My grandma — Peg Quest Kuntz, who grew up in the Sorrel Horse Valley of the Bighorn River — told me recently that she used to cut her parents’ lawn with scissors.
We were on the phone last week (she’s 90 this year, still drives, still sharp) talking about central air conditioning and other assorted anomalies of our spoiled modern life.
Though Grandma and Grandpa built a new house on their farm in the ’70s — where she still lives (alone) today — it doesn’t have air conditioning. Still, it is equipped with many of the conveniences that they didn’t even dream about when she was a little girl on the Bighorn: like electricity to run fans. Freezers to keep ice in. Running water to make iced tea with.
(Grandma has told me before that they hauled their drinking water — and put up ice in the winter — out of the Bighorn River back then. She says the water was murky and full of floaters. “It made good iced tea, though,” she tells me with a sly grin. Below, she is the baby, with her parents Glen and Maggie and sibs Lillian, Bud, and Mildred.)
Talking to her last week, I commiserated that things must have gotten awfully hot in that little house where she lived with her parents and three siblings.
“It did,” she agreed. “Some nights we would go outside and lay on the lawn. Momma always kept a nice lawn.”
“Really?” I said. “How in the world did she keep a nice lawn?” (This would have been in the 1930s on a sagebrush flat.)
“We watered it. The Two Leggins Ditch runs right by there.”
“But you didn’t have electricity for a pump.”
“No, we flood irrigated it,” she said.
“Oh.” I thought about that for a moment. “Well, then, how did you mow it when it grew?”
“For the first years we cut it with scissors,” she said. “Later we got one of those mowers on wheels, but it was really hard to push.”
My. Goodness. Can you imagine? The things we have these days which we take for granted. The kids who sit inside in the air conditioning and watch television — my own kids not excepted. And Grandma was outside on her hands and knees with a pair of scissors cutting the lawn just a few decades ago!
Wow. The things these people who settled the West did just to cut our place in the earth. They hacked down trees and wrestled ploughs through virgin dirt and survived droughts on only home-grown eggs, milk squeezed from belligerent cows, and wild game. They came here to settle a land still wild and dangerous. They struggled forward without the help of servants or slaves to do the dirty work, and they ultimately conquered, paving the way for the opulence and safety my generation enjoys… and to make possible the huge farms and ranches here that today are feeding the world.
I am amazed by the changes Grandma has seen in her single lifetime. From no running water and no electricity to smart (?) phones and a country that is largely indifferent to the war that’s being fought and the pivotal election that’s being campaigned. She grew up knowing that if she wanted something nice, it was up to her to make it (a lawn, a dress, an education). Today she can’t believe we don’t all tune in to hear the Presidential broadcasts. When she was in her prime, the President was a greatly respected man who sat at the head of our country, and by golly you listened to what he had to say — even if you hadn’t voted for him.
When Grandma and my Grandpa Edwin were little more than kids, they got married and served our country during World War II. The willingness of the men and women alike of their generation to serve and sacrifice guaranteed for us the life of comfort, plenty, and frivolity that we enjoy today.
I believe that Americans are the cream of the crop. And I believe that Westerners are the cream of that crop: the toughest of the Americans, the ones who kept on pushing until they got to the end of the frontier… and there they set down roots and built a civilization out of cottonwood and sandrock.
I’m proud to be an American. Proud to be a Westerner. And proud to be their granddaughter:
Who in your life can you thank today?
© Tami Blake
* My maternal great-grandfather Glen Quest “and ponies at the Old Mission Ranch, 1916.”