I went to see Great Aunt Leona the other day, to ask her what it was like to live through a summer that was apparently even hotter than this one, back in the days before air conditioning.
But Leona, who turned 96 in June but is still, as they say, sharp as a tack, doesn’t remember anything in particular about that heat wave, which would’ve happened the summer she turned 20.
“When it was hot, we slept downstairs by the front door,” she shrugged. “We didn’t have air conditioning, or even a fan.”
They didn’t have 35-degree temperature swings, either, every time they left the house to go outside. And though they were a big family — 14 kids lived to adulthood — they were small people. It’s doubtful any of them, even the men, weighed over 150 pounds, which means they could’ve moved more easily through the heat than today’s plus-sized Americans.
Still, they did what they could to keep the house from heating up any more than necessary, moving all their pots and pans to the summer kitchen out back where they cooked and ate all their meals during the warmer months.
The summer kitchen burned down in 1938, according to another clipping in the same scrapbook. They lost most of their clothes, which Leona remembers having just carried over to do the laundry. She recalls that a spark from the wood stove started the fire, which jibes with the newspaper account, which says a fire had been started to heat water for the washing.
“About 50 neighbors gathered to form a bucket brigade … and were able to save the house,” it says. “Several of the men assisting received burns, but no one was seriously injured.” It doesn’t say whether a fire truck came out from town to assist.
The more I read in this old scrapbook, the less surprised I am that the 1936 heat wave doesn’t factor more prominently in Leona’s memories.
There was plenty of drama in those days just in everyday life. Babies died. Neighbors got gored by marauding cows. One clipping tells of how Leona’s brother Gaius nearly severed a toe on a scythe, and while her parents took him into town on the horse and buggy to get stitched up, another brother, Alvin, fell from the hay mow and broke his arm. A few years later, her dad, Jehu, broke his back when a hay bale fell on him, though he wound up living until 1963.
Leona’s had plenty of drama in her old age, too. Three bouts of cancer, starting in 1989, when she had a kidney and a gall bladder removed. I had no idea. You’d never know she was nearly blind in one eye, either, from the way she bustles around her house, going off to fetch her gall stones to show Colleen.
“I asked the doctor after my surgery, ‘Did I really have cancer?’” she says, presenting us with a plastic bag containing cubes the size of Yahtzee dice. “He said, ‘Oh, it was a big ugly thing. But it was all contained inside the kidney.’”
I didn’t even notice until a few days later another clipping on the same page as the 1936 heat wave, chronicling extreme cold that same year: 20 straight days at zero or below in January and February 1936.
I’ll have to ask Leona about that the next time I see her. She may not remember it, but I’m pretty sure she’ll remember something interesting about the past. She always does.