by Julia Sneden
This past Memorial Day, all the hoopla about the dedication of the World War II Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C. awakened in me some bittersweet memories of the summer that war ended.
That was the summer that my mother, my 11-year-old brother, and I (age 8) spent six weeks in Idaho on the dairy ranch belonging to my great Uncle Ned. It lay in the valley of what my map-loving brother identified as “the south fork of the north fork of the Snake river,” in Idaho’s spectacularly beautiful panhandle, quite near the Canadian border. We thought we were there for a vacation, but at the end of the visit, my father showed up and explained to us that he and my mother were divorcing. Our stay on the ranch coincided with Idaho’s six-week residency law for obtaining a divorce.
Thus ended a very happy summer vacation, and a period of upheaval began for each of us. It was not until much later that I was able to recall my stay in Idaho with any sort of fondness.
Northern Idaho, in those days, was still rather pristine country, wild and beautiful. Before the summer’s miserable end, I had loved the adventure of being on that ranch. But even more, I loved getting to know my remarkable and rather intimidating great uncle.
Edward Welles Burleson was my grandmother’s younger brother, and the boon companion of her childhood. They grew up in Minnesota and Wisconsin, in a family that included five boys and three girls. My grandmother seems to have been everyone’s darling, perhaps because she was the youngest of the daughters, and the only blue-eyed blonde in a family of brown or hazel-eyed redheads and brunettes. Their father was a missionary Episcopal priest, whose five sons eventually followed him into the ministry.
As a young man, Ned was brilliant and fiery. I suspect that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was also quite handsome, with a full head of curly hair. Like his brothers, he had a lively sense of humor, and loved to tease. He married a lovely Connecticut Yankee named Alice Wilcox, and they had four sons. His priestly duties took him all over the northwest corner of the country.
Long before I knew him, he had become a widower, retired from his ministry, and bought the ranch he called Twin Cedars, from the two trees that stood by the house. Shortly thereafter, he had an accident that would surely have killed a lesser man. Rather than join his neighbors in a hunt, he let two eager boys from town take his place at the last minute. When he set the butt of his shotgun down to rest it on the porch, the gun went off, taking most of his jaw with it. He was one of the first patients to have plastic surgery (in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s), 18 operations, according to my grandmother, and half of them with only local anesthetic. Skin from his leg was grafted, and eventually he was able to grow a small, grizzled beard that covered most of the damage. Since he had only a semblance of a lip, he had to use his ingenuity to keep his pipe from slipping out of his mouth: A simple washer fitted over the mouthpiece worked well.
After his sons grew up and left home, he lived rather a hermit-like life at Twin Cedars, but he never stopped writing delightful letters to members of his extended family, especially to my grandmother and to my mother, his niece. Although I hadn’t seen him since I was three (and didn’t really remember him), he even wrote to me, using birch bark from the ranch to make postcards. Those missives charmed me long before we went to visit him.
He kept a small herd of dairy cows that were really quite wild. He never bothered having them polled, since no one but he was around them, and he didn’t fear their horns. For him, they behaved themselves. But the presence of other humans spooked them, and the first rule of our stay at Twin Cedars was to keep away from the cows, no matter what. Uncle Ned did his daily milking, turned the herd out to pasture, put the milk into the separator, and every few days took the milk to a dairy cooperative in town.
Our first day at the ranch was memorable. We were to go haying out in one of the far fields, and we rode there on the hay wagon which was pulled by two old and sway-backed horses. Uncle Ned, who by then was bald with a fringe of white hair, wore loose overalls and a battered straw hat, the ubiquitous curved pipe in his mouth. He looked like every child’s mental image of old Farmer Jones. My mother had explained to us about his accident, and its resultant effect on his speech. He hadn’t said much of anything since our arrival the night before, which was fine by me because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to understand him.
