A Heritage



My grandparents’ generation witnessed greater social and technological changes than any that preceded it, and possibly any that will follow.  When they were born, in the late 1800s, cars weren’t a thing yet — everything was done with horses.  Before the end of their lives, they’d seen the advent of space exploration and watched NASA put a man on the moon.

My grandparents who were farmers remained true to their conservative roots, lived frugally, and made a point of being satisfied with what they had.  Their motto was “Wear it out, fix it up, make it do.”  They clung to what they knew best, jettisoning very little along the way.  Living next door to them I benefitted from a natural immersion in their history, and the pioneer spirit is my friend.

My outlook is aligned with the liberal views of my grandparents who lived in town, but I’ve never lost my appreciation for what it took to settle the heartland and survive.  Recently I was breezing through my Facebook news feed, did a double-take, and backed up.  A childhood friend had posted this photo of my Great-uncle Otto’s blacksmith shop, which is falling into ruin, and my growing-up years came flooding back.

My sisters and brother and I and our friends spent lots of hours here, climbing on outbuildings and an array of obstacles, snooping around the shop and the house that used to stand next to it, shinnying up the windmill tower, and roller skating in the old brick schoolhouse down the road on property owned by our family.  There were irrigation ditches in this field, too, good for wading in the icy water and slinging mud.

My great-uncle lived in a corner of his shop after his mother died and a fire spooked him out of the house.  He had an outhouse, an iron cot, a potbelly stove for heat and cooking, and that’s about it in the way of creature comforts.  He and my grandpa, his brother, were gunsmiths and inventors who understood hard work better than anything else.  I grew up surrounded by guns, which at the time were exclusively for hunting and for building prized collections.  My bachelor great-uncle, one generation removed from the German ship that delivered the Wagner family to the Promised Land, was eccentric and brilliant and reeked of the garlic he ingested at every meal to ward off disease.  As children, we were endlessly fascinated by him — he was a mystery we couldn’t crack.

People from all over the country sent him guns to repair and refurbish, and he had several patents to his name.  He saved every can label and filled the backs with calculations scrawled with a dull carpenter’s pencil.  He had Big Chief tablets filled with the same, along with drawings of inventions, and poems and essays on life, religion, and human dynamics.   He was a fixture of my childhood — a skinny man with a handlebar mustache who wore long underwear and a sheepskin jacket year ’round, and drove his Model T Ford the quarter-mile to my grandparents’ house every day to hold forth about ideas and mathematics and projects from his comfy nest in the kitchen rocker.  My grandma, who’d long ago earned his trust by listening, cajoled him into taking a bath at their house twice a year while she washed his well-oiled clothes.

One look at this photograph and I was back in my grandparents’ warm kitchen, Uncle Otto’s gravelly voice droning on, garlic and gun oil mixing with the aroma of fried potatoes, beef and gravy, and coffee, Grandpa stamping in from the cold, the sound of my grandma’s wry chuckle, and the sense that life would go on forever just that way.

Although nostalgia is in my bones, and it all looks so simple and clean from this vantage point, I don’t want to live there.  I started to become an adult the day I accepted the truth that life is all about change.  But a gray wet fall day seems like a sweet time to revisit the past, and I’m indebted to my friend Carrol for the photo.


12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Carrie Rubin
    Sep 22, 2014 @ 10:54:37

    My brother and I used to do endless exploring at my grandparents’ place. Everything was exciting and worth our attention–from a neighboring junk yard to an outdoor theater across the street. I hope children today still explore. Moving around outside, creating your own stories, beats watching them on the TV.



    • Judy Smith
      Sep 22, 2014 @ 11:01:33

      I hope that’s still happening too, Carrie. It gives me a pang of regret when I see groups of kids walking down a sidewalk, each one engrossed in his or her cell phone. I know it’s too much to hope that kids are still inventing their own fun all the time, but jeez, raise your head and look around once in a while!



  2. Barbara Downing
    Sep 20, 2014 @ 17:02:48

    I cherish all the memories I have from all the visits to both my big sisters’ homes. We chowed down a lot of meals at both places and had unforgettable get-to-gethers. I remember the cute things you Wagner kids would say and do. The one one that comes to my mind right now is the time that Susan was concerned about getting some of that gramma cake. When she came in from playing, some of us were still eating and she noticed that half of the cake was gone and seemed a little upset when she exclaimed, “Well, save some for me !!”.



  3. Leigh Miller
    Sep 19, 2014 @ 14:20:30

    A storyteller with a rich vocabulary, that can take you to wherever she is. Thanks Judy for that fascinating look into your childhood and family history! You are such a gem, a shining star, thanks for sharing your story!



  4. Sammy D.
    Sep 18, 2014 @ 19:56:08

    What rich memories. Full of life and courage and spirit. Lives well-lived with an impact on you. Thank you, Judy!



  5. Barbara Downing
    Sep 18, 2014 @ 14:27:03

    I remember him well and I was fascinated by the way he lived.
    Truly and unforgettable man.



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