Luella Ellis Cook


This whole story came to me and its entirety in the first week of September 1930. To be sure I had heard bits and pieces of it before; of course, I realized that there were events in the early 1890s which seemed to make my parents look very sad when children, as children do, asked questions about the time when “Papa and Mama lived up North of Masonville on the county line”. I knew that I was born in Buchanan County and that all the colts and calves which we owned that year were born in Delaware County for the dwelling house was on one side of the road and the barn on the other. Once I asked my mother a question regarding childbirth, and I thought she was evasive when she said: “Ask your father, I knew nothing about it.”

This is how the take happened to be told. After five successful years as a regular training critic in Carol, Iowa, I decided that it was time for me to find another job. I had completed over half my work on a master of didactics at UNI, and I had a very good reputation with the rural education department there. When I made the trip to Cedar Falls in the spring of 1930 to register in the Placement Bureau, I never got that far. Miss Wilmarth, professor of rural education and professor Eells, head of that department, asked me to become one of three instructors in rural teaching who were to become a part of the personnel at UNI that fall. The salary was a fair one, but it looked as if I was finally on my way to a college position with tenure when I completed that M Di. The teaching requirements called for me to teach a rural school with cadet teachers observing and then participating. I was thrilled.

When I went home that summer, it soon became apparent to me that my father was not well. He had fainted at the wheel of his car once, and he was continually under pressure. He seemed to want to hear anything that would distract his attention from his troubles on the farm. (Those were mostly financial, and the cause is better forgotten.)

Ed Cook was finally proud of his daughter, and proud in a way that he could mention casually; he would have detested any attempt to drag the subject into a conversation for he hated “show offs” or “loudmouths.” He proved his interest by hauling a trailer containing the furniture which I needed to finish my room in an apartment on Main Street and taking the “hired man” to help him install it for me. He went out and looked at the rural school which was completely modern with a basement and which was located just outside the city limits of Cedar Falls on Highway 20 between Cedar Falls and Waterloo. He helped me take in my books and typewriter, and then left me and my car, and drove away home. In a week which I had given myself to get ready for the first day, I found that the time I had allotted was too much as the schoolhouse still painting done inside. So, on Saturday night I drove home. 

Both my parents seemed glad to see me, but mother looked very relieved. She told me, as soon as the opportunity offered, that father insisted on driving someplace every day and that “he worried her to death.” Howard was busy with farm work; Mother did not drive. Mother’s request was “if your father asks you to go with him, please forget the work here at the house and go wherever he wants to go.” Thus, began a week of rare intervals of communication between my father and myself. Did he realize that his time of death was near? Was it the feeling of closeness that led to his telling me story after story of his adult life, and telling it with a depth of feeling that marked each tale as being the truth “as he saw it”?

One afternoon as I was driving for him over by Colesberg, he sat in silence for a time as we drove through the sunbaked pastures bordering the pavement on either side. “Do you know –?” he paused as if choosing his words with care “that I once had to choose who would live, my wife or you, and I chose Mary.” I said soothingly “Well, I lived Papa, so why go back to that now?” then he said, “I would like to tell you about it; a father should not tell someone to let his child die unless he had a good reason.” So he began to talk; I listened. I cannot recall his exact words, but the events he described were so vividly painted that I became aware that he was telling me a tale which he had mulled over again and again in the years since my birth.

“As you know we waited a long time to decide to have a child,” father began. “Ella’s death tore my world all to pieces. Ella was gone; Pete Barber went back to Michigan; Emory and Mary Jane told Malcolm that they needed Anna to replace Ella and Malcolm gave her to them — and she was only ten years old. I couldn’t stand living where so many awful things had happened, so I decided to branch out, sell the forty acres where your mother and I had lived, rent a large place and try to get ahead in the world. We rented that Lawrence place on the county line North of Masonville and we had two wet years, a lawsuit, a judgment; cattle mired down in the sloughs, and when the two years was over I had lost everything I had and was in debt for the feed I had had to buy to keep my cattle through the last winter I was there, so that I could have them to move on the McGee place in March.

