My grandmother died 28 years ago on November 1st, All Saints Day, which we thought was kind of appropriate as she was a faithful soul who helped to clean and take care of the church a half a block away from her home.
Below is a short excerpt from the story I am working on about my father. This selection is told from my father’s perspective, in his voice.
A Hard Life
(1930s – 1940s)
My mother had a pretty hard life. It’s very sad when I think about it and how little appreciation I had for that.
She got home from work probably about 4:00 or 4:30 in the afternoon. She made dinner out of whatever she could scrounge up. I was a bad boy. I raised Cain about what we had for meals and I have regretted that many, many, many times over the years. I’m a mashed potatoes and gravy kind of a guy. I wanted a full meal with meat, potatoes, and vegetables. If we didn’t have that, it wasn’t a meal in my way of thinking. My parents had two limitations: one, their financial ability to provide it and two, before the end of the war, whether they had rationing capabilities to provide it.
My mother had a number of family events that she always enjoyed, but my dad was a wet blanket on every one. He never missed one that he didn’t make at least somebody miserable, in particular my mother. He didn’t want to go.
When my mother wanted to go somewhere she’d get us all ready to go and then he would refuse to go. Most of the time we went anyway. Because we didn’t have any transportation, the Wirrigs would come and pick us up, generally Paul. Paul always represented to me the person I would like to be.
My dad never watched the kids. Mom would always be mad at him. With just cause. I can’t ever remember my father ever doing something that was really a help to her.
My mom didn’t like the fact that my dad was an alcoholic. And she couldn’t do much about that. She’d do what women generally try to do—threaten—but that don’t stop them.
[. . .]
My mother never had time to play.
She told me she was going to teach me how to cook enough that I could be self-sufficient when I got older. She taught me how to bake a cake from scratch. It was almost a sin to think about making a cake out of a box.
I also watched her fry chicken and saw what she did, but there was nothing formal about learning that.
I was supposed to keep the weeds out of her garden. I never did.
After the war, the factory where she worked went back to making underwear. Those ladies really worked hard sewing their stuff. I worked there my junior and part of my senior year cleaning the place at night. Those women leaned on those sewing machines just flinging the fabric through there. They got paid by how many they did. So they worked hard. They had to. That’s why I say my mother had a pretty hard life.
I woke up in my own bed at home this morning and had to re-orient myself, as I did most mornings while in St. Louis waking in the guest room at my son’s house. “I’m still here,” I’d think upon first waking, “we’ll be with the grandchilden today.”
This morning my thoughts turned to the familiar sights and sounds of home, and a running list of the things I wanted to accomplish today: a blog to post, plants to bring in from the dropping temperatures, a sewing project left on our dining room table to be finished, and a writing project to work on.
No more listening in the early hours for a little voice singing the alphabet song through a baby monitor on the kitchen table where I sat sipping my morning tea. No more bowls of cheerios with milk or bagels with “French” cheese, or fruit, lots of fruit, “More fruit, please.” And from the same little voice, optimistic that a voiced agreement will make it so, “Okay, then. Great.”
No more stickers, or crayons. Eggs and toast made of Playdoh. No more puzzles or cars. No more trains. No more books about dogs, “Up the tree. Up the tree,” my computer gathering dust on the dining room table.
No more holding close a tiny little body, a warm soft head nestled in my hand, baby maybe-blue eyes gazing up at the light.
Love surrounded us in St. Louis; it was palpable, in the air with every breath we took, my senses on full alert soaking up every smile, every hug, every word, to be brought home and savored later.
It’s time to pick up again our life’s work, for in midlife even if we change our vocation from a profession to volunteering, from an hourly-job to a hobby, from child-rearing to writing, we still have our life’s work. It is what makes us want to arise in the morning each day.
I have an adult child facing what could be traumatic oral surgery, another trying to get a job, a father who struggles to eat, and a mother who struggles to feed him.
Love surrounds us here. It is not bright, shiny, and always joyous, but it is true, deep, and abiding love.
