My oldest cousin -Nancy -of my Mom's side of my family -and I were talking on the phone oh, about a month of so ago about lots of things. About our family though, mostly and things that stand out in our memory.
She asked me "What do your think, what comes to your mind, when you think of Grandma?"
And, my answer -immediate it was too -"OLD!"
Because to both of us that really was how Grandma always seemed to be. Old.
I giggled a bit then and told Nancy that the sad part of seeing her that way in our mind's eyes was that when I was born, my Grandma was then a year younger than I am today! And, when Nancy came into the family as the first grandchild, Grandma was then only 55 years old -a real spring chicken and yet from photos from those days, she was "OLD" even then, in appearance anyway.
But then, what would one expect of a woman who, born in 1880, who went to work as a maid in 1894, working for some wealthy family up in the Pennsylvania oil town of Warren, PA. Of a woman who married at 21, had the first of six children at 22 and the last child when she was 43 years old! And in between those children, somewhere probably it is suspected between child number 3 and 4, she also had a miscarriage too -which when she mentioned this to my Mom many years later, also was a baby that, had she carried it full term most likely would not have survived back then as it would have had spina bifida.
Grandma worked until she got married at the age of 21 -first in Warren and then, somehow made her way to Olean, NY -which is where she met my Grandfather and when they married, they came back here -to this little village where his parents lived, where he had grown up after he and his parents and four of siblings had landed when they came here from Sweden.
This is not to say that Grandma didn't work though after she married. Nope, not at all because she did work, every day and grueling work it was too the labor of carrying for children, a husband, washing clothes by hand, scrubbing out dirty, really filthy dirty work clothes of a coal miner and ironing everything that was laundered too. Just to wash the clothes meant she had to haul bucket after bucket of water to the kitchen and then, boil it on top of an old coal cook stove in order to wash their meager belongings.
Grandma always ran a very tight ship too -a place for everything and everything in its place. She accumulated only things she felt could someday be reused -unless it was a pretty dish or cup or vase that she received occasionally. But clothing was saved and recycled -always. If it couldn't be salvaged and cut down into clothing for a child, it was saved and cut eventually into pieces and made up in one of the many, many quilts she put together in her lifetime.
She cooked. She baked -breads of various types from plain white Swedish Kakas to the Limpa Rye my Grandpa loved and she was great at making delicious rolls, coffee breads and the yummiest of cinnamon-nut sticky buns too! Pies came out in a flash under her deft hands and the rolling pin and there again, the best lemon meringue pies or rhubarb cream, apple, cherry, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry too -whatever was in season and on hand to be picked for free! But the lemon pies and the rhubarb are the ones she made that I remember the very best as, like my Grandpa, those two were my absolute favorites. (I suppose if any of my cousins would happen to read this, they might be cringing at the thought of the rhubarb pie but dang, I loved it and I'm longing for some of that stuff -as well as some freshly cooked rhubarb sauce too -right now, as I write this. (Why is it that some of the things we remember best come intertwined with our taste buds too or is that just me?)
One of Grandma's favorite dishes to fix -and this one I KNOW would get a loud groan from my cousin Barb -was the Prune Whip she frequently made for a dessert. I don't have the recipe for this dish -have never found it in any of Grandma's cookbooks (I think she maybe had 2 that were of the printed variety, compared to me with two large shelves in the dining room plus space on the shelf above my computer that are all loaded with cookbooks, large and small. Not that they do me all that much good either, I might add.) But anyway, the Prune whip consisted of cooked prunes -now that's was an easy thing to figure there, wasn't it -plus tapioca pudding and into the tapioca pudding, she mixed in something that was white and fluffy -airy - sort of like whipped cream, but not -and it was dished out on top of the cooked prunes for serving. I, unlike cousin Barb, also loved this stuff too! Wish I could find a recipe for it someplace maybe in the cards Grandma had on which she had copied this or that other recipes but I'm thinking this dish may have been something she had in her memory file and one that she never bothered to copy down on paper to leave behind -sort of her legacy thing ya know.
