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Urns hold more than just plants

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POSTED September 5, 2010 2:30 a.m.
It’s just a bunch of clay that has been molded and then baked in dry heat at hellish temperatures.

But the two urns that now sit on my patio are much more.

The one that is in the traditional hue of terra cotta with just a bit of fanciful Grecian touches near the lip now holds a geranium.

This is not a typical oversized clay pot made in Mexico. It weighs about three times the amount of one made today.

The urn was a wedding gift given to Millie Wyatt 85 years ago. My grandmother was married in 1925 when the Gladding, McBean & Co. factory inLincoln marked its 50th anniversary. The urns were an anniversary production item at the plant that in the 1920s made everything from what is now known as Desert Rose china and ceramic radiator caps for German limos to roof tile and sewer pipe.

The other urn is a little newer. It is a bit more fanciful in shape and design plus has a glazed turquoise finish. It was a Christmas gift that Gladding, McBean & Co. gave to employees back in the dark days of World War II. It was when most men in Lincoln were off fighting the war and women were hired to keep things going. It was a time when the factory was making clay silos for missiles that were being installed in the Nevada desert.

My other grandmother, Edna Towle, worked at the factory during the war after selling her cattle ranch in Nevada County during the height of the Depression. She moved to Lincoln where she built a home, worked at the cannery, and did odd jobs while raising four of her last nine kids on her own.

That urn has an azalea - a plant she loved but could never grow - in it. My grandmother’s love for azaleas is why Mom went hog wild with them when she moved back to Lincoln in 1963. But this isn’t about gardening.

It’s about how memories can be triggered by inanimate objects.

The urns are actually the only thing I have that belonged to either grandmother, although I do have a railroad watch grandmother Towle gave me that her father gave her. It was the old Towle Railroad short line that once moved lumber in the Sierra to help build the original Southern Pacific snow sheds for the lumber company of the same name.

It gives me a sense of joy to glance at the two urns. Each grandmother had them on their service porches where the wash basins were located next to primitive washing machines. Like all good service porches, they got ample morning sunshine making them ideal for laundry work and to place indoor plants.

Service porches were always where the young grandkids were sent to play away from the adults.

In Grandmother Towle’s case, though, I spent long periods of time with her one-on-one. She’d tell me stories about the old ranch, the family history and what it was like to teach back in the 1890s in a one-room school house in rural Nevada County. Grandmother had completed the eighth grade and was still single at age 20. Back in those days in rural California that made you the top candidate to be hired to teach.

She had the job for only two years. After that, she married and wound up with 11 children on a cattle ranch. She ended up running the ranch on her own when her husband just up and left when things got tough during the Depression. She didn’t let that faze her. At that time, she still had seven kids at home to clothe and feed. It’s the same tenacity that my mom displayed years later when my father died and she was left with four kids to raise on her own. And it’s the same courage that mom displayed when she was savagely beaten with a baseball bat and had her head slammed against a car during a mugging. Mom refused to walk in fear or shrink from life. Just like grandmother.

It’s weird, but the two urns give me a sense of place and belonging.

They also remind me that real strength doesn’t come from material things but from within.

Not bad for urns that are older than I am.
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