Updated: Apr 1, 2019
(From April 1994)
For as long as I knew her, she was ready to die. Damn her, no one treasured work, love, laughter, family and devotion more than she did. But for her last 30-plus years she knew if the bucket were sitting there, she would kick it without fear.
Loved ones saw no bravado in her attitude. That’s just the way she was. She knew life and death to be impartial, and that once she passed 60, she “dasn’t” ask for too much more, lest she look ungrateful.
But she would occasionally let down just enough to hint she might have been keeping score. She told of life in the early 1900s, when chronic asthma kept her stooped and wheezing, and ignorant neighbors warned sons to keep their distance.
“There goes the walking dead girl,” they’d say. “Probably has TB. Don’t want to marry her. She’ll die young on you.”
She outlived those people, parents and sons alike.
Maybe she survived because she never took anything for granted. After becoming a mother, and finding her husband to be an irregular mate and father, she raised four kids mostly on her own through the Depression. When her children became adults and teased her about living off tomato soup during their childhood, she replied, “You didn’t starve, did you?”
Still, she valued fresh meat in her home. She told grandkids how her brother often provided their only meat some weeks: bullheads from a nearby lake, and rabbits from nearby fencerows.
And, of course, in her day, the meat seldom came wrapped, including the chickens, which they butchered themselves. If families wanted meat in the early 1900s, they often had to kill the animal on whose bones it had grown.
When reflecting on those times, she would sometimes voice displeasure at today’s judgmental hindsight. As those harsh times faded from society’s memory, she heard people cluck their tongues when discussing the widespread killing of deer and other wildlife 100 years ago. But she believed little of it went to commercial uses.
At least not where she lived. For many rural or nearly rural people, wild animals provided rare sources of meat. They were so poor and hungry that conservation of wildlife resources had to await more prosperous times. And who could guarantee that conservation would remain in vogue when times got rough again?
All such matters caused her to despise waste throughout her life, whether of food, time, talent or money. And she tried hard to pass on those hatreds to descendants. When a grandson took up hunting and fishing, she ensured his meager catches were cleaned and eaten.
That wasn’t hard for her to monitor. After all, she lived with a son’s family most of her final 30 years, and she usually knew when to slip into sermon, or skip to the next page. When she was left home to cook for the grandkids, she quietly directed the young hunter toward the freezer.
“And don’t let your brothers and sisters see you,” she whispered with an amused look. She then quietly prepared her go-to chicken dish, adding in chunks of rabbit and squirrel after plucking out the No. 6 shotgun pellets.
While washing the dishes after supper, she relived her trick with the boy, saying with a laugh, “Well, they’d never eat it if they knew what was in it. But it’s better meat than you can buy in a store.”
Just as important, she valued independence. But unlike many, she knew toil, knowledge and responsibility made it all possible. She never relied on a store for all her food. She vigorously tended huge vegetable gardens, moving in quickly after each rain to pull and hoe out weeds while the ground remained soft.
And she never missed a chance to collect rain water for her plants, or add fallen leaves and grass clippings to her compost piles, long before the musty heaps became a ’90s fashion statement for yuppies.
All the while, she never shied from opinion. Late in life, when too weak to do much outdoors, she still watched “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation” and the belligerent screamers on cable TV channels. But she once confided to a daughter-in-law that life stopped being fun after 88, when the pains of aging never ceased.
Still, it took a fall from bed, which broke her hip at age 96, to finally weaken and kill her on March 28, 1994.
So now she’s gone, buried at a gravesite in an Ashton, Wisconsin, cemetery that she chose long before most of us were born. Ursula Fischnich Durkin was one hell of a woman, and at least one grandson will never forget her lessons.
Not to mention her plates of “chicken.”
These photos show my paternal grandmother, Ursula Durkin, in about 1918 and about 1985. She took the photo of that teenager with two northern pike. That’s me at age 16 in May 1972.