Wednesday, September 19, 2007

From a Farm at Dycusburg to the Edge of Modernity

David Hawpe is a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal. He recently wrote a column about the passing of his mother-in-law, Naomi Bragdon, daughter of Isaac Blanchard Bragdon and Ida Mae (Henson) Bragdon. They ran a portable sawmill at Dycusburg, and their house on the Cumberland River washed away in one of the big floods. I asked Hawpe, an award-winning columnist and writer, if we could reproduce the column here. He kindly granted permission.
I was in Europe on vacation when my mother-in-law died.

I'm surprised that I didn't feel a disturbance in the Force.

Even at 97, she was an energy source to be reckoned with. Until a few weeks ago, she was living in her own apartment.

On the day she died, Nena demanded to be taken on a shopping trip. She wanted to buy a calendar because, she claimed, it was becoming a bit more difficult to keep up with the days of the week.

Later my niece prepared lunch, and Nena declared it the best grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup she'd ever tasted.

My mother-in-law was given to superlatives, but maybe it was true. Maybe every experience was particularly rich and especially valued as she approached the end of life.

Not long after lunch, she slumped over and, in minutes, was gone, taking many mysteries with her. In those last moments, she was surrounded by family -- a daughter, two granddaughters and three great-grandchildren.

It will seem strange not to hear her voice at the next family gathering. To say that she was a talker is to indulge in profound understatement. Having got hold of a listener, she could reduce that person to compliant lassitude. Others, sitting or standing nearby, exchanged knowing glances of gratitude, having escaped capture.

Not that Nena was uninteresting. Quite the contrary, she remained to the last a wicked wit, with a vast store of enthusiastically volunteered opinion about people and things.

She had an elevated view of my role at the newspaper. Having called The Courier-Journal to complain, when her daily copy didn't arrive, she invariably called me, too -- to say she had told circulation her son-in-law ran the place and would want to know if a replacement copy didn't arrive soon.

I tried many times to explain that I don't run the newspaper. Her usual response was, "Well why not?"

She also complained, recently, that she couldn't work her crossword puzzles as quickly as she had in the past. When I argued that, at her age, she was lucky to be doing them at all, she seemed mystified.

Despite some obvious insecurities -- for example, about lack of formal education and lack of money -- Nena had a robust sense of self.

She also had an extraordinary appetite for life. Offered the chance, not many years ago, to visit Hawaii and Alaska, she jetted off without hesitation, declaring each trip the best she'd ever taken. She sometimes fried up a package of bacon and ate it at one sitting.

She both loved and hated, passionately.

Given the fact that, during my courtship of her daughter, she threatened to have me run over by a truck, our relationship eventually became surprisingly congenial.

She was fiercely devoted to small children, until they were old enough to talk back. She began every holiday meal with a warning that we should first "feed the little ones." I once told her I thought we ought to make sure we feed the big folks. She seemed mystified.

I was fascinated by her description of growing up in Crittenden County. I listened to it many times, complete with tales of "Tobacco Night Riders."

Her life reached from the self-sufficient family farm to the era of abject technological dependence. On her home place at Dycusburg, there was no electricity, no phone, no car, no truck, no tractor, obviously no refrigeration.

They had a root cellar. She and her brothers cut great chunks of ice from the Cumberland River to keep things cool.

They used everything they grew, she told me. Nothing was wasted. What they couldn't produce themselves, they got through barter with neighbors.

Nena grew up hating women's work. She preferred to be outside, chopping wood alongside her brothers. But in later years, she was an enthusiastic canner, leaving behind a legacy of still-unopened applesauce, beans and tomatoes. She also made a fine vegetable soup, and the best raspberry freezer jam I've ever tasted.

I'm comforted by the prospect of opening up the last of the applesauce, and by the knowledge that she was in charge to the end.
David Hawpe's columns appear Wednesdays and Sundays. His e-mail address is dhawpe Reprinted with permission from the Aug. 22, 2007 issue of The Courier-Journal.

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