Outside it was cold and blustery. The wind whistled through tiny cracks and openings in the farmhouse walls and window frames, and snow occasionally burst in thru gaps in the doorway. What had begun as an early morning freezing rain in northern Indiana, as temperatures continued to plummet had changed over to a heavy wet snowstorm; blowing, swirling and drifting against the farmhouse, barn and out buildings. Farm implements and equipment were disappearing in mounds of deepening snowbanks. The first big snowfall of the season had arrived unannounced.
Inside it was dry, albeit not that much warmer away from the glowing but uneven warmth of the kitchen stove, as firewood and coal especially, were hard to come by in late autumn of 1935 in the depths of the Great Depression.
Susie’s mother walked the nearby railroad tracks every late afternoon just before sunset, diligently searching for lumps of coal which had fallen off passing freight trains, placing them into a long, blackened feedsack flung over her shoulder and carrying them back to heat their home during the night. “Coal picking,” as she described it. Unable to make her trek today in the snowstorm, she carefully tended a small fire that flickered and popped in the fireplace in the main room for extra warmth.
The “Great Depression”– that’s what the man on the radio had started calling it now when talking about the news every evening- folks waiting in bread lines, soup kitchens, neighbor folks losing their farms, the continuing Dust Bowl in the plains, President Roosevelt’s new Works Progress Administration or WPA, the still lingering effects of the monstrous Black Sunday dust storm earlier in the year on April 14th, and on and on. Bad and sad news abounded, and good news was hard to find as everyone hoped for better times soon while struggling to get through another arduous day. For many, what had once been only nightmares were becoming everyday life.
Susie’s Grandma Browning simply called it what it was– “hard times, hard times.” She always said the words twice in succession, as though saying the phrase only once didn’t do it justice. “Hard times, hard times.”
Seemed Grandma Browning had her own terms for many things. Little Susie, five years old, had been in bed for days with what Dr. Garrison called “the influenza”. The doctor had hurried to make a special trip from town in the freezing rain to stop by earlier in the day when he heard of Susie’s serious illness from a neighboring patient, with a promise of payment from Susie’s mother “as soon as we can” to a reply from the doctor of “whenever you can”.
“She’s caught the influenza going around hereabouts, Maude. She’s a very sick little girl,” the doctor had said to Susie’s mother. Grandma steadfastly insisted she had the “Winter Fever”.
“I don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout what you call in-flew-whoever,” Grandma chimed in.
“Influenza, Mrs. Browning,” the doctor corrected.
“That little girl’s got the Winter Fever!” Grandma shot back over her shoulder, heading off for the kitchen.
Call it what you will, little Susie was alarmingly ill with chills, high fever, and with what her mother had first suspected days before was only the croup.
With winter on the doorstep, things being as they were and the family being unable to support itself any longer with only the farm, and “hard times, hard times” (as Grandma kept saying), Susie’s father and older brother Paul had gone off weeks before to seek work on one of the new WPA construction projects, leaving Susie, her mother and Grandma Browning to watch over and take care of the family farm by themselves. Paul was only a few years older than Susie when heading off with his father to work, but in “hard times, hard times” it was necessary and common for children to work, if they could find it.
With Grandma less active herself these days with her self-described “decrepitude”, Susie’s mother was kept very busy seeing to all the daily farm chores, mostly by herself. The cold and snow would work to make everything harder and more challenging as winter set in, and even more so now with little Susie needing to be cared for also.
It was at this time that Grandma Browning decided to do what she could to help. She put a pot of water on the stove to heat and brew up a batch of elderberry tea for herself and Susie’s mother “to ward off the Winter Fever”, and began to think about what she could do to help brighten little Susie’s spirits and help her get over this “influenza” thing, as the doc had called it.
“Influenza. Winter Fever. Fancy name, same doggone thing if you ask me,” Grandma grumbled as she straightened items in the kitchen while waiting for the water to boil. She noisily jostled the pot on the kitchen stove as though doing so would hurry it along.
Sitting in her rocking chair with a cup of elderberry tea in hand several minutes later, Grandma Browning recalled that a few weeks earlier Susie had excitedly started her Christmas list for Santa after taking delight in a teddy bear pictured in the Montgomery Ward mail-order catalog. Susie’s ‘list’ was exactly one item long—“a teddy bear”.
Grandma decided then and there to make little Susie a teddy bear, and picked up the catalog to study the teddy bear picture as a starting point. One minute was enough. “Let’s get to it,” she said aloud as she rose from her rocking chair, tucking the heavy catalog under her arm.
Not having much available to work with, she headed straight for her basket of fabric scraps. To make the teddy bear’s body, she gathered together remnants of the soft lining she had used to make a coat for Paul to wear while away at the construction project. “Well, it’s not furry like a real bear but it’s soft for her to hug,” she thought as she tucked the material pieces under her left arm with the catalog.
