Towards the end of his mother’s very long life, retired journalist and octogenarian Mardo Williams began collecting her reminisces of a long bygone time in antique rural America. The result, three years after the death of Maude Williams at 110 years old, was a biography
In 1903, a pregnant nineteen-year-old Maude Allen wed Lee Williams and moved into a family homestead already more than a half-century old on farmland in remote rural Ohio. There was no electricity, telephone or indoor plumbing. Their second child, Mardo, was born in 1905; altogether there would be a total of four children born in every-other-year intervals. A mix perhaps of Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons, Maude revisits a much simpler time in America when close-knit families worked and played together through hardship and celebration. As a kind of primary source, the book is almost instantly fascinating as the narrative reveals in colorful detail how the Williams family went about their day to day lives – preparing food, keeping warm, washing clothes, doing farmyard chores, and the like – in a kind of primitive isolation. There is a pronounced charm to it, along with a certain heartwarming glow, especially in its survey of the more innocent America of Mardo’s childhood, replete with amusing anecdotes of Maude’s proverb-laced mothering, and Lee’s homespun practical jokes, as well as tales of long buggy rides to town or the occasional country fair, and winter sleigh rides to visit extended family and friends.
Yet, perhaps more fascinating is what is missing; that which remains unsaid. Primitive isolation: there is no doubt that sums up the farm where Maude and her family resided. But why? In 1903, Maude was living much like her grandparents would have lived. It was indeed remarkably similar to Little House on the Prairie, but yet it was early twentieth century America, on a farm in Ohio no less, hardly a desolate wilderness on the edge of the western frontier or a forgotten pocket of poverty in the deep south. And it hardly changed in the years to come. One day a telephone was installed, and the isolation was reduced, but not by much. Maude had a cistern to collect rainwater for washing, but she did not get an indoor pitcher pump for it until the 1920s [p235]. Around that time, she finally went from a washboard to a “hand-propelled washing machine.” Lee got a car in 1920, and there are later stories of the children hanging out in the car in the evenings, listening to the radio. Incredibly, there was no radio in the house until the late 1940s, just as the era of television dawned for the rest of the country [p12-13]. Maude thought it something of a miracle when the house was finally wired for electricity – in 1947 – when she and Lee were in their sixties! For twenty-first century Americans, there is perhaps a quaint rustic charm to the description of their privy, located a full one hundred feet from the back door, “. . . a two-holer equipped with a sack of lime . . . and a fly swatter,” and neatly accented with a Sears Roebuck catalog hanging from the wall – the pages of the catalog doubled as a “wish list” and as toilet paper [p34]. Of course, it is dubious that such charm extended to those who had to relieve themselves outdoors with no lights or plumbing day after day in every manner of weather. In 1960, three years after Lee’s death, and with the property in deep disrepair, Maude moved away. She was seventy-seven years old and had used an outhouse for the entire fifty-seven years that she lived there.
The careful anthropologist as reader cannot help but ask: why did conditions remain so primitive for Maude and Lee for some six decades? It certainly did not start off that way. Lee’s family was apparently somewhat well-off, even sending Lee off to college. When he opted to drop out in favor of farming, Lee brought his new bride to a sprawling ten room house where his grandfather had lived, on land that included a barn, granary, windmill and more. His parents donated odd pieces of furniture to them. Three years later, Lee’s father paid to have the house repaired and renovated. This was a promising start for the young couple, and hardly abject poverty, yet by all accounts Lee and Maude lived a hardscrabble and weirdly anachronistic existence ever after. It appears that life was markedly different for others in their shared geography, who enjoyed at least some of the more modern conveniences conspicuous in their absence on the Williams farm. Long before he had his own car, Lee hiked through the mud to bum a ride to town in his neighbor’s vehicle, a town firmly anchored in the twentieth century, not trapped in the faded nineteenth where Lee and his family seemed helplessly glued. But again: why? The narrative neither reveals the answer nor openly begs the question. Was Lee an incompetent farmer? There are vague hints that he may have been an alcoholic, but this is never fleshed out. Was he unlucky? Was he simply lazy? Or was the primitive state of things a kind of “hair shirt” Lee liked to wear? It is never made clear. Vast changes occurred in American life in the twentieth century, but life on the Williams farm essentially stood still. The subtitle of the book, She Grew Up with the Country, is starkly misleading; the country grew up, but Maude was somehow left behind.
There is a telling photo on the cover of this edition of Maude. Maude was only twenty-six, Lee twenty-seven; each look at least forty. Perhaps it was the times. Or maybe it was that hard life on that farm where every day was more like 1858 than 1908. For all of Mardo’s abundant nostalgia, it seems that in fact it was a life that none of the children really cherished, at least once they were old enough to juxtapose their world with the world outside. The book contains vague references to their teenage years, but then the story fast forwards as all four children have married and moved away – for good. Hard times and primitive isolation seems to have held very little appeal. It is never explained why neither Maude nor Lee attended any of their weddings.
Despite encouragement from the writer’s group, the second half of the book should never have been written. It is less about Maude than about the extended family, including tales of murders, madness and alienation that have little to do with the themes of Americana resident in the first part of the narrative. Until the last years of her life, her children seem to have been markedly disengaged from her. But Maude lived on and, at least at first, thrived in a whole new universe replete with such marvels as indoor plumbing, and color television, and jet travel to visit relatives on the other side of the country! She does not seem to miss her days as a kind of cave-dweller. Still, she remained a simple soul, for better or for worse. Maude proudly voted for fellow Ohioan Warren G. Harding in 1920, the first national election after women had won the franchise. When President Bill Clinton sent her congratulations on reaching her 110th year, she did not hesitate to tell anyone who would listen that she had voted against him. The Williams’ hosted a stubborn conservatism that opposed even that which benefited them, as when Lee, barely scraping by, complained against the “hand-outs” of FDR-era WPA programs that partially subsidized his ever-struggling ventures. Mardo, reveling in celebratory nostalgia for a life he clearly fled from on fleet foot as soon as he was able, echoes these sentiments with not-so-subtle underscores.
Maude’s slow, tragic physical decline in the latter stages of old age is painfully chronicled in the final chapters. Much of what is revealed would better have been withheld. Despite the challenges of physical frailty, however, it seems like the best favor anyone ever did for Maude was to whisk her away from that farm and resettle her in a warm suite of rooms with a flush toilet and a refrigerator and lamps that switched on and off. Those who are entranced with romantic notions of a traditional pre-modern America never lived it. Camping in the wilderness is indeed inspiring and comes highly recommended, but – for most of us – hardly recommended for each and every day. Maude spent much of her long life more or less camping, with four walls around her, while the rest of the world moved on. Perhaps it was charming. Probably, it mostly was not, as evidenced by the flight of her children at their first opportunities to flee. Overall, this is hardly a great book, and Mardo – while a competent writer – was not an impressive author. But there are indeed parts of Maude, especially the first half, that are worth the read. If nothing else, it is a reminder that it was not that long ago that there were people who lived very different lives than we can easily imagine today. Nor, I should add, lives that we should, in our starry-eyed musings, miss too much.