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0706 PD: My Grandmother's Legacy

Yevet Tenney Published on 18 July 2006

Yesterday as I was sifting flour into my new batch of bread, I smiled as I remembered how my mother taught me to make bread when I was nine years old. She didn’t give me a recipe card with neat measurements and full-color glossy photographs to show me the end result. She simply said, “This is how Grandma taught me to do it.”

She put my hand under the water to feel the temperature of the water so I wouldn’t get it too hot. Then she took handfuls of sugar, and a handful of salt, and poured it into hot milk and oil. Then we added the flour. When we were finished, we had eight to ten nice fluffy loaves of sweet-smelling new-made bread. For years, I followed that recipe. Now that I don’t have to make so many loaves, I use a recipe.

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There were so many things I learned from my mother that she learned from her mother and grandmother. As the new loaves were rising in the oven, I thought of my grandmother. She was a mother of all mothers.

When my Grandmother, Mildred Hunt Despain, stepped across the threshold of her new home after she was married to Claude Despain, I don’t suppose that she ever imagined that she would raise ten children, and that those children would give her 148 grandchildren and 55 great-grandchildren. I don’t suppose that it occurred to her that she would have 48 young men and women from her posterity who would travel to New Zealand, England, Taiwan, South Africa, South America, Italy and a myriad States in the United States. She didn’t realize that from her children would come mechanics, laborers, teachers, computer programmers, artists, actors, medical technicians and policemen.

When she tied on her apron to fix her first humble meal for Claude, she never dreamed that one day she wouldn’t need to wear an apron anymore to cover her one good dress. She would wear cotton blends, polyesters, silk and denim and have a closet full of dresses and pant suits.

As she bumped across the prairie for many days and nights in a covered wagon, she never fathomed that she would be able to travel to anyplace in Arizona in a day’s travel time. She wouldn’t even have to take off her shoes. Who would have thought her summer and winter travel would be in a plush car with air conditioning?

When Mildred and Claude, as lovers, gazed at the moon, it was still a mystical golden globe in the sky inhabited by the man in the moon. How could they have known that in their lifetime, man would walk on the moon, and people would travel around the world faster than a man could hitch a wagon?

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The telephone was a new invention that she didn’t see until many years after she was married. Tape recorders, video machines, and a computer were not even even a thought in the inventor’s mind.

When Mildred did her laundry in the back yard by carrying water from the old mud tank behind the house, she put ashes in the buckets to clear the water and settle the mud on the bottom of the washtub. She never imagined that one day she would turn on a faucet in her kitchen and pure clear, hot and cold water would pour into her sink. When she washed the clothes on the scrub board for her children, rubbing her knuckles into calluses, she never dreamed that one day automatic washers would be invented. As she slaved over the hot stove iron to make sure the shirts, dresses and even the sheets were pressed smooth, she never dreamed that irons would be replaced with permanent press fabric, and she would never have to iron again.

Mildred lived almost a century. It’s amazing the changes she has seen. But more importantly, the world has seen an amazing lady. Mildred was nearly blind for most of her life. Yet she could quilt, embroider, crochet, and cook better than most women. Mildred’s daughters brag about how she would sew their clothes. Her daughters would look at the Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalog and choose a dress they liked. They would show it to her. She would lean close and squint over the picture until she could see the image of what the dress looked like. Then she would make it almost perfectly. For Christmas, she made her children rag dolls with the some color and style of dress she made for the daughters.

Her sons brag that she could walk into a kitchen that seemed devoid of food and cook a meal that would charm royalty. Mildred used a wood cook stove almost all her life. That meant she had to start the fire, keep it burning, and make sure the temperature was right for cooking. It was nice in the winter, but not so nice in the summer.

Lynn, one of her sons, said, “I don’t know how she would do it. When we went out to work with the cows out on the range, sometimes we’d come in at noon, and she would have a hot meal ready for us. Sometimes we would come in at three o’clock. She would still have a hot meal ready for us. It was amazing how she knew.”

Mildred knew the footsteps of each of her children. You could not sneak past her room in the middle of the night without her speaking to you. She would call you by name, and she would be right every time. She was very aware of everything, even though she could not see.

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She had an uncanny memory about her children. She would always fix their favorite dishes when the kids would come home. Some liked her creamed peas and potatoes. Some liked her biscuits. Some liked her mince-meat pie and whipped cream. Most of her children loved her pioneer milk noodles. Mildred loved her children and lived to serve them.

Mildred continued to take care of the family, and time passed quickly. In 1978, Claude passed away, leaving her a widow. Many didn’t think she would last very long. But she was a surprise to everyone. She rallied from that and many other hard times. She had a determined, tenacious spirit. My mother, Charlotte, said that during one her many illnesses, she was so bad that the family was called in because the doctor said she wasn’t going to make it. Charlotte went to stay with her shortly after that. She said, “Charlotte, I’m not going to die. I’m going to lick this thing. I’m going to the shipping.” (Shipping was the time when the cattle were sold in the fall). Mildred would get out of bed and hobble to the bathroom and the kitchen. Mother said, “Tears would stream down her cheeks because of the pain, but she did it anyway.” She grew stronger and stronger. She did go to the shipping, and she even made the biscuits.

Mildred was an active woman and found it hard sitting around when she couldn’t get around to cook and couldn’t see to quilt anymore. She started making braids for rugs. She would sit by the hours and braid long strips of fabric so they could be sewn into rugs. She made closets full of braids. Others would take the braids and sew them into beautiful multi-colored rag rugs.

There are so many stories to be told. Ninety-six years is a lot of living.

Mildred’s last hours were beautiful and filled with family. She waited to say goodbye to the children and grandchildren she loved so well. Everyone gathered round her bed and said their goodbyes, but she wasn’t ready to go. Finally just before she passed away, Smiley and AJ, two little grandsons who had lived with her, came into the room. Their mother explained that Grandma could hear them, even if she looked like she was asleep. They both said, “We love you, Grandma.” Then the mother asked them if they wanted to kiss Grandma. Smiley kissed her hand, and a sweet smile spread over his face. You could tell how much he loved his Grandma. He was a reflection of all her family. She loved us all, and that love was mirrored back to her.

It wasn’t long before her spirit left her. I watched the quiet transformation from life to that eternal rest. When she departed, there was an unmistakable smile of joy behind her closed eyes. I don’t know what she saw, but I know it was a glorious recognition of someone who loved her very much, and a witness that there is something wonderful beyond the grave. My grandmother left a legacy of love that will never be diminished, because thousands follow in her footsteps. PD

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