Editor’s Note: I spent nearly two years talking with Arline Covey, beginning just before her 98th birthday. She recounted numerous stories of growing up on a small farm in Ohio, attending nursing school in Chicago, becoming an Army nurse just before the United States entered World War II, then resigning from the service when she married a pilot. She saw much of the world as a military wife and raised a large family while often working as a nurse. Then she began a successful career in real estate, earning many times over the “Million Dollar Club Sales Award” — and along with it, a new nickname. Here is a peek at the manuscript of her book. — Christina Lyons
I sat on the bottom step of the hardwood stairs that led up to our bedrooms on the second floor, waiting for someone to arrive or something to happen. I loved to sit there because it ran into a room off the kitchen where everything happened. We called it The Room and that was where we spent much of our time. From my perch on the stairs I could listen to the activity in the house and be sure not to miss a thing.
I heard the clicking of Mom’s treadle sewing machine in The Room while I studied the map thumbtacked on the wall across from me. I carefully read the state names my sister Hazel had taught me. I could easily pick out the shape of our state near the top, just a couple of inches over from the right edge, with its straight borders on either side and its crinkly lines on the top and bottom. It was as if someone had torn off pieces to make room for a great lake above and Kentucky and West Virginia below. As I looked further left, I could see how many states lay beyond my Ohio home.
Nothing on that map identified “Possum Hollow” where our farm was located. It sat a few miles south of New Philadelphia, a town about twenty-eight miles south of Canton and even farther — eighty-six miles— south from the more well-known Cleveland. Our nearly 150-acre farm, an expanse of green pastures nestled among rolling hills, was just off Oldtown Valley Road and along a dirt drive lined with elm trees. In that area, it was always easier to just tell people we lived in Oldtown or Goshen, even though those weren’t really towns either.
My family moved there in 1920 when I was one. I was born on August 23, 1919 — just about a year after the end of the First World War — on the south side of New Philadelphia at what everyone referred to as the “Welty place,” which was named for the people who had owned it before. I was told that my Great Aunt Tize (Letiza Levina Braniger was her name) held me while she sat in a rocking chair in the back of the wagon on the way to the farm.
Mom used to say to me, “Lenie, you were such a good little girl the day that we moved in. You just sat on the bottom stair step all day and didn’t cry or fuss at all.” When I got older and thought about it, I asked her if she didn’t sort of worry about that.
My family mostly called me “Lene” or “Lenie,” although my oldest brother Byron liked to call me “Lean Against ‘Em.” He said I wouldn’t stand up by myself, but instead would lean on anything or anybody that was near me. My real name, Arline, was a name my Mom said she read once in a story, but I don’t know where my middle name, Juanita, came from.
The move to the farm was an adventure for the entire family, which at the time included my six older siblings— Byron, Hazel, Florence, Russell, John, and Mary Jane — all of whom had been born in the New Philadelphia area, too. My younger brother Richard arrived a few years later.
The farm was massive and I had hours to explore and find something to keep me busy. All kinds of buildings were scattered around. If one building was on the verge of falling down, my dad and the farm hands would build another one and usually leave the old building standing where it was, slumping over the years.
A rickety, abandoned corncrib still stood not far from the house. It was a good-sized playhouse for someone like me with a good imagination. I found all sorts of things in the main house I could use— a chair, a table, rugs, just about anything I could carry — and dragged each out to the corncrib, hoping my mother wouldn’t notice quite everything I was taking. Many times she did and made me take some things back.
A screened side porch off the kitchen had a stone floor where a cot was set up for anyone to lie down when they got tired. Another porch off the back of the house was enclosed by windows and provided a storage place for junk.
I remember the beautiful pink cabbage roses that grew up in a big round clump in our front yard. You could smell them far and wide. When they bloomed, Mom would cut them and put them in Grandma Coutts’ old basket-shaped glass vase that sat in the middle of the round oak table in The Room.
