Thistles Cut, Ironing Done


(Ida Schwandt Schraeder)

Mrs. Charles Schraeder was a familiar figure in Markesan, Wisconsin. Her husband had once been mayor of this prosperous farming village, but many knew her through her own impact on the community. For at least ninety years she carried herself proudly erect even when she wore the high heels she preferred so long. When she walked "down town" on warm summer days to do a bit of shopping she dressed in flowered print dresses with soft trims. A necklace and small earrings were also part of her costume. Until very late in life she wore her dark hair neatly "done-up." It was already gray when she had it "bobbed." She visited the beauty shop.

But on Monday morning a different person appeared. She made me feel that she hated the washing and ironing that was to be done on that day. It was as if she were gritting her teeth while she worked. She wore one of her old frilly dresses, sometimes with another over it with a smock over all. A large scarf was tied over her hair. She wore shoes with badly run-over heels. No wonder the work was unpleasant! Tradition was that no one "worked" on Sunday but on Sunday evening she went to the basement where the laundry was done, to put the clothes to soak. Early Monday morning she had the washer running. Breakfast was a hit or miss meal because she wanted little interruption while she was trying to get the clothes hung on the lines outside. Some clean-up jobs went with washing so that by noon she was still in the washday costume. To save time Monday lunches were usually "boiled dinner," a combination of potatoes and cabbage, carrots and rice cooked in chicken broth.

The ritual of "spring" and "fall" housecleaning was faithfully observed. Aunt Ida "disturbed" the living room and dining room and reception hall all at the same time. Pictures were taken down and dusted. Walls and ceilings dusted. Curtains washed and starched and ironed. Rugs were taken out to be beaten. Eventually every room in the house received the same treatment. Marian Kohnke, Ida's cousin, recalls seeing Ida washing the outside of the upstairs windows. She had climbed out the window and stood on the slanting, shingled porch roof. She must not have been afraid of slipping because she was wearing her customary high-heeled shoes.

Ida Schwandt met Charles Schraeder when he worked as a hired man for her father on the farm. In those days nearly every young man began his independent life hiring out to help a farmer. Charles was an orphan. He found the blue-eyed, Ida could shift her caring ability from her many brothers and sisters to care for him. By the time of their marriage he had established himself in farm machinery business in Lake Mills, Wisconsin. After a few years they moved to Markesan where he continued to sell, International Harvester machinery and later had a car dealership and sold gasoline for Standard Oil.

Uncle Charley holding Sheldon - Aunt Ida and Zona
Millie Schteam (hired girl), Austin and Irene

For many years Aunt Ida kept the "books" for Uncle Charley's International Harvester and Buick-Chevrolet business located three blocks away, downtown. In the square room off the kitchen that she called the den, Aunt Ida kept a ledger on a sewing table. It was a very thick book nearly always laid open. Most of their customers were farmers of the area surrounding Markesan. Keeping records even for a dealership was simple compared to what is necessary today. No one had heard of social security numbers or credit cards. Once a customer made a purchase he became more than a customer. His name was all that was necessary for his payment record in the ledger. Farmers often called early in the morning about parts for their binders or mowers or other machines. In those days a customer knew where to find the dealer and did not hesitate to call him at home to inquire about parts for their equipment. Uncle Charley didn't relish getting up early. Since Aunt Ida rose early in the morning she was the one who answered the telephone. The customer waited on the line while Aunt Ida went to the foot of the back stairway to shriek, "Schraeder, Schraeder," in an effort to wake him to get up to answer the questions. Portly Uncle Charley didn't respond quickly. Sometimes it seemed he must have gone back to sleep. Aunt Ida didn't give up until he came to the phone.

