Mom and The Cottonwood        

                                                             Published May 14, 1978, in the Peoria Journal Star

      Back on the farm where I grew up in Sac County Iowa, there stands a cottonwood tree of considerable girth. The tree was planted in 1876 by my great grandfather who settled there and made a dugout home in a nearby hillside. It was a big tree when my mother, then Flotilla Frisbie, was a girl. In recent years violent winds have broken main branches, and now with its middle topped and two thick branches sticking out from opposite sides lower down, it has something of a human look. One of these limbs projects out and bends downward, while the other, the larger of the two, stretches skyward in a gesture of greeting.   It ends in a cluster of smaller branches, its hand.

      My mother has a special feeling for this tree which she's considered a friend through the years. The wind stirring it leaves, gave it voice, and she felt it talked to her at nights She feels a kinship to it, and there are similarities to be seen between her and her companion in life.

     Like the cottonwood her roots are there. It's where she was born in 1909, grew up as a girl and spent much of her adult life.

    The cottonwood was the home of squirrels and several times a mother raccoon had her family in the hollow part. Life has stirred within my mother, and from her has come great growth, a tree of her own. She gave birth to five daughters and thirteen sons, two of whom died in infancy. The first born of the family was born on this very day today, May 14. Another sister Kathryn was born eight years to the day after I was, not that there weren't enough days to go around. My mother's family has now branched into grandchildren and great grandchildren.

     Like the cottonwood's birds of the air, her limbs have held us. But her limbs have also bent to the task of work. Mom would knead dough and bake bread six loaves at a time, sometimes a dozen a day. When we children were young, she made most of our clothes. She had a lot of mending that never was entirely done. For years she had a large garden, the woman with a hoe. She canned and made preserves. She peeled many a kettleful of potatoes. Washing was at least and every other day job and at one time she did this by hand on a scrub board.

     She used to help milk the cows. On her way to the barn in the morning, she would pray. She feels that we should praise God more and not be so demanding. To her the fact that you're alive is something wonderful. She enjoys walking in the rain and finds something soothing about it. She says it seems like God is blessing you.

     She didn't let the fact that they had no shoes that fit me keep her from taking me to church the summer I was two. She took me barefooted.

    Life can be odd. As a child she was taught not to walk on the same side of the street as the Catholic church was on. Later she would meet an immigrant called Joe from Moravia in Austria-Hungary, who used to laugh about the large families he saw and said he wouldn't have any children. She married in that same Catholic church, and that immigrant, well, he's our father.

    People turned against her for becoming a Catholic. People ridiculed her and this hurt. It hurt, too, when they ridiculed her for her large family. But she suffered from more than other people.

    The day after Christmas in 1958, mom was boiling ground hog fat in a canning kettle in the kitchen. She went to pour it in a container when she slipped ― she thinks there must've been a crackling on the floor ― and she fell, the hot lard, pouring on her. It drenched her right arm up to the elbow and splashed in her face. Fortunately she was wearing glasses. Her left hand was burned trying to save herself. Fortunately too the flour sack print dress she wore was heavily starched, and the starch absorbed the grease so it didn't penetrate as much. When I tried to wipe the grease from her arm with a dish towel, the skin peeled, rolling off. The doctor had to cut her wedding ring from her swollen hand.

    She said she never felt such agony in her life as she did when she was burned. She told the doctor that if hell is like this, she wouldn't want to go there. She feared she would lose the use of her hands. Her knuckles stiffened and the doctor cracked them, and had her exercise them with a small juice can. She went back to crocheting to flex her hands.

    The cottonwood has taken lightning a number of times, and it was scarred. From her searing she was scarred.

    In the course of years she has borne other afflictions, including the loss of some of her sight. Like the limb-shorn tree, time has taken its toll, but they remain unbeaten. Like the tree she reaches heavenward. Someday I'll go back to the farm and she won't be there. But if the cottonwood still stands, I will listen to its leaves and think of its friend, my mother. ― John Riedell

         The view of  the cottonwood tree from inside the house where my mother lived.  You can see the gravel road, the lane into the yard., and the building on the left, the grain bin. 

     My mother died the night of February 5th, 1980, when a fire broke out in a repair shed on the farm. One of her sons was welding a car when it caught fire. They tried to tow it outside but were unable to do so. The shed went up in flames and fire towered up into the night sky. The nearby barn was threatened by falling embers but they saved it. Mom had come out of the front door of the house and was standing there, witnessing what was occurring.  She sat down and grasped the railing.  She looked up at the ascending fire, looked forward and fell back, never to revive.   The cottonwood survived my mother, but the wind wrenched off another branch and the tree is now gone as well.   
                                                                                A kind comment from Earl Hamner

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