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Put on a Happy Face


My great-aunt Lotta was conceived on a hardscrabble prairie farm in Wichita, Nebraska, in 1889 and was born nine months later in the comfort of her well-to-do grandfather’s home in Monterey MA.

For my great-great-grandmother, Georgianna, the westering experiment was over. Yes, they owned their own land thanks to the Homestead Act—something they would not do for another 30 years in the East—but her two boys, born on the plains far from kith or kin, were nearly ready for school. And, the neighboring lady, a widow, was showing up too regularly for supper and had to be walked home in the dark by Georgianna’s handsome husband, Martin. It was time to get back East.

So, Lotta was born in the genteel comfort of a High Victorian home but was raised in the peripatetic lifestyle of the itinerant farmer. In the manner of the day, tenant farmers renewed their leases in the early spring and, if the price had gone up or the land proved unfruitful, many moved on to what they hoped were greener pastures. Poor Georgianna had to pull up stakes and move her household many times before the family finally settled permanently on its own farm in 1920. By then, she was 62, a demanding matriarch who 12 years earlier had taken to her bed because of her “nerves” and who bound her five children close even as they moved into adulthood.

And, with that, we learn more about the ethic that sustained her daughter, Lotta, until her death in 1990 at the age of 101.

Lotta was a lissome girl, with dark eyes and hair that, when loose, fell in a thick mane to a length far below her waist. She had plans for her life. She loved children and wanted to be a teacher but, before she finished high school, her mother fell ill. Lotta left school and assumed control of the house, cleaning and cooking for a family of seven and helping process the milk from the family’s cows.

Lotta loved her mother and professed that she did not mind losing control of her own life. When Georgianna died in 1923, Lotta was only 34 and might have accepted one of the marriage proposals that came her way but by then her younger sister was married and her father was ill. So, she stayed on the farm.

Her father died in 1929 while she was still relatively young but, again, the door to freedom swung shut. Her brother Bill began to suffer the same mental debility her mother had displayed and withdrew from the world. His long illness was the only thing she ever admitted caused her distress. The day they had to forcibly remove him from his bedroom and take him to the Newtown mental hospital, she said, was the worst of her life.

By then Lotta was 58 and her life’s trajectory was set. Only she and her largely silent single brother, Ben, remained on the farm. Her dream of teaching was semi-satisfied by more than 50 years of teaching Sunday School. And her desire for children was met by her house being the favored haunt for all 13 nieces and nephews. A chance to spend a day on the farm with Aunt Lotta was a treat beyond measure.

She rose early to do her work, coddled her extended family, attended church, watched soap operas in the afternoon and went to bed by seven.

Then Ben died and she was alone on the farm. Another hard day came when the cows were sold and the barn fell silent. No one came in from the fields for lunch anymore and a solitary supper was taken in front of the television. Her beloved nieces and nephews were married with families of their own. She did not drive so her mobility was restricted to trips with friends or my mother.

Life was increasingly isolated.

By then I was back in college and, when she was 97, I visited her to talk to her about her life for a sociology paper I was writing. Lotta, the indominable, offered me nuggets of wisdom that I put in a mental pocket and keep with me to this day.

“How did she ward off loneliness and depression?” I asked. She admitted that that very day, she was feeling blue but said that when that happened she immediately planned some activity to occupy her time. That day she planned to paint her porch furniture bright red! Her mother, she remembered, had taught her “to be happy in your home,” and to “open the window and throw your troubles out.”

Of her thwarted plans to be a teacher and mother, she said she had filled her life with other people’s children. “I may never have married,” she said, “but I have always had children to take care of.” And because she had had an open heart for all of us, she was remembered and visited regularly. “If you don’t want to be alone, make friends with each new generation,” she advised.

She admitted that her deep faith and her participation in the church had been challenged by the apparent hypocrisy of some congregation members but said she found peace when she concluded that she went to church to commune with her own God. What other people said or did had nothing to do with that, she decided.

Lotta lived on the farm for another two years with increasing care from others. On her last Christmas there, my mother, then a new widow, and I went up to trim the tree on Christmas Eve. As always, it was placed in a corner of the parlor, the door of which opened onto what had once been Georgianna’s bedroom. Lotta lay in that dim room, looking out through the door as we draped the lights, affixed the ancient ornaments and applied tinsel. As Lotta watched, she sang Christmas carols in her wavering soprano. Mom said she felt ashamed for feeling so despondent when Lotta, the last survivor of a once vibrant family, could still draw joy from the holiday.

Lotta died as we all must do but she was a worthy woman who left us guideposts for finding our way through challenging times. These are hard and disruptive days—but no worse than the crises of World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, the horrible upheavals of the McCarthy and Vietnam eras, political assassinations, a scandal that forced the end of a presidency and the myriad personal cares that marked Lotta’s long journey through life.

She chose to do good during her time here on Earth. She reached out to embrace others. She chose to be happy. We would do well to emulate her.