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Ten Things of Thankful: A Lake Wobegon Inspired Post


The Rosie the Riveter image from the Library of Congress Digital Collection shows a woman dressed in a blue shirt and red and white polka-dot head scarf raising a fist and showing her muscles. The image is captioned, "We can do it!"

Every week, my dad would turn on the radio and we would sit around the table and listen to A Prairie Home Companion. At the end of every episode, Garrison Keilor would sign off by saying, "That's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." With Mother's Day coming up on Sunday, I've been thinking about the strong women in my life, and I'm thankful for them.

Two smiling 90+ year old white-haired sisters 
My great-grandaunts, Golda and Olive, pictured above, were two such strong women. They were two of eight children born to George and Cora Telfer. Golda (on the left in the photo) was born in 1891, and Olive (in the dark sweater, on the right) was two years her senior. I remember them from family reunions as the little old white haired ladies who always seemed so happy. As I've learned more about their stories, though, I realize that life wasn't always easy for them. Golda never had children, but her memories were preserved in a personal history she wrote. Through her words, I could note her humility and sense of humor. She begins her account with these paragraphs: 

"After all the life stories that have been read before this one, I am afraid this one is going to be very simple and uninteresting. But it is my life and there is nothing I can do about it. I was born in Elroy Wisconsin, my first home, about 50 miles north of Madison.

"The first thing I can remember is going with my father to a neighbor’s home to listen to a phonograph. I can still see the room, just a small room with a bed in one corner, covered with a patchwork quilt. The room was filled with people, each taking their turn listening to the phonograph through tubes in their ears as there was no loud speaker. I was little and unimportant, but finally the tubes were placed in my ears and for one short minute I heard music. 

"The next I remember, I was about 3-1/2, when a new baby had come to our house during the night. It was very, very hot in the middle of July. I remember standing at the head of my mother's bed with a big piece of ice in my hand letting it drip down on her pillow. She was sick and I was so worried that every time she would close her eyes I would touch her with my cold hand and say, "Is you better now Mama?" I am sure that she appreciated my concern."

Golda (and Olive, too) moved from Wisconsin to Oregon when they were in their early 20s. They were seamstresses for some time. Golda also taught school for a while, after being asked by the superintendent:

"I told him I hadn’t been educated for a school teacher and I didn't think I could do it. He said they were all in the lower grades and he was sure I could and to come to the Court House the next day and take an examination. Well, I went and I passed (or he passed me). I went immediately to Beaver Creek and taught for three short terms."

Shortly after that, she met and married her husband and became a rancher's wife. She also was a buckaroo cook:

"That is where I met Orrin. After I finished teaching, we were married and I started my life on a big cattle ranch. I suppose it was about the same a life on any stock ranch, only with me I am sure it was a little different. We were 85 miles from Prineville, up close to the mountains where most of the cattle were run; it was about 5,000 feet high. The winters were severe. We had no car, no electricity, and no telephone at first. Later we had all modern conveniences. We were 25 miles from the lower ranch where Orrin’s family lived; it took most of the day to make the trip. There were 12 gates to open and shut going each way.

"The way it was different for me was that a good part of the time I was a buckaroo cook. All the fellows out riding for cattle knew where to find our place and knew that they would find a hot meal and a good bed. If any one came by any hour or the day or night the first thing you asked was, “Have you eaten?” During the spring and fall roundup it was camping out where ever the roundup happened to be. The size of the crowd varied, sometimes there would be only 10 or 15 men, however, they averaged around 20 but I have cooked for as many as 40 on a camp stove. 

"Our camp stove was really something. It was about 2-1/2 feet wide and 3 feet long. There weren't 2 or 3 burners but the whole top of the stove was cooking surface and much of the time it was full. There were two large reflectors that hung on each side of the stove. You could bake almost anything you could bake in an oven in them, such as light bread, sour dough biscuits, roast meat. I think I made cinnamon rolls by the hundreds! 

"We were usually up at 4:30 in the morning and if we were lucky we were through by nine in the evening. There was lots to do all day, preparing meals for that many hungry men, washing towels and dish towels by hand each day. However, we always managed 2 hours rest in the afternoon."

Aunt Golda was definitely a strong woman!

Aunt Olive was, too. Although as far as I know she didn't write a life story, what I have been able to piece together with newspaper articles and vital records tells me that she also lived through some hard times. She married twice. She and her first husband had three children: a boy born in 1917, a girl born in 1918, and a boy born in 1919. The baby girl only lived for 6 hours. Olive's husband passed away while she was pregnant with their second son. I can only imagine how difficult those years must have been for Olive. In 1925, she married her second husband--a man who had escaped death, but lost both hands in a dynamite accident in 1916. Olive and her second husband had a daughter together. Her second husband ended up passing away in 1949. 

Olive died in 1982, and Golda in 1989. Neither of them would consider herself remarkable, yet they were. They are just two examples of strong women I know. 

Both of my grandmas were also remarkable women. My dad's mom had accidents claim the lives of two of her family members: her dad died in a mining accident when she was only 11, and her only daughter, Bonnie, died in a freak piano accident a couple of weeks before Christmas when Bonnie was 7 years old. While those events definitely impacted her, they did not define her. She got through the hard times. Like my memories of Golda and Olive, my memories of my grandma are ones of smiles and laughter. She opened her home up to anyone who needed it--and while sometimes that meant family members, she also was gracious to everyone my grandpa would bring home. Her hospitality even extended to those who were not invited; one time, Grandma discovered that a stranger was inside her home. She told him in no uncertain terms to stay put while she called the police. Then, she fixed him a sandwich while they waited for the officers to arrive. 

My mom's mom lived to be just a few months shy of 103. While Alzheimer's took many of her memories during the last years of her life, it didn't take my memories of her as a capable, strong, intelligent, caring woman. When she and my grandpa moved to a farmhouse, Grandma checked out a book on wiring from the library and wired the upstairs of the house. (Times were different then; of course I'm not advocating DIY home wiring projects, rather just pointing out Grandma's abilities and confidence.) She was one of 15 children, and moved from the Ozarks of Arkansas to California as a child. Although quieter than my other grandma, she still had a delightful little laugh. 

It's easy to see where my mom got many of her traits. She is as gentle a soul as her mom was, and just as detail-oriented. Mom does everything right. I'm not as Mary Poppins-esque as she is, but I am thankful my children and grandchildren can benefit from her "practically perfect in every way" nature. I literally couldn't have asked for a better mom. 

I can't leave out John's mom. She definitely has the gracious gene. She is always thinking of others, and has spent her life devoted to family. 

So many strong women! And so many more: my aunts, nieces, cousins, sister, sisters-in-law, friends. Some of the strongest women I know are young: my daughters, daughter-in-law, son's girlfriend, and granddaughters. 

No matter the age or life situation, I am thankful for the strong women in my Lake Wobegon. Happy Mother's Day, even if you don't feel you deserve it. You do!


  1. Wow. Thank you for posting this!

  2. Interesting... such different worlds they lived from ours
    the line that struck me the most (yours) was, "While those events definitely impacted her, they did not define her"
    quite insightful

    1. Different in many ways, yet relatable.
      Thank you.


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