Much of what I know about Grandma’s past I learned from the many pictures she’s kept all these years, and which she now brings out with some frequency, as her mind turns to the past to occupy her present.
Here is a little background on my Grandma. Norma Neeley Schmid was born December 29, 1911 in the shadow of the Teton Mountains near what is now Driggs, Idaho. She was the fourth of 6 children, 5 of which were girls. Theirs was a hard existence. They lived on a poor family farm in the country with no paved roads (the first family car didn’t even come along until Grandma was in her teens). They certainly had no electricity or plumbing.
They mostly used horses and either wagons or sleighs to get around, depending on the season. Grandma went to school in a one-room schoolhouse, and she often rode her brother’s horse to get there. Getting to town could be accomplished either via horseback or by going to a whistle stop on the tracks.
A whistle stop was not a formal train station but more of an agreed-upon place where people could catch the passing train that would make a weekly trip through the valley on the way to the end of the line 20 or so miles down the track.
Grandma was actually home-schooled through the fourth grade. A bout with rheumatic fever as a baby had left young Norma with a weak heart. Her mother was determined to let her have as normal a life as possible. Great-Grandma Eva had lost her own mother with the birth of her youngest brother (grandma’s uncle Ray) so she knew that life could be short. She let Grandma participate in youthful games and exploring their property in eastern Idaho. If the play got too rough or Grandma seemed too tired she was brought inside. To this day Grandma credits this simple act with her longevity.
Grandma’s memory of primary school is fairly vivid. She remembers people in school who were mean-spirited…who teased whom…really the kinds of stories that children of any generation could relate to. The real difference comes when she talks about taking her brother Austin’s horse to school. She’d drop the horse off at the stable that was next to the school. Because of course a school has a stable. Sometimes Austin would come by (he was 7 years older) and retrieve his horse for some errand but he’d always return the horse so Grandma would have a ride.
To hear Grandma talk about Austin you’d think the man had absolutely no faults. I really don’t know much about him other than, being the only male heir, he inherited the family farm and worked it until his death…and he was something of a wizard with animals. There is a particular picture that Grandma shows me quite frequently which shows Austin with his horse (the one she rode to school), a dog, a sheep and a cat. She says the animals followed Austin around the farm as long as she can remember.
By the time Grandma graduated from her one-room schoolhouse at the end of the 8th grade her family had graduated 2 other girls and Austin. The family had acquired an apartment in town where the kids would live during the school week so they could receive a high-school education.
Grandma attended and graduated high school, and like many other young women in the late-twenties she had two choices: get married right away or find a “woman’s” job. Grandma promptly decided to attend beauty school. She doesn’t talk a lot about this period of her life other than sharing a story deriving from a picture of her graduating class.
She points herself and her sister, Alice, out in the back row. She then hastens to point out the instructor and one of the other students in the front row. “I’m pretty sure they were DRUNK!” She exclaims while looking at the picture. She taps the photo of the woman while ‘tsk-tsk’-ing. The scandal!
The social conservatism that she exhibits in this sort of thing seems a part of the way she was raised. Her people didn’t drink. They worked hard and expected the same from everyone else. They certainly didn’t run around with the opposite sex unsupervised!
It’s funny in talking to Grandma at this point how whole decades sort of disappear. I know practically nothing about the years between Grandma’s graduation from beauty school and 1939, the year she married Ted Schmid, my Grandfather.
I do know she was an anomaly for her time. She settled in Kimberly, Idaho and started a beauty shop in the back of the hardware store. This may sound odd today, but during the Great Depression the hardware store was a central place in a rural town where everyone in the family would pass on a near-weekly basis.
It was there she met my Grandfather. He was renting a room on the second floor and passed by her shop every day on his way out to find work painting (his lifelong profession). They struck up a friendship that clearly turned into something more…so that by 1939 there are pictures of the happy couple sitting on a lawn on their wedding day. They both look so young and full of hope…
The Great Depression and World War II were two events that shaped Grandma’s generation. She doesn’t talk about the depression other than to recall being poor and joining everyone in struggling to get by. She also doesn’t say much about World War II. She will, however, occasionally launch into a story about how “…Old Hitler thought he could take over our country…”
Hers is a proud generation. They survived the Great Depression and came out the winners of World War II. They overcame fascism and saw the American Dream come true for a whole generation of families. Strong family and community values remain, as well as a head-shaking disbelief and vague sadness at the state of our country today.