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Hard times create new role models

It was a beautiful summer day when farmer Tom Blanchfield first saw her standing in his neighbor’s windblown fields calling the children for lunch. She was a tiny person with her hair and petticoats swirling.

Mary Frances Coyle had been summoned home from the convent and the vocation she treasured. Her new challenge as the eldest female came when her mother died and her father needed help in caring for her siblings. She put away her habit for the time being.

Tom was smitten at their first encounter and Mary was, of course, “swept off her feet” by the handsome and charming widower with two young sons.

They married on Thanksgiving Day and rode from church through a glistening blanket of snow on a sleigh complete with bells and fur lap robe. It’s the stuff of which families are made and future generations are free to romanticize.

I tell this story because they were my grandparents and just writing their names makes me smile. Life on the farm shaped two admirable human beings who located on the other side of the “American Dream” and did extraordinary things on the side of “American Reality.”

Mary and Tom ultimately had seven children, one of whom was my mother. It was a life of hard work, good eating, simple tastes and great personal accomplishment.

What made their story unique was their set of skills, the spiritual strength and the ability to nurture literally three families. Mary never really gave up the convent. She brought it with her and left her imprint as a skilled seamstress who designed her own patterns; artist; cook without recipes; scholar. The contrast between her shy and gentle demeanor and Tom’s larger-than-life personality made them a full service unit.

It was no surprise that when Grandma and Grandpa got old, they lived with us. There was no adjustment talk. They just did. Someone was always home and Grandpa could fix everything from broken hearts to bicycles. When he died, I thought it was because he was a lot older than Grandma. Every day during those last few weeks, I brought him armloads of lilacs and little bunches of violets. My parents cried and held our tiny hands.

Grandma still had a lot of love left over from him. She taught me to read as she read to me: The Bible, Shakespeare and countless other literary works. She loved the Cleveland Indians and sportscaster Jack Graney. Bedridden, eyesight failing, in her final days I read poetry to her. Ball games on the radio lightened her life. In her last moments, I held her close and wrapped her forever in my heart.

Farmers like Mary and Tom know economic cycles and the marketplace. Although life on that Ohio farm was not “The Grapes of Wrath” or “The Ponderosa,” my grandparents always lived close to the land and respected the essence of family life. They passed through wars, loss and the Great Depression and understood the actual vow of poverty. It was a tough and demanding existence, growing and tending the living things under their care.

As Grandma always said, “Don’t lose your soul in the process.”

Pat Glass, retired county commissioner and longtime Manatee resident, writes biweekly for the Herald.