“One of the worst experiences of the two years was your mother’s and my decision to have a child. Your mother was evidently not built for childbearing; she was past 30; was a bit overweight; she worked hard and fast. To her, having a child was a task when once undertaken, she wanted to do well. However, her experience with a large family at home and at Latimer’s inclined her to believe that one was enough. Early in her pregnancy, I told her to see Mrs. Latimer, a practical nurse and engage her to come out and stay a week before the baby was due. She saw doctor Dittmer who was our regular doctor, and Dittmer told her about limiting her weight, but she paid little heed. We arranged that the hired man would ride horseback to Masonville (about one mile away) and send a telegram to doctor Dittmer when labor started. If he couldn’t come, there was a fairly good doctor in Masonville.

The winter was unusually cold and so to be sure that Mrs. Latimer was there we had her come to Masonville on the train in mid-January so that Mary would not be unattended until the doctor could get there.

Both the doctor and Mrs. Latimer had agreed that the baby would be born in January about the 18th. On the 20th when the baby had not yet arrived, I went out to collect some money due me; I was not worried for I left the hired man and Mrs. Latimer with Mary. Sometime during the day labor pains began; Mrs. Latimer, fearing that the trains would not get Dr. Dittmer there on time had Jim, the hired man, go after the Masonville doctor. He came out, sat around for 2 or 3 hours; labor pains stopped; he returned to town.

Early in February, there was a thaw; the snow was very deep on the level so that when it began to melt, there a series of what we called “thank you ma’am” which in simpler terms nearly means that a series of tiny hillcocks of snow with valleys between made up the road. It was cold the wet snow froze on the horse’s shoes when night fell.

Mary was very uneasy; Mrs. Latimer was more so; I had never seen her look so serious. Mary had a few pains, and we went to Masonville and telegraphed to Manchester to Dr. Dittmer. Mrs. Latimer said “Ed come if you can; we need his skill badly. Jim waited, but no return message came; Jim was a Dane who had been in this country only 2 or 3 years. When he returned with no message, Mrs. Latimer called me aside and said Ed, go to Masonville yourself; try once more. By this time, it was evident to me that Mary was in difficulties. I had a bobsled and a sorrel horse we called Clyde and a young bae (or black?) colt, not broken very long. Jim hitched them on the sled; I put on a heavy coat and started the horses on a run for Masonville; there was no message. I knew that it was up to me to get a doctor. I left Masonville driving as fast as I dared, knowing that that team had to get me the 7 miles to doctor Dittmer’s office in Manchester. I planned on stabling them there and returning with the doctor in his cutter with his driver one of the doctor’s teams as fast as he could.

The road was a mush; the constant up and down motion of the double bobsled tore at my insides; I was crazy with worry, but all I could do was drive and try to keep my team fit to go. I drew up at Doctor’s on a run. The team was steaming. Doctor drove in just as I got there. He had been gone all afternoon on a case and had not seen the telegrams. I handed him the note Mrs. Lattimer had sent to him. I had supposed it was a list of supplies needed, but it must have contained some account of Mary’s condition, for the doctor turned to me and said “ Ed, my last team is done for until they have some rest. Can yours make home with me as a passenger? We have little time. We must be there soon.”

Guess my state of mind — 2 worn out horses with ice on their shoes. A wild cold night; a doctor whose grimness scared the hell out of me.  There seemed nothing else to do but drive. Once I wished I had the “little blacks” in the harness, but I had that sorrel horse. He seemed to know my anxiety and my need. When I flashed out with the lines, he gallantly gave me his every bit of speed. I had to use the whip on the black. I hope never again as long as I live to have such a ride. We pulled up at the door. The doctor grabbed his bag and took off for the house. Jim came out to stable the team. Just as I turned to go into the house that sorrel horse turned and looked as reproachfully as if I had been his executor. Telling Jim to blanket them and bed them down well, I went into the house feeling like an intruder — but not for long. The doctor had put your mother under as soon as he hit the bedroom. She was having convulsions.  I heard the doctor say “we can try to save her, but I think it is too late.” He yelled for hot water in a wash tub. He yelled for me to help. We put Mary’s pain-wracked body into the hot water and then into cooler water till we stopped the convulsions.

The doctor called me out into the other room and said gravely “Ed, I can’t save both of them. Which shall it be? Mary or the child? I will not say I can save either one.” I struggled to hold Mary down — I told the doctor to save her, not you”. But before they could save her, her body had to be rid of you.

