Tucked away in a box of mementos from my parents that has been in our basement for many years was a small (4 x 6) plain brown envelope with the return address of a photography studio in Saskatchewan and a couple unrelated handwritten notes on the back. The other day I was looking through the box and saw the envelope. I opened it thinking there would be some old photographs. Instead I found a series of letters from my grandfather to my father, dated 1944-1947 and in their original envelopes. During these years, my parents and my older brother John were first at North Star Mission in Saskatchewan, then teaching at Jabbok Bible School in Oklahoma, and then in missionary service in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The letters were sent from my grandfather’s home in Wainfleet, Ontario, where my dad grew up. I don’t know if they are a complete set of letters from this time period; if so, there aren’t that many considering they span about four years, and if not, I have no idea what happened to all the rest.
I never knew my Grandpa Jesse Sider. He passed away 67 years ago today, on June 21, 1948, less than two months after I was born on the other side of the world. Of course, my dad talked about him some, but I learned a lot more about the man I never knew from reading these letters. They are short with maddeningly few details, but they return to the same themes almost every time.
Interest and concern about his oldest son and family: Grandpa Sider may not have fully understood or agreed with his oldest son’s decision to leave home (and country) at age 18 and pursue a different career than farming, but he seemed to have made his peace with it. The letters indicate that he prayed regularly for my dad and supported him, even as he missed him and regretted not being able to see his oldest grandson (my brother John) very often.
March 24, 1944: We received your letter a few days ago….We suppose that it will be quite a change for you to be left alone, especially when there are no other ministers near. We pray that you may keep encouraged [referring to when my parents were left alone in charge of the North Star Mission.]
March 11, 1946: We understood from Murray [second son] that you must have passed your medical test as you are planning to come east at conference time. It will be nice to see you all again. This life brings many separations but God’s way is always best and we would not want to change it.
March 11, 1947: We received yours and Gladys’ letters and remembered your drought in prayer.
April 10, 1947: We received a letter from you lately also one from Walter Winger to be forwarded on to Uncle Lewis Steckley. Walter says that if you folks keep on as good as you have started that he thinks you will be alright [referring to their first missionary assignments in Rhodesia]. Your last letter came in 13 days from the time you wrote it. I suppose your home is not enough like a farm to suit John as he said before going.
Sprinkled through the letters are little messages to John about things he must have been interested in on the farm when he visited, including this P.S. on March 24, 1944: “Dear John, I would like to see you to take you to the barn and go riding in the car and go to S. School and talk to me. You live so far away that you cannot come often. Be a good boy. –from Grandpa.”
Farm life: Reading Grandpa Sider’s letters helps me understand where my dad’s obsession with weather and gardening came from, and also reminds me of the difficult life of small farmers. For as long as I can remember, my dad paid attention to the weather. He kept track of the rainfall each spring and summer and frequently remarked on the status of local corn fields and whether the lawns were nice and green. He always had a garden, even into his 80s when he was living at Messiah Village. (It might have been harder for him to admit he couldn’t garden anymore than that he shouldn’t drive!) Grandpa’s letters are full of news about the farm.
July 20, 1994: I rode the binder to cut the 19 1/2 acres of wheat although I was at it on four different days. Yesterday afternoon I helped Elmer [youngest son] shock wheat.
July 19, 1945: We have our haying pretty well along…. Our wheat is good, about ripe. Elmer is plowing for wheat as it is wet and cannot haul hay. It plows good now. There are practically no winter apples here this year and very few others, almost no pears. Strawberries were good and they say grapes are alright. Peaches are light. Mother feels that under conditions we will need to keep the dried fruit. Our new potatoes will soon be ready to eat but are a little later than usual on account of getting planted late. We sowed oats on Mar 30 and forepart of April but had a lot of rain after that.
October 31, 1945: We have had a very wet time since about the middle of September. Our buckwheat and a great many other people’s is not cut yet. We sowed 15 acres of wheat on the 17th, 18th and 22nd of October. Some of it is coming up now. A few people sowed in September before it got wet. Some have none… We had hoped to get our buckwheat cut with a combine. We are not very busy now on account of the wet. We have no apples to gather. There are very few around here.
December 16, 1945: We have bought two new seven year old horses. We got a gray last March for $100 and a black from Calvin lately for $110. Old Paddy is gone, he was about 24. Tell John the new horses’ names are Topsy and Polly. We have 51 pigs now. We took our old Jersey cow up to Uncle Jess’ for him to fatten on shares. We have lost our buckwheat crop. It is all in the fields yet.
March 11, 1946: The weather is getting a lot more like spring. The snow is about all gone. Elmer sowed clover seed on the wheat this morning. It was nicely frozen for walking. He has hauled about 150 loads of manure on a pile in the field by the barn….
April 10, 1947: We have had a late cool spring but the wheat is turning green now. We tried putting in a few fence posts but the frost bothers yet. Elmer got a nice lot of manure out but we cannot farm for a while yet. We have been getting our wagon, harness, etc. fixed up for spring. We have 18 of the hogs left yet that we had over winter
Church life: Grandpa’s letters are also filled with the names of relatives who visited, the accidents and illnesses of church members, and the revival meetings and Bible conferences he attended, where many Brethren in Christ notables of the time preached. He himself had been a minister in the Wainfleet district, so this may explain some of his personal interest in all the special meetings and the folks who spoke there.
