I grew up in a small town in Iowa in the 1960s and 1970s. My little town was one-mile square, planted firmly in the middle of farm country. I was a town kid which was different from a farm kid in those days before the Internet made us all more homogeneous in terms of our experiences and exposure to the world. As a town kid, my contemporaries and I pretty much had free reign to explore our one-mile square. We were transported beyond the borders of our yards on foot and by bicycle. I do not actually remember spending much time in a car growing up. We went places like “the city” (pop. 75,000) for shopping or to my grandparent’s and aunt’s homes one or two counties away but by and large, we were not taken places within town in the car.
The Neighborhood and Beyond
I lived in a house on a corner lot and my neighborhood consisted of the one street that ran south from that house. This is not to say that I did not have friends in other parts of town but from an early age my playgroup was the kids on that street. You might go to a friend’s house in another neighborhood during the day, but after supper and until the lights came on which was the universal signal for “it’s time to go home now”, we played within that street. Eight houses and one tar shack which housed an elderly man we did not know much about and all of us avoided. Eight houses with a total of about six “playable” kids, by that I mean within my age group. There were other kids in the neighborhood, of course, by some were too old or too young to be considered acceptable playmates. When I type that all out, it seems like a ridiculously small world and I guess it was but at the time it did not feel that way to me. People from my generation like to say that we were raised before bored existed and although it sounds cliche’ there is a lot of truth to that. I do not remember ever feeling bored unless it was raining or snowing so hard that we could not go out.
Directly across the street from our house was the home of Etta Stoner, a woman who my entire life I considered an old widow lady. I recently wondered about that perception and found that Etta was born in 1888 so by the time I was aware of her in about 1963 she would have been 75 and had been widowed for about 9 years so my perception was not completely unfounded. What may not have been accurate was our perception that Etta did not like children. True or not, it is what we all believed. This perception was reinforced by the fact that our parents encouraged us to “leave her alone” which likely meant give the poor woman a break from your energy and noise, but was received as a more ominous statement of what she would do to children found lurking in her yard.
Her yard did not hold much fascination for the kids in the neighborhood except to say when you are trying to play hide and seek in a one street area, hiding places can be few and far between. Etta had a row of evergreens right up next to the house which were ideal places to hide from detection. Attempts to do so however, would be met by a rap on the window signaling that although you had not been caught but another kid, you had been caught by her and asked to move on. Additionally, she had an apple tree which produced the largest apples I have ever seen in my life and I believe this is where most of the kids in the neighborhood had an issue with her. Etta did not allow us to pick apples off that tree or even pick up the ones that had fallen.
Confessions of a Fruit Thief
Here I will confess to one unattractive facet of my growing up years which is that I was a Class A fruit theif. I think I knew every raspberry patch, grape arbor, and apple tree in every alley in that town and I unashamedly partook of every free bite I could get. As an adult, I understand now what an affront to the home gardener this was but at the time, I did not see it that way. I think I believed that the stuff just grew naturally and was therefore, available for the taking. I should have known better and perhaps I did. Time and memory can allow us to believe a lot of things about ourselves that are less than accurate. Surely my parents told me that taking other people’s fruit was stealing. I know for sure Nancy Thiele our neighbor who caught me in her grapevines more than once tried to impress the error of my ways upon me.
Etta’s Great Offense
Over the years, as our childhood passed, we ignored Etta for the most part. Our late grade school and middle school years took us further away from the neighborhood we shared. However, when I became a teenager our worlds collided, and she became the object of my frustration and sometimes downright anger. You see, Etta had a habit of getting up at the crack of dawn to work in her yard. One of the tasks at that hour was to clean the cracks in her sidewalks. To accomplish this task, she would get down on her hands and knees (just a reminder here she was in her 80s by this time) with a metal bucket and a digging tool of some kind. She would clean each crack, place the weeds and dirt into the bucket and then crawl up to the next section, scaping that metal bucket on the sidewalk behind her as she progressed. My bedroom window faced Etta’s sidewalk and so even with my window closed I would be awoken by the sound of her work. Teenagers love sleep and I took her actions very personally. When you are sixteen the thought that anyone at any time of the day would need to clean out the cracks in a sidewalk is plain ludicrous. I remember that I would get up and yell at the first available person which was generally my mother about Etta and her “stupidity”.
I do not recall the last time I saw Etta. I left home in 1976 to go to college and although I returned home during the summers, I cannot tell you if she continued to be able to do yard work during those years. I did a little research on her for this piece and I found that she eventually went to live at the nursing home and died in 1980.
It All Comes Around At Last
During the Covid-19 pandemic and even before, I have been experiencing a lot of challenges with sleep. I am part of the “up during the middle night set” and the “lay awake in bed and wait for daytime crew”. By talking with others and seeing what is happening online during these hours, I know there are a lot of people who are sharing this experience. I also know that scientifically time moves at the same rate during the day as it does overnight but when you are awake during those hours it seems to move exceedingly slowly. To manage this situation, you find yourself doing things at strange times like scanning old photographs at 2 a.m. or re-potting your houseplants at 4 a.m. The other morning while doing the later, I thought about Etta and realized this may have been why she was doing something as mindless as digging weeds out of the sidewalk at 5:30 a.m. Perhaps, like me, she had been up all night restless and searching for something to do to distract her mind from the frustration that insomnia brings or maybe she was lonely having lived so many years alone. Even though I never yelled at Etta for waking me up as a teen, I apologized to her in my mind and let her know that I think I understand her now. She, like me, was just doing what she could to keep herself healthy in body and spirit. I don’t plan to start digging weeds out of the cracks in our driveway but I am aware that as my unemployment starts and age continues to keep me from a good night’s sleep most nights, I too will be looking for ways to stay productive and that others may find my choices annoying. I will be praying for more grace than I was able to show to Etta at that age.
Notes for my Dysart Friends: Etta Stoner was born Rosetta May Heath in 1888. According to “Stepping Stones of Time” published in 1973 she was the daughter of Benjamin and Clara Heath. “Benjamin Ross Heath, born at Sherman, New York, January 16, 1946, came to the Dysart area in the early 1860’s. Mr. Heath a carpenter, by trade, died November 8, 1917. In 1875 he married Clara Armstrong. Their children were: Mrs. Viola Ludwig Dial (foster daughter), Mrs. Ellen Seeley, Mrs. Etta Stoner, Mrs. Olive Kavalier, John Health and Mrs. Fern Barrett. There were 11 grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren. The Heath family lived most of their years in Dysart on West Wilson Street.”
Etta was an early telephone operator in Dysart. She is shown on the left in the photo above along with Ella Schroeder at the switchboard.
Etta married Sylvan Stoner and they had one daughter names Helen Edwards (Wendall). Etta was widowed in 1854 when Sylvan passed away. He was 12 years her senior. She was a member of the Methodist Church in Dysart. Etta, her husband, daughter and sister, Olive, are all buried in the Dysart Cemetery.