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Monday, 01 March 2010


By Brenton "Sandy" Dickson

A faint smell of smoke from brush clearing on a nearby farm wafted in a light breeze across the parking lot. Mourners were pouring into the classic white New England Unitarian church. A bright mid-February sun flooded through the tall windows and reflected off the altar.

Ten minutes before the scheduled start of the memorial service for Anna Dickson Ela, all the pews on the main floor were full and ushers were taking later arrivals up to the small balcony. Many already were standing on the sides and at the rear of the church.

We sat in silence as the old bell in the tall steeple began tolling 100 times. Once for each year of her life.

I drifted back to when I was ten and walked into the kitchen of her Townshend, Vermont, Morgan horse farm, which she later moved to Bolton, Massachusetts, in 1958. When she spotted me, she said, “Sandy, you look thirsty. Have some lemonade."

As I began to drink, I was confused then the embarrassed as those in the room began laughing uproariously. A carefully drilled hole on my side of the glass was allowing a steady stream of lemonade to cascade down the front of my shirt and pants.

Visiting Aunt Anna and Uncle Roger was always an adventure. I once was jolted from a sound sleep by a loud shriek. One of my sisters, staying in the teenage dormitory between the barn and the house, had pulled the long string that turned off the overhead light. This action had overturned a tin can tied up high near the light bulb depositing a live garter snake onto her and into her sleeping bag.

While walking back from the stable after dark on a cool May night, I remember being terrified as a voice (loudspeaker) hidden in the stonewall growled, “Grrrrrrr. This is the troll of Sam Hill. Beware. I am following you!”

When sitting down on the toilet of the second-floor bathroom, bells and sirens went off and the hands of a large clock spun rapidly around. All of this to remind the occupant that a lot people were dependent on this room, so “hurry up and get out." One of my cousins attributed her later-in-life constipational issues to this contraption.

Anna grew up on a farm in Weston, Massachusetts. Dr. Alfred Worcester always maintained that he distinctly heard her yell, as he slapped her backside at birth, “What the hell do you think you're doing?!”

Her mother (my grandmother) was seldom seen wearing anything but riding britches. On one occasion, her parents were attending a Morgan horse function near Springfield, Massachusetts, where her mother gave a lengthy dissertation on the history of the breed. After she finished, the master of ceremonies suggested that Mr. Dickson might want to speak.

Her father got up, looked around the crowded room, and said, “My function in life is to feed Mrs. Dickson's horses," and he sat back down. Anna inherited her mother’s love of Morgan horses, as well as her father's quick wit and mastery of one-liners.

At her 100th birthday party last year, I went to her table and said that I hoped she would live for 100 more years; to which she snapped back, “Go fly a kite, Sandy. Sit down and shut up!” (See Aging posted May 1, 2009)

Reverend Jones walked up and down the aisles with a microphone letting members of the congregation share their memories of Anna. One middle-aged lady rose and related that when she was twelve, her family had moved from Southborough to Bolton. She feared this transition because she had to leave all of her friends behind.

Soon after arriving, her parents drove her up the hill to see the horses on Townshend Farm. While admiring a young foal in a paddock, an older woman approached her and said, “You like that one, don't you? If you come up here every day after school, groom her, feed her and muck out her stall, you can have her.”

The speaker spent the next 25 years, caring for and riding her mare on nearby trails and winning ribbons in local horse shows.

Anna was a mentor to countless young riders. She was active in 4-H activities and held many leadership positions in the Morgan Horse Association, winning numerous awards. She was a member of the American Morgan Horse Association Hall of Fame. The Green Mountain Horse Association named their Woodstock, Vermont training facility, the “Roger and Anna Ela Youth Center.”

Roger and Anna originally met at the intersection of two rural dirt roads in southern Vermont. They literally ran into each other because neither of the stubborn drivers was willing to give way to the other. Following a lively discussion, the two remained inseparable until Roger died in 1998 at the age of 90.

Anna was a natural athlete. In addition to her horsemanship skills, she competed as a teenager internationally in squash and field hockey, and won many trophies competing in small sailboat racing on Cape Cod’s Pleasant Bay.

She began working with children as a young woman, volunteering after school with the Girl Scouts of Boston and the Ellis Memorial Project in Boston's South End. While there, her supervisor was Amelia Earhart. Occasionally, after work they would drive to Wiggins Airfield in Norwood to fly Earhart’s plane over Boston and around eastern Massachusetts.

She turned Townshend Farm into one of America’s premier Morgan breeding operations. The trophy room was crammed with silverware and colorful blue, red and yellow ribbons. Over the years, more than 330 Morgans, many of them champions, have carried the ‘Townshend’ prefix in front of their names.

Anna drove her automobile for the last time in December of 2009. She passed away in her sleep at her farm on January 24, 2010, two months before her 101st birthday, leaving one daughter, one grandson, one great-grandson, and sixty-one Morgan horses.

They do not make them like that any more!

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


It is a beautiful and moving tribute. You two must have had a very special relationship. I'm sorry for your loss but impressed by the many and beautiful memories you have.

In my Mother's Day, never knew either of my grandparents, my dear parents hardly got to know them either..but all of I could think of reading your beautiful, funny piece was my Mother's Aunt Mabel,who ran a beauty parlor on Broadway during the teens, 20s, 30s..all the nieces & nephews had wonderful "one-liners" and little vignettes of Aunt Mabel. God love those characters who have everlasting imprints on us all..Love that she was up and literally around only a month before she went off to the skies..Mary Follett

How fortunate for you to have these memories!

What a wonderful heritage. We should all have had an Aunt Anna in our lives. We would have been the richer for it, as I am sure you are.

Good to read you again, Sandy. I didn't have an aunt as colorful as yours, but certainly enough of them--well over a dozen that I knew, and some I didn't! My favorite was Aunt Carrie, my father's sister, who had been my mother AND father's teacher in a 1-room schoolhouse!She had no children, so doted on her nieces & nephews, as did her husband, Lou.

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