The previous owners had built an addition on the front of the house with a big porch. I could squeeze underneath the porch through a gap in the lattice next to the two stone steps. Then I usually dug around to see if I might find some ancient artifact, but I was always disappointed to just find broken dishes.
The lattice extended above the porch, too, with vines climbing all over it and providing shade in the summertime. Two doors opened from the house to the porch – one from the dining room and one from the living room. I loved to try to sleep on the porch swing when it was hot. The swing was long enough so that I could stretch out on it, and it seemed it might be comfortable for the night if I placed a blanket or two on top of its wooden slats. But by midnight or 1:00 a.m., I’d give up, and head upstairs to my bed.
The house had four bedrooms upstairs, which meant we often had to double up if enough siblings were still living at home. Sometimes I was put to bed at night before anyone else. Mom would have wrapped up a hot brick and placed it under the covers at the foot of the bed to keep me warm. That wasn’t enough to secure me from anything that might have haunted that big house at night, though. I cried and said I was afraid of the bears. My brother Russell sat on the bed and said, “Don’t cry, Lenie. I chased the bears all up to Cubbie’s.” Cubbies was what I called the Coventry family who lived up the road by the schoolhouse.
That house was so old. Plaster was always falling out of the walls, and my mother would have to mix up new plaster with water to patch up the holes. It seemed an endless job. But watching my mother repair the walls or affix new wallpaper may be why, as a kid, I thought I might like to be an interior decorator. I didn’t know what an interior decorator was really, but I wanted to be one.
Most of the furniture in the house came from garage sales and auctions or was inherited from my Grandmother Coutts. We didn’t have air conditioning, so the windows were kept open during the hot summer months, letting in the flies. We had screens on the windows and yet the flies seemed to find their way in and down to the kitchen. My parents hung some sort of sticky paper on the ceiling to trap the flies. But it was no use; they were everywhere — in the house and in the barn. It’s a wonder we didn’t get whatever disease you could get from flies.
We didn’t have running water in the house until I was about twelve. And I was fourteen when the Delco-Light Farm Electric Plant brought electricity to our house for the first time. The company constructed a little building to house the motor for the electric system that brought us the advertised “flameless lighting” and “running water.” The motor charged at least twenty to twenty-five batteries that supplied electricity around the farm, and it was loud. In the kitchen, just a bare bulb hung down from a wire. In The Room, we had an ugly chandelier that was brass and coppery with bits of red and green, with a little bunch of purple grapes hanging down from a wire in the middle. Even so, the electricity was an improvement in our lives. I had been washing kerosene lamp chimneys for a long time and was happy to see them put away. A couple years later, a federal program brought electricity into the valley and then the Delco plant was just a reminder of the past.
My great Aunt Tize lived with us when I was little. I slept with her for years, in a big iron bed, until she began to wet the bed. Then I complained so much my mother got me out of there.
She was Grandma Coutts’ old maid sister. As I remember her, she was German and terribly ugly. She had a big mole on her face and we always said she looked like a witch. But she was a nice old soul. She had lived with her father and mother on their farm down in Guernsey County in southern Ohio for many years, even as all her siblings had moved on, eventually living alone with her mother after her father Jacob Lingell Braniger died in 1887. Her mother Mary died in 1906, so then Aunt Tize moved to New Philadelphia to live with my grandma (her sister). But Grandma wasn’t so nice to her, so she came out to the farm to live with us heathens.
Aunt Tize worked like a Trojan. She dug potatoes, hoed the garden, cooked, and took care of us kids. She worked inside and outside. A neighbor kid, Joe Menapace, who was in Mary Jane’s grade at school, liked to come and help her.
She had to have had a sense of humor to live with us. I don’t remember many times when she laughed, but she must have. She certainly put up with us kids an awful lot. We weren’t so bad when Mom and Dad were there, but as soon as they left, we really cut up. We got the rifle and shot at bottles, tin cans, and the pretty glass bulbs on the lightning rods. We accidentally shot holes through most of Mom’s gladiolas too.
