Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Mary Mitchell Burrill About Her Father and Grandfather

I never really knew my father.  I have some...perhaps two or three... impressions of him, that may be real, but could just as easily be the product of stories of him.  But, when I think of him, and what he might have been like, I have a few sources.   I have my mother's enduring love, having never gotten over him, and opposing that, her hatred for some of his ways...being rather different in temperament.   And I have the mannerisms, of my brother and sister. 
I think, despite their father and son closeness, that I do not get the sense of who he was from my brother.  He was very young when my father died, and based on comments from other people who knew my family at the time, Dick's stories of him are not as true a picture as I get from my sister.
My father died when my sister was in her mid teens.  This was a critical time in a young life, not that my brother's eleven was not.  She was profoundly affected by his death, and some of the circumstances that surrounded it. I do not believe that she will ever recover from that one event in her life.  One advantage to listening to stories that she tells, is her ability to throw out a couple of words on a subject, and if you know about the time and place, the events really come alive.  She just has a gift for that.  Go to to read her letter about our grandmother.  The tears really flow when I read that.
 Mary Burrill (my sister) has been sending me copies of letters that she sent to her friend Jan in the early years of her construction of her present house in the woods.(an enterprise that my father would have burst with pride over).  Some are real tear jerkers, and when that happens, it is usually on subjects she did not intend to provoke emotions. 
She was very close to Jan, and shared intimacy with her on subjects that she did not open up easily with even family.  She had avoided even thinking about many childhood events that had hurt her so deeply, and in the letter I read today, she wrote about our father in faltering, loving and agonizing lines.  I have asked her permission, and will, with a few changes, publish them here for the family. 
You may not get the same picture that I do, with a lifetime of hearing stories about him and knowing the locations, but I hope it gives you some picture of the person and the time in which they all lived.

"The facts that I am sure of are these:
Our grandfather, William Everett Mitchell married Henrietta Day of Hatfield Point, NB, Canada.
  They lived in Malden, Massachusetts where all or some of their children were born.  They had Helen, Loretta, Everett, Harold and Richard Bruce(My dad).  Richard was the baby.
My Grandmother returned to Canada, taking the children with her.  The marriage fell apart.  She divorced Grandpa and remarried.  She died before my dad was old enough to go to school.
My grandfather was tall, slim, had blue eyes and deep auburn(almost red) hair.
He was a house painter in the Malden, Massachusetts area.  I have one fairly clear memory of him:
Dad, Mom and I were in Malden during WWII.  We were walking. I was between 2 and 4.  Two tall men in painter's white coveralls and matching white caps were taking ladders down from a house.  They were my grandfather and my uncle Everett. 
I associate his death with my birthday.  Either he died, was buried or had his heart attack on my birthday.