He had already scythed and raked the hay into stacks, and all we had to do was scoop it up with pitchforks and toss it onto the hayrick. “All” quickly proved too much for an eight-year-old girl to handle, so I was told to stay in the wagon and jump on the hay to pack it down. That was an assignment I loved.
On the way back to the house, Uncle Ned, who was holding the reins, suddenly looked up at the mountains ahead of us, threw back his head, and loudly declaimed something. Sure enough, I couldn’t understand a word of it.
“What did he say?” I asked my mother when we were back in the house.
“Psalm 121,” she replied. “He started in Hebrew and continued in Greek.” Farmer Jones with a definite difference, he.
It didn’t take very long for me to make friends with my elderly uncle, who obviously enjoyed having us around. I soon learned to understand his speech. I think I reminded him of his sister, my grandmother. He paid me the compliment of taking me seriously, even if I was only eight years old and the baby of my family. He listened to me, and asked gentle questions to see what I knew and how I thought. More often than not, I amused him, and he’d give a grunt and his eyes would smile, and he’d look over my head at my mother and say something in Latin that made them both laugh.
Oh, he could be stern, as when my brother and I cut through the lower part of the pasture upwind of the herd, something we had been forbidden to do, and spooked the cows so that they came thundering down at us in a straight line, horns lowered for business. We dashed to the barbed wire fence and rolled under it. My dress caught on the barbs, and my brother had to pull me to safety forcibly. My dress tore, and I was sobbing with fright as I sat up – and looked right at Uncle Ned’s knees. After he ascertained that we were all right, he turned on us with a glower.
“You’ve ruined the milk,” he snapped as the herd swept on down into the barnyard. “You two deserve a whipping!”
He stomped off to the house, and had words with my mother, who certainly didn’t need a whip to get us back in line. The cows had scared us straight, for sure, but Uncle Ned scared us worse.
There were many new experiences that the ranch itself offered us, that summer. Beside the dirt drive that led to the house was a large raspberry patch. My mother encouraged us to go picking, and she made large pitchers of raspberry shrub, the perfect drink to follow, hot, dusty play in the hay loft.
To my delight, there were several cats and three calves in the barn, and I was allowed to go visit them after the cows had been milked and turned out to pasture. The cats didn’t want much to do with humans, but the calves were fascinating. The first stall held a rather frightening brute whose name I can’t recall. The second held a beautiful, dainty little creature called Venus, but she had absolutely no personality. But in the third was a handsome, active calf named Barney. I adored him, and spent hours begging to help in the barn so that I could care for him. He liked having his nose rubbed.
Across the road there was the small river, and we could cool off as we splashed and played along the edges. In town, Lake Pend Oreille provided us with good swimming at the town beach.
My mother took over the cooking while we were there – cooking in an old-fashioned kitchen with a pump in the sink. She seemed to enjoy the challenge. At supper, Uncle Ned usually said the blessing, although when he found out that at home we often sang the grace, he asked us to do so from time to time.
My mother, brother, and I were all book worms, which delighted my uncle. Evenings were spent with our books, all four of us, and very little conversation. It was a cozy group. Uncle Ned noted that I was reading Little Women.
“A good book for girls, I guess: my sisters all liked it,” he said.
His youngest son, a great favorite in my family, was in Europe with Patton’s army. We followed the war news avidly. The morning that the defeat of Japan was announced over the radio, Mother told me to run down to the barn and tell Uncle Ned.
“But he’s milking,” I said. “I can’t go in there.”
“No,” she said, “it’s all right this once. Go on; run!”
I tore down to the barn and slipped through the door, my heart hammering with the importance of my news and the daringness of my interruption.
“Uncle Ned,” I cried, “the war’s over! Japan surrendered! We just heard it on the radio!”
He dropped to his knees.
“Thank Almighty God,” he said simply, and put his hand up to his face. There was a pause, and then he turned to me. There were tears in his eyes. “Now get out of here,” he said gruffly. “You’re scaring the cows.”