Make yourself useful! Rock the baby, feed the baby. Move away from that radio, before I pull both your ears and unplug the thing forever. Today, I’ll teach you how to make pickles. First, go to the garden and pick enough cucumbers to fill this pan. Then I’ll show you how to wash them and make the pickling juice. Go, before your mother comes back. Do this for me.
My father supported his widowed mother. Dad was Grandma’s baby, her youngest of seven, and he brought her to live with him and my mother on their dairy farm in northern New York soon after they were married in 1944. Eleven months later, I was born and Grandma took me from my mother’s arms as we crossed the threshold arriving home from the hospital. She never willingly gave me back.
“You belong to me and your father,” she said to me later. “Your sister can belong to your mother.” My mother, Florence, wanted to keep peace in the household. Of her nine children, seven girls and two boys, six were born while my grandmother lived. Mom would not fight with her mother-in-law, but my grandmother had no such ethics. In her own home, she had kept a birch switch over every door so she could punish her children the moment they transgressed without the inconvenience of running outside to find a stick. In my parents’ house, the switches were not present and only our parents spanked us, but Grandma had plenty to say about how everyone should behave. In the context of her own time, she had been a strong, exemplary woman, and at the end of her life she was a work of survivability and sorrow.
Rosetta May Petrie Elliott Finley was born August 10, 1868. When Grandma was eighty-three, she sat on her bed, pillows stacked to support her back, her short legs straight out in front of her, with a blanket across them. In her lap, lay her shoe-box of greeting cards and photographs which she showed me every week. Taking each card out of the box, she opened it and showed me its picture. I nodded at each one, looked at the signature and listened as she read its verse to me. I had never met most of the well-wishers who had sent her this collection one by one over several decades. Many were already dead. At the bottom of the box, were three tin-types—photographs printed on flat malleable pieces of tin instead of paper. In one, her mother and aunt in their long dresses with high Victorian collars, posed, straight-faced and stern. To please Grandma, I murmured and smiled each time she held up a photo and explained to me again who the people were.
Her oldest son, my Uncle Jim, and his friend dressed in World War I uniforms, had stared unblinkingly into the camera. I asked where World War I was. I thought it was a place.
“Will I have to go?” I asked.
“I’ve told you. Only men go to war,” Grandma explained.
“Unless you are a nurse,” she said, “then women are allowed to go and take care of the wounded. Uncle Jim had been a farrier, caring for the U.S. Army’s horses in France in 1916. Grandma reminded me that World War II, “the war across the sea,” had ended the year I was born. Now my cousin was about to be sent to Korea.
“Another war,” she told me sadly, “they never stop. Don’t ask any more questions.” Bitterness was sharp in her voice and sometimes her tears flowed as she reminisced about loved-ones already departed. When this happened, I hugged her,
“Don’t cry, Gram, I’ll stay with you,” I promised.
“Yes, and when I go, you can come with me,” she replied.
An ardent Methodist, Grandma truly believed that cleanliness was next to godliness, and every stain or smudge she saw on the clothing or faces or knees of her beloved grandchildren moved them further from heaven. She meant to intercede.
Monday was wash day, but in our rural Victorian house, we didn’t have running water. All the water for washing was drawn from a cistern beneath the kitchen floor which collected rain water from gutters beneath the eaves. A red cast-iron pump perched on a counter beside the kitchen sink pulled water from the cistern and we heated it in metal tubs on top of the wood cook-stove. My mother’s electric wringer washing machine was a godsend, but on Mondays, every additional tub and pail and pot was gathered in the back room behind the kitchen and filled with hot water for washing and cold for rinsing. Grandma gave my sister and me a scrub-board and taught us how to scrub our clothing without scraping the skin off our knuckles. We were slow, she said, and she sent us on to other tasks, like wringing out socks by hand or standing beside her at the clothesline and handing up clothespins.
Five feet tall, a slim, wiry Dutch woman, Grandma stood on her tiptoes to reach the clothesline, dark skirts lifting just above her stockinged-ankles, her flowered apron flapping in the northern summer’s breeze. Every Monday morning she filled our four clotheslines in the back yard, and took in the laundry as soon as it dried. She had us fold it as soon as she brought it inside. Grandma said we were learning these jobs so we’d “be worth something when you grow up.”
