Monday, March 26, 2007

My Irish Grandmother and Other Heroes

Clara May Barchus, born in 1882 to Oregon Trail pioneer Constant Barchus and his wife Elizabeth Sherrill, was the daughter of a red-haired, fiddle-playing Irish American. Clara grew up on a farm with five brothers and two sisters.

Her days were spent close to the land. She went berry-picking with her mother in the summer, and they made pies and jam from the fruit. Her mother kept a Holstein cow, and Clara helped churn the butter. Her father owned two beautiful horses that pulled the hay wagon, and also served for riding (usually bareback).

Clara helped her mother in the kitchen, making bread and other food for the family. They worked for hours every day in the kitchen to feed a family of ten. When dinner was ready, her mother would stand on the porch and ring the large bell to call the men in from the fields.

My grandmother died (of adult onset diabetes) before I was born. Her parents both died when my father was a baby. All that I know of their lives, I know from research into public records, and from visiting distant relatives who had pictures, heirlooms, and sometimes stories.

A third cousin introduced me to an elderly aunt who remembered Clara's father and brothers playing the fiddle for a barn dance in the early nineteen-hundreds. A great-uncle recalled haying with Clara's father and listening to him tell of his journey over the Oregon Trail as a young man in 1864. (The Oregon Trail is over 2,000 miles long, and the average day's journey was twelve to fifteen miles, some days less.)

Simple joys, like a glass of freshly churned buttermilk, or a nutting party, were significant. Joking and singing, the whole family worked hard and long hours for the basic needs of life. Clara's blind grandfather, who lived with them the last few years of his life, would follow a rope guide to the vegetable garden where he pulled weeds, finding them by touch. There's always work to do on a farm, and everyone from the youngest to the oldest contributed.

Clara's family, and the neighbors around them, were unified in a way few in this country are today. Nearly everyone farmed. They were born, grew up, and worked on a farm. They attained an intimate understanding of each other because of their shared experiences farming and their shared dependence on their farms and their farming neighbors.

Even with the limited medical care and other negatives of that time, I think their lives were good, and maybe better than we can have today. When they went outside at night and looked up, the Milky Way in all its glory streamed across the heavens, undimmed by pollution and city lights. Instead of watching American Idol for entertainment, they practiced for their own variety shows. They didn't need to check their vegetables for an "Organic" label -- they picked the vegies from their own 'organic' garden.