When Aunt Tize would really lose her patience with us, my brother John would grab her and swing her around and say, “Come on, Tize, let’s dance.” And he’d dance her around the room. She didn’t complain; she danced around with him. But sometimes she would threaten to call the neighbor, John Swihart. She would go in the yard and very hoarsely start calling, “John Swihart! John Swihart!” And we would laugh and laugh. We knew that she really wasn’t calling him so we persisted in doing whatever we were doing.
When my parents sent me with her to pick sweet corn or dig potatoes, I always asked her about her boyfriends and begged her to tell me about them until she would relent and tell me that one time she had a boyfriend.
She probably had barely gone to school. Many people in those days there did a few years of schooling before working on the farm. I often asked her to write her name. I begged and badgered her with a piece of paper and a pencil and promised her I would not laugh. As soon as she wrote it and I got the paper in my fist, I rolled on the floor laughing because her writing was so funny. What a brat I was.
She accepted all that stuff and never told my mom and dad how bad we were. Never.
Aunt Tize almost never left the farmhouse. However, once in a while she would go to town, and sometimes I would be assigned to watch her. One day we were in Reiser’s Grocery Store in town and I was watching over her while Mom was shopping. Aunt Tize got tired of standing, so she pushed the cans around on a shelf and sat down. I was mortified.
When my mother came to pick us up, I said, “Guess what she did! Guess what she did!”
My mother said, “What?”
“She moved all the cans off the shelf so she could sit down!” I told Mom that I would never, never be left with her again. It was too embarrassing.
We may have teased Aunt Tize a lot, but I adored her, and I think she knew it. She spoiled me; when I complained, she always pulled peppermints out of her pocket to calm me down.
I was about six or seven when she died. It was a morning I never forgot. Around that time, I was sleeping in a room at the far end of the hall from her, but every morning I would go in to see her as soon as I got up. That morning my brother John, who was a jokester, came in and woke me.
“Come on, Lene, let’s go see Aunt Tize.”
I got out of bed and padded down the hall with him and into her room. But there was nothing there but the mattress. Aunt Tize was gone, and all the sheets and blankets, too. I knew she had had pneumonia, and I soon realized what had happened. I was shocked and deeply saddened. I missed her for years. I had spent a lot of time with her, and she was the first family member I was close to who had died.
The house was always full of people. Neighbors constantly stopped in to chat or salesmen appeared with their suitcases full of vanilla, cough syrups, and other cooking additives or remedies for my mother to buy. When a salesman visited, I watched in awe while he pulled out each item to show my mother, and she carefully made her selections.
Mom spent much of her time in the big kitchen at the back of the house that was filled with a long table pushed against one wall. We never knew who might be there to eat. Edies and Coutts were everywhere in the area, and someone was always showing up. My mother cooked at the old-fashioned cook stove — heated with coal and wood — or at the oil stove on the back porch during the summer for anybody and everybody who came into our kitchen. She never seemed surprised or flustered at any unannounced visit.
When someone arrived, Mom would say, “Well, pull out a chair.” And they would pull out a chair.
My Uncle Russ, Mom’s brother, ran Coutts Grocery. He traveled the countryside to take orders on Tuesday, and someone delivered the food on Wednesday. So every Tuesday he came to take our order, and he stayed for lunch. He always brought me a small, round 39-cent coconut cake that I gulped down while listening to his stories about the people he had visited that morning in the countryside. He always had funny descriptions of their accents or conversations. He would tell us about some of our distant relatives who lived in Wainwright, a township just south of the Possum Hollow area. One relative would rattle off an order like, “A can of beans, a quarters worth of bananas, a pound of bologna and how’s Jim’s kids?” (That was us.) All in one breath this aunt would say that.