I have a little dog who wants nothing more than to just be home with us here.
“Handcrafts belong to an earlier world, the slower pace of preindustrial life where one had the leisure to sink deeply and profoundly into the rhythms of nature within and without and to feel a connection with the earth as a living spiritual entity.[…]
“Self-expression, whether individual or tribal, religious or secular, is to my mind one of the most beautiful impulses that we humans possess. We look at our brief time here on earth; we perceive our inconsequentiality in a vast universe of planets and stars; we know our connectedness to our ancestors and descendants and feel our mortality as we pass along the eternal continuum of time; and yet we still want others to know who we were, how we lived, that we were here and saw and felt and knew beauty.The pioneer women with lives of endless work, half buried underground in sod houses on the prairies, often without trees or neighbors for company, fashioned quilts out of pieces of cloth, which might have been the only color they saw for months on end.[…]
As I went on my search for the stitch work of my fore mothers, I was happy to find out that there were quilters in my family. I am sad to think that I may not find any examples of their work.
Not knowing I had this heritage, when I was a young adult I became interested in making quilts. The first quilt I ever made I gave away to my boyfriend to take to college the summer after my senior year in high school. I made it from fabric scraps left over from articles of clothing that I or my mother had made for me during high school. There was a shiny light blue piece from the dress my mother made for a dance my junior year. A pastel yellow fabric with tiny pink rosebuds that was made into my senior prom dress was also in the quilt. In many ways it was a quilt of memories.
I cut little 4-inch squares out of the fabrics and created 3 by 3 larger panels with a loose repeated design (the four corners and the center square within the nine-square panels matched, the remaining four squares in the panel were somewhat random). I backed the quilt with a soft flannel and tied the layers together with yarn knots at the large panels’ corners. I remember sitting in my parents’ family room and sewing it together.
My boyfriend loved the quilt, used it at school, and really cherished it for a while, until we broke up at the end of our junior year in college. The quilt, if it still exists, is probably stained and crumpled in the corner of a garage or basement somewhere. I should have kept it.
The second quilt I made, I also gave away. When I found out that my boyfriend’s older brother and his wife were expecting a baby, I bought yellow gingham and while muslin and fashioned it into a quilt. I think the squares were probably about 6 inches. I drew little designs on the white muslin: an alphabet block, a teddy bear, a duck, among others. I embroidered the designs onto the fabric. My boyfriend and I broke up before the quilt was finished or the baby was born, but I finished it anyway and delivered it. It was the first and only time I saw the child, and the last time I saw the quilt.
The third quilt that I made was more functional than sentimental or aesthetic. I had just moved to Cincinnati and started a job and I decided I wanted a blanket for picnics. So I bought four pieces of fabric: a floral pattern, and three solids in the colors of cream, rust, and brown. I made large panels out of the pieces of fabrics and just sewed them together. Thirty-three years later, it is now torn and stained in the back of Mark’s truck. It has been used for romantic picnics early in my relationship with Mark; for small family picnics when I’d take our firstborn son to meet Mark for lunch; for baseball games, Fourth-of July fireworks, and days at the beach.
I’ve always thought I would like to make a “real” quilt from a pattern. I don’t know if that will ever happen. I would also like to make a crazy quilt, which may be more likely to happen. A couple of years ago my daughter Anna helped me make a quilt for my new grandson. Several years earlier I had found a picture of a dragon quilt pattern online and bookmarked the page, anticipating I might want to make it when my oldest son, who loves dragons, had a child. When I tried to go back and buy the pattern, it was gone, offline, kaput. But I still had a small picture of it I had saved. So using Adobe Illustrator, I traced the picture, enlarged it, and printed patterns from it. Anna helped me shop for fabrics and sew it.
I have embroidered pictures hanging on my walls, although again, most of what I made I’ve given away. I have simple crocheted shawls in the closet. I sewed outfits for myself, and my children, including many costumes. I have dresses I made for Anna and boxes of scraps of fabric and bits of ribbons and lace that I can’t bear to part with. And like my Grandma Smith, I have unfinished needlework projects stuffed into cupboards.
