Friday, July 14, 2017

Grampa Didn't Have a Blog

July  9, 1941: showery. drew milk to Bristol, logs to mill.
July 10, 1941: "nice day. showers. got tires for truck. Hall's funeral.
July 11, 1941: "nice day. hoeing and bugging potatoes."
August 1, 1941: " nice clear day, Beulah and Lawrence married, gone north. Finished north haying. "

[Thus was the mention of my parents' wedding and honeymoon trip to Ausable Chasm in upstate New York noted along with the weather of the day and the fact that the hay crop from the north meadow was in.]

Grampa Mac didn't spill emotions onto the pages of his diaries. The facts and happenings of each day were recorded briefly, as he perceived them, with scant commentary.
For a farmer and country-dweller, weather was important and the 'weather report' served as the heading of each entry.

Many of the tasks of a dairy farmer are repeated--daily, seasonally, yearly. 
The cycles of planting, tending, harvesting, varied only slightly, crops planted on time--or not--as springtime arrived to warm the soil and the air.  A dry year, or a wet one, late frost, early frost--the blessings or difficulties of a particular season could only be taken into account, dealt with.

The Diary for 1941 is the earliest in my possession.
In July, 1941 Mac was within weeks of his 55th birthday, a widower since 1929, enumerated in the 1940 census as Head of Household, a roll assumed with the death of his father-in-law and farm partner  in the spring of 1934.

I suspect that my Grandmother Helen had been the first keeper of the diaries and that Grampa Mac assumed the roll after her death.
The entries above are typical: weather, chores, errands and the doings of the small rural community.
A bit of research turned up the details of the funeral--that of a farmer's wife living a few miles away.
Whether Grampa attended the funeral is debatable--he wasn't one for formal occasions.  

The marriage of my parents wasn't a grand occasion; she was deeply involved from girlhood in the village Congregational Church, he was a Catholic of French Canadian lineage. Their vows were pledged at the Catholic Rectory and they came home from their brief wedding trip to set up housekeeping in three rooms of the farmhouse.

Of interest is the fact that Mac always recorded the run to the milk plant, trips to town for groceries or machinery repairs as though he drove there;  Mac calmly refused to drive a vehicle--whether one of the farm tractors, the old truck or the Plymouth automobile that resided in the garage between the horse barn and the woodshed.  
He kept a team of work horses until 1963. 

In earlier years he was driven about by his father-in-law [my great grandfather] later by my mother who learned to drive in her teens.  He was often a passenger when the hired man drove 'to town'--for banking, haircuts, to the feed store. Many years later my younger sister took on the duty of chauffeur. 

Grampa Mac's penmanship was a loose scrawl, his spelling erratic and punctuation minimal Over the decades he noted when family members were 'sick'--though no details of their ailments. The progress of recovery was labeled 'not too good' or 'better.'

Visits from family or neighbors were meticulously recorded, even the to and fro treks of my sisters and I from the small house built next door. in 1949.  If one of us stayed to eat supper with him, we later created the diary entry of the day in careful schoolgirl cursive, taking dictation from Grampa, but allowed to add any small detail we felt was important.

July 8, 1957: "good bright day, hayed here and Downey's, got all was ready, showers in eve."

[The Downey family were neighbors from up Knox Hill. The three 'boys' farmed for their aging father and were usually referred to collectively as 'the Downey boys.'  The oldest of them served as Grampa Mac's hired man for many years.]

July 10, 1957: "showers, cooler, no hay, to Middlebury for mower repairs. Stopped in Brandon for supplies and boy a haircut"---[later recorded as costing 90 cents!]
"Frank [Phelps] over for a chat.  cow barn 3/4 full."

[I'm assuming he meant the area over the milking barn was now 3/4 full of baled hay.
For a few summers Mac and neighboring farmers participated in a program sponsored by the agriculture extension department whereby teenage boys from 'the city' [usually New York or New Jersey] arrived for a 2 month stay as farm help. They received room and board and a small wage.]

Not often did Grampa Mac miss an evening of jotting down the day's events. When he did, the diary pages show the printed date at the top crossed out or written over, with perhaps a bit of confusion in sorting recent happenings, one day being so similar to another.

The page headed July 9, 1957 is blank. Tues.--9--is scrawled at the top of the page for July 11. 
"Nice day, cool, hay slow, got load in eve, more drying.  mistake."
Beneath is firmly written: "Thursday July 11__1957. Showery no hay, tractor to Middlebury, 
valve trouble.
Got black heffer home--bulled." 

So much for cattle breeding records!  Mac would not have recited that bit of earthy detail for one of his granddaughters to enter.
It appears from other entries that one or more 'heffers' had been marched up the hill to the farm of "Lambert" to be serviced. 
Another arrangement was made on July 17th--"turned bull north with heffers." 

The diary for the current year was kept on the square walnut table in the farmhouse living room along with a red can of Prince Albert tobacco, an ashtray and a pipe. An assortment of ball point pens and stumpy pencils rolled about on the tablecloth. A tipple of farm magazines and Montgomery Ward catalogs flanked the wall. Grampa Mac's rocking chair was slotted alongside the window, with the table and the shelf that held the radio handy by.
Behind the rocking chair a heavy curtain covered a rank of built in shelves. The diaries for former years were stacked there in orderly fashion. 
If by chance I complained that springtime was tardy, July too hot, or the first snow falling afore-time, Grampa Mac's remedy was to take down a random sampling of diaries and suggest that I look up relevant dates for comparison.  We usually concluded that 'on average' weather and seasons were occurring within  an acceptably 'normal' range.

