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Just Dropping by... Turning my heart to my grandfather

Yevet Tenney for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 January 2018

Since my father passed away, I have spent time thinking about heritage and what I am leaving as a legacy for my children. I am not talking about worldly goods. I am referring to memories and things of value. I know it is fun to take out a treasured heirloom and think about the past.

My sister has a hat that belonged to my great-great-grandmother. I love to look at the intricate black lace and beads and try to imagine what it was like to wear such an elegant piece of art, but it is much more fun to read or hear about the life and times of one who lived in the far-distant past and discover how I am like them.

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I am sure this is what Malachi was talking about when he said, “... And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers ...” Turning our hearts means we learn to love those who have gone before and they, in turn, will influence our lives in a special way.

When we pass on our life’s experiences, we are, in a sense, turning our hearts to our children, leaving them memories that can be passed on from one generation to the next.

I don’t know as much about my father’s side of the family as I know about my mother’s side. My father was quiet and didn’t say much about his ancestors, while my mother is a storyteller. She has the ability to remember and share interesting details.

My grandfather, Claude Despain, son of Elizabeth Tanner and Henry Waters Despain Jr., was born Dec. 8, 1903, in Holbrook, Arizona, on the old Rope Ranch just as the moon was rising over the hill. The midwife had been called in, but she did not make it in time, so Henry delivered his son.

When the midwife arrived, she checked the baby and said, “I don’t think he is going to live because he is groaning so bad.” Elizabeth heard the comment and said, “Don’t worry; all my babies do that. It is because I work so hard when I am carrying them.”

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Elizabeth did work hard and encouraged her family of boys to work hard. She supported her family by taking in laundry, washing and ironing the sheets and pillow covers for the hotel in Holbrook. In our day, with electric irons, that doesn’t sound like much – but in those days she had to boil the water on a campfire, clear the water with lye, wash the clothes, hang them on a clothesline and wait for them to dry.

She heated stove irons and ironed every pillowcase and sheet by hand. She followed the advice of her father: “Get your boys out of Holbrook and keep them busy. If you have to pound nails in a post and have them take them out again, keep them busy.”

Elizabeth and Henry raised five boys. Later, Elizabeth worked for the Forest Service, receiving telephone calls. Henry worked as a cook for the Hashknife Outfit, whose cattle herd stretched from Heber to Holbrook, a distance of 45 miles. In other words, the lead cows were in Holbrook when the tail-end cows were leaving Heber. I can imagine Henry had a huge crew of cowboys to cook for so was gone much of the time.

Henry and Elizabeth homesteaded property near Heber. Their first dwelling was a dugout with dirt floors and walls. Elizabeth worked hard priming the floors with water and packing down the dirt until it was smooth as tile. She put Navajo rugs on the packed dirt, making the place comfortable.

Elizabeth’s father lived with them. Claude would spend hours with him. His grandpa was nearly blind, so Claude would lead him around the property and help him in any way he could. At a very young age, Claude stood on an apple box and shaved Grandpa. Elizabeth would cringe and hold her breath because he used a long razor with a sharp blade. One slip would have been a disaster, but Grandpa would say, “Don’t worry, Lizzy – he is doing fine.”

Claude grew up learning to ride, rope and shoot like many of the cowboys of his day. He became proficient at all three. In his later years, he could shoot a coyote from his horse while galloping at top speed. Once, he was cornered by a wild long-horned bull. The bull was charging, and there seemed no escape.

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Claude drew his pistol and fired over his shoulder, hitting the bull on the horn near his skull. The bull bellered and crashed back through the brush.

My grandfather told me stories of cattle drives and stampedes. Once, they had corralled a herd of Mexican steers. They were a restless and wild bunch. There was a flash of lightning and a thunderbolt. The herd crashed through the corral fence and ran nearly to Holbrook before they could get them stopped.

There were other times during rainstorms the static electricity was so thick in the herd balls of electricity would roll off the cattle’s backs.

Though Claude was an exceptional cowboy, he spent much of his life farming. He planted and harvested miles of corn and pinto beans. He sold beans to the town’s people for 50 cents per 100 pounds.

Claude married Mildred in 1924. He built a one-room cabin on the Despain Ranch and started their family. Claude took care of his family and taught them integrity and hard work. He gave his children advice to live by: “If you are as honest as your grandfather, you will be all right.” Claude had lived that advice and gave it from experience.

Claude was not an active churchgoer for most of his life, living too far out to get to church every Sunday, but he was never an inactive Christian. He was generous to all who knew him. He had rent houses in Heber, but he probably never received much income from those because the poor and transient people rented them, and he never pushed the point.

Claude loved children. He would go into Thomas Shelley’s store in Heber and buy packages of Juicy Fruit gum and walk outside to a flock of waiting children. He’d pass out the gum. One day, Thomas asked him, “Are all those your grandkids?” “Yes,” Claude answered. Of course, they were not all his grandkids, but he treated every child as if they were his own.

My grandfather was a wonderful man. My heart is turned to him because I know him – because my mother turned her heart to him. I wrote a poem for his funeral.

A Cowboy Sunset

An old cowboy
Stood in the twilight hour.
The sun sinking low
in the red-flamed sky.
The golden glow of day subsiding
And the shadows growing long
and dark upon the ground.

His eyes rested first upon his land, stretching for miles beneath the sky.
He loved that land. It was
all a part of him.
The bawl of a lonely cow searching for her calf, shattered the quiet scene.
A whole lifetime of springs and summers, falls and winters passed before him.
The branding, the moving,
the shipping, the droughts,
the rain, the blizzard, the harvest.
It had been hard, but he was glad his life’s work had been worthwhile.

In the distance a campfire flickered.
He thought of friendship; there were so many he loved.
76 years was too short a time
to serve and to love.
He was glad eternity
placed no limit on time.
Yet his heart rejoiced that a stranger was never turned from his door,
And that he had given freely to all.

Then his eyes lit upon a cabin
The log cabin he had built so long ago.
His warmed with memory.
A wife, five sons, and five daughters
had filled his home with joy.
They were all now multiplied by two and then by many
A posterity beyond his greatest dreams.
He was so proud of them.
He longed to tell each of them
and hold them once again.
But the sunset was dimming
and he was so weary.
The inky blackness settled round
and the old cowboy slept.
He rests, to await the dawn
of a day more
Glorious than he has ever known.  end mark

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