Charles and Ida Schraeder 1940's

In the small town and rural culture of Markesan people greeted one another as they met on the street or in the stores. Men tipped their hats as they greeted a woman. Aunt Ida freely greeted everyone and often inquired about their family, especially if anyone was known to be ill. Most people knew who she was even if they were not well acquainted. In the 1950's population began to change. The canning factories imported summer workers from the south and even from Jamaica. One day Aunt Ida was in the grocery store where she saw a woman who was obviously a stranger. Mrs. Castro may have been the first Latin American Aunt Ida had ever had a chance to greet. Even though Mrs. Castro spoke English with difficulty and Aunt Ida spoke no Spanish, they fell into conversation. Aunt Ida asked, "Where is your home?"

"My home is in Edinburg, Texas not far from the Rio Grande River," replied Mrs. Castro.

"Edinburg, Texas!" exclaimed Aunt Ida. "I have a niece who lives there. Do you know her?"

Both of the ladies were surprised to find that in a city of 18,000, Mrs. Castro did indeed know Zona Justiss. Conversation took on new life. The church we attended in Edinburg had befriended Mrs. Castro's family in time of stress. The mention of church increased Aunt Ida's interest. I can believe that when she found that Mrs. Castro was the mother of six children that Aunt Ida told about her own six brothers and five sisters. The chance encounter made an exciting day for Aunt Ida who promptly wrote to me. Watching these two ladies of very different backgrounds talk with each other would have been an experience worth recording on camera.

Aunt Ida was my father's oldest sister. She and Uncle Charley lived in a very large house on a high spot in Markesan. Built in the early nineteen hundreds it was obvious that Aunt Ida helped design the house. The front door had a large oval beveled glass panel. A small entrance hall had a place for hanging coats and hats. A solid wood door opened into the reception hall, an ell shaped room with several windows at the front of the house. Underneath them was a hardwood bench. Aunt Ida called this the "cozy corner" although it was the opposite of cozy. The hard bench was at a right-angle to the wall and too far below the windows to permit seeing out. In winter it was the coldest part of the house. Most often it was used as a place for odds and ends - the extra sofa pillows or shawls. High on the north wall was an oval window. Beneath it was their early radio on a table. A chair faced the radio for easier listening to the often poor sound reception. Before we had a radio, I remember a winter night when our whole family spent the night so we could listen to one of Uncle Charley's favorite programs featuring the Mills Brothers.

Two oak pillars connected by a border of carved spindles at the top marked the opening to the living room. A silver basket on the divider beside one pillar held calling cards left by the finest ladies of the town.

From the reception hall, an open stairway was interrupted by a wide landing. The stairs and bannister were of lovely polished oak. Whenever Sheldon and I visited Aunt Ida we were instructed not to use this stairs for fear of wearing off the varnished finish. The year that we lived with Aunt Ida and Uncle Charley, Sheldon and I were told to use the gloomy back stairway, where a wide assortment of articles waited patiently for a better storage space. We found our way from the kitchen along this curved passage up to a large, bare hallway. A door to the right opened into the bathroom. A dark curtained nook snuggled under the attic stairs. Next to it was the door to the attic. Beyond the attic door the hallway led to the bedrooms.

The high-ceilinged attic extended the full length of the house. It was so large that whatever was stored took up very little space. A game of "go fishing" was the only thing that interested me. Long since discarded by my cousins, I liked to try to hook the cardboard fish which I set up in slots in a heavier base. A small stick with a hook on the end of a short string completed the equipment. I took it to the attic windows at the front of the house to sit down to try my skill with the hook and line. It was a quiet private place.

But in 1928 when I was twelve years old that attic became something else. I started high school in Markesan. We lived on a farm ten miles from town. Although my brother, Sheldon, started high school at the same time, at thirteen he was too young to drive a car. My parents asked Aunt Ida and Uncle Charley if we could board with them five days a week during our freshman year. Aunt Ida liked to "do good" and Uncle Charley was not bothered by having us around, so it was arranged.

Our reading list for English included Jane Eyre. I had always liked to read. At school I found the corner of the assembly hall that was set aside as a library. It was wonderful to see even that small collection of books.

The day I checked out Jane Eyre I began reading as soon as I got home from school. I couldn't put the book down except to do things absolutely necessary. I was living in Jane's world in Mr. Rochester's huge dark house. The description of his deranged wife living in the attic became very real. In my mind she was in the large attic at Schraeder's house and Jane's room in the story seemed like the room where I slept.