I’ve made things because I needed them, and I’ve made things because I wanted to create something beautiful or meaningful. I have my mothers before me to thank for my ability to do this. I am proud of the simple, big-hearted, talented and creative women who came before me, and those who may follow.
“Except in rare and isolated areas, crafts no longer exist as a way of life.[…] In our day, crafts are newly respectable, but chiefly as ‘hobbies,’ as ‘occupational therapy,’ or as new fashions in interior decorating. Yet behind the excuses given for indulging in craft activities, there lurks a kind of half-buried question, a faint suspicion that there is more to all this. . .
By far, my grandmother, Anna Matilda Adams Lemmon, produced the most needlework of the women in my family, at least the most that remains in the family.
Anna Matilda Adams was born August 3, 1915 in Covington, Miami County, Ohio. She had to help with farm work when she was a child. Beginning at the age of 5 or 6, Anna started attending school at a one-room schoolhouse that contained eight grades.
They didn’t have electric lights at home, so they used coal oil lamps to see with and would take one from room to room. They had a large coal stove for heat.
My grandmother’s family was quite musical and for entertainment in the evenings they would get together and play music. My great-grandfather played the fiddle. Her brother played the guitar, and Anna played the piano. She said, “We had a good time, just playin’ music and singin’.” That’s how Anna met Cory who would eventually become her husband and my grandfather; he came out to the house with some friends for the entertainment.
Anna was happily married, raised three children and never worked a day outside the home. She stayed busy embroidering and crocheting throughout her life.
She produced numerous embroidered pillow cases and doilies; she crocheted numerous doilies and various other items; and she produced probably hundreds of crocheted afghans. I personally own four.
We celebrated my Grandma Lemmon’s 90th birthday in the summer of 2005. I made a display of photos and some of her needlework that we had collected over the years. At the time, she suffered from dementia and was eventually moved out of her home and into an assisted living apartment, and later to a nursing home where she died in 2010. The last years of her life she had very poor vision and was no longer able to do any needlework.
“Through the history of embroidery — in the very threads of samplers, firescreens, table runners and dress — can be traced another history: the history of women.” (From The Subversive Stitch)
When I was in college the second time, this time earning an English degree, I took a concentration of Women’s Studies classes. This is the 6th in a series of posts from a project I wrote while taking a Women’s Studies/English class called “Reading between the stitches.”
Katherine Roecker Adams
My mother’s maternal grandmother was Katherine Roecker Adams. She was born January 21, 1885 in Piqua, Ohio. Katherine’s father was from Germany, but her mother was born in Ohio. Katherine spoke German.
As a farm wife, Katherine did various farm chores like milking the cows. She also baked all of their bread and cake and pies. She made her own noodles and strudel. She sewed all of their clothes.
My great-grandmother Adams made quilts for their use out of pieces of fabric from worn out clothes. She also embroidered, crocheted, and did tatting. I have never seen anything that she made. I wish I could.
My mother came from a tradition of creative women on both sides of her family, specifically, her grandmother on her father’s side and her own mother and maternal grandmother.
My mom’s paternal grandmother, Mary Etta Conner, was born September 7, 1880 in Champaign County, Ohio. Mary Etta’s mother died when she was very young. She was from a rural area of Ohio, and according to her daughter-in-law, my grandmother Anna Adams Lemmon, her family lived in a one-room log cabin where the snow sometimes sifted in through the cracks between the logs upstairs in the loft where she slept.
Mary Etta only went to school until the 3rd grade. According to my uncle, Cory Jr. Lemmon, she was proud to have received an education. She married Cory Oscar Lemmon when she was sixteen years old. He was twelve years her senior. According to my grandfather, Cory Oscar “was a drunk.” The marriage was rocky and after eight children were born Cory Oscar reportedly left the family and started a new one. When the marriage broke up, she was left with six children to raise, alone and without support.
Mary Etta worked at the Imperial factory making ladies stockings to support her family.
