Remembering Mr. Willits
My grandparents, were in their early 70s when I was born, which meant that they were in their late 70s by the time I was able to have any memorable conversations with them. Fortunately, they lived long lives: Grandpa was 97 when he died; my grandmother was 101. Still, I only ever knew them as old, and then elderly. Imagining them as young people seemed as impossible as living the horse-and-buggy days in which they had spent their youth.
And then one day, a few years after both had gone, a letter I found revealed the kind of young couple my grandparents were.
Albert and Anna Monthei, married on December 31, 1917. By the late 1920s, they were farming in Greene County, Iowa, and raising their own growing family—three boys and a daughter (Gladys, who would one day become my mother). It was during this time that a man named Mr. Willits would appear yearly each spring to hire himself out for the season.
Usually in farming families, a hired hand was a young man (a little like Ebb in “Green Acres,” though hopefully smarter), who basically did the heavy lifting that the boys and older men couldn’t do, while learning the many skills one could learn on a farm before making his way on his own. But Mr. Willits was old enough to be Albert's father. He likely couldn't do the work of a young man, but he must have had something else—know-how perhaps—that made up for it.
While I had heard, vaguely, of an old hired hand named Mr. Willits, and had seen a photo or two of him over the years, I had never thought much about him. What I come to learn about Mr. Willits, I discovered quite by chance.
After my grandmother died in 1991, when my mother and I cleaned out her house, I boxed up all of her cookbooks, looking forward to trying my own hand someday at recipes she’d made over the years (though of course, like most farmwives, most of her best recipes were in her head). Inevitably, the years went by, and the books sat untouched in a closet in my apartment. One day, I finally got them out. As I leafed through the brittle, dusty pages, tucked into one book, I found a yellowed envelope addressed simply to “Albert Monthei, Jefferson, Iowa.” The purple three-cent stamp had been inked with a postmark from Galesville, Wis., dated 5 p.m., March 13, 1933.
Inside, written on common blue-lined writing paper was a letter dated the day before. It read:
“Mr. and Mrs. Monthei. Dear Friends.
Your letter at hand and wish to thank you many times for your kindness in answering my inquires and for the picture. It was surely very nice of you and above all I want to thank you for your kindness to him while he was alive and during his last illness. It is a comforting thought to know that he had a good home and was regarded so well by you folks. I shall always think kindly of you people for your kindness to him during the declining days of his life. With kindest regards, I remain yours truly, J.P. Willits.”
Soon after, I asked my mother about Mr. Willits.
She never knew his first name, because everyone—including my grandmother and grandfather—called him Mr. Willits, a dignity given the old man without regards to who was working for whom. Though she couldn’t recall how Mr. Willits had made his way to their farm in the first place, she did remember that for a few years, he would simply show up each spring to help with the planting and stay through the growing season and harvest. Then he would leave as winter came; she did not recall where he went or what he did for the rest of the year, but come the next spring, he would show up again, just in time for planting season.
This coming and going with the seasons continued a few years until 1932; that year, when harvest was over and it was time for him to move on, Mr. Willits told my grandfather he had no place to go. Could he stay on for the winter? Of course, it was the depression; my grandfather had no money to pay him. In need of a home, Mr. Willits told my grandfather that if he would let him stay the winter, he’d do whatever chores were needed—without pay—simply for a bed to sleep in and the food they could spare. My grandparents did not turn him away; he remained in their house and at their table.
Soon after, however, he fell gravely ill; my grandparents kept him on, my grandmother doing what she could for him while taking care of her aging father-in-law and her own young children. My mother could not recall why Mr. Willits couldn't go home to his own people, but he couldn't. Judging from the letter, however, my grandmother and grandfather treated him as their own people.
When he declined so rapidly that my grandmother could no longer care for him, they took him to the hospital in Jefferson. And when the Jefferson hospital refused to keep him because neither he nor my grandfather could pay for the care, my grandparents reluctantly took him to the state hospital in Iowa City. When the doctors in Iowa City wrote and said there was nothing more that could be done for him, my grandmother desperately scrambled to find his people in Wisconsin to tell them that Mr. Willits was dying. And then she wrote to tell them he was dead.
I often wonder why my grandmother saved Mr. Willits’s son’s letter in her cookbook in her kitchen—a place where she would run across it often. Perhaps she remembered Mr. Willits fondly and liked being reminded of him from time to time. Perhaps she simply didn’t like the idea of a good old soul being forgotten.
Or maybe she deeply regretted that he had died alone, that she and grandfather hadn’t, somehow, managed to keep him close by them as he died. Mr. Willits’s son, J.P. Willits, would have known the hardships that any farm family faced back then, and his letter would serve as a reminder that she and Albert had done all they could do for the old man. Even though she probably wished she could have done more.
I don’t know why my grandmother didn’t put J.P. Willits’s letter with the rest of her old letters in the attic, but she didn’t. But I do know why I keep the letter in my china cabinet, in a place where I’ll spot it now and then. I like to think often of the good home that Albert and Anna gave Mr. Willits, and of their kindness to him during the declining days of his life.