I was in real trouble when night came. I would have to go up the dimly lighted back stairway, past the attic door to get to my bedroom. For many nights after I finished the story, I put off going to bed as long as possible. Sometimes I disobeyed the rules and sneaked up the front stairway in my stockinged-feet. I didn't dare mention my fears to anyone.

Whenever I stayed at "Schraeder's" I slept in Irene's room across the hall from Aunt Ida's. When it was bedtime Aunt Ida made a ritual of my getting into bed with her to read the Bible together. Uncle Charley was not at home in the evenings. After the evening meal he invariably said, "I'm going down to the shop." So Aunt Ida had these hours alone to read to me and emphasize the ideas in which she believed. I was an adaptable pupil because from childhood I was interested in reading the Bible.

One of the parts of the ritual though, had nothing to do with piety. My hair fell softly but was not curly in those days. Before we got into bed Aunt Ida put it up in rags so that it would be in ringlets in the morning. I liked the attention, but sometimes I wasn't sure if I liked the appearance of my hair the next day. Aunt Ida wished everyone could have curls, while my Mother preferred to accept my hair as it was.

In later years when I taught school in Markesan I boarded with Schraeder's during bad winter weather. One day I commented that I couldn't get the seams of my hosiery straight on my legs. Aunt Ida said, "Don't say legs. Say limbs." I considered skirts and blouses appropriate for a teacher in the classroom. Aunt Ida wanted me to adopt her tastes in clothes. As I came down to breakfast she disapproved of my tailored clothes. "At least wear beads," she would say. At that time no one wore beads with a shirtwaist blouse and I still don't, although now they are worn even with sweatshirts.

When my father was too busy with farm work to drive me to take my piano lesson he sometimes took me to Markesan the night before to stay with Aunt Ida. She was willing to help anyone who was trying to play a musical instrument. She hoped every one of her numerous nieces and nephews would turn into musicians. At family gatherings at her house those who could play the piano were prevailed upon to play for the crowd. It was a pleasure to hear my cousin, Adelaide, play "Falling Waters." Sometimes she and her sister Ruth played a duet. Ida's son, Austin could play well too, but at that age I doubt he was around to be pushed into playing for his relatives. I can still see him in my mind when he sat at the piano while he waited for the evening meal. Pieces like "Nola," "Unchained Melody," "Hard Hearted Hannah" and "Kitten on the Keys" rippled off the keyboard while his body caught their rhythms ever so slightly. He continued to play through the years, sometimes with his wife, Virginia. One day in the '50s Adelaide Jahnke invited her aunts and a few cousins to lunch at her home. She and Austin gave us a happy treat when they played for us on two pianos. Two adult cousins playing together! I wished it could go on and on.

Schwandt Sisters in order of age
Lil, Nora, Edna, Ella, Emma, Ida

In the 1920's Women's Christian Temperance Union was an active organization. It was exactly the kind of group Aunt Ida could wholeheartedly support. She wanted very much to help people be good. She faithfully attended WCTU meetings. Usually there was a short program designed to enlighten the ladies to the evils of strong drink. In the hope of adding interest musical numbers were included and perhaps members could display their talents for reading or singing.

Aunt Ida had an idea! She persuaded her five sisters to become WCTU members. Then they, the Six Schwandt Sisters, could sing together for a program. It was too dear a dream for her to consider that two or three of the sisters never sang in public. Her niece should accompany them on the piano. Adelaide recalled that the sisters came to her mother's, Emma's, home to practice their song.

During a break from singing they fell to discussing how they should dress for the program. Should they wear hats and gloves?

Aunt Ida said, "We will wear hats."

Lil, the youngest reacted to being dominated. She said, "I don't have a hat."

"You can wear my blue turban," responded Ida.

"That bird's nest! I wouldn't wear it to the barn," was Lil's retort.