For the eyes, she removed two buttons from an old faded and patched work shirt that she had kept from Grandpa, who had “went to his reward” as she would say, two years earlier. “He won’t be needing buttons on this ol’ shirt anymore, I suppose,” she murmured to herself, as she slowly and somewhat solemnly loosed the threads holding them on.
Having sewn together many a work glove for Grandpa over the years, she painstakingly drew and cut out the pieces for the teddy bear’s arms, legs, head and body, referring back to the catalog picture for the shapes. She then assembled the teddy bear, so that the head and each arm and leg opened into the bear’s body, like fingers in a glove. “That was just how I knew to do it, that’s all,” she would later explain to others whenever asked at church socials and family gatherings.
Grandma caught sight of some black flax linen thread that she had kept aside for a special “someday” project, and used that to stitch the little bear a nose and mouth, followed by the button eyes. She then stuffed the sewn bear with leftover soft wool she had used to line some of Grandpa’s old gloves and jackets in the past. “But how to keep this little teddy bear from blowing away in these infernal winds and storms?” she wondered aloud.
Gazing about from her rocking chair, the answer came to her. Over in the corner beside the cupboard was a bucket full of lead pellets that Susie’s father used to reload shotgun shells for pheasant and quail hunting in the fall. “He’s not here to hunt now anyway and won’t miss a few,” she reasoned, and so into the bear she gingerly poured a couple handfuls of pellets to weight the little teddy bear down on windy days. She proceeded to close the opening in the back of the body, patiently stitch by stitch, ever so carefully for the tiny balls of lead shot not to escape and roll about all over the wooden farmhouse floor.
Now assembled, she decorated the bear with a strip of leftover red and white checked gingham cloth from her basket, tying a bow around its neck with long trailing ends to “brighten him up a bit”.
“Something’s missing,” she whispered to herself with a little frown and sigh. “He’s not happy yet.”
Removing her eyeglasses, she slumped back in the old wooden rocker, cradling the little teddy bear in her arms and closed tired eyes, softly humming “The Old Rugged Cross” as she rocked. And rocked. The farmhouse was quiet, save only for the soft whistling of the winter wind interrupted only by sporadic popping of the fire and the rhythmic tic-tic-tic-tic-tic of the mantle clock. And Grandma rocked.
After a short while Grandma’s face brightened with a broad grin as she opened her eyes and put her eyeglasses back on. Somewhere in the half-light between thinking and napping, she had found an idea. Bundling herself tightly in her coat and tying a woolen scarf under her chin, she headed towards the door.
“I’ll be outside for a few minutes Maude. Don’t you worry, I’ll be back directly and grab some more firewood while out here, too. Gotta keep that child warm tonight.”
Trudging through the deepening snowfall, she retrieved a rusted old sleigh bell from a worn out harness in the barn, and upon returning back inside tied it securely around the teddy bear’s neck with a piece of cotton string. “Now that should make this little fella jingle for a tad more fun.”
Sitting back down in the rocker to give the bear one final going over, she couldn’t resist ever-so-quietly tinkling the rusty little bell. Grandma laughed softly and chuckled. Susie’s teddy bear was now finished and she returned to her rocking, cradling the little teddy bear once again with a tender and knowing smile.
Later that night, Grandma Browning wrapped the teddy bear in a spare pillowcase that she had earlier set aside to make Susie a new dress with for Christmas, tied it with twine, and together with Susie’s mother gave it to Susie the following morning. As they handed her the pillowcase package, Grandma explained to Susie that upon hearing how sick she was and knowing how the family was going through “hard times, hard times”, Santa Claus had followed the snowstorm in with his reindeer and made an early visit to bring this very special present just for her.
Susie beamed as only a five year old with a new present from Santa Claus can. Opening the pillowcase Susie found not only the teddy bear, but also her first smile in several days. Perhaps being too weak to think of anything else, Susie just simply named him “Bear” as she hugged him tightly and fell back asleep.
After a week passed and enough snow had been cleared to allow passage, Dr. Garrison returned to happily find Susie’s fever broken and her feeling much better. He said the influenza had run its course and that the medicines had done their job. Grandma Browning and little Susie gave full credit to Bear and his playful bell for her recovery.
But regardless of how or why, Susie did get well and her special teddy bear from Santa remained her constant and enduring best friend and companion over the years. Susie never understood why every time that Bear’s bell would ring, Grandma would smile.
Only several years later and after having a family of her own to care for, did Susie learn that it was Grandma Browning who had acted on Santa’s behalf that year on the homestead, sewing her cherished teddy bear by hand and from scraps that long, cold winter when Susie had been so very ill. Well loved, darkened from play and age, and a bit tattered and worn over the years; Bear became even more treasured than before.
She tinkled the little bell, and Susie smiled.
© James R. Milson, December 2014