My great-grandmother was a mid-wife and helped deliver my mom into the world. Uncle Cory said, “She ‘doctored’ herself, with her own remedies until she was unable to care for herself any longer.”
My mother said my great-grandmother was always a hard worker, and “she’d be up on a chair at 80-years-old washing the walls or something.”
My great-grandma Lemmon made us a little stuffed Santa Claus one year; my mom still sets it under her tree at Christmas.
I remember very little about my great grandmother, only that my mom used to do her laundry for her. I remember one time my sister and I had braided our hair when it was wet and then let it loose after it dried. The result was that it was kinked all the way down. My great grandma really liked it. I remember the one-room apartment she had in a duplex. And that she had a pot-belly stove that she baked the best big soft sugar cookies in I’ve ever had and never have been able to reproduce.
I was a little intimidated by her, and perhaps even scared as young children sometimes are around the elderly. As an adult, knowing what I know now about her and her life, I wish I had had the opportunity to know her better.
According to my father, Katherine liked to go to dances on the roof top when she was young. That is likely where she met my grandfather, James E. Smith. Unbeknownst to Katherine, James suffered from mental illness. She then suffered from the results of it throughout her married life. My grandfather was in and out of jobs, and at one point served a year in jail for breaking and entering. During that year, Katherine and her children moved in with her parents. Cecelia and William Wirrig, and she started working at the mill sewing underwear.
It was piece-work and she never made a lot of money at it. My sister remembers, “Grandma worked, and walked to work, every day of her life. She worked at a place making less money per hour, even when I was sixteen, than I was making working at the Dairy Queen.”
Grandma loved her grandchildren and she used to like it when we brushed her hair. She was a very religious person and had a lot of religious items in the house. Her house was the old convent across the street from St. Boniface Church in Piqua, Ohio, and there were little holy water containers hanging beside each doorway. She also had little statues of Mary and Jesus scattered about.
She liked to cook a lot and made large family meals on Sundays. She also liked to garden, decorate cakes, sew, knit and crochet. My Grandma Smith taught my father how to crochet to entertain himself once when he was ill as a child. She taught me how to knit.
When she died we found many unfinished needlework projects stashed away in a cupboard. She was crocheting a large afghan for her bed when she died. It had beautiful decorative roses on it and she was very excited about making it. After she died, my mom collected the finished squares, then finished several more, and turned them into a cover for my parents’ bed at home.
My father’s mother’s grandmother was Mary Katherine Bryant. She was born September 12, 1869 in Washington County, Kentucky, the fifth of twelve children. She married Ulysses Grant Bryant, February 15, 1885, in Washington County. They subsequently moved to Piqua, Ohio in Miami County, where I was eventually born four generations later.
Mary Katherine’s granddaughter, my great aunt Agnes Wirrig, said her grandmother was illiterate, and that she used a lot of country terms and “Kentucky twang.” Aunt Agnes said, “I’d go to the house and she’d say things that I didn’t understand at all. If she’d want me to get out of the way, she’d say, ‘Tik ere’ (for ‘take care,’ or ‘get out of the way’).” Agnes also said that her grandmother had an old-fashioned way of doing things, and she was a hard worker, but she never seemed to be an overburdened person.
Mary Katherine took her great-grandson, my father, fishing one time. He remembers that they didn’t catch anything, but someone there gave them three large carp. He said that she cleaned them and evidently cooked them, although I think as an adult he didn’t consider carp particularly appetizing. He was about 10 years old at the time. Mary Katherine Martin outlived her husband. She lost the property their home was on after he died because, although I don’t completely understand it, according to my great-uncle Ben they were on old-age pension. She spent her last years going from one of her children’s homes to the next to stay for a while until she died at the age of 78.
The story of needlework in my family, from my father’s side, undoubtedly goes back well beyond the days of Mary Katherine Martin Bryant, but she is the oldest link that I have specific information on through the memories of my father who was about 14 years old when she died, and my great aunt and uncles. She certainly must have taught her daughters how to sew.