I've often wondered exactly how Aunt Ida felt about her son playing the saxophone in the high school band and later with a smaller band in college. When I mentioned those days - playing with that dance band in college to him a few months before his death, he smiled and said, "Those were the days." He had one time confided to me that his mother had never understood that his life could be different from hers. I think that is an almost universal happening between parents and children.

As the years passed whenever Ida entertained a group of her brothers and sisters she brought out her snapshot albums for everyone to see. She stood over us to explain each picture, some of which were of people we had never met. Her brothers began to tease her as they accepted her invitations to dinner. They said, "We'll have to look at pictures." (Now I can thoroughly understand Aunt Ida's interest in her collection. Whenever I search for a particular snapshot, I find myself spending a lot of time looking at the others as I search. They have taken on new meaning.)

Austin was five years older than his sister Irene. Both of them married and settled down in Markesan. It was a usual occurrence in those years. Austin went into the business with his father. After college it was discovered that Irene's heart was damaged. Uncle Charles gave her a job as bookkeeper in the office which by this time was downtown in his "shop." Aunt Ida gave Irene careful attention each time that she was disabled with the heart problem. Aunt Ida often spent days and nights for a week or more with Irene and her husband in order to be available if Irene should need her. One morning in 1946 Irene said, "Mother, you have been so good to me." With a faint sigh she stopped breathing. In recounting the event to me Aunt Ida said, "Why didn't she tell me she was dying?"

I felt very much at home with Uncle Charley and Aunt Ida. They freely came to spend Sunday evening with us when I was a young child. Mother was always happy to bring out a supper of canned red salmon and potato salad. Uncle Charley liked vinegar on the salmon. Often we were at their house for Sunday dinner. In the afternoon Uncle Charley walked to the drug store (the only store open on Sunday in those days) to buy a quart of ice cream. It was dipped out of the store freezer into a carton that folded down on top. A wire handle made it easy to carry back to the house for immediate eating. No one had refrigerators. Ice cream wouldn't keep in an icebox. I thought ice cream from the store was much better than the kind we made at home with real cream in winter.

On the day of our high school baccalaureate exercises we were invited to Schraeder's for dinner. They gave each of us, Sheldon and me, a wrist watch. It was something I had not even dared wish for, because my parents were struggling to pay for the farm in the lean year of 1932.

Aunt Ida and I spent time together singing. She took piano lessons after she was married. Now she played hymns and we both sang. "Open My Eyes That I May See" was one of the meaningful songs. For many years it did not occur to me that my eyes, ears, or heart were not totally open to what the Lord could have for me.

There were a few semi-popular songs too. Aunt Ida gave me the very old sheet music of "Grandmother's Love Letters." I am very happy to discover that I still have the music. A few years ago the sentiments expressed seemed excessively sentimental. Now they express part of my own feelings. I treasure the ragged, old-fashioned sheet of music with its faded colors much like the grandmother in the song cherished the letters.

The lyrics are by Janet Gordon, Published in MCMV

Sitting alone in the twilight
Just at the close of day
Grandmother's thoughts to the days that are past
Sadly and tenderly stray
Memories sweet have been wakened
Softly her gentle tears flow
As once more she reads the love letters,
Written so long ago.
Grandmother's love letters, faded and torn,
Dear precious missives, tho' tearstained and worn,
Each breathes a message so tender and true
Grandmother's love letters, hallowed to you.
Another favorite was "The Lost Chord." Yes, seated at the piano, I cannot forget Aunt Ida and the many hours we spent together. She was there whenever I needed a substitute for my parents in my childhood. I did not hesitate to stay with her and Uncle Charley whenever the winter storms made travel difficult to and from my teaching in Markesan. She often casually invited me to her house for lunch. It was a treat to leave the school building. She often served sauerkraut and wieners which she knew I especially liked.

