Dateline: 20 September 2007
Those who have read my book, Writings of a Deliberate Agrarian, know that my mother’s parents, Percy and Gertrude Philbrick, were potato farmers in Aroostook County, Maine. I wrote the following of them in the book:
My grandparents were intimately familiar with hard, seemingly endless, often desperate work, and they knew, as only poor dirt farmers can, the heartache that comes with having labored so diligently and so hopefully, only to see it come to naught. Bad weather, potato rot, and punishingly low crop prices can, at times, conspire with such cruelty. There were also other character-building hazards of life, like sickness and the fire that burned their home to the ground in the winter of 1933.
But Percy and Gertrude were hardy people—they had no choice, really, but to be hardy—and the Lord blessed them. While they never accumulated an abundance of material possessions or a big bank account, those things by which the world so foolishly measures success, they did possess the plebeian wisdom, gentle humility, knowing patience, and grateful spirit that hardship and difficulty can cultivate in a life.
Those were important, emotional paragraphs for me to write, because I wanted to sum up the difficult life of these two people who loved me and who, because they loved me so, were very dear to me.
My mother, in moments of recollection, often spoke with utter amazement of her parents, especially her mother, Gertrude, and how incredibly productive she was as a farm wife and mother to ten children. My mother was most amazed by the fact that her mother managed to cook and clean and care for her family, while also sewing all their clothes.
My grandmother Philbrick was, like many women of her era and circumstance, an excellent seamstress. Sewing was not a hobby to her (at least not in her earlier years), as it is to some women these days. It was a necessity. My mother told me that she remembers her sewing late into the night after everyone else had gone to bed. And, she said, she and her sisters were always very well dressed as a result.
Years later, my mother asked her “mum” (that’s what she called her mother) where she learned to sew. She replied that Percy bought her a sewing machine and she taught herself to sew during the depression. She never used patterns and, more often than not, she made new clothing using material from old clothing.
I still own a grey and red wool cowboy-style shirt that my grandmother made for me when I was probably two years old. Precisely hand stitched, it is nothing short of a work of fabric art, complete with felt and sequin horse heads, and all crafted using salvaged tag sale clothing.
I am telling you these things as a tribute to my grandmother Philbrick. She was an example and a blessing, not only to her children, but to the grandchildren who knew her, as I did. But there is another reason for telling you of this common farm wife who has faded into the history and lore of my family. Understanding something of her life brings perspective.
Which leads me to “the cherished letter.” It is a letter written by Gertrude to her sister, Helen, four months after the house fire (which, it turns out was in 1934, not 1933, as my book states). I know that the letter, written in faded pencil on now-yellowed notebook paper was very special to my mother because of the times, over the years, that she spoke of it and showed it to me, while marveling at the hardships her mother had to deal with. I recently acquired the old letter in a box of my deceased mother’s personal papers. How she ended up with it, I don’t know.
The letter was written two years and three months before my mother was born. She would be Gertrude and Percy’s last child. The newborn baby girl mentioned in the letter (and still unnamed) was my Aunt Jean. She and my mother would be close sisters all their days.
If you are a woman, imagine, if you can, as you read this letter, how difficult it must have been to lose your home and most of your possessions suddenly on a winter day to a ravaging fire. You are five months pregnant, with a nine-month-old baby and eight other children. Imagine what it must have been like to have six of your children scattered around the neighborhood, living with neighbors, while you and your husband and the two youngest babies live in a place that “isn’t much of a home.” Furthermore, the insurance that was on your home will not pay you and your husband a cent and you are cash-strapped, struggling potato farmers. And the children will have no clothes to wear unless you make them.
Yes, these were hardy people. They had no choice, really, but to be hardy. The point being, I, and most of you reading this story, have never had it so bad. Comparatively speaking, we have it easy. Perhaps even too easy.
Fort Fairfield, Me
May 29, 1934
At last I’m starting the long-looked for letter. Last Thursday the 24th of May another baby girl was born to us, weighing 9lbs. The 26th, Dorothy was 1 year old.
Since we got burned out we have been living in the old Cushman house. It isn’t much of a house but we were thankful to get it so near to the barn, etc. We got a good deal of things out of the house. We lost a lot of beds that were up in the shed chamber besides everything else that was there. Of course we miss the beds more now because we are so in need of them now. Everything in the shed we lost, but the washing machine was in the kitchen, for which I was very thankful.
Everything in the cellar was lost too—10 bbls. of apples; 15 baskets of Delicious apples; 10qts. strained bee honey; 12qts. mincemeat, besides all my canned goods.
There is always so many things one loses in a fire that isn’t missed until you find you haven’t got it. I had a lot of clothing upstairs that was smoked and scorched so badly they weren’t much good after they did get them. What insurance we did have on the house they cut us way down and then took what we were to get and put it on our indebtedness. That came under the new N.R.A. act.
I’ve got a woman taking care of me and doing the work and I’m giving her $2 per day while I’m in bed. She is real good and it’s a good deal cheaper than going to the hospital. The baby is awfully fat and real well and I feel real well considering what I have been through the last four months.
The package which you sent came just a few days after we got burned out. And things like that certainly put a lot of encouragement back in me. We’ve stayed over to Cushman’s, that is, Percy and I, and Lorraine. The rest of the children were scattered around among the neighbors.
They were all awfully good and kind and helpful in a thousand different ways. I was given 2 or 3 different bundles of clothing to make over. I still have a lot left that I haven’t got made yet.
I wished you folks could come up and stay awhile. I’d love to see all three and especially little Evangeline. Please forgive me for not writing but I didn’t have any help very often and I had to get the children some clothes made. It seemed that they didn’t have anything to put on when they took their heavy clothes off.
Try and help me think of a good name for the wee one. One that goes good with Dorothy would be nice as they are so near together.
Write when you can. I know I don’t deserve a letter for a thousand years but oh please forget it.
Love to all of you from all of us.
P.S. There is no need of sending this on to Mama as I’m mailing her one also.
I’ve noted in my past writings that I believe my life has been impacted and influenced for good due in part to the Christian character and faithfulness of three women in my family:
my Grandmother Kimball
my Great, Great Grandmother, Josephine Jordan
To that list, I now officially add my grandmother Gertrude Philbrick, the granddaughter of Josephine.
The letter above does not quote scripture but you can read of her thankfulness for simple things, and please note that she does not feel sorry for herself. In her later years, my grandmother Philbrick would write me letters with her labored and shaky (but neat) handwriting, and include Christian poems and Bible verses.
She was, as every grandparent should be to a grandchild, an influence for righteousness, and a very special person.