Although we have had formal programs or invited guests at our annual Thanksgiving dinner at church, we often have home-talent night for our after-dinner program as we did again this year.
Years ago I had typed (so it was before computers) three of James Whitcomb Riley’s autumn poems planning to take them to read at a local nursing home, but somehow I never did it. When I learned our church program might be short, I decided it might be a good time to finally use them. Riley, who was born in Indiana in 1849 was the son of a lawyer and dropped out of school at age 16 and did a number of jobs, such as traveling through the state as a sign painter, before he became famous as the Hoosier Poet, who wrote in the dialect of the local folks. Some 35,000 people filed past his casket when he died in 1916.
One of his most famous was “Little Orphant Annie.” It is sometimes fun to be scared, and most of us remember times of sitting around the stove or the campfire telling stories of haints and ghosts. In Riley’s poem, Little Orphant Annie was a master story teller. She became the basis, of course, for the comic strip and later the Broadway musical and movie.
Annie was a real child, however. Mary Alice Smith Gray went to work for Riley’s parents at age 10. Her mother had died at her birth, and her father before she was l0. Despite the steep steps to her bedroom, Annie stayed cheerful while she worked in someone else’s household as many orphaned children had to do in those days. My mother had a similar story. Her mother died when she was six, and her father when she was a late teenager. She too went to work as a mother’s helper – the only way she had to support herself. She too became a good story teller.
When later as a teacher she had to keep large groups of children quiet while they waited for their turn on stage for the Christmas play or musical, Mother learned that she could tell a snake story—and soon almost every child would be waving a hand that they too had a snake story to share.
As a child, I loved Riley’s poem about going to his old Aunt Mary’s because I had an Aunt Mary. She was 14 when their mother died, and she helped raise her six younger siblings. Back in the late 1980’s, my father-in-law spent a weekend with us. He and I sat up late at the kitchen table one night while he told me family stories. One was about going with his brother to their maternal grandmother’s home each weekend during a certain era of their lives. She was widowed and managed to eke a living from her little farm. Without radio or television, the grandsons’ coming was the highlight of her week. Her joy in seeing them and her grape arbor and gooseberries made the long barefoot walk to her farm a highlight for the boys too. Dad Glasco’s stories made me love the poem even more.
The self-sufficiency of farm families in those days is so impressive and so superior to what we experience as a farm family. I am glad to not have to work so hard as they did back then, and I’m grateful for electricity and running water and all our modern goodies. But it is amazing to think that families and even widows were able to produce their milk, eggs, apples, raspberries, strawberries, pork, and so much else on just a few acres.
Could we do it today? Only if we were tough enough to work that hard and if we neglected today’s lifestyle choices.. We, of course, did not grow up knowing all our ancestors did to survive, so ws’d really have to spend a lot of time on the Internet learning how to accomplish so many diverse production skills.
I am dreading getting up at 5 a.m. tomorrow in order to go on a leisurely tour that John A. Logan College is providing for life-long learning purposes. That would probably be a late get-up time for my father-in-law’s grandmother. I have to admit that I would rather take this tour than to spend the day quilting, making jams and jelly, and cooking a big mid-day meal. And though I won’t be leaving the house bareheaded to go out to feed the stock, I will enjoy the frost and the early morning beauty as I drive from the farm to the college to catch the tour bus.
Causes Sue Glasco Supports