Dusting Off Tales of Great-Grandmother

ANYBODY's mother may have made a better lemon chiffon pie in her day, but it is imprudent to say this on Mother's Day in front of the children. Little pitchers have big ears. But I have found that I can skip a generation and brag about my grandmother without offending my wife too much, and a great-grandmother is even better. I had a great-grandmother whose deeds are recollected in part every Mother's Day with high success. She was a Coombs from Hardscrabble, across the river, and while she sounds today like an unusual woman, she was run-of-the-mill in her own time, and shot her first bear on her 13th birthday. That was in 1780. The bear was at a beehive, and they thought it would be nice if Lucy did the honors.

Lucy was never an emancipated woman, as emancipated women were not in style at that time. When she attained 18, she was wed already with two children, and the third was expected shortly. Then they fixed a shelter over the wagon so the little ones would have some comfort out of the hot sun while Lucy went into the woods to chop down trees. They had lately invested over four pounds (English money was still good in Maine) for a hundred acres of likely land, and great-grandmother was eager to get into a rea l house. Timber they had for the cutting and hauling, but the sawmill hadn't been set up yet, and it would be three miles away when the road was built.

Great-grandmother was adept with an ax. Great-grandfather had given her a good one for a wedding present, and she was proud of it. Kept it honed to a razor edge, and wiped it every evening with a bacon rind to prevent rust. Lucy was never puny. She would be ``hearty'' in the down-east lingo, because ladies then were not described as husky, or heavy, or huge. When she swung her ax at an old-growth pine, great chips like goosewings would fly away, and the wee ones were told to stand back or they'd get bra ined.

Great-grandfather was also handy with an ax, and if they could get the youngsters to nap after lunch, they'd chop together - she lefty and he righty - and after they got a tree down they'd run off to safety and wait for the chips to come down. Dangerous. Then they'd cool their axes in the brook and chop another tree.

They didn't chop trees just to get lumber. Clearing fields was the big job. But they saved out the best logs for lumber, burning the rest just to get rid of them, and when the mill was ready and the road built, great-grandfather began teaming. He had a yoke of three-year-olds, and it took all day to go to the sawmill and back. As soon as he set out in the morning, great-grandmother would put the children on a go-devil behind a single yearling steer she was raising for beef, and go up in the woods to cho p more trees. Every day was Mother's Day to her. But on days great-grandfather teamed to the mill she would work short hours, because she had to be back at the lean-to to start supper.

Great-grandfather was always famished when he got back from the mill, and sometimes much too tired to unload his boards and timbers. So great-grandmother would start supper early, and be ready to unload the boards when he got back, and then while he rested she'd milk the cow and feed the hens. It took almost 10 years, from stump to ridgepole, before the house was ready to live in, and great-grandmother broke four ax handles in that time. Great-grandfather would remonstrate, because he had to make them, and he would tell her she was heavy-handed, but she just couldn't hold back. On her 23rd birthday he gave her a new ax. He had to send to Boston, to the nearest forge, and he also got one for the older boy. Having bought two, he couldn't afford a new ax for himself, so he continued to chop with his old bung-down. Great-grandmother would never let him touch her ax.

One day while great-grandfather was at the mill an accident befell great-grandmother. She wasn't paying attention, and somehow her yearling steer got tangled in a pile of down limbs and had to be recycled. When great-grandfather got home she had the beast skun out and the meat all cut up for the smokehouse, and was giving the children their baths in a bucket on a stump.

So every Mother's Day I dust off some of the old tales about my great-grandmother Lucy, and her fame lies so far in the past that no offense is taken. My wife listens and laughs, and likes to say, ``Well, they just don't make mothers the way they used to!''

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