I've known ever since I moved back to Houlton(She and Fred camped out at the old farm where we lived as children while they prepared the site for their house in Lakeville and moved into that house when it was partially finished.) that I would one day have to write about Dad.  I avoided it while I was in Littleton.(The place was too emotion laden.)  Now I am alone with the cat, I have had a cup of tea.  Here goes:
Richard Bruce Mitchell was born on Feb. 8 1908 in Malden Massachusetts. I suppose there was a snowstorm; there was always snow on his birthday.
By the time he was six years old he had been taken to Canada.   His parents had divorced.  His mother was dead and he had had an illness that nearly killed him(Pneumonia maybe) and affected his health all of his life.
Dad never said how they got along during his growing up years.  Never mentioned his mother's divorce, re-marriage, step-father.  These are the fragments I remember of stories he told me when I was a child:
There was a farmhouse, a barn, animals, wood chopping, cabin building, wood working and carpentry.  Hunting for food and clothing.  Making show-shoes and snares.  Bobcats, wildcats, many deer, rabbits, owls and fish.  Snow and cold.  He told of snows so deep that they shoveled out the upstairs window and snow-shoed to the barn loft door so they could feed the stock. 
They took the sleigh across the winter ice on the river. The ice was breaking up behind them.  They whipped the horse unmercifully, trying to keep ahead of it.
Uncle Harold riding a horse around the house, forgot the clothesline and snatched himself off the horse when it hit him on the neck.
The day there was a thunderstorm so bad that it frightened the cat.  She ran across the cupboards, over the table and finally directly over the old black iron wood stove.  She left little footprints behind her(burnt on the stove).
Then there was the time it was so cold that the cat climbed into the oven, and someone closed the door!
All of the children were crack shots.(They had to be.)  Aunt Loretta shot a black bear from the back steps.  We had that skin as a rug for shot in the neck!
One Christmas, they had so little that only the baby(Dad) got a present, a pencil box. (He reminded me of it the year that I was bummed out because I only got a couple of comic books for Christmas.)
The children all went to a one room school in Canada.  Uncle Everett threatened everyone's life.  None of the Mitchell kids would stand in the classroom and pledge allegiance to the Canadian Flag.  They were U.S. Citizens and the BIG BROTHER would have taken retribution from their hides on the way home if they had so much as stood up in respect!
My Dad had a sixth grade education.  He had to go to work to help support his family.  He often went back to Canada to work on his sisters' houses and get food for the winter for his nieces and nephews even when I was little.
He was a natural mathematician.  Numbers were a language he understood.
Dad would like to have been a cowboy.  He had an old wooden guitar. (Mike has it now).  He would sing "Red River Valley" and "The Streets of Laredo" at the drop of a hat(if I begged a little).  He even told my mother he was the foreman of a "ranch" in Northern Maine before they married.  He was an Outdoors Man, loved nature, knew the ways of the woodsman.
He stood 6'1".  Thin. Brown hair that went gray quickly at 40+.  Baby blue eyes.  A small cleft(like Rick's{Burrill}) in his chin.  He always had a grin for a friend and a helping hand.  He didn't swear.  He was a hard shell baptized-in-the-river Baptist.  He did not attend church.  "God is where I am.  The woods is a church and so is the field."  His thoughts with regard to the Catholic Pope was "No man should have that much power over peoples' lives."
Watching the sunset was a religious experience.  Turning your back to the sunset and watching the golden rays drip over the spruce and fir trees like honey was even more so.
Dad was a tea drinker.  A bit of Canada that always stayed with him.  He would put tea on the wood stove in the morning, set it on the cool-side-of-hot and at lunch or supper(when it was strong enough to hold a spoon upright) the tea would be just right for him.
He always ate bread and butter with everything....his breakfast, lunch and dinner, a donut, a piece of pie.  He had to have a cup of tea and a piece of bread and butter.
He would often whistle a bunny to its feet for me.  (Just to explain this to non woodsy people.  When a rabbit hears you whistle, it will often stop and rise up onto back legs to see where the sound is coming from.)
He hit me only once in my life.  He spanked my butt for being rude and recalcitrant to my mother.  All other spankings, beatings and whippings belonged (were given by) to my mother.
The happiest time of the day was when Daddy came home.
My father did hard physical work all his life.  He was a field hand, a carpenter, a woodsman, an electrician.  He was a foreman in an armament factory during WWII because he could visualize the concepts of the plans, and numbers were easy for him.  That is when we lived in Malden, Massachusetts.
He was a construction worker for Loring Air Force Base in the fifties.  We lived in Caribou, where Bill was born.
Dad was always a quiet person.  He hated to shave.  Mom cut his hair.  We were poor.  He had deep depression.  This got worse.  Each winter he was ill.  Each Spring he got better.  Year after year when winter came, he became more ill than the winter before.  Each Spring he got better, but not as well as the Spring before.
The doctors said "Pernicious Anemia.  Drink a raw egg in milk every day."  No help.
Basically he took three years to die. Glomerulonephritis.  Kidney disease.  They used to call it Bright's Disease.  The urine concentrated to amber.  He was weak and thin.  No Dialysis, kidney transplants, no Lasix. 
"My you're looking better.  Look at all the weight you're putting on..." as the urine backed up into his tissues.  Mom prayed on her knees in hysteria for a miracle.  The doctor never told her he was going to die.  But he did.
June 3, 1955  He was 47 years old. 
It was the last day of school.  I had just had my 15th birthday.  Dick was 11 and Billy was 3.
I have a lot of best memories.
Running to meet the truck and jumping on the running board to catch a ride....being put up on the horse's back to ride out of the woods.... The smell of new wood being worked....Dad Dowsing(what  a sight!)... Doing the "barn chores" by lantern light...wagon and hay rides...carving pumpkins, and Dad taking it outside and lifting it lighted to the window....the gun behind the door when prisoners escaped the prison.... Dad pointing out the Aurora Borealis and the Big Dipper...Dad carrying me up to bed and telling stories.  "Someday you'll see men walking on that old moon up there...not in my lifetime, but in yours."
Oh, If he could only have waited a dozen or so years!
There is more but I am done..................M.

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