Grandma could sew too -boy, could she ever! She made clothes for herself, for her family, from the start and her sewing prowess was something for which she was known too here, among the neighbors in this village and also, in some of the other little coal mining towns in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia where the family lived back in the "good old days." One lady who used to live down the street from us here told me that Grandma could be shown a picture of a dress in a magazine or catalogue, take a person's measurements and from those bits of information, she could draw her own pattern, cut and piece together a dress that was a replica of the item she'd been shown. She could do tailoring too and was very precise in her workmanship when it came to sewing. She took in sewing -alterations as well as "made from scratch" requests often during her lifetime and also, when the family moved about from one little coal mining town to another in the western part of this state and to West Virginia, she even took in extra work doing laundry in her home for others -that combined with my Grandpa's meager coal miner's wages, allowed them to not live but at least exist.
It was a hard life, that much is for sure so it's no doggone wonder her face was worn and weather-beaten and her body, no longer that of the very shapely, very pretty woman she was when she and Grandpa married. Grandma could be a bit on the stern side at times -children seen, not so much heard but that too often could be attributed to some health issues she had too that noise and turmoil exacerbated.
But as I think back too I remember a woman, a little bit shorter than I am, full-breasted of a woman of that era who had six children, no time for special diets and exercise, just lots and lots of hard work and then, more of that, and a very round, soft stomach -the combination of those two things made for the most comfortable spot in the house where a small child could lay their head and find sweet rest.
And providing that was something she was, at the end of the day, very good at doing too.
It was while seated in her lap that I was first introduced to the Bible and she read to me, passages most every night before I knew how to read, before I went to bed and made sure I learned, early on, those bedtime prayers as well.
Not that Grandma didn't have a sense of humor cause at times she did but usually, she had so many things on her plate that she was involved with -crocheting doilies, fancy little things for little dolls every now and again, sewing stuff for me, for other grandchildren or doing the preparations for yet another quilt, her fingers, her hands were rarely ever still.
Every Sunday afternoon, without fail, she would take a seat in the sunporch here, pen and paper in hand and would write a letter to the five of her children who lived away from here. (My Mom being the only one who probably never received a letter from her as Mom and I always lived with her parents.) Each of her letters invariably began the same way. "Dear son or daughter, spouse's name and family, It's another dreary Sunday afternoon here..." It wasn't until years after her death though that someone -one of my cousins I believe -remarked about how every letter they ever got from her ALWAYS began in the same way and that person wanted to know then why it was that every Sunday here was always dreary? Did it rain every Sunday, ya know?
She waited anxiously at every holiday till her oldest son and his family would arrive here safely from their drive here from the Pittsburgh area. If she had a favorite, one might think it was him because I don't think he ever missed coming here for Christmas, Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day and Thanksgiving and at least one weekend darned near every month too. His visits here also often involved a lot of hard physical labor too as he was the one who was really a "jack of all trades" and he could do carpentry, plumbing, wiring, masonry -you name it, I don't think there was anything he couldn't do and he did them all quite well too! His kids grew up a bit resentful though of the fact that their Dad insisted the family all come here, to as he would always put it "Go Home" as this house was always "Home" to him whereas the beautiful place he built from the basement up by himself was referred to merely as his "house." There was never a time when he and his wife and their five children showed up here but what they didn't begin unloading their care by toting in bag after bag of groceries -like they had gone to the store and bought a full grocery order and then, brought every last bit of it here to share with his parents, his sister and niece. Now you tell me if that wasn't the ultimate in giving by a son to his parents!
My younger uncle and his family didn't get here all that often -maybe once or twice a year -but we would always make sure to do a visit to his place up in northwestern PA -just below Erie -in the late summer so my grandparents could admire my uncle's garden and the prowess he exhibited in that. And we always returned home with loads of fresh vegetables then that Mom and Grandma would add to the vegetables reaped from the large garden we also always had and all would be canned then to make sure we had more than enough food to last us until the next gardening season. That uncle -the only one of the family to go to college -was a school teacher. He had four children and he too, like the oldest son, built his home himself. As a school teacher though, back in the 40s, 50s and 60s when wages for teachers were really lousy, in order to support his family, he ALWAYS had a second, sometimes I think a third job. From spring through fall, he mowed the grounds at the local country club and I don't remember what he did for added income during the winter months, but I'm quite sure he had some other source of income then too. Grandma had a major soft spot in her heart for him because of the pride she held for his academic abilities as he was considered -along with my Mom -as being the brightest of the family. (My uncle was valedictorian of his high school class; my Mom was salutatorian of her class.)