Using forceps, he proceeded to bring this about. Suddenly he shouted, “I believe that baby may be born alive, but I may skin it in the attempt. It is a hard-headed little thing. We kept holding Mary down; we were afraid she would harm herself threshing about. They had to use more ether. Finally, I heard a triumphant yell from the doctor and there you were, no skin left on your face, a bit blue, but yelling and kicking. “I believe we have saved them both” marveled the doctor.

I looked down at you wondering how badly you would be scarred if you lived; I looked at Mary and wondered if she would hemorrhage to death; I thought of the sorrel horses pain, and I decided that if that is the way that one got children, I wanted no more. I was conscious of a feeling of guilt as I looked at you; I had chosen to let you die if it was necessary. I was glad that you lived, but I feared that you had suffered brain injury from the long labor.

The doctor stayed for the remainder of the night, and Jim took him to Masonville to get the morning train. He left a lot of directions for Mrs. Latimer, but he said that he thought that Mary would recover.

The look he gave you was questioning. He told us that the birth was at least 3 weeks overdue. He had no idea whether or not you would grow new flesh. One side of your face was worse than the other. I stood and looked at you. I saw a look of Ella about you, I was pleased.

You must have had a strong will to live. Your face began to heal — evidently, the under-skin was not injured. For the first 2 years of your life when you were cold, the one side of your face would be purple, then that disappeared. Mary recovered and in 2 weeks was helping the hired girl do the work. And we were parents. If we thought it would not change our lives, we were mistaken. At first, we kept you at home. Then in 6 weeks, Ella and Frank Sullivan invited us to Masonville for Sunday dinner.

Mary was anxious to go. As soon as we arrived, you roused from your nap and took one look round. Frank Sullivan loved children, and he came into the house and wanted to hold you. He began yelling “Hello, little Missy; you will let uncle Frank hold you, won’t you?” You let out a howl that would have raised the dead. You cried and cried. Mary gave up and said, “Let’s go home; She must be sick.” I took you to ease Mary’s burden. You grabbed at my thumbs with your tiny hands and wouldn’t let go. I took you into the front room away from people, and you sobbed until you went to sleep. You would look at the strange room, then start to cry; grip tighter and choke back a sob. It was the first time you had ever been completely in my care; it was as if you trusted me and knew I wouldn’t let you down. As soon as we politely could, we took you home. As soon as we took off your wraps and put you in your cab, you kicked up your heels and started to play. Your mother was so disgusted with you, she was ready to disown you. But I had seen the actual fear and terror in your eyes, and I knew that to you, young as you were, the realization of change was a horror not to be lightly construed. I was glad that you were a girl, for I could name you after my sister Ella — though Malcolm had used the name for his daughter born 6 weeks earlier, so we combined it with Lulu, the name your aunt Rose chose for you and called you Luella.

 I kept that sorrel horse until he died; he was never any good for speed again, but he always needed an extra animal to hitch on some of the horse-drawn farm machinery.

In the spring we left the Lawrence place, and were glad to be near our old Coffins Grove friends once more. Herb McGee had married Clara Harris about 10 years before, and they had 2 daughters, Beth and Mildred. Clara and Mary became very good friends. My father decided that you were the best of his grandchildren. At every family gathering, he always held you and would say “You can have all the others; this one’s mine. But then, Anna is mine too”. Your Grandmother would have liked to be friends with you, but you’re Grandfather monopolized you.

Not only did your grandfather spoil you, and Anna as well, but Jim Nelson who was still with us spent all his extra pennies buying you toys. Then, too, your uncle Peter Ellis who ran away from home to us about that time also took a hand in spoiling you.

Then my father added that at times even then almost 40 years after the night of my birth that he sometimes dreamed that he was driving a worn out team at breakneck speed over awful roads and trying to cope with a crushing fear that he might be too late. Then my father went on to say that he had never had any grief in raising me until he took me down to college and left me there alone.

And when we arrived home, he added: “I’m glad that I didn’t have to choose that you should die.” 

Written by Luella Ellis Cook

4-Oct 1974

Transcribed by Eric L. Cook

Mar 2018

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