Remembering My Mother, Vivian Johnson: Social Distancing and Isolation in Rural Wisconsin – 1940s/50s

This photograph of our family was taken when I was four years old, before we moved to the farm. My mother’s pleasant facial expression is the same one she wore for family and friends, throughout her life.

This morning I was thinking about my mother, Vivian Ellingson Johnson, who spent many years in virtual isolation on our little farm in Marquette County. This was before we had TV. We had no telephone. She didn’t drive. My father was gone weekdays working in a foundry at International Harvester in Milwaukee in order to make enough money to feed his family and pay the mortgage on our small 100 acre farm. He had bought the farm on land contract so during hard times (like strikes and lay-offs from International Harvester) he would ask the mortgage holder for a little extra time until there was enough money in the bank to pay. 

But back to my mother. During the week when we four children were in school, her only connection to the outside world was the radio. There was a little one perched on top of our Frigidaire and a large wooden one in the living room. WTMJ came in clearly, bringing her such soap opera heroines as Stella Dallas and Lorenzo Jones’s wife, Belle. As the World Turns and Search for Tomorrow brought melodramatic life stories to her farmwife’s inner life. 

And there were her letters. Lovely penned letters at our kitchen table — a daily ritual. After they were each sealed and affixed with a three-cent stamp, she would walk across the road, put the letters in the mailbox, raise the flag to signal the rural mail carrier There’s mail here! And the highlight of every day except Sunday was to retrieve other mail from the mailbox. She could keep in touch this way with her mother, Ella, in Milwaukee, her sister Mae in Oregon, other sisters, in-laws, relatives, and friends in other places, mostly Minnesota and Wisconsin. Mom was a wonderful letter writer, but since her life was routine, she filled those stationery pages with highlights of her simple life. 

Our two nearest neighbors in walking distance were two bachelors — Otto Zellmer on the east, Edwin Klawitter across the road and a bit west at the end of a long driveway. Neither had a phone, so when she got sick in the middle of the night, my 15-year old sister Wanda (who had a special farmers permit) drove to the nearest phone, woke Helen and Harold Schoenfeld and called the doctor in Montello, 8 miles away. He came to our farmhouse that night and, though there wasn’t much he could do to help her, diagnosed her pain as gallbladder. Mom had surgery later that year and our aunt Maisie came from Milwaukee to stay with us.

Before we moved away from Milwaukee, Mom had friends and relatives walking distance from where we lived, and she could take a bus or streetcar to places in the city. 

Although I didn’t give it much thought at the time, I suppose Mom got lonely sometimes on the farm. But she wasn’t one to complain. 

On the farm she found plenty of things to keep her busy. She liked to sew and always had one or more projects going. She was an excellent baker too. When we came home from school there was often freshly baked bread, pie, cake, or cookies. 

Then too she had the dog, the chickens, and a few other farm animals to keep her company. And sometimes the neighbors from two or more miles away — the ones with cars — would stop by. But not too often. And then, as I said, she had Gordon Hinckley from WTMJ on the radio. And those soap operas. 

Mom didn’t have  TV – that came later, when I was in high school. Sometimes I wonder what she’d think of today’s technology: computers, emails, smart phones, Facebook, Twitter – and Zoom.

Even without all that, she survived. And so have I.