modified contour drawing of my great grandparents when first married
In 1994 when my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I asked for a taped interview with my grandmother. I got the tape that year, listened to most of it, and put it in my tape caddy. Last week I got it out and listened for nearly an hour. There behind the hissing of the old cassette tape, were the voices of my mother, aunt, and grandmother. Grandma and Mom are gone now, and it makes me a little crazy that I cannot ask for more details on some of the stories. Now, after having put together memories with old photos, and having visited the places she lived as a young girl, I know what I would ask Grandma. In 1994 I didn't know, and was probably too busy with teaching to probe for more.
So, little by little I'm transcribing her taped answers to my questions, and when I finish I hope to have it transferred to a CD, and share it with my family. This is the first installment.
Transcript of Interview With Bernice Tess
This is Bernice Tess. We are gathered here with Ellen and Carol, my daughters, to celebrate Carol’s birthday, and while we are all here together we thought it would be a good time to answer some of my granddaughter Sherry’s questions. She has written down quite a few questions on paper that she would like to know about my past. And I think we should start more or less at the beginning, which is a long time ago, because I am ninety-two years old.
And I was born in the Cascade Mountains in the state of Washington, the very very deepest part of the mountains in Leavenworth, Washington, where they cut the big pass for the railroad over the mountain. They had to put two engines on there because it was too steep for one engine. And my father, being an engineer, wanted to live there. So my first memories were of a little cottage, up on a hill, very high up, And all I could see when I was a toddler around the house was snow because the windows were all covered with snow, and we had to have lamps, oil lamps, to see by, even in the daytime. And gradually in the spring, we would see the snow go down, and we would watch it on the windows, because every day it’d be an inch or so when the sun melted, and it was very thrilling to watch the snow go down, inch by inch, until we finally could look out our windows. They were pretty dirty by then, but that didn’t bother me any at the time.
We lived there until I was about three years old and then there was trouble in the household. And my mother and father disagreed, or, agreed to disagree, I guess. Anyways, Mother got me up in the middle of the night one night and said we were going on a train journey. Which was very surprising to me because my father was still sleeping in bed. But we went to the neighbors and the neighbors took us down to a train, and we went to Hillyard, which was quite a few miles and on flatter land. It was a suburb of Spokane. And we went to a friend of Mother’s and stayed with her for a while. Eventually we bought a house there, or my father did; he came back to live with us for a while. But that didn’t last too long either. And this time when we left, we left for good.
I wasn’t ready for school yet, so I must have been around four when we left the final time. And all I remember from those days were different people’s homes and faces where I stayed while Mother worked. She was a midwife, and she went to various homes and helped with babies being born, she told me. So I, being a very shy little girl, I wasn’t used to staying with all those people; I was very uncomfortable. Especially when I could hear them talking, whispering about my mother behind my back. I didn’t like it very well. So we were not too happy. Mother read ads in the paper, and finally decided the best place for us would be out on a ranch. There would be no people around to be talking about us, and we could live our own lives. So she answered an ad, for a man that wanted a housekeeper, out on a big ranch, in the east, northeastern part of Washington, right near the Columbia River. So she answered the ad, and he was not too happy. He didn’t know that she had a little girl, but he finally accepted me because there were very few people that wanted to go work on a ranch that was fifteen miles from the nearest town. Well, fifteen miles on land. If you crossed the Columbia River you could go to Hanford, and that was only six miles away, but it was hard to get across the big wide Columbia River.
Eventually I had to cross the river to go to first grade, And then I was boarded out again. But, that year passed, and I was back to the ranch. Then we looked for a school teacher. We had a hard time getting one because nobody wanted to teach out there. It was very wild and woolly.
We had four big sections of land, and it was sand dunes and sage brush, and they grew dry wheat. It was an experimental thing with growing wheat, because it was bare, almost desert like country. Hardly ever rained. If it did rain we all ran out and tipped our heads and opened our mouths and let the rain run in. It was fun. We loved getting wet. We loved the rain.
But, school was not much of a success. We started out in a little one-room shack that had belonged to a homesteader that went broke, as they all did, most of them at least. And they had a woman teacher, but she didn’t stay with us long. When the left they got a man teacher and eventually built a one room school house, that was really a school house. We had an outdoor toilet, that had to do for both boys and girls, and we had a lean-to that did for the horses, because a lot of us rode horses to school. There were no cars of course, and no roads, really, just sand,. We went where there was room to go, there wasn’t a real road. And we thought we were very well off with the new school, though the teacher was rather - different. He taught us all that we didn’t really need to study, because the world was coming to an end, in just probably six months. So, we needn’t worry too much about our grades. He just taught religion to us. He said that was much more important than lessons. And of course we didn’t sleep very well at night, I had nightmares, Finally Mother asked me what was troubling me, and I told her. I said, “We are all going to die,”
“Oh no, “she said, “we’re not going to die.”
I said, “Yes we are, and it’s going to be real quick.”
And so, that was the end of the teacher. He left and we didn’t have any school that year at all, we just sort of took it easy and went without school. It pleased most people, but I was very hungry for companionship and the only companionship I had was at school. So I was pretty lonely.
Then we got a hired man that was very very nice to me, so that helped a lot. He taught me how to dance, out in one of the hay lofts. It had a hard floor. It was over our jackass. And when we danced too hard he would bray, and make a terrible noise. You could hear him for miles away. But we laughed. That was just part of the fun. But I was never allowed to go near him. He was very vicious, wild. The farmers brought their mares there, but that was all. He had a very special yard of his own that was fenced in with high fences. That was just part of farm life.
And we also had the only windmill in the country, and the only place that had a well big enough that they could dig down deep enough in the sand to get water. So all the farmers and the homesteaders would come to us for water. And they had water wagons in those days, made out of wood, and the slats twisted and turned like a barrel. Some of them leaked. Most of them leaked, and you could tell their trail, coming and going, by the water leaking out of the slats. But that’s all they had, apparently there was no way to seal the seams because they all leaked. But we never charged them for water. They got it for free. They just had to carry it.
And we also had a huge big water tank, and that’s where I learned to swim, in the water tank. And then I also learned to swim in the Columbia River. But the current was so swift there that I had to have a big rope tied on me. Because the current would have carried me downstream, and that really wasn’t a very good place to learn to swim. So I really relied more on the water tank for the cattle and the horses.