I have never seen anything that she might have made.
I read her name before I spoke with her. I talked to her over the phone before I met her. When I finally did meet her, I had no idea that such a huge influence on my career as a writer would come from such a tiny, yet feisty, well-loved woman.
When I decided to go back to college for an English degree, I found Elizabeth Bookser Barkley’s name in the College of Mount St. Joseph promotional materials. I was tentative about going back to school. I had quit my career as a chemical engineer (1979 degree from the University of Dayton), after working for Procter and Gamble a mere 3-1/2 years, to become a full-time stay-at-home mom. I really didn’t know if I had it in me to tackle college work again with other students less than half my age.
I found the courage to call Elizabeth Bookser Barkley and she steered me to the right course with which to begin. She continued to subtly steer me, something she excels at, through the remaining years I spent at the Mount working on my degree. I took five courses with her as the professor; when a position opened as a Writing Center Consultant, she recommended me; when she needed an editor for the school’s newspaper that she monitored, she asked me to do it.
Elizabeth Bookser Barkley, known as Buffy by her students and colleagues, is a professor and chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at the College of Mount St. Joseph, Cincinnati, Ohio. She is also a freelance writer who contributes to a variety of Catholic publications. You can do a simple google search of her name and find multiple articles and books written by Elizabeth Bookser Barkley.
The article I’d like to draw your attention to is one that was published yesterday (January 4, 2012) in the Cincinnati Enquirer and is now available online entitled, “The power of the pen.” I hope you take a minute to read it. I think it will make you smile.
I was born August 3 – 1915 in a log house in the country between Piqua Ohio and Covington Ohio back a lane off of the Rake straw road. The house that I was born in is still there. Our house was the first house on the lane and farther east was another house on the same lane. The people that lived in that house by the name of Franks.
The house we lived in had only 3 rooms down stairs and one room up stairs. The kitchen was big and we used it for not only a kitchen but a bed room where my mother & dad slept. There were four of us kids and we slept up stairs in the one room.
The kitchen was the only room that had a cook stove in. And in the winter the other rooms was shut off so that the kitchen could stay warm. We had a pump where we got our water and an out side toilet. I can remember the winters back then were a lot colder and a lot more snow then we have today. We also had a pretty big apple orchard so we always had plenty of apples in the fall when apples were ripe. (Anna Adams Lemmon)
At my mother’s urgings, my grandmother wrote the story of her life in 1996 when she was 80 years old. She wrote it by hand on lined notebook paper and requested that no grammatical edits or corrections be made.
I started to school when we lived there when I was 5 or 6 years old. The school house was and the building is still there on Route 36. A one room school house. It had eight grades not to many children. We would walk to school every day but it wasn’t very far from were we lived. It was heated with a big pot belly stove so they called it then. My mother would buy us one pair of shoes at the beginning of the school term and they had to last us all year. I remember mine wore out before school was out and I walked barefooted to school. One day I can remember it snowed and we walked home bare-footed in the snow. Our teacher in that school was Miss Strenrod. She was a good teacher, she was pretty stricked with the boys. . .
Each one of us kids had chores to do it wasn’t very easy living on the farm. We didn’t have much time to play. We had to pump water to the barn for the cows and horses to drink. We would take turns about pumping the water. There was a big tank down at the barn and the pump house was up at the house which was a pretty long ways. Of course we kids would get into some pretty big arguments about who pumped the most. But Dad always settled that in a a hurry. . .
In the summer when the rasberries and strawberries were ripe Florence my sister and I would pick berries for a neigbor who had a berrie patch and sold his berries. We would get a penny a qt. We would work almost all day for .25 and we thought we was rich. That was not an easy job, we had to wear old socks on are arms so we wouldn’t get all scratched up. And a big straw hat because the sun would be awful hot. (Anna Adams Lemmon)
I typed my grandmother’s hand-written story honoring her request not to edit. It is 20 double-spaced typed pages and largely portays details of her childhood and life on the farm with her family. It is one of my most-valued treasures.
