Musings: Family History

Today’s topic is: “Have you looked into your family history? Tell us about your ancestors.”

Keeping track of the DeCook family is a daunting task because it is an enormous family. My husband is #9 of 14, with 13 boys and 1 girl!

My mother-in-law Pauline, now 85, is a remarkable woman, not only for raising a baker’s dozen of smart, upstanding men but also because she is the kindest soul you’ll ever meet, and still sharp as a tack. We are so fortunate to have her living just a few miles away!

Yesterday, the girls and I went to her house for a play date and as I sat down, I asked her to tell me a story about her mother, the original Maggie, after whom our second daughter is named. (Back in 2014, when I was pregnant, I was delighted to discover that this ‘family name’ had not already been taken by one of Pauline’s 60-odd grandchildren or 50-some great-grandchildren.)

Maggie and Naldo Steenhoek

Maggie and Naldo, 1970

Pauline’s parents were Maggie (Dykhuis) and Naldo Steenhoek. They lived in Pella, Iowa. Here is their story, as told by their only daughter.


Back then, boyfriends were people who lived nearby, and that was the case with Mom and Dad. When Dad was drafted into World War I, they sent lots of letters back and forth. Mom kept her letters and on every one of them, Dad didn’t sign “Love” or anything like that. They were all signed with “Your friend.” After he got out of the service, they got married and they lived on the home farm with Dad’s oldest brother John, who helped with the farming and was never married. The funny thing I remember about Uncle John is that he always had to have his shoes polished every week.

(Pauline’s older brothers were born in 1920 and 1926, and Pauline was born in 1931.)

Every spring, we had to hang the blankets on the line for a good airing. I remember throwing a hat onto the blankets and delighting in watching it fly high up into the air as we shook the blankets. When I got a little older, I asked Mom why she had so many blankets and she said that she made them all when Dad was in the service. Mom did all the mending by hand. She also taught me embroidery. I would get so frustrated when it would get knots or tangles but she had the patience of Job.

Mom took care of the chickens and did all the gardening. Only occasionally during corn picking season, she would help with the farming. Back then, the picking was all done by hand. She loved flowers, particularly gladiolus. She planted fragrant Easter lilies along the fence. There were snapdragons. I remember a lot of salmon-colored flowers. She wouldn’t go out and buy new bulbs; she just saved them.

The house didn’t have modern conveniences. There was no electricity until I was about 12. (That would have been around 1943.) And there was no bathroom, but we did have a ‘washroom’. There was a cistern under the house that collected the rainwater and the washroom had a hand pump connected to it. That soft rain water was the best water to do the laundry with, so Mom would have to pump it from the washroom and carry it outside where there was an old cook stove to heat it. That’s also where the washer was. We were lucky because there was a cave that could be accessed from the house. After all the butchering was done and put into crocks, it would go into the cave. We stored potatoes in there, and there was a shelf for apples.

The house was heated with coal-burning stoves, and there was a wood burning stove in the kitchen. It was my job to make sure the coal buckets were full. And we used corn cobs to start the kitchen stove. They worked really well! There was a big square table in the dining room, but that was only used for company. Most of the time, we were in the kitchen.

Mom had her first stroke when she was 62 (in 1956, six years after Pauline was married) and it affected her right side. They would warm up this thick wool fabric with steam and apply it to her arm. It was supposed to help it get better, but it never did. Her right leg sort of dragged after that too. When she went to the nursing home, Dad would join her every day for lunch and then go back to the house.

Dad died in July 1972. I remember that (son #12) was only about six weeks old when my older brother called me the following March and told me that Mom wasn’t doing well. I decided to go visit Mom but that day there were patches of such dense fog that you had to drive very slowly to get through. When I got to the Pella hospital, there was a hearse at the back door, and I knew I was too late. She had just passed but the body was still in the room so I got a chance to say goodbye. (Maggie was 79.)


Tell me about your family’s history in the comments.

~ Phoebe DeCook


One thought on “Musings: Family History

  1. Marla says:

    Maybe you could print and save this. We’re you able to do that with the family tree deal you made up? If so, I would like a copy please. See you Thursday


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