Tuesday we ironed. Every female who happened to be at the house that day, visiting cousins included, ironed the sheets, pillowcases, towels, underwear and all our clothing. The smell of hot irons on cotton cloth permeated the house. My father’s denim overalls, and the clothes he wore to town were pressed and creased. It was the least we could do for the man of the place.
Mom treasured her electric iron and she carefully taught her little girls how to use it. Grandma’s five-pound flat-irons came from another century, but she insisted that we learn to use them too. They were solid cast-iron and had to be heated on top of the wood stove. Heating the irons required a crackling fire in the stove, winter or summer, and at least twenty minutes of waiting for them to heat each time they cooled off. We heated and used them over and over, traipsing a path from the dining room to the cook-stove in the kitchen, talking and telling stories, hanging freshly ironed garments on door knobs and hooks to cool. Long past dusk on Tuesdays, relieved that wash day was another whole week away, we finished up the last sheets or shirts. Years after my grandmother died, I saw a flat-iron just like hers in an antique shop. I pointed it out to my friend who said her grandmother had kept one, too.
“On a shelf,” she said, “We didn’t use it.”
My grandmother told us we should feel sorry for our father because he had a hard life.
“Say ‘Poor Daddy,’ she instructed my younger siblings, and they sung out the phrase at the top of their lungs, stretching the “Pooooooooorrrrrrr” until the corners of Grandma’s mouth turned up just enough to register approval. She told us our father didn’t feel good most of the time and that we should do everything he said, never argue with him and never feel good when he didn’t. He’s the boss, she insisted, the man is always the boss.
Having been a Methodist all her life, my grandmother no longer went to church, but was appalled that my father resisted her religion and didn’t send his four young daughters to Sunday School.
“They’ll grow up to be heathens,” she fussed at him often.
“That’s okay, I’m a heathen too,” my father retorted.
“You’ll end up in hell,” she admonished my father. “I did not raise you to go to hell!”
“I’m already in hell,” I heard my father mumble one day. Apparently Grandma was right about his hard life.
But Grandma was relentless. When I was about six, Reverend Bartnicke, the Lutheran minister of the church a mile and a half up the road came by our house to invite the family to church. Wearing his pastor’s collar, in his heavily German-accented English, he invited the family to attend church next Sunday. By the time he left, he had extracted from my father a promise to bring his wife and children to the 11am service. When he left, my father reneged, saying it would be a cold day in hell before he’d get dressed up and show up in church.
“I have to cut wood on Sundays. You know that,” he told his mother.
“We’re going,” she shot back. “You told the minister you would. We’re all going, Florence too. She said she wants to go.”
“I didn’t say anything,” my mother looked up from her sewing wide-eyed.
All week they argued, exchanging words and grumbles whenever both of them were in the same room. I thought I detected surrender in his voice, even though he insisted all the way through Saturday evening that he would not go. Grandma, in the end, turned motherly guilt on him saying that he never did anything she wanted him to do, that he didn’t care about her, until finally, the only way he could prove her wrong was to don that pin-stripe charcoal gray suit in the back of his closet and load us all into his thirty-nine Dodge.
On Sunday morning we were scrubbed and dressed in our best dresses our mother had made, and Mom put on her blue and white dress with the tiny polka dots. We piled into the car and Dad drove up the road to the white Lutheran church with the square steeple. Reverend Bartnicke beamed. Grandma smiled. My father shook the minister’s hand and harrumphed and we sat through a sermon so heavily accented that none of us could understand a word. Grandma was happy, though, and when the minister implored my parents to bring us all back in two weeks to be baptized, Dad mumbled something again and finally said, “We’ll talk about it,” over his shoulder on the way to the car.
“He can go to hell,” he declared once we were in the car. “I’ve been baptized in the Methodist Church. That’s all I need.”
And so ensued the second stage of the struggle between my father and his mother which led to our baptism. The photograph shows all of us in a group of forty people newly sprinkled and smiling, frowning, looking frustrated and confused, with Reverend Bartnicke, serious and pious, at the left side of the first row with his congregation.