The middle son now -he was the business man of the bunch! Had his own establishment in Maryland -a roller skating rink! And how proud she was of him and his ability to interact with the public, to be able to run his own business and do it well too! He was a master craftsman able to do all kinds of carpentry, building furniture at times, wiring his rink for sound -truly, for sound as he set up speakers and such, wired it all together -and he also was a ham radio fan, having his own radio but he never finished all the qualifiers to get a license as a ham operator.
As children, my cousins and I also tended to think of him as the fun uncle, the crazy one, the jokester but as I got older my Mom commented to me that he was fun, yes but he was the "loud" one whereas the younger uncle was the one who really had the great wit and could say things that were really hilarious. Minor differences there in the approach each one had to humor is all that was as they were both such a hoot to be around.
My older aunt -the firstborn -was the epitome of the devoted daughter and she and the oldest of my uncles were both cut from that same piece of cloth in that respect. Not that my other uncles or my younger aunt wouldn't have done -and often did -whatever they could to help, assist in any way possible my grandparents or my Mom and me too -but my aunt and her husband were also always doing something for Grandma to make her life easier, nicer, prettier in any way they could possibly afford.
Now my Mom and my younger aunt -well there was a bit of a can of worms, you could say.
My Mom was 14 when her baby sister was born and apparently, from the get-go, the aunt was the fair-haired child, the catered-to one! She could do no wrong and my Mom always felt that she was the one who could do no right!
This aunt lived the farthest away from home -first up in Niagara Falls, NY then around 1959 or 1960, she and her husband moved to California -to the Los Angeles area. This aunt rarely remembered anyone's birthday -even Grandma's -or if she did remember that, odds are the card would arrive a week to two weeks late. Mother's Day was nothing special in her book either and occasionally she would send a card, rarer still perhaps a present. Letters from her was also scarce -far and few in between you know but yet, and I don't think I'm being unfair in saying this, Grandma never complained about the laxity in her youngest child compared to the other five. Anything she did was -yes- always wonderful; just fine and dandy!
And my Mom - in many ways I have to say Grandma didn't always appreciate so many of the things Mom did for her and Grandpa much less the sacrifice she made in dedicating her own life to caring for them as well as for me. Sure there were times, early on when I was a baby, a toddler, when Mom could work as a registered nurse and take whatever shift was offered because she had child care right here, with no worries, for me. That is until when I was around 3-4 years old and Grandma had a slight stroke and couldn't always tend to my needs the way she normally would have done. Then, as my grandparents aged more, Grandpa's mind went on a permanent vacation with what then was called "Hardening of the Arteries" but today could be considered either Alzheimer's or just plain old Dementia. Caring for both her parents during their last years was a long, hard, very difficult task for my Mom but one from which she never shirked either. She was like her mother also a very talented seamstress too -meticulous in her stitchings. So meticulous that one could perhaps say she was a bit over the edge, a tiny bit on the obsessive compulsive side about each stitch, each seam had to be perfectly formed or she would rip things out and start all over again. (No, I am no where near the caliber my Mom and Grandma were with sewing, nor with embroidery either (on Grandma's part more so that my Mom's. But I try and that's about all I can do there without running the risk of going insane and thus not enjoying the art of the embroidery.)
It about drove me nuts when as a single parent, things around this old house would break down and my income was far from enough to get many of the things fixed the way they should have been done. Why was it I asked an aunt of mine -the one who had been married to the younger of my uncles -that Mom was a single parent and things broke down here, needed repaired, replaced and she was always low on funds too but always managed to find a way to get those thing fixed somehow. It was then that my aunt told me I was forgetting something -that my Mom had three brothers, each who were very talented in many areas -carpentry, plumbing, masonry and such -and Mom would ask them about what was needed to do this, that or the other and they would lay it out for her, telling her what materials to get, drawing diagrams even at times on how to go about doing a particular job so that way, she could do many of the repair jobs around the house herself and not have to lay out an arm and a leg to have someone else come in and fix things for her. And if it was a job they couldn't give her instructions for how to fix something, one of the brothers would come home and they would work together -my Mom and whichever brother -then to get things back in running order!
That's something I'll never have the ability to do like my Mom did -as I know zilch about those aspects. I know what a hammer and nails look like but which to use for a particular job or how to use a saw to cut things -totally out of my league. Same thing applies to other do-it-yourself stuff too. Just way out of my realm! Maybe, had someone shown me some of the tricks of the trade a long time ago I could have learned how to do some of those things but then too, it was never really something on my own particular radar screen either, no real interest in learning those things I guess.
