A Mother’s Day Ode to a Grandma with spine
Published in the Ashland Daily Press
May 22, 2019
Great-Grandma Borens was the Grandma who was in the wheelchair, right? In our family, that is typically the first fleeting thought we say out loud when someone brings up her name. Once we identify her point of reference, our conversation sometimes moves on to asking about the debilitating illness that left her so crippled at some point during her early 50’s.
“She had arthritis,” Mom explains. “I think she got sick with an influenza, or something like that. She was bed-ridden for about a week, the doctor told her not to move, which of course is the worst thing you can do if you have arthritis. After she recovered from the flu, she was wheelchair bound from that point forward.”
Just when you feel your heart sink, Mom adds, “Great-Grandma Borens did some beautiful embroidery work. She also crocheted, but it was how intricate the embroidery was that always amazed me. She’d hold the needle like this,” Mom holds her left hand, palm up. She fuses her fingers together, the tips of her fingers touching the palm of her hand, thumb out. She stuffs an imaginary needle in the opening by the pinkie finger. “She’d push the needle in through the fabric, her other crippled hand would pull it out.”
Mom smiles. “She did amazing work. She didn’t let her disability slow her down. That’s how she’d write letters, do the dishes, she learned to use her hands the way they were.”
The image of a content Great-Grandma Borens embroidering, is the final image most of us recall after moving past the wheelchair.
As a whole, though, I always felt a fair amount of pity for her. Based on the stories, Great-Grandpa Borens was absent for most of their married life. He worked at the saw mills from sun up to sun down some 30 miles from home. He stayed there, weeks at a time. So, except to make their eight babies for her to care for, he wasn’t around much.
My Grandma Doris was the oldest. She spoke with distain when she recalled a time when her dad once came home with one quart of milk for all eight kids. She also remembered him coming home and becoming angry when he found dust on a lampshade. My mom remembers Grandma Doris saying her parents seemed to have no concept of how to provide for a family of ten. It sounded like Grandma Doris worried about the family’s well-being more than her mother. It irritated her when her mom would be right there to jump on her dad’s lap when he walked in the door.
Mom remembers the story of Great-Great Grandpa Kreeger, Great-Grandma’s father, ordering his wife to stop giving Great-Grandma Borens food. He expected his son-in-law to wake up and take responsibility to feed his family. Of course, Great-Grandma Borens would defend her husband.
After Great-Grandma Borens became wheelchair bound, her children who lived in Illinois, Kentucky, and Wisconsin, each took turns caring for her in their homes. The Borens boys set up Great-Grandpa Borens in a store that had a living-quarters. He lived there.
From what I’ve learned, my Great-Grandparents remained friendly in their separated lifestyle. Great-Grandma didn’t expect him to ‘go without.’ She often defended her husband to her mother saying, she knew she couldn’t be a wife. It wasn’t fair to him.
“I think it’s her Graduation picture after she graduated from College,” Mom says pointing to a portrait on her wall. Great-Grandma Borens was quite a beauty in her youth. “She went to a Normal School. I don’t think she ever taught though. I never heard about it if she did, probably had too many kids.” I could hear a hint of disappointment in her voice. “I don’t know for sure if she even finished.”
Great-Grandma Borens died January 11th, 1952 at the age of 71.
Except for the children she had, I couldn’t help but feel what a sad life Great-Grandma Borens had. I figured the least I could do was to find out if she finished College. And through my journey there, I learned such a different side to my Great-Grandmother.
Great-Grandma Borens, Nina Belle Kreeger, was born September 16, 1880 in Ottumwa, Iowa. The few things I knew were that her dad had a photography shop in Eddyville, Iowa before moving to Drummond, Wisconsin in 1900 to homestead a property. Great-Grandma Borens homesteaded a section next to her dad’s before marrying in 1903. I also knew that in 1905, Great-Grandma’s first child was born in February. And in July of that same year, Great-Grandma’s 13-year-old sister was killed in a gun accident.
I started Googling for Iowa Normal colleges from the 1900’s. The only college I found from that era was in Des Moines. Mom said it was possible that she went there, but she really didn’t know. I sent messages to various historical societies throughout the State, found a chatline, and learned nothing.
After hours of searching, I finally found a link to Community History Archives for Eddyville, Iowa. I plugged Nina Kreeger into the search engine, and my eyes opened wide.
