The Coat Exchange
This is a little story about a coat that my grandmother had long, long ago. It is also a story about what a coat can mean to its owner, or in this case its two owners, in rendering service for many a year. It is a story about a very precious coat and a very poor one. It is a story about the special bonding of my grandmother and my mother that arose through the sharing of the best family coat between them.
My grandmother was born in the late 1880’s and my mother in the early 1900’s. The story takes place about eighty years ago when my grandparents were homesteading a farm in western South Dakota. The family lived in a sod house that grandfather built. It was and still is a remote rural area where neighbors live many miles apart. In those days, as my mother tells me the story, she and her brothers and sisters attended a country school where the teacher (actually my father) taught all eight grades in a one-room schoolhouse. He and the school children rode horses and ponies to school from their remote farms and ranches.
People who lived in that isolated countryside were so starved for news and social interaction, my mother tells me, that in favorable weather someone would ride around to the various homesteads to spread the news of a general gathering on a given Sunday at a grove of trees where they could visit and enjoy each other’s company and share whatever news anyone had to offer. The children were so excited over these upcoming “outings” that they could hardly wait for them to take place. A few photographs survive in the family album showing picnic scenes at the old grove. Looking at the faces caught in the camera you can almost sense the wonderful enjoyment that was taking place as news and companionship flowed all around the small gathered community.
My grandmother had been a teacher in her young adult days. Even though she found herself with my grandfather and their five children on this remote homestead out in the rugged “Slim Buttes” country where she often shot a jackrabbit with her rifle to furnish the evening meal, she was concerned that her daughters receive a proper high school education. This was considered a rather rare achievement in those days out in that rather desolate country.
So it was that grandmother determined that my mother should go to high school at St. Martin’s Academy in Sturgis, South Dakota. This entailed a considerable privation on the farm without her assistance to help rear the younger siblings, coupled with the expense of boarding at the school, but it also meant for grandmother that she give up her coat, the best one in the family, in order that my mother could have a decent one to wear at school. So on the day of departure for Sturgis, grandmother removed her precious coat as they parted and put it on my mother. And she, in turn, gave her old ragged and torn farm coat to grandmother in exchange, and wept tears of thanks and sorrow for this act of special kindness and concern for her proper school appearance.
But one day during that long and lonesome school year mother received a telegram from grandmother telling her that her father, mother’s grandfather, had died in Chambers, Nebraska, where the family had lived before migrating to South Dakota, mostly by team and wagon. The telegram said that she was on the way to attend his funeral, traveling first by team and buggy to Newell, South Dakota, the nearest railroad point, and mother was instructed to meet her at the train station in Sturgis with her coat.
Mother tells me that as the train stopped at the depot, grandmother stepped off in the old farm coat that was patched and repatched many times over. They embraced in their mutual grief over the death of grandmother’s father. Although mother hardly knew her deceased grandfather since the family left that area of Nebraska many years ago when she was still in her infancy, she knew full well the devotion and great respect that her mother had for her pioneering father, one of the first to settle the Nebraska community in which he died.
As they parted when she prepared to board the train that had arrived to carry her into Nebraska on the next leg of the journey, mother took off and passed the precious coat to her mother for the funeral and received in exchange the old farm coat to wear for a short interim period. No matter the years of rural poverty and the deprivations that were a way of life living in a sod house in the remote “Slim Buttes” country, grandmother had always managed to hold on to her dignity and to teach her daughters proper manners and respect for others and to observe the conventions of society, a society they hardly knew or had ever experienced. It was a solemn duty to appear in public in your very best attire, she always told her daughters, no matter how sparse your wardrobe might be. It was a lesson mother learned well, and this very occasion reinforced that learning in an unforgettable way.
About a week later, as the train arrived on the return trip from the funeral, grandmother again stepped down to the platform. Mother was again waiting expectantly. They hugged and chatted until the waiting train heading north to Newell blew the whistle for the “All Aboard!” Drying their tears while managing a final embrace, grandmother removed the precious coat she was wearing and gave it back to my mother, and received in turn the old ragged and patched farm coat for the final leg of her journey back home to the homestead, the sod house, and the waiting family of father and younger children.
It was a wintry scene as mother recalled it, a scene deeply etched in her memory, and one that brought back tears in the remembrance of it all even as she recounted this story to me some years ago. Even yet, she said, she could see grandmother waving goodbye from the train on that snowy day, clad in the old farm coat while mother waved back, warmed in the precious coat that both had shared so closely in the special bonding of a mother and daughter.
At this writing Mother is now well advanced in her 90’s and lives in a nursing home. Having suffered a number of strokes in recent years, her memory no longer sustains her except on the rarest of occasions when something might be said that surprisingly triggers a flash of remembrance. And so it was one day when I asked her if she remembered the story she had once told me about leaving the old sod house on the farm to start high school in Sturgis. I was prepared for her usual response, “I don’t remember anything about that.” But this time, after a lengthy pause, I noticed an unusual light come into her eyes and a great uplifting of her spirit as she suddenly and triumphantly said, “I remember the coat that Mama gave me!”
Blessed are the memories that are stored forever in one’s heart.
Frank wrote his story about the coat exchange between his mother and grandmother for a national essay contest and, no surprise, he won. This is a Govert story and, maybe, by printing it here, Goverites, former Goverites, descendants of Goverites and Goverite wannabes can read it and share the spell Frank wove about prairie life. This is a story that should never be lost to our prairie history.
The story was dear to Frank's mother as well. As Frank wrote in his story, this episode of her life continued to be retrievable, even though strokes progressively claimed other memories. Prior to her death at age 93, during a visit by Frank, Cecil brightened and said "I remember the coat that Mama gave me". This happened close in time to the visit recorded by the picture below.
You'd like to see a picture of Frank's grandmother, wouldn't you ... the grandmother who played such a prominent part of his story. Frank does not disappoint. Frank's grandmother Lena, also called "Dabu" by her family, is pictured here in front of the sod house in the Slim Buttes area.
More Springer history and Goodell history remains to be told so, some Thursday to come, we will return here and continue where we left off.
Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate
[Offered to you with much gratitude to Frank Goodell for sharing his story, his pictures ... for sharing his family ... in fulfilling our common goal to preserve the history of a part of the prairie dear to both of our families, and dear to everyone who ever called this corner of the prairie "home".]