Aunt Ethel, Mom’s sister, came to our house every Wednesday afternoon. She was very organized. She washed on Monday, ironed on Tuesday, came to visit us on Wednesday, cleaned her upstairs on Thursday and her downstairs on Friday. Always. I used to fly down the road from school to be sure to get home before she left because she brought the gossip from town. I liked to hear it but I also used to complain to Mom that maybe she gossiped too much. Mom said, and rightly so, “Well, she never read anything therefore all she knew was what she heard and that’s all she could talk about.”
I remember visiting my Aunt Ethel’s. She and my uncle Charles Lorenz lived on Second Street South East in New Philadelphia, with their son George Gabriel. I loved how Aunt Ethel’s house smelled — often like it had just been cleaned, or like cookies were baking. Always something nice.
Ethel made me a colorful Friendship Garden quilt from scraps of my dresses and other clothes. I wore that quilt wrapped around me all through the cold winter months for years until it was almost just threads. My Great Aunt Tize also had made me a quilt — a Skutcher Mill-patterned quilt, it was called. It seemed somebody was always making a quilt.
We had many other visitors to the house as well. When I was in my teens, a firm sent oil well drillers into that area to work close to our property. They hid their booze in our wagon shed. I found it and immediately told my mother. I’m not sure what she did about it, or if she even confronted them. I remember one worker named Buck Shannon, but there were a couple others as well, and they always stayed at our house. My mother cooked for them, and they ate dinner with us as if they were family. I often had to give up my bedroom and double up with my sister Mary Jane, which I would tolerate simply for the fun of having the visitors stay with us.
When my dad and the farm hands cut down the wheat, they brought it on wagons to the barn where the grain had to be removed from the stalks with a threshing machine. When I heard the machine go chug, chug, chug up the road, I called out: “The threshers are coming! The threshers are coming!” The threshers would stay for several days or a week at our house, and there were sure to be all sorts of stories at the dinner table. I often found their stories or the way they talked so funny.
Then again, everything made me laugh. I thought everything was funny and I laughed and laughed, and everyone seemed to get so furious with me. Especially my father. At dinnertime, my place at the big table in the kitchen was at the far end — far away from Dad sitting at the other end. I sat across from Mom because she was much more tolerant of my laughing. Dad always got very mad, particularly since once I started laughing, I could not — or would not — stop. Many is the time I was sent away from the table until I could behave myself.
I remember my mother’s family had this old friend who often came to visit. He was an old bachelor, and my mother gave him a room to stay in for two or three days and he ate with us. He was so funny. I don’t mean he was funny by telling tales. It was just the way he talked that tickled me, and I would laugh and laugh until Dad would make me go outside until I could behave myself. I didn’t much care. I would go outside and laugh until the giggles seemed to exhaust themselves.
Funnier still were the hired hands that we almost always had on the farm. We had one called Henry Winder and we kids called him Henry Twister. One day Dad was plowing out the potatoes and we were all out en mass to pick them up and put them into crates to be hauled to the house and then into the basement. We taunted Henry so much that he walked out of the potato patch one day never to return.
Then we had Harley Harrison who came from “Wheelin’” West Virginia. He had an old guitar that he plunked on out under the grape vines. He never really played it, just picked at it. He had an old car and on weekends he would take off for “Wheelin’.” He would come back and tell us about his trip home. He said, “I was goin’ down the pike about fifty miles an hour and tromped on them hydraulics.”
He really wasn’t unpleasant to have around. We used to talk to him a lot. We had a dog called Patsy, a shepherd, and one day Harley told us that she was down in the field eating grub worms. We said, “Are you sure that she was eating those?” Harley said, “Yes, I heard something going clickety clack, snippety snap.” From then on we called him “Snippety Snap.”
The prize hand was Clark. Clark came in a package deal. In order to get Clark, Dad had to take his wife, Beulah, too. Clark was rather small and he sort of stuttered. Beulah was huge and she drawled. They moved into the little house across the road from our house. They loved animals and had at least one cat and one dog. On a summer night when all the windows were open you could hear conversations coming out of their little house. Mom said one night she heard Beulah say, “Move over, Clark. You’ve got your third, and I’ve got my third, and now let Sport have his third.” Also, “Well, Claaark, I just don’t have time to feed the damn cat.”