After the baptism, we didn’t go to church again for a year. Grandma talked it up and Dad hedged. Laughing, he said we’d been baptized and didn’t need to do any more to get into heaven. That would do the trick, he told his mother. She knew she’d won big, though, because not only had Dad let holy water be sprinkled on himself, he’d had his picture taken with the whole group. Grandma let weeks go by between her remarks about how great it was that we were all baptized. The next spring, Gloria and I, with Grandma’s instigating, began asking weeks ahead of time if we could attend church on Easter. My mother began making us new dresses. The whole prospect took on more excitement when my grandmother began to describe the flowers that would be in the church and the hymns we could expect to sing.
But Dad said he wasn’t taking us. We could go if we wanted to, he said, but he wouldn’t be driving anyone anywhere. And since Dad was the only person in the family who could drive, he seemed to have spoken the final word on the subject.
But, Easter was approaching and Mom was sewing furiously, creating beautiful dresses for all four of her daughters, whether they made it into the church or not. On Good Friday, my grandmother prevailed again on my father with a guilt he could not escape. The result was that if it wasn’t raining, Gloria and I would walk the mile-and-a-half to church in our new Easter clothes. Dad would walk with us past Fred Andre’s farm where there was a dog who ran to the road and barked when anyone appeared, and then we’d go the last mile by ourselves. He promised to meet us and escort us past the dog on the way home. Dad didn’t like the idea of our walking there, although there was rarely any traffic on our narrow dead-end road, but he’d declared he wasn’t going to drive us to church, and this agreement let him save face and please the rest of us too. Everyone was pleased, especially me and Gloria because we‘d been promised that the Sunday school teacher would be handing out a chocolate-marshmallow cross to each child. That is exactly what happened.
The white lilies adorning the sidewalk and the steps into the church were dazzling. Inside, we were met by the smell of old books, old cushions and stale air that I‘d forever associate with going to church. Nearly everyone was seated when we arrived, and we slipped in and sat at the back by ourselves, peering over the pew in front of us. We stood when the congregation stood and sat when they sat. We opened the hymn book and tried to sing along. Then, we joined in saying the Lord’s Prayer which our mother had taught us and wiggled out of our seats in time to get out the door without becoming lost in the crowd of adults leaving the service. Ruth, a heavy-set ancient organist was passing out the chocolate crosses at the door. She asked Gloria and I if we had any brothers and sisters at home and we said two and she handed us four marshmallow-filled crosses in clear cellophane. Mine had a green lily in the center, Gloria’s a pink one. I carried two and Gloria carried two. Dad met us near the Andre place for the walk home as planned. All of the chocolate crosses were melted by the time we arrived home.
One day Grandma offered to take me and my two younger sisters down the hill, behind the house to dig for herbs. We sat beside her on a bed of dry needles under the branches of a tall pine and watched as she spread her skirt. She took a spade from her apron pocket and began to dig in the dry earth.
“Some crinkle root here,” she said. “We’ll take some with us to put some between bread for sandwiches.”
She twisted her spade in the ground and sure enough, in a minute she pulled out a long running root, brushed the soil off it and broke it into small pieces.
“Eat this,” she said, brushing the soil off it. “It’s good for you.” It was bitter and gritty. Gloria spat it out.
“Yuck! Its awful!” she choked.
I had already decided to go through with eating it. Gloria was right. It was bitter! But I was Grandma’s girl and this was a small price to pay for that, besides, I believed she knew what was good for us. Maybe it would taste better in a sandwich.
“I like it,” I said. “Dig up some more, Grandma.”
She went on digging, her apron filling with the curling root.
“Lots of things you don’t like are good for you,” she stated. “Eat some more, and don’t let me hear you whining about it.”
Old Grandma with the hole in the wall beside your bed. Hole all the way through plaster and wood, stuffed with a rag. You say you heard a rat gnawing last night trying to pull the rag out? How you like to scare me. I’m not sleeping on that side anymore. You sleep near the wall. Bang on the wall with your fist and scare the rat away. He listens to you.
Old Grandma with your hag hair, don’t leave it hanging down. I comb your white hair up to the top of your head and wind your little topknot and pin it down with the hairpins you hand me. I love your black shiny hairpins with their curvy sides. I love the brown bone ones that smell like your old head, and I place them in a circle around your topknot to hold it up. If you yell when I prick your scalp, I pull the pin back quickly, and put it in again.
