Earthen Floors

Electronic email message from Lew Marquardt, Austin, Texas, 2 March 2006

Fellow GR Listers:

Normally I do not participate in these what-our-ancestors-did discussions but I do have a small story concerning a favorite aunt who was born in a growing little border town in South Dakota before the turn of the 19 hundreds. Her tiny immigrant family had recently arrived from South Russia where her mother had already given birth to her older brother, who later in life would razz his siblings as being the only one in their family, outside of papa and mama, of course, who could claim two nationalities and still speak three languages. Curiously, he never did demonstrate to what degree of fluency he knew all three.

But Aunt A. would taunt him in turn as she claimed that he didn't know what the good life was as he was always in town or the fields with his father while she had to stay at home and take care of the smaller ones. Not only that, but she was born into a home that had a smooth, orange-colored, varnished, wooden floor that didn't dirty up one's knees so, and that had some substance when one placed a chair or table on the floor. Yes, she had to sweep her floor every day, she related, and always, especially, "in die Ecke," as her mother was a finicky sort who couldn't stand the least bit of dust or dirt in her new American city house. But her wooden floor was her responsibility and the very few toys or dolls the little family had she could play with on her shiny floor, in between her chores and duties looking after the other children.

And then they moved across the border, to take up a homestead in a lousy land full of rock and dirt where her new home was mostly a sod-house supplemented with a few clap boards here and there, and a window on each side of the longest room, a door on the front. And the floor? Well, like every other pioneer homesteader, it was compacted dirt, lousy dirty dirt that she also had to sweep as her siblings were growing and had no time for indoor chores. Mama was kept busy raising children and preparing meals for her hard-working new farmers, but Aunt A. had to stay at home and help raise the family. Consequently she never did attend school nor had to conduct much outside field work, except during major harvest, but she later became the favorite of the clan and to her dying days always told me of the day she had to enter that musty old sod house and give up her nice clean varnished wooden floors, now miles away, in town.

Later, my father would describe for me their corner stove in that soddie, at first an old metal barrel in which they were somehow able to burn the stuffed hay or straw he had to haul in to keep the fire burning and around which they used to sit on Sundays or certain evenings to chew their "Rooshian peanuts" or sunflower seeds as they became more available in the new country. He also related a story about how the relatives would visit and deposit the hulls, he said "spit," right onto the very floor which Aunt A. had to sweep as soon as they left. Yes, he too knew of her sweeping duties but he also told of how the sunflower seeds and oils, after an appropriate amount of time, gave a sort of polish and sheen to their darkened earthen soddie floor.

Then, just before the turn of our present century my spouse and I were able to visit with Aunt A. shortly before she died at 103 years of age, and I shall take to my own grave the image of my Aunt sitting on a chair in her living room, now with a carpeted floor no less and me kneeling before her listening to her stories. And just as we started to leave and before I could rise to say goodbye, she stretched forward and placed her forehead on mine and held my hands in hers for what seemed like three or four very long minutes. She knew, and I was later to learn, that neither of us knew what type floor she may have to care for next.

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