I page through Grampa Mac's diaries from time to time, always besieged by the tumble of memories stirred by his pithy entries. Reading the fragmented sentences, deciphering his scrawls, dredging up a sequence of events, I inhabit his familiar landscape, walk again through the rooms of the farmhouse, follow him across the pasture brook and up the rutted track that led to the blackberry thicket behind the old sugar house. 
I am reminded afresh of the part that my sisters and I played in his life. 

Sunday, December, 15, 1957
"Sharon and MC went for evergreens for wreaths." 
[He often referred to himself in the third person abbreviating his first name, 'McKenzie.'

His notes on my wedding day filled the entire page of the diary.
Saturday, June 22, 1963
"nice cool day, light shower,
James got car, fixed fence, got cows in Larry's field,
mowed thistles.
Sharon and Jimmy married tonight in church. resepshion in hall, Hague folks over,
big crowd.
2205 #'s of milk."

Grampa Mac's sister, Julia Lewis Ross, died 8 July, 1971.
His entry simply states, "Juley Ross died July 8 in Ti Hospital.'

The last diary I have is for 1973, five years before Mac's death in January, 1978. 
My next younger sister and her family were living with him in the farmhouse, my youngest sister and her husband were across the road.
Grampa Mac gardened, noted the weather, recorded the visits and doings of the family and neighbors.  His entry for June 30, 1973 poignantly records what was likely his last trip 'home' to Hague, NY.  He doesn't mention who drove him there, bumping up the grass-grown track to the old Davis Homestead.

"Went back where I was raised, Hague, NY, all grown to timber, buildings all gone. Maple tree was nice shade.  Struck by lightning, still leaning. 
Hardly [k]new place."
He noted when the swallows gathered to leave on their early autumn flight, remarked on the potato crop [good] recorded the first heavy frost on October 1st. 
In December the end of an era came when the WWII veteran who had come round twice weekly with a grocery van, retired.
Saturday, December, 22, 1973
"M. Broughton got done delivering bread and baking. Been here better than 25 years.
Good Service."

Typically December brought snow, cold days, freezing rain, minor ailments, needed repairs to make the house ready for winter.  Most days Mac recorded his health as 'half good' or 'fare.'
He affirmed that it had been a "Good Xmas, presents for all."

Grampa Mac's long life didn't take him far: there was the Davis Farm in the shadow of Tongue Mountain--the farm which had first belonged to his maternal grandfather.  With marriage he assumed partnership in the Vermont farm where he lived out his days. His bond with the land was deep, his knowledge of the seasons a storehouse of earthy wisdom.

He left a sparse but telling record for those few of us who remember where the potato patch was located on the slope across the brook;  those who were there before the 'ellums' succumbed to beetles, those who can conjure the recollection of jolting rides with 'Dick and Babe' pulling the farm wagon.
With scrawling penmanship and imaginative spelling Grampa Mac created a legacy of his hard-working devotion to family and farm. 
 He gave us the bones of stories, his stories and our own, tightly woven together.  I read his diaries now with a greater awareness of the back-story and with the knowledge of how some stories came to their ending.  I read with a sense of stories 'to be continued' as long as any of us are dedicated to finding words.


  1. Sparse words or not what a wonderful gift he has left you. I'm pretty sure my maternal grandfather was illiterate and the other left nothing written.

    1. Janet; My Grampa Mac left school in the 6th grade to help take care of the family, his father's health being already diminished by 'black lung' from the graphite mines. He told a story well, though he couldn't have converted it to written format.
      My paternal grandparents were bi-lingual French Canadians, the first generation of their family to be born in the US. I doubt they were very literate in either French or their acquired language of English.

  2. What a gift. To know him through his words, and also to see history unfold as time passed in those journals is really an experience, I imagine. We have many letters written by our father and mother, grandmother and aunt going back to the early 1900's. Fascinating reading.

    1. Sue; My mother exchanged frequent long letters with her two aunts and their daughters--her cousins. I would so love to have some of their letters--their individual 'voices' came through so clearly. I'm old enough to mourn the decline of writing real letters, even as I enjoy some of the perks of instant communication.

  3. I do enjoy your posts so much. Your Grandpa Mac reminds me very much of my father-in-law, who lived with us for ten years at the end of his life. Both men of the soil, and that in turn reminds me of Wendell Berry, who has more literary skills but I understand still uses horses in the place of tractors!!

  4. Hildred; 'Men of the soil'--I like that phrase--and it suits as a descriptive for my Grampa Mac. I loved tagging after him as a child and absorbed much of his country wisdom and his very practical ways. He wasn't one for handing out detailed instruction; my sisters and I simply learned by being with him as he made his rounds on the farm and in the garden.

  5. Wonderful to have your Grandfather's diaries. These kinds of men are the unsung heroes in our lives - doing what needs to be done and never complaining. One of my Grandfathers died when I was a baby and the other was always out to sea as a commercial fisherman. What a treasure you have had.

    1. Karen; My paternal grandfather died before my parents were married. I grew up next door to Grampa Mac which was a great blessing. When I read his brief entries of the day, I recall so many surrounding events.

  6. How wonderful, I have just read a book called A Life Discarded, where someone found 142 diaries in a skip and a friend wrote a book using them!!

    1. Chris; So many things are discarded which would be treasures for another generation!