Old Grandma, your body is warm. When I help you dress and we change your cotton undershirts, the color of pale straw, your breasts are nothing more than little flaps against your chest. I ask you if you ever had big titties like my mother’s and you answer,
“Of course, bigger than your mother’s. Better looking ones than you’ll ever have.”
Grandma, your black shoes lace all the way up to your ankles and their wide heels wear away on the outside. Was that really you kicking up your heels in the kitchen the other day when the radio was on? Grandma, your sons have gone to war and come back. Your sons have gone to the hospital and died. You talk about dying and going to join them. You say I can come to the hospital to see you before you go.
Grandma, the sound you made the other day when our Dad told you Uncle Frank is gone. The sound came out of your bedroom where I sat beside the door in the old red chair with its dusty blankets, and flew past me into the dining room and out the window. That terrible moan, that deep blat which tore up out of your old wrinkled body was too big a sound for your little body. I heard you sob to my father, “I want to go. Lord, let me die. Lord let me die,” and I was afraid you would die right then while he was in your room, and I worried for my father, such an impossible job he had—. But after a while he came out of your room and walked away, and I tiptoed around the corner of the door and whispered,
And you said so softly and more gently than I’d ever heard your voice, “Come back and see me tomorrow, honey. Close the door for me, now.”
Of course I did as you asked, even though I was afraid you were dying. I left you alone in the dark with your old body, in the room with the rag stuffed in the hole in the wall, in your faded flannel nightdress with your hairpins lying on top of one another on your dresser, and your chamber pot pulled out beside your bed.
I closed your door and listened for a minute, and then I looked at my father when he crossed the parlor to see if he would cry. He didn’t, and I wondered what would happen to all of us when the power of the feelings building up inside of him came out. Would they come out in a yell that made the walls vibrate and ring, or in a clap of flame as when he throws a splat of kerosene into the wood stove to get it to burn brighter, or, since he had gone outdoors, would the wind take his pain and passion, and thin it out across the meadows until he could be an ordinary sad man?
Alone in the darkening parlor, I wished my mother would leave all the kids in the kitchen and come in here and speak to me, but of course, being so busy, she couldn’t, any more than I could tell her I needed to see her pretty wide face smile, and her green eyes crinkle.
I was eight now, and the subject of death was always between us. “When I die…,” she would begin her sentences to remind me to take care of something she was concerned about:
“When I die, be sure somebody wraps up my porcelain basin and pitcher so it won’t get broken. You can have it when you grow up.”
Or, “After I’m gone, throw these shoes away. They’re worn out! I’m not buying a new pair now; I won’t be around that long. Put these in the garbage as soon as I’m gone.”
I always agreed to do as she asked. What child can argue with a grandparent’s last wishes? Of course, after her death, the adult relatives came to our house and took most of the treasures she’d promised me. Apparently, she’d given them away several times in her careful planning and re-planning for the hereafter.
Dad says Grandma liked the note I sent to the hospital yesterday. Her face was so white when she left. I helped her into her navy dress, thinking she would not come back for a long time. Mom and Dad were holding each arm as she shuffled out to the car in her felt slippers, her scuffed black shoes left behind at the side of her bed.
The hospital grew bigger in my mind with every mile she moved away from me. I wish there had been time to make her neat and clean for the doctors and nurses who would take off her dress and her felt slippers and put the white kimono onto her outstretched arms and lift her short legs onto the bed as she lay back against the pillow.
In my dream last night, Grandma walked down the narrow road between our house and barn in her white hospital gown, barefoot, her arms outstretched, palms up. She didn’t see me when I walked up to her and said her name. And behind her was a man who had no face—dressed in a black—riding a bicycle very close behind her. I walked beside her down the road toward the tall pine tree and said,
“Grandma, look at me,” but she did not turn her head, nor blink her eyes, nor hear me and I woke up crying and woke Gloria in the bed beside me. My sister looked into my face with her curious eyes, and said,
“Let’s go back to sleep.”
Nobody else heard me cry, but I could smell the crinkle root, and hear the wind blowing through the apple trees in the orchard, and now and then the soft thud of an apple dropping to the ground.
An Interview With Rose Elliott
by Streetlight editor Susan Shafarzek
I really liked this piece, its evocation of the way the past comes with us but always as an interaction with the present. What I’d really like to know, though, is what is crinkle root? Is it a specific thing. Does it have a formally approved (like in Latin) name?