Aunt Ida's way of showing surprise was to scream. She employed it when she was surprised at meeting someone or when she was "surprised" by a birthday party in her honor or when she was dismayed or frustrated. She was very upset when she witnessed one of my father's spasms that were part of his illness. A number of relatives were gathered in our living room when a spasm came over him. Mother reached for the tongue depressor to hold in Dad's mouth until the spasm subsided. We knew that was all that could be done. Aunt Ida stood close by screaming in a variety of tones. I was annoyed with her. If Dad could hear her it wouldn't help him.

I think Aunt Ida felt a special affection for my father, this brother Ed, next to her in age in the big family. When she saw his increasing disability it must have been a blow to the concept that life could continue smoothly for them to grow old together. She was impatient with illness for herself or those around her. Yet in the last year of his life when Dad and mother lived very near her in Markesan Aunt Ida came down to call one afternoon. She informed Mother that she was going to take over Ed's care. The thought of giving-in to his disability was not acceptable. After Mother had cared for Ed for eleven years she was insulted by Ida's approach.

Aunt Ida attended Sunday School and preaching faithfully. Only major illness could keep her away. The first ringing of the church bell was the signal to start the easy walk down the hill to the Methodist Church in the quiet of the Sunday mornings. In bad weather Uncle Charley took her in the car to Sunday School, with a promise that he would be there for the preaching service. Sometimes he did get there. She worked diligently teaching Bible classes. As long as she was physically able she attended meetings of the Ladies Aid and helped with every chicken-pie supper. Aunt Ida also sang in the choir until she was in her eighties when her voice was far from true to pitch. She grieved over those who were less faithful in their duties.

For several years the Sheible family lived in the Evangelical parsonage across the street from Schraeder's. There were three daughters about Irene's age and they often played together. One day when her mother reprimanded Irene sharply she told Aunt Ida, "I'm going to live with Sheibles." "You can go live with them, but you can't take your doll along," was her mother's quick response. Irene didn't go. Preachers and their families were special. Other people deserved to be helped in time of need but especially a preacher's wife and children should have extra gifts of food and even clothes. When she was ready to leave her home to live in Riverdale Manor Aunt Ida stipulated that her house must be sold to a retiring Methodist preacher that she had favored in her later years. Her wish was carried out.

Aunt Ida liked to entertain people in her home for dinners or parties. But sometimes when a recipe called for expensive ingredients she tried to "cut corners" by substituting cheaper materials. She could well afford luxury foods but the economical practices of her early years still ruled her feelings. This trait was shown when she entertained the school teachers at a dinner. My cousin, Adelaide, was asked to help her serve the meal. Aunt Ida attempted to warm the packaged rolls without removing the wrapper. Of course, the paper stuck to the rolls. When Adelaide told her, "You can't serve those." Aunt Ida said, "I'll just scrape off the paper."

Howard and I spent a few nights with Aunt Ida when she was ninety three years old. She had moved to a smaller two-bedroom house. Even at that age she served us meals much like any she served twenty years before. After an evening of visiting we decided to go to bed. Although it was eleven o'clock we marveled that Aunt Ida was still energetic enough to play the piano and sing while we fell asleep. We hoped we would be as able when we were old.

The next year we dropped in on her at two o'clock in the afternoon. She was eating lunch and invited us to eat with her. She said, "I have been too busy to eat until now. I have been baking doughnuts and cookies." We ate doughnuts and cookies and drank tea with her while she told us which neighbors were to receive some of the baked goodies. The cookies were two kinds, molasses and white sugar cookies which were staples in her pantry. They were rolled out and cut with a cookie cutter. Doughnuts too, had to be rolled out and cut. She still had that skill of rolling out the dough. I was reminded of her zeal for taking food to the sick in her younger years. If anyone was poor or ill or had a new baby Aunt Ida was concerned. She sent food to them even if she didn't know them well.

The Radel family were very near neighbors. In 1987 when Viola and I visited at our class reunion she told me that Mrs. Schraeder had helped her mother care for her as a new baby. Aunt Ida had a need to help her younger sisters with their children. Especially Edna's family were objects of her good intentions. A lovely looking Ida is seen on a formal photograph holding the young Ada. But June and Audrey were especially blessed. As a small child each was taken into Schraeder's home for days or even weeks. Since Edna had several children Aunt Ida wanted to help. June and Audrey provided opportunity for Ida to teach her values and put cute dresses on little girls. Pictures of Audrey show her hair in careful long curls.

