the Old Country. The other homesteaders were all "Union" people.
When my grandfather died, aged 96, in the early 1930s, he was buried in the Fairbury cemetery. The local American Legion unio furnished a color guard, and a squad who fired a volley (salute ?) over the grave, and a bugler who plays Taps. I heard murmurs of appreciation from the family (50 strong). Much later I realized that this part of the ceremony was a sign that the Civil War was indeed over.
The funeral ceremony was conducted in the house, grandfather's body lay in the bedroom where he died, until the undertaker took it to the town mortuary. Then the body in the grey casket was in the parlor.
a dark figure or image cast . . . by a body
intercepting light; a specter or ghost
Journey in late afternoon
Child-me half asleep against the window
watches shadow of the car sliding
along roadside grass
Shadow-shape stretches out
leaping far across the pastureland
scratches over alfalfa stubble and
at the road-cut tucks close again
End of another distant day when Sun
sinks near the west horizon
Crossing Kearsarge Pass
I step quickly toward the east
eager to be moving on the trail
that drops abruptly
down this faulted granite slope
Sunlight from behind me throws
transparent silhouette before my boots
my own shadow a threat of coming night
I see the roadhead
hours below at that level where
jagged shadow-pattern of Sierra peaks
at this moment floods out
across the desert floor
staining ocher earth to dusky mauve
Ice-storm tears down the Powerline
denies our farmhouse electricity and light
Dark thickens in room-corners
Yellow gleam of kerosene lamp on supper table
throws our shadows up all four walls
and across the kitchen ceiling
As we move and lean
above our meal
the shadows move
After the war, when Grandfather's mother died (his father had been killed by a group of raiders, a civilian) he moved to Nebraska. Drove a wagon pulled by oxen, with a milk cow tied behind, up the Oregon Trail, accompanied by a friend who homesteaded near him. Any milk leftover from the evening and morning meals was put in a jug and tied to the wagon axle. . .would have butter churned in it by night. Two chairs (little ladder backs with woven seats that were in his house had been tied on the outsides of the wagon. . .and the knobs at the top of the uprights were worn smooth from the rubbing against the wagon.
He chose his farm on the basis of the grass, in Jefferson County, which came to his knees as he rode horseback. This was native prairie grass, of course, adapted beautifully to shallow soil and bitter climate. . .and his farm turned out to be gravel hills (glacier outwash, no doubt). The family always mourned that he had looked at the land in the Blue River Valley (we were on the Little Blue), and passed it up because it had alkali patches. . .but later turned out to make fortunes for the Bohemian farmers who moved into it.
Grandfather said the Little Blue was clear and blue, and that he could see the bottom. . .In 1930s especially before the flood control projects, it ran brown mud.
When Grandfather (his name was Congrave Clinton Callaway. . .and he was called Con or Uncle Con or Cousin Con) chose his quarter section, it was one with a spring. He and his friend (Mr. Ehrett ?) went to the west to the 40th Meridian, located a marker, and after tying a rag onto the wagon wheel, drove east counting revolutions of the wheel. They located their quarter-sections in this fashion, but Grandfather missed his spring by 10 feet.
He and Mr. Ehrett lived in the same one-room cabin until Grandfather married. . .they hauled lumber from the mill in Fairbury.
Grandfather told his 8 children that they must go to school to learn to read, write, and cypher. . because it had been a handicap to him not to be able to do these things. My aunts always read the paper to him. His English was perfact, his accent soft and southern, and my mother, boarded there when she was a schoolteacher in the district, said he never failed to stand when a woman came into the room. Even when he was forced to use a cane.
He sat, when I knew him, in a big wooden chair with leather seat, in a corner of the front room (the original one-room cabin), next to the big front window. . .and next to the base-burner stove in the winter.
