Several days ago I drove past a house in the southeast area of Mason City where there lived many years ago an elderly woman whom I had befriended years earlier. My story starts when I was somewhere in the age of perhaps 14 years. In those days, when I wanted money to purchase something, I looked for summertime work away from the daily chores at home where I could make real money. Through word of mouth with the area farmers, I was told to go and visit an elderly widow who needed someone to help her with her huge yard and garden. My mother drove me to her place and I was introduced to Nettie. Being a bit nervous about working on a strange place for a strange person, I was a bit uncomfortable seeing my mother driving back down the lane calling after me that she would be back in the late afternoon to pick me up. It didn’t take long to become accustomed to my new work place.
Nettie was likely in her early 80’s with a strong frame and walked with determination. Each time I went there to work, I grew more fond of her. She would work nearly as hard as I did but would also have a full farmer noon meal ready when it was time to eat. At first she didn’t talk much but the more I got to know her, the more she spoke about her life. She knew I enjoyed listening to her stories of how life was back before the turn of the century when she was a young woman. She could recall in great detail events while I sat listening as we ate. I soon understood how she became the woman she was.
She was married young and was the eldest daughter of a large farm family. Her burdensome duties started at an early age. Only a hand full of years passed after her marriage and birth of her three sons, her husband died of the great influenza epidemic that ravaged Europe during WWI. A single mother with three sons to raise by herself became a daunting task. She spoke about cutting corners on provisions, growing nearly everything they ate on their small farm and also having her sons do work for other farmers when money was needed. WWII arrived and her eldest son went into the service.
Yet another tragedy occurred when she was informed that her son was killed on the battlefield. I think the death of her son was what really caused her survival instincts to kick in. Listening to her was like listening to an audio book; each chapter was the topic she picked to speak about at our next meal together. I worked for Nettie for about eight years during the summer and sometimes on Saturdays.
I helped her prepare for her farm sale, I helped her move into her charming little 2 bedroom home here in Mason City, and in the last years, I read her mail to her that she couldn’t read and did the little odd jobs for her that she couldn’t manage anymore. She was slowly going blind. When her son who lived in the area would arrive while I was there helping her, would tell me how stubborn his mother was and that she needed to go to a nursing home. I just listened. Not too many months later I received a call from her son telling me that his mother had passed quietly in the night. I thought to myself at the time, “Good for her.” She endured more than most could every imagine. She was 95 years old when she died. Wow, what a roller coaster life and yet she never ever expressed any sort of distain for the plate full of heartaches and hardships she was served. She just did what she had to do. Now that’s a woman of substance.