January 31, 1944: Grace [daughter] does not get home very often, she was home only once since Christmas, a week ago last Thursday while our revival was on, which ended one week ago last evening. We had fairly good results the latter part of the meeting. Quite a number of the S. S. children were saved, which was very nice indeed. Bro Lady worked very hard both in preaching and praying. He brought his sister-in-law Naomi Wolgemuth along.
March 24, 1944: We are planning for our Bible conference tomorrow, and then special services all next week. Bro Henry Schneider is to be the evangelist. Uncle Ernie [E. J. Swalm was married to my dad’s mother’s sister] and Charlie Byers are to be the other speakers….. Cecil Mater met with a serious accident this week. He was on the highway up near Adens when he got in front of a car drive, I think, by a minister from Canfield. His left leg was badly broken below the knee and he was thrown quite a distance. The ambulance took him to Hamilton hospital yesterday and his leg was put into a cast. He was home again last night. Some of the men around here including Elmer have been taking turns staying with him at night but I guess they will not have to go much longer.
July 20, 1944: I have been going to the camp every evening. The attendance has been fair although the shortage of gas and tires no doubt makes a difference. Uncle Ernie was given a topic but I was told that he did not come on account of gas. Bro Witter is the evangelist and Samuel Lady one of the day speakers. We are getting some rich holiness teaching. There have been a few seekers and also some overflowing blessing in the meetings. We are having visitors from nearly every part of the Ontario church. I suppose you know that there are three meals per day served on the grounds in a large tent, then there is a smaller tent erected by it for dish washing. The cooking is being done by Elva Heise and helpers in Uncle Walter’s garage. Uncle Henry Steckley’s girls are staying here nights.
December 8, 1946: We were at Boyle Bible conference yesterday which I enjoyed very much but it tired me a lot. Bro Shoalts, Bro Gilmore, Earl Sider and John Rosenberry were the speakers.
March 11, 1947: George Siders have had a rather hard time, lost his cows thru contagious [did he mean spontaneous?] abortion in the fall and their house by fire this winter. They had about $500 and considerable goods given them. An offering was taken in the church and a shower held beside.
His health: In 1942, Grandpa’s barn was struck by lightning while he was in it milking the cows. According to my dad’s memoirs, Grandpa “barely had time to get the cows and horses out of the burning building, and the shock left him with a condition from which he never recovered.” I don’t know what the condition was, but the fact that his health was poor comes through clearly in his letters (and the postscripts written by Grandma Ada).
July 20, 1944: It is a long time since I have written to you but as I was not feeling well I was not in a mood to write, and besides I could not give a very good report of myself so I preferred to wait until I could write something better. I started with the stomach flu about the 24th of May and have not entirely recovered from it yet. I am gaining quite a lot lately and am working quite a bit lately.
October 31, 1945: I’m not able to do very much work now but my heart is some better. You can tell Bro Eyster that I am still expecting the Lord to heal me. It seems that I cannot keep the victory unless I believe it.
May 4, 1946, note added by Grandma Ada: Papa is not holding his own very good. Getting some weaker. Paralysis in both hands. Seems hard for him to talk very much.
January 11, 1947, note added by Grandma Ada: Papa went to church this morning, but he hasn’t been very good, so helpless and hard to dress and undress him, cannot cover himself in bed very good.
March 11, 1947: Have not been very well lately but am still hoping God will answer.
July 20, 1947, letter written by Grandma Ada: Papa did his best to write a bit, not very strong this morning. Stomach bothering him lately. Appetite not very good. P.S. added by Grandpa: I am not very well but thought I should write a little.
The July 20, 1947 letter is the last one in this collection before Grandpa died on June 21, 1948, at age 62. The final letter is from Grandma Ada, dated July 6, 1948. My parents received a telegram at Matopo Mission in Southern Rhodesia at the time of his death, and then apparently they had to wait at least another month (allowing for two or more weeks for mail delivery) to find out more details. Grandma Ada describes the morning of his passing and the funeral. Then she continues: “We miss Papa so much. Imagine we hear him calling. Every place we go on the farm we see something Papa made or fixed, and it’s so hard on me.”
I put myself in my dad’s place, and I imagine how hard it must have been for him to be so far away. In his memoirs, Dad wrote about the last time he saw his father, not long before he and my mother and brother left for Africa in December 1946:
We needed to make a trip to Ontario to see my father who was in very poor health…. This was quite a memorable time. My father-in-law, Walter Bohen, took us in his car, and we were at Wainfleet for a Wednesday evening service. The next morning we left again for Pennsylvania and said goodbye to my father who was sobbing as we got into the car to leave. I have often wished that I could live those moments over and somehow make it easier for him. For this was the last time we would see him on earth, and I think he knew it.
I wonder if my dad, when Grandpa died so far away, thought about what Grandpa said in his March 11, 1946 letter, “This life brings many separations but God’s way is always best and we would not want to change it.”