My grandmother died in a nursing home at the age of 94 early in 2010. She no longer could see or hear very well. She suffered from dementia and often didn’t know who my mom was. She died less than a year after my sister Annie, and my parents were still reeling from the loss of their precious daughter.
As my Grandma slowly deteriorated with dementia my mom tried desperately to find things that Grandma could do to occupy her time, to be able to make and receive phone calls, to maintain some amount of independence and quality of life.
A couple of weeks after Annie died I took my parents to visit my grandma 40 minutes away. Grandma was eating lunch when we got there. Grandma seemed pleased to see us although it also was apparent she didn’t have a clue who we were. Mom kept trying to explain to her that she was her daughter Mary, and Grandma smiled but without recognition. She was just passing the time with three convivial people.
When she was finished eating we returned to her room, my mom pushing her wheelchair and Dad and I walking beside her. I tried to tell her who I was.
“Grandma,” I said, “do you know who I am? I’m Christine.”
She just looked at me blankly.
“I’m Annie’s sister. You remember Annie don’t you?”
That sparked a recognition for my grandma who had been told about Annie’s death, and to my surprise and distress she became not only fully aware of who I was but also quite angry.
“What kind of daughter are you?” she demanded, “Leaving your mother alone when she has just lost her daughter?”
“Mom is right here,” I told her. “She is right here with me.”
“I’m here, Mom” my mother said. “This is Mary.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Grandma continued to me. “Your mother needs you.”
Mom was not getting through to Grandma. By the time we got back to Grandma’s room I was in tears, not because she had been yelling at me, but because of her fierce defense of my mother and her tragic loss. Mom was desperately trying to get Grandma to recognize her. My dad got involved because at times in the past Grandma recognized him and he was able to lead the way to her seeing my mom for who she was.
“Ann,” he said, “do you know who I am?”
Grandma calmed down and got kind of quiet. “I’m sorry about Annie,” she said.
My mom leaned in towards her and said, “This is Mary. Do you know who I am?”
My grandma reached her arms out to Mom and leaned forward out of her wheelchair. Mom grasped both of her hands in her own.
“I’m so sorry, Mary,” Grandma said as she started to cry. “How are you doing? Are you doing okay?”
Mom told her about Hospice and how we were all with Annie and that Annie was an angel now with Grandpa. “But I won’t get to see her anymore,” Grandma said through her tears.
I took my mom back to see my grandma two more times before she died in February. The first time I waited in the car with my dad. Grandma was sleeping and my mom did not stay long. The second time Grandma was in a coma. When we visited Grandma we knew it would be the last time we saw her. She was lying on her back on the bed. Her frail and tiny body was still. Her motionless hands resting on her stomach looked like older perfect replicas of Annie’s right hand. We stayed for a little over an hour.
About two hours after we got back home Mom answered the phone call telling her that Grandma had died.
The last years of my grandma’s life were difficult ones for her and for those who loved her. But today I want to celebrate the way I remember my grandma.
When we were young, she had a large corrugated box in her laundry area beside the kitchen that she would pull out when we visited. It contained the items she had collected for us to play with—a plastic horse, small plastic toy soldiers, an empty metal donut-shaped adhesive tape container, and tons and tons of empty thread spools.
Every year until she was 80 my grandma held a Christmas party on a Saturday in December where she gathered all her children, grand-children and even great-grandchildren for a meal of Kentucky Fried chicken, potato salad and home made cake to celebrate the birth of Jesus. She had presents for each and every one of us that she had bought throughout the entire year. She used to give us each an orange and a candy cane. Then we would play BINGO for prizes.
My grandma was a prolific crocheter. I am the lucky recipient of four of her afghans. She made us little crocheted dresses when we were small and another for my daughter. On Grandma’s 90th birthday my mom and her two siblings held a big celebration for her where we displayed many of the items she had made with her own hands.
I miss my grandma, and I suspect my mom misses her mother. But we’ll always have the memories, and an afghan or two.