Aussie Long coatThe first week of the year, my Seattle job finally moved to Bothell. Only a year and a half late. But this has meant I’m starting to feel the difference in the amount of free time I have, from not making that 1.5+ hour trek to the urban netherworld every day. It’s small, but significant. I’m starting to feel caught up. And like maybe I have some spare time, which I don’t think I’ve felt for a very long time. And this means I get to spend time doing some unnecessary things,  thinks I just feel like doing. And this leads to the text of the Tobacco Incident.

My Great Grandma Josephine Cogan was born in 1895 (I think). By the time I was in grade school, she was elderly, and I was a little bit afraid of her. She was fat, and seemed big as  a bred cow to me; she walked gradually with crutches, was hard of hearing, and smelled of too-old perfume. But her homesteading stories were spellbinding and endless.

My mom and grandma has the foresight to record her doing some interviews in 1978, when she must have been in  her eighties. That was in those days when home cassette tape recorders were new fangled things. Those tapes sat in the bottom of my mother’s sewing drawer for several decades. A few years ago, the subject came up, and we decided to have the tapes converted to digital files so we could share them with the rest of the family.

I never listened to them all the way through. Until now. I decided to try transcribing them. It’s great to hear her voice, but I thought it would be nice to also have written down what she said. She had a fun dialect, which I remember well: a mix of Midwestern lilt, country farmer and compounded contractions, lisped by dentures and slowed by either old-age confusion or just a refusal to hurry. It’s funny to try to type it verbatim, MS Word keeps correcting me!

Here is her story of the Tobacco Incident, a well known tale to our family. Not a dramatic story, but well-told, in her own words. I think we have lost some of the art of storytelling in recent generations, we are too quick to get to the point; rather than weaving in non-critical details which round out the story and lead you down a meandering path to the end. In square brackets I’ve captured the quotes of whomever was prompting her. You can listen to it at the below audio file, as well.

Grandma Cogan’s Tobacco Story

[So you and John were close to the same age, and you used to play together a lot, right?] Well, I was older than John, and anything John could do, why I could do, too. Until we’d riding calves, he get throwed off… […and chew tobacco?]. Well, that was later. I was grown up then! [Would you tell us about that?]

Well, that was many years later. Dad had some land being broke up, with a steam engine, and steam engines have to have water to produce steam. So they had a water monkey, they called them, men that hauled the water in tanks. He had a big, heavy overcoat, ‘course this was in spring and it was cold, sometimes they’d have rainy weather. And he was Christ Hansen, he had ‘em haul that water, from the creek or something, down to the river or something like that. Well, he had a big long coat, he had it hanging in the shed, that was the shed we’d come into before coming into the house.

And in his pocket was a pound plug chewing tobacco, about so long. It was stuck in the pocket, but it was sticking out. We had to examine that! So, mama said, “leave it alone, that’s Christ’s property, don’t touch it!” Well, when she wasn’t watching, we took the butcher knife, we just cut off a little bit.

Well, about that time, it was time to go get the cows. So, we started over the hills, and we started chewing, too, right now, and before we got very far, why we were getting kinda sick, so we started chewing faster, and we swallowed all that! [Wasn’t it kind of sweet?] Yes! It tasted a little bit like licorice. I guess maybe that’s why [… maybe it was flavored with it?] I dunno, why, anyway, we chewed before we got to the cows, we got so sick we couldn’t see the cows!

But we managed, the cows knew they were supposed to come home, so they started, and we followed them. Brother John always had kind of a chicken stomach, everything would upset him. So he was so sick he laid down on the ground, and he’d heave and he’d heave. And I brought the cows home, while John took a shortcut for the house.

And mama met me at the door and she says, “you know what? Maybe John’s gonna die, because you went and gave him some of that tobacco!” Of course I was older than John, well, I was worried about John. [She thought she’d give you a good scare, huh?] Sure she did! [You were pretty sick yourself, eh?] Of course I was, I swallowed that stuff too! [Chuckles] Well, that was that.