My 93-year-old grandmother was called home to heaven last week, and I have been thinking a lot about the legacy of faith she leaves behind, sharing the love of the Lord with generations of our family. A couple of years ago, my daughter had an opportunity to interview her for an oral history project. I thought I would share that oral history here, as a slice of life from nine decades—and a testament to the joy she found in her family and her faith.
About: Betty Nickel
Recorded on April 6, 2018
by Hannah Bodden
Theme of this Oral History
But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord's love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children's children.
I chose this verse because one of my favorite things about my great-grandma is that she always has time for family. Family always comes first for her, even when she was a little girl, she looked up to older siblings, and cousins, and was a great role-model for the younger ones.
The Oral History of Betty Nickel
My great-grandma is Betty Nickel. She was born on January 1, 1929, in Lomira, Wisconsin. She was born to her parents Alvin and Lyda Sterr.
She attended Hickory Grove from first to eighth grade. Her favorite subject was spelling, but her least favorite was history. She dropped out of school after eighth grade and helped out around the house.
When she wasn’t in school, Betty’s best friend and she had their own secret whistle. They had farms across from each other, and the whistle meant that they weren't busy and could hang out.
At age 21 she married Melvin Nickel, and had eight children! One thing I realized about my great-grandma when I was interviewing her was that from when she was a little girl, up until now, is that her family is one of the things that has always influenced her life. When she was 14 years old, she took her baby brother to the store, and people kept saying, “Look at him; he looks just like his mom.”
One thing I admire about my great-grandma is that she is so caring and always has time for family; because of that she has been one of the biggest influences in my life. She is a strong, independent woman who has room in her heart even for the bird that she feeds everyday when it comes up to the door.
My great-grandma was born in 1929, the same year as the beginning of the Great Depression. When the Great Depression ended, she was 13 years old. She does not remember much about it because when you are 13 or younger you don’t really realize, or acknowledge, the amount of money your parents have. Although they had rationing books at the time, my great-grandma and her family didn’t have to worry about having enough meat, because they had their farm. The things the ration books were for were mostly sugar, flour, and gasoline for cars and tractors.
One of the biggest fashion trends was saddle shoes and bobby socks. She also remembered wearing nylons, and she said the first time she remembered wearing them was during her confirmation.
Current day social lives are much different from the ones people back then had. You would go to school in the mornings and then go home to work in the afternoons. My great-grandma says that her farm and her friends’ farm were right across from each other. They had their own whistle that they could hear from across the street, so instead of calling a friend to talk, they would do their whistle, which meant they wanted to talk, and then would meet up at one of their houses.
During the school day, they had recess just like we do here, but since it was a one-room schoolhouse, the bathroom was outside. So in the middle of winter if you had to use the bathroom, you would freeze! (I guess it was one way to keep your students in class without any excuses to leave.) They also didn't have running water, so the students took turns gathering water from the neighbor’s house and carrying it back up to school.
My great-grandma’s family got their first phone when she was twelve years old. Everyone in the neighborhood had the same phone number, but everyone had a different ring, so you could pick up the phone and listen to another person’s conversation! You couldn’t complain about the neighbors because they could be listening to whatever you were saying.
My great-grandma’s favorite subject was spelling, and she said she remembered that it was so easy, although she did say she didn’t remember anything about ever doing a spelling bee. Her least favorite subject was history because the teachers never taught it well, but she did enjoy geography.
Mrs. Morrole was her favorite teacher because she was the only one there was each school had only one teacher. My great-grandma’s school had only 20 students for all eight grades. Each area had its own school since students had to walk to school every day and wouldn’t be able to all walk to one central school.
Most people, especially women, back then didn’t attend high schools, universities, or college. Neither did my great-grandma or her husband.
My great-grandma's family home was heated by a furnace, which was mainly heated by coal, and there was a grate that you could take off of the furnace if you accidentally dropped something down it because the heat only was at the sides, and the middle stayed cold so it wouldn’t hurt if you had to pick something up.
For meals, she said that chicken was one of the favorites, and her mom would have to go outside to kill the chicken. After the chicken died, they would put it in hot water and pluck off the feathers. My great-grandma had to milk the cows before and after school every day!
She didn't bring lunch to school because she lived close enough to go home for lunch and would walk home to eat lunch and then go back to school again.
She remembers very clearly what her house looked like and described it in a lot of detail, including how many rocking chairs there were and what type of wood the dining table was made of.
Early memories/ recollections:
Her earliest memory is her brothers going to school because they were older than her. She also remembers bringing eggs to the store, and exchanging them for groceries. She says you could get a paper bag full of groceries for five dollars or less if you didn’t have eggs to exchange. Besides getting cheap groceries she drove to the store in her family’s car when she was 14 and didn’t have a license and didn’t get in trouble!
Her favorite memories are all about her little brother David. One time when she took him to the store, she heard someone say, “He's got hair like his mother [meaning her]” And even though she was 14 years older than David they got along really well.
Life used to be a lot of walking to get to places. One of the places my great-grandma went was to her school’s VBS. The VBS was run by adults and pastors, and she and her siblings attended it. Unlike our VBS now their VBS was for 1st-8th grade.
Although she never thought about it at the time, one of her role models was her cousin because she got along very well with her. My great-grandma thought her cousin was good at everything.
My great-grandma remembers her mom's cooking because she used to cook for the people who ran a nursery. She wishes she still had those recipes but said that even if she did, no one would want to eat those kinds of foods anymore, even though she enjoyed her mom's cooking very much.
For chores, she had to use a push lawnmower to help with the yardwork. She also had to clean the chicken barn/house.
My great-grandma and her siblings all got along, and if they didn't behave, they didn't get punished at all, although her mom did say, “What would Jesus think of you?” That changed their minds real quick, and my great-grandma says she remembered her mom saying that to her sister quite a lot.
My great-grandma enjoyed playing with her sister Diana the best, although her brothers would take her places.
My great-grandma and her family had a lot of cats and dogs, although she did have a favorite, a Persian. One of her relatives in Milwaukee brought it to her family as a gift.
The events that brought her family together the most were birthday parties. They would have a lot of sandwiches and gingerbread molasses cookies, and they all played bunco. The winner of bunco always got a prize like a tablet (not like modern day ones; a tablet was what they called a notebook).
On Christmas, my great-grandma used to do solos in the front of church, and she told me that one of her biggest regrets was refusing to do a solo her eighth-grade year. That was her last chance, so she told me to always use my opportunities and to always be thankful for them.