The quiet house hold no light
only warm dark comfortable around me
I wake easily out of dense sleep
lying curled on the narrow cot in the pantry
The open window beside me
is a dim square of not-quite black
Faint smell of kerosene
from the glass jug in the summer stove
drifts from the dark kitchen
mingles with the scent of dry grass
on night air that sifts
whispering through the window screen
Beyond the pantry wall
thin song of coyotes
floats like smoke across the hills
Endless melancholy mixed with love
my Aunt Etta
My grandmother Morris, my mother's mother
Mary Ann Powell married John Henderson, married a Mr. Morris. She died at 76; even in the last years full of vigor and intensity.
A little, neatly built woman with bright blue eyes (the kind where the iris is webbed with more intense colored thread), and grey hair wound up like a crown on top of her head. When grandmother brushed her hair, it hung to her hips; the ends (last 6 inches) and the hair at the nape of her neck was chestnut.
Her favorite was my brother Marion, whose personality was too acid for the average bystander, but whom grandmother met as an equal. However, she was a good grandparent to me. . .given to clicking a noisy, "mouthy" child on the head with the thimble finger (she was sweing a great deal of the time; had done hand-sewing for a tailor), but generous unexpectedly, which may be when a child appreciates it most.
The last few years of her life, she lived in rooms in various places in Fairbury. . .older houses, where one opened the front door, walked up the dark stairway, and knocked on grandma's door-to the accompaniment of dust kicked out of the worn carpet and the smell of heated canned spaghetti for lunch.
Grandma went to the City Library often. I remember as a high school student being astounded when she picked up a novel I was reading, and talked about it. She had read it a month or two before.
When I was in Junior High School, she went off somewhere (in Kansas ?) to a faith healer, to the horror of my mother and my aunts. She described vividly, on her return the "current" she felt when the healer put his hand on her head. I have no idea what was her complaint, since I think she died in bed of general old age, and I was off in college. She had been staying with my aunt Alma at the time; I remember being deeply moved by the information that Aunt Alma and my mother had prepared her body for the mortician. The funeral procession (I went home from school for the funeral, some time in the winter) drove from Wymore to Fairbury, some 30 miles.
Grandma had been born in Bucks (Berks ?) county, Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Dutch) with a name, Hoopengartner, in the family (Mother corresponded with an Elizabeth Hoopengartner, for years. I've wondered if Mother was named Elizabeth after this woman?) She told her own children that as a girl she had hidden in the bushes and watched birds, trying to figure out why they were different in appearance and habits. After her mother died, her father, Sam Powell, and his 5 or 6 children moved to Iowa and then to Norton County, Kansas. He re-married (to a widow Hall) and the relationships of the various half-brothers and -sisters and their children made a fascinating puzzle to a visiting cousin. They were all faintly red-headed, "sandy" we called that hair and skin color.
Grandma survived, in one way or another, two husbands. Mother said one of her early memories was going, with her younger half-sister Alma (a toddler) down the steps into the dark basement of the Merchants Hotel, in Fairbury. She remembered walking between the sheets hanging on drying lines, to grandma who was washing sheets on a washboard - heavily pregnant with her last child at the time.
When Mother was a country school teacher she went home weekends, and her sisters, too, to the "house on A Street." Grandma ran a boarding house (no rooms to let, just meals), noted for good food. Railroad men (Fairbury was a Division point on the Rock Island RR; train crews "laid over" in town) signed a list hoping for the privilege of eating at Mrs. Morris' boarding house.
She had long tables for the boarders. Served fired eggs (soft) on stacks of pancakes (not hot cakes, said they were different) to conserve on butter. Made jelly glasses out of bottles and jars by soaking a string in kerosene, tying string around the bottle, setting the string on fire and then dipping the bottle into a tub of cold water. Mother said, on summer weekends, they (g-ma, and daughters) would have marvelous water fights in the backyard. Their well was one where the bucket was lowered on a rope; every cupful of thrown water had been earned!
She had 4 daughters: Lola, Bertha, Elizabeth (Lizzie), and Alma, and one son, Frank. All the women were unique, intelligent and aggressive. Frank had a "bad name" for which I never had an explanation. He lived in Chicago at one time, had been a clown with Barnum and Bailey Circus; moved onto grandma's farm in Canada (in Alberta ?) later, in the 1930s.
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