Monday, April 20, 2020

Forty dollars and a pocket watch

   My father Erol was a twin. He and brother Irol were the next to youngest of seven, and there were often three or four state kids also living on the Lisbon Falls, Maine, dairy farm along with a hired hand. Father Bowie was an itinerant house painter, so was usually gone off in search of work. He sent money back when he could.

   Life on the farm was not easy. Winters were harsh and there was no heat in the bedrooms. Nor was there indoor plumbing. Each morning before dawn Mother Bowie had to rise, rekindle the fire in the large old kitchen stove, break ice in the well to bring in water, and get breakfast going for the whole crowd. Her work was never done, though she only had one good eye. Mending clothes and keeping them clean. Planting and tending and harvesting the vegetable garden. Cleaning house. Canning in the fall to last out the winter. Raising chickens and gathering eggs. Baking. Once, she was chosen Maine Mother of the Year.

   They all had chores from early ages, including the twins. Chopping stove and fireplace wood, haying, digging ditches, repairing the house and outbuildings, fixing equipment, shoveling snow. The never-ending milking. Dad had a favored cow he fed and milked twice daily besides his other work.

   But it was a good life. They had a horse and buggy for hauling supplies and milk and butter. A sleigh to use when it snowed. The older kids tended the younger ones. There was a pond on their acres with fish and frogs in it, and they could skate on it when it froze over. They learned the essentials in a one-room schoolhouse. They put together a six-piece orchestra and played on Saturday evenings in the nearby villages. I have a 1909 poster in my office advertising a Vaudeville Show at the Pine Tree Grange Hall in Lisbon. Entertainment, fifteen cents. Dancing afterward to the Bowie Family Orchestra, thirty-five cents. One of the acts was a boxing match between the four-year-old Bowie twins, Irol and Erol. Equipped with baggy shorts and outsized gloves, they each took a half-hearted swing and then both started crying. Their elder sisters comforted them, and the match was called a draw.

   Hubert, the oldest boy, assumed the role of surrogate father and never left the farm, eventually opening a successful feed and farm supply store by the old house. Sister Celia opened a summer camp for girls across the hill road. The farm thrived.

   The other children left, one by one. And then in 1922, it was time for the twins to strike out on their own. Mother Bowie presented each of them forty dollars and a silver Waltham pocket watch, and words to the effect that how they’d spend their allotted time would define their lives. It wasn’t much of a stake, but it was all she had to give, and it proved sufficient.

   Irol got a job in retailing and rose to manage a Montgomery Ward store in New York State. Dad took a job in a Massachusetts cabinet shop to learn that trade and opened his own fine one-man woodworking shop in 1949, which he continued to work over the years while also teaching in a Northampton trade school. He always held down those two jobs, working long hours year after year. With my stone mason grandfather’s help, he even managed to also build our home during one year in the village of Williamsburg, where I grew up. Dad was a deacon in the village church. He became a rock of my generation in the family, always there when any of us needed anything. Dad’s apprentice, Gilman Smith, finally shut the woodworking shop down when he retired a few years ago.

   The twins were remarkably similar in many ways. Each had a daughter first and then a son, about the same ages. Each once chose a new car in the same color. Both became Masons. Often, they seemed to share the same thoughts, even over great distances. They played highly competitive golf over the years whenever they could get together, keeping track of scores. In the end they were dead even.

   They were sometimes cold on that Maine farm. Sometime hungry. Often exhausted. But never bereft of love or good humor. And every one of them turned out just fine, thank you, making their contributions to the world each in their own way.

    The family survived the terrible Spanish flu from 1918 through 1920, which infected half a billion people around the planet--a quarter of the entire world population--and killed 50 million. Nine years later they began to endure the Great Depression, which lasted almost a decade and made them frugal through all the years thereafter. They lived through the darknesses of World War II and Korea and Vietnam and the frightening Cold War years. They were tough and resilient and hard-working and appreciative of the free society they helped perpetuate. I’m immensely proud of them.

   Dad never forgot the lessons of his upbringing, and he kept his pocket watch until he died at 98. I have it now under a glass display dome near my computer. I had a jeweler give it a cleaning and a new crystal.

   It still works, both to keep time and to remind me to spend it well.

   As he did.


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