Yes, Wikipedia says Crinkle Root’s botanical name is cardamine diphylla, or broadleaf toothwort, or toothwort. It’s commonly found in North American Eastern woodlands, and is a member of the mustard family. Native North American peoples had many uses for it, both nutritional and medicinal. The Peterson Field Guide on Eastern Forests also holds a short description of it. I remember it for its long running root found about 2-3 inches below the surface of the soil, and extending in multiple directions for several feet . My grandmother knew the location of many useful plants and herbs on that farm and she also knew how to use them in cooking without the family being very aware they were eating them.
What gave you the most satisfaction in writing this piece?
Well, first, I wanted to write a tribute to my grandmother which captured living during that time in the late 1940’s and early ‘50’s in rural Jefferson County in northern New York State and our unique relationship. Also, as a writer, I enjoyed bringing the memories and the emotions together in a narrative that allowed me to show and tell that part of my life and bring a sense of the mythological to relationships and events that really happened. I’ve found that Creative Nonfiction (and poetry also) lets us do this when we attempt to mine our memories as part of the larger picture of an era and to explore what happened back then to see what archetypal connections might exist. Of course, this objectivity comes after the initial writing. First I just enjoy writing the narrative because it opens out and out and out into a corridor down which I can travel through time.
Looking back on it, do you have anything you wish you had also included?
Not really. This essay is one of a series—which I suppose could actually be chapters—in a longer manuscript about growing up in northern New York during the post World War II period through the mid-sixties when people were relieved the war was over, and were hopeful for a happier and more secure life.
Can you say a little more about that farm, where it was, what the conditions were like? How you think those things affect your memory of the grandmother?
This farm was the second one my parents had owned, but not the last one. We lived there for 9 years from 1948 until 1957. It was not a profitable farm for several reasons, one being that the soil was rocky. The only water for cattle and people came from a drilled well near the barn. The house had no running water, or bathroom, but we did have electricity. I’ve written other essays about these circumstances.
Money was scarce, but my father also cut logs and firewood from the woodlot and sold them, and later bought other woodlots from which he cut and sold logs. He worked 7 days every week on the farm and in the woods. Mom helped him milk cows and often helped in the fields. My grandmother watched us when they both were outdoors working. By the time I was 7, my parents had 5 children, so being the oldest, I helped care for the younger ones, and was given other chores at a young age.
The years when children are young seem to be intense times for any generation. I think my parents’ struggle to earn money and keep up with all the work and inconveniences required some very creative solutions at times and all of it together made for memorable episodes. Those early memories are becoming more clear and accessible to me now. I’m grateful that I’m able to re-enter scenes and listen again to snatches of conversations. But it’s also emotional memory and certainly that cranks up the intensity when I write about those time. It also might cloud some of the perception of what happened. Nevertheless the memories are mine. Each of my siblings, and my mother (who is 90 now) probably has a different perception and different memories of our household then.
Your relationship to the grandmother is of course one of the intriguing aspects of this piece. I’m curious to know how you think it affected your relationship with your mother?
In my early years, it seemed that Mom was the assistant mother. That’s what Grandma allowed. When Grandma died just before my tenth birthday, I became more in need of my mother and we had to learn to relate differently. Those first months after my grandmother’s death, I think I was traumatized in a way my siblings were not. My mother must have recognized that because I remember that she gave me extra attention: made a new dress for me, gave me a special gift that I didn’t expect to get for Christmas. Eventually we became close, but that required some time and work for both of us.
Do you think a city person could have written a memoir like this? Or is it representative of some strictly rural phenomena?
That’s hard to say. I believe that nearly all people in every generation have their travails, and families everywhere growing out of the nineteenth century into the “modern” twentieth century certainly had similar values about work and children and women’s roles. There were some aspects of that “rural phenomena” which probably were unique. For one thing, the isolation of rural life kept us dependent on one another, and from comparing ourselves and our lifestyle to that of others. My family related mostly to relatives and my father was on friendly terms with neighboring farmers, but my mother and grandmother stayed home and we kids were expected to stay home too. This was the case until we started going to school. As an adult I became citified and have enjoyed the ability to move back and forth between the rural and city life and appreciate both. That sounds like a topic for a new essay.Share this post with your friends.