The article was titled, Our Graduates. The Class of ’00 Covers Itself With Glory. The local opera house that seated 600, was packed with standing room only. Many folks were turned away. The exercises included orations and music. The Eddyville editor wrote, ‘the class was, in years, the youngest that has ever graduated, yet no former class had ever known higher proficiency.’ My Grandma Borens performed the part of Florence Nightingale under the Two Great Poets category. The editor praised her for her delivery that was ‘particularly pleasing and graceful . . . She held the closet attention of the audience through out . . .’
When I read through the abbreviated presentation, I was amazed with Great-Grandma Borens’ scholarly ability.
My next search led me to the Eddyville Tribune Town Gossip column. ‘J.J. Kreeger and family south of town were guests of the John Hohl family last Sunday.’ I found numerous mentions of my Great-Great Grandfather and his family. I smiled to think of them as ‘society’ folks. Outside the photography shop, I only knew of them as farmers.
The last search was when I realized how wrong we all were about Great-Grandma Borens. I found two articles she wrote for the Eddyville Tribune. I almost cried with joy when I read them. In her heart of hearts, Miss Nina Belle Kreeger was a gifted writer.
Mrs. Nina Belle Borens became what was necessary. She was a daughter who was the only family near her parents when her little sister was killed.
She was a wife to a lumberyard worker. In those days, a woman had her place, and a man had his. She truly loved her husband, and probably accepted the fact that it was her place to please him, any way he seemed fit, no matter how it felt.
Although she was raised much like an only child, she filled her home with eight children. Her little boys, rambunctious by nature, must have been especially challenging. She couldn’t have had the time nor the energy to pursue a writing career.
Great-Grandma Borens loved playing games with her grandchildren. She taught them how to play card games, checkers, the list went on and on. Great-Grandma Borens was a fun Grandma, she never seemed to lose her temper with anyone, except when defending her family.
My Great-Grandma Borens had an amazing power to overcome obstacles. Things we can only imagine.
Maybe over time, I hope our family’s first point of reference when speaking of Great-Grandmother Borens will be to remember the gifted young lady who was ready to take the world on as Nina Belle Kreeger. Our second thought will be how she was strengthened into the most amazing woman, mother, and grandmother, who my generation calls Great-Grandma Borens.
Hopefully, the wheelchair part will be remembered, as just a place where she sat down.
Below is the article published in the 1902 Eddyville, Iowa Tribune.
Eddyville, Iowa, Friday, August 15, 1902
From Miss Nina Kreeger
Below we publish a most interesting letter from Miss Nina Kreeger, recently of this place, but now of Drummond, Wisconsin.
July 30, 1902
Editor Tribune: –
I am sorry to hear of the sad destruction of crops around my old home, and those who have lost by the high water have our most heartfelt sympathy. I wish they had the bright prospects for crops there is here, for it is the best for years. They are cutting the second crop of hay off the same ground, and other things are doing as well accordingly.
This is a beautiful place for those seeking new homes. Words cannot describe nor painters paint the beauties which surround us, neither can land agents describe the fertility of the soil.
We live on the shore of a large lake, Long Lake. It is a mile wide and fourteen miles long and fifty feet deep through the center. The water is so clear fish can be seen swimming at the bottom at a distance of 18 or 20 feet. The fish here are mostly bass, pike, pickerel, and trout. On the shores are many large and elaborately finished resorts, the owners of which have all kinds of boats, from a steamboat to a small canoe. The canoes are used mostly for hunting deer, as they can get within a few feet of deer on water, if they don’t make a noise, because a deer never looks for danger on the water, but are always looking behind them in the brush. It is marvelous how they can get over the brush and logs.
Another oddity, to me, is the porcupine. They are very clumsy on land, but are very adept at climbing and it is very peculiar to see them sitting on the limb of a tree with the quills all pointing toward and covering their heads, ready for any foe.
We also have bears here. I came across one one day when I was looking around an old logging camp. It ran on direction and I the other. It would have been difficult to tell which of us ran the faster or was the worst frightened, the bear or I. Bears are fond of berries, and this is a great berry country; there are bushels of large, red raspberries going to waste, cranberries, blueberries, strawberries, huckleberries, etc., grow in abundance here.
The timber is mostly all cut out, but there is some beautiful timber left yet. There are a great many trees here 100 or more feet high before there is a branch; but I think the most beautiful of all trees here is the balsam pine.
I could write much more, but have already written too much, so I will close with best wishes for friends in Eddyville.