In the culture of rural Wisconsin, people of Aunt Ida's generation didn't think about traveling or going on a vacation. At the end of the day folks were glad to sit down. A woman picked up embroidery or other handwork. Men might read the newspaper. But at Schraeder's in the twenties when Irene and Austin were high school age they spent many summer days playing croquet with their friends on the level grassy area of their back yard. Irene was very competitive and liked to win. In later years Aunt Ida evidenced that same spirit when she learned to play Chinese Checkers. One quiet evening she and I played. She won game after game. She couldn't help teasing me about my losing.

Aunt Ida was very concerned when Uncle Charley challenged my Dad or Mother to a game of regular checkers. Dad refused to play with him but my mother was ready. Uncle Charley was confident that he could win. No matter how often my Mother beat him he was just as sure the next time that "this time I can win." Dad was highly amused. Aunt Ida was embarrassed. She would say, "Well Schraeder," in a reproving tone. She wanted so much for him to win.

Whenever a member of the Schwandt family died the funeral was held in the Evangelical Church (Now United Methodist) in Markesan. It was customary for the members of the family to gather in the large room behind the main auditorium, which when I was a child was called the Sunday School room. For my mother's funeral in 1975 my aunts and uncles and numerous cousins of the Schwandt and Sommers families gathered to wait until time to be seated in the front pews in the sanctuary. Aunt Ida already lived in Riverdale Manor, the nursing home. Although she was ninety-seven years old she was not about to abandon taking charge in whatever way she could. While we waited in that room she brought out a large sack of mixed candies to give to me "for my children." (The youngest of our children was a college student and some were already married.) What a situation! It was not the place to engage Aunt Ida in a shouting match. Her hearing was very bad and she was determined to carry out her wishes no matter how trivial. I finally accepted the candy and wondered what I could do with it.

It was an unexpected situation. What do you do with a sack of candy at your Mother's funeral? With effort I pushed it into my purse. I had no experience in arranging funerals. There were many things that might have been done differently and I couldn't think how to meet this ludicrous demand from Aunt Ida. As I look back I see it as an interesting quirk of a very old lady still asserting her authority over the clan.

All her life she liked a party. Her birthday on June 19 was celebrated each year for many years. Sometimes it included only her five sisters, sometimes friends were included. And her niece June, who had the same birth date was expected to be there. In the last twenty years of her long life her son, Austin, made sure that there was a big birthday cake with her age printed on it. Usually her brothers and sisters and spouses were invited to dinner at a fine restaurant. In the last years there was simply a birthday cake to be shared by the patients of the nursing home.

A younger brother, Fred, had lived for a short time in Riverdale Manor in a room very near hers. In 1979 when he was ninety-six he died after a brief illness. Ida missed him terribly. In spite of his age he had been quite able to move around. At her request "Freddie," as she often called him, sang to her in his soft tenor voice and adjusted her covers as he told her "goodnight."

On January eighteenth in 1985 in sub-zero temperatures her remaining brothers and her last sister, Lil gathered with the many nieces and nephews to pay tribute to Aunt Ida, the end of her 105 years. Plans for her funeral had long been made. Now she could lie beside her husband and near her beloved daughter. The gold dress that she wore on her golden wedding many years before was her choice for this occasion. Without eyesight or hearing for several years, leaving this life was not as hard as losing three of her brothers and four of her sisters in the years just past. The days of the family get-togethers were gone. She said to me, "None of us are able to help one another now that we are all old."

Thistles Cut, Ironing Done          HOME     PREVIOUS   NEXT  

Copyright 1991, 2004 by Zona S. Justiss. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, text and photos on this page are property of the author and may not be reproduced, posted, distributed, or used for any commercial purpose without prior permission.