Meshing Old Days, Old Ways With The New

Everyone has a story to tell, it’s just that some life stories are more colorful than others. How true this is for Fern Jones who will be 99 years young in December.

When I first asked her about telling me her stories her answer was, “I don’t know what I’d have to tell you.” Two and a half hours later I am sure she could have found even more to tell me because, in Fern’s world, even ordinary tasks are fun, that’s just how she lives her life.

“You make the most of what you have,” she says. That, she truly does. Most every morning she can be found at Mel’s Diner in Union City to have a cup of coffee and catch up on the local happenings. She is plagued by failing eyesight so she must depend on others to drive. “That’s the reason,” she says “that anytime someone asks me to go somewhere, I am ready.” That usually isn’t a problem since her five daughters, Carol, Marilyn, Myra, Aleta and Neva, all live relatively close. More often than not, they all can be found at the local restaurant with her.

However, this isn’t just a recent habit of hers. She recalls the time that she, four other women and two babies made the trip to Texas to see their husbands who were in the service during World War ll. Her youngest daughter at the time, Myra, was 3 months old and the other baby was 9 months old and only two women could drive. “People ask me how we did it,” she says nonchalantly. “We just did. Myra laid on a pillow and another woman held the 9-month-old for the total 1,120 miles.”

That, probably, was the least of their worries since they had seven flat tires on the way down and, of course, there was no GPS back then. “We didn’t need one,” Fern shakes her head. “My husband told me not to worry because he sent all the directions.” His “directions” went something like this, “Go through this town, turn right at the bridge, keep going 10 miles until you see a blue barn ….” Can you imagine!

This has pretty much been the theme for her whole life, to make do with what life throws at you. She grew up in Elwood, Indiana, and moved to Sherwood, Michigan, area in 1952. I wanted to know her take on what life was like while she was growing up. Although times were sometimes hard, instead of regretting living in those times, she cherishes it. “We made fun with what we had.”

She recalls, like others during that period, she and her family grew their own vegetables and gathered what they could from nature to sustain them through the winter months. They had lots of cabbage, potatoes and other vegetables that they would put in bins in the barn and cover with straw to keep from freezing. Whenever they wanted potatoes they would take a scoop shovel and get what they needed.

On the flip side, keeping things cool during the hot summer months was also a challenge. She remembers the big box they had outside the kitchen window. Men delivered large blocks of ice to the store and they would use those blocks to keep things cool. Anytime they wanted something from the box they just had to raise the window and grab it, sort of like the precursor to the modern refrigerator.

Of course all supplies went to the war effort first, so almost every item they used was rationed. That included sugar, tires, gas, soap, even nylons. They had so many coupons each month that they would turn in for the supplies they needed. “We made our own laundry soap, a dishpan full at a time. Anything we could use never got thrown out. When we fried bacon we kept the grease to use in the soap.”

A sweet memory for her is going to the woods to dig sassafras roots for tea. “We would rip off pieces of the roots to make the brew. That was so much better than any other tea.”

I wondered what they did for entertainment in what little free time they had. “Well, we didn’t text a lot,’ she says with a twinkle in her eye. “All the kids got together and played ball and horseshoes. In the spring when the men were plowing, we’d walk behind the plow and pick up worms for fishing. And we made lots of homemade ice cream. That was the best, except when we forgot the sugar. Then it wasn’t worth a hoot!”

Even the winter cold didn’t stop their fun. Her dad made sleds out of wooden barrels and pulled them behind the autos to give them rides. They each had their own brick that they would put in the oven to get toasty and then they would take them in the car with them to stay warm. On nights that they would stay in after school lessons were done, their mother would play the piano and sing. Yes, our modern conveniences have robbed us of some of the fun of yesterday.

One of her more unique jobs was not where she worked but rather what she did. She worked in a tomato factory where they canned tomatoes and made sauce and ketchup. Even in industry they didn’t waste anything, the seeds had to be saved for next year’s planting. That was Fern’s job. She used a special knife to make a hole or sometimes hit the tomato on a nail and squeezed it to release the seeds then put them back on the belt. Seeds were saved in the ratio of three female and one male.

First of all, I didn’t know there were girl and boy tomatoes and, secondly, how did she tell the difference? “Easy,” she explains, “the ones with little black lines on the bottom are female and if they have dots they are male.” I will never look at a tomato the same way again.

Working in a tomato factory, she did her home canning a bit differently than the normal way. She tells of having 210 empty tin cans. She would place them, one at a time, on a metal plate and cranked it as it turned around. After 21 turns, the can was completely sealed and you couldn’t tell the cans from the ones you bought in a store, except they had no labels. “We just put each thing we canned in a place of its own so we knew what we had.”

Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same. Today many people are turning to natural healing as opposed to using medicines for different ailments. Fern remembers when her daughter Myra was little and was suffering from rheumatic fever. “Back then we took her to what we called a ‘hot hands doctor’. He would have her put her feet flat on the floor and her hands in his, then he would rub her arms, forehead, cheeks and down her legs until he was touching the bottom of her feet. The other doctors said she would never go to school again but after six weeks all she had left from the disease was a heart murmur.”

Maybe it’s all in what you believe, but Fern is living proof that your outlook on life can make a huge difference. She has beat cancer three times in her life, and all without the use of surgery, chemo or radiation. This year she will be honored at the Branch County Relay for Life for being a 53-year cancer survivor. That’s about the best honor you can receive.

Scientists have a new term for people in their 80s and 90s who possess brains and memories of someone far younger than what their age should. They call them “super agers.” Fern Jones is a prime example of one … and she’s just getting started.

  • Published on Jun 10, 2015
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