But whatever the great traits were that my Grandma -and my Mom -had as well as the little quirks each of these women -mother and daughter -may have had too, the things that could at times make them (my Mom in particular) more than a bit contankerous to contend with, they were both very intelligent, very hard-working, very strong of body, mind and of faith as well, women each of their own particular generation.
As a registered nurse, my Mom often was called upon by friends, neighbors to do small things for these folks -maybe someone needed stitches removed -call my Mom; others maybe needed someone to give them an injection at times -call my Mom. It was the injections thing though that always bothered me the most as people -many of them around here -would say that no one could give a shot and you wouldn't feel a thing, she had such a gentle touch they would say, as my Mom could. And that was something I was high on the list of non-believers of that talent of hers. If I needed a shot for whatever ailed me and the doctor ALWAYS would give her a prescription that involved those blasted needles instead of the pills my friends would have been given -it would take both my grandparents and my Mom to hold me down on the sofa so she could hit my behind with that damned needle. My thoughts about this were more to the point that she liked to use my butt for target practice! In retrospect, I know now she was right -as usual -that the reason it hurt when she gave me an injection was because I always did a tremendous job of tensing up every single possible muscle in my body when she would try to shoot me with that dreaded needle! That's what I told my kids when they were growing up, I use that same line of logic today too with Maya and Kurtis as much as it is possible to use logic like that with them and for the most part, my kids -thankfully -were much easier for doctors and nurses then to have to deal with if ever they needed anything like that!
And now -I've written the equivalent here of probably bordering on two, maybe even three chapters if I were to write a book about my Mom, about my Grandma in particular and things they did, things they enjoyed maybe but mostly, things they endured.
Every year, on Mother's Day especially, I remember my Grandmother perhaps more than I do my Mom but that is mainly because when Grandma died, she was buried on Mother's Day of 1963 -at the age of 82 years and six months.
I think more and more now I believe most every day though about my Mom and it will be 31 years come October since she died -of cancer -of which illness we didn't know she had until a week, a mere seven days, before it claimed her.
And I think too of how, if only she had gone to the doctor, had tests done, perhaps, things could have been different and she would have been around much longer to enjoy and appreciate the three beautiful grandchildren she had. How proud she would have been to watch each of them grow, to see what beautiful young women the girls have become, to relish the crazy, zany sense of humor my son, her only grandson, has too! And such a handsome young man he is as well. She would be awed I'm sure and but for her own stubbornness, all those thought thus became that of wishful thinking.
I wish she could have seen my oldest grandson as a newborn and seen, as my Dad's family and I saw, the strong resemblance that baby had to my Dad, to my Dad's baby sister and to his mother as well. How she would have adored Maya and Kurtis too if she'd only been here to see them now. How frustrated she probably would get in trying to cajole them out of their meltdowns too, I'm sure but I'll lay odds, she'd have figured out a way to pick her battles with them and maybe win more of those fights too in the end than Mandy and I do these days!
I wish -and yes I know -wish in one hand and do something else in the other and see which fills up first -is of course, wishful thinking. What is done is done and can not be undone in that respect.
But, if anyone reading this gets one thing out of this piece now and if that one bit happens to be to go get regular check-ups, keep abreast of physical issues and complaints and try to find ways to fix them, rather than let them ride until it is too late then I'll have accomplished something.
If one member of someone's family gets a mammeogram, or a colonoscopy or has other tests done that show a problem and it is then treated and hopefully fixed, then it will eliminate at least for a while, someone's family having an empty place at the family table.
If this helps just one person be around to see the sweet face of a new grandchild or even if they're really fortunate, a great-grandchild too -to experience the joy of an occasion like that, then my words here have not been put here in vain.
Please think about these things and please do see about getting the checkups, the treatments, maybe even full cures ya know, and enable you to be a part of your family for as long as is possible because you know, it is really, really important to them, those members of your family to whom you may mean the absolute world.
With love, respect and remembrance of my Grandma -Ellen Amelia Johnson Eld -and my Mom, Hazel Verna Eld Hill.
I still miss both of you very much on this Mother's Day and every single day of the year too!