Beulah and Clark both loved to go to town and they always rode in with my dad when he delivered the milk to Borden’s Dairy. It was bitter winter and much slush and mud was in the road. Beulah came out of the house to get into the car and Dad said that she was wearing some wooly big old furry coat that someone had given her. She slipped, fell in the snow and slush and, dripping wet, jumped into the car. Dad said when she sat down the water squished out of her coat and it sounded sort of like air being let out of a tire.
When they got to town they always headed for Uncle Russ’s grocery store. There they would fiddle around and talk and sit by the potbelly stove, waiting for their ride back home. One time Clark called his sister Millie from there.
The conversation was like, “Oh, oh, oh, my doodness — Oh my doodness.” Then he turned to Beulah and said, “Millie, her not feel very dood, her don’t. Her boy him burn up in a truck, him do.”
Another time, Beulah sidled up alongside Clark and said, “Claark,” and no answer. She said it several times and Clark ignored her. She got a little louder and still Clark ignored her. Finally she said, “CLARK! GIVE ME A DIME!” No answer. Then she yelled, “CLARK! GIVE ME A DAMN DIME!”
Clark said, “Hee, hee, hee. Her must see somethin’ her wanta she do.” That was the way he talked.
One morning, Mom walked into the barn and heard Clark saying, “Well, Howdy do, Howdy, do. I got you, you little wascal, you. Howdy do, Howdy do.” He was swinging a rat by its tail above the food box!
I heard once that when Beulah and Clark got married, someone took them up to Canton to Meyers Lake Park and they rode the rollercoaster all day for a honeymoon.
My younger brother Bud always walked very slowly and talked loudly. Grandpa Coutts used to call him the loudspeaker because he used to yell instead of talking in a normal tone. One day, Bud was walking down the road from school. He walked a few steps, then stood still and looked around and thought about whatever. It was taking him forever to get just down the road a piece. Clark and Dad were watching him and Clark later said: “Jim look up the road at Bud and Jim shake his head and he say, ‘Moses’ him do.”
We also had a hired hand whose name was Russell and he had a wife, Isabel, and a little boy, Russell. These were Depression days and these people were grateful for a place to live, such as it was, and food and one dollar per day. I think that Russell was a very good worker and I don’t remember anything particular about Isabel except that we all called her “Trolley.” I really don’t remember why we gave her that name but it must have had something to do with the comic strip called “Toonerville Trolley.”
The same day that Henry Winder got mad and stomped off was the day that I earned my first dollar. Dad told me that he would pay me a penny a bucket for every bucket of potatoes that I picked up and he also would take me to the Bijou that night to see a movie. I was in seventh heaven. I was like an Olympic runner — on the ready with my bucket — waiting for the first potatoes to be plowed out of the ground. I didn’t walk to the crates to dump my buckets, I ran. I didn’t go to the house for the mid-day meal when the rest all did, I picked up potatoes.
I did my own addition, I might add. By afternoon my brothers were helping me by dumping their potatoes into my bucket and some said that I dumped quite a few half buckets into the crates. By 6 o’clock that evening, I announced that I had picked up one hundred buckets. Filthy, dirty, and barefoot, I headed for the house. Exhausted, I sat down on a little grey chair in the corner between the stove and the sink and I knew nothing more until I woke in the morning and was being thrown into a tub of water. I had missed supper and the movie!
To make up for the movie Dad brought strawberry ice cream home from the dairy and I ate and ate and ate. (We had to eat it all because it was packed in a big wooden container with ice all around it and when the ice melted, that was it.) It was rumored around that if I really picked up one hundred buckets full, the rest of them must have fooled around a lot. I thought that is exactly what they had done. They shouldn’t have taken time out for dinner.
But really, my older siblings and parents — like everyone in rural Ohio — worked hard every day. Everyone had to pitch in to help make ends meet.