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Posts Tagged ‘Grandmothers’

 

Halloween isn’t what it used to be. But then, maybe it never was. When I was a child, we didn’t call it Trick-or-Treat. It was Halloweening. We didn’t dress up and go door to door anonymously collecting loot from strangers. In my neighborhood we had friendlier traditions.

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My family lived in a rural community of small farms and households whose occupants worked in town. The neighborhood encompassed about a square mile, a small school district once served by the one-room schoolhouse, Barnum Hill School. After I finished first grade, the school was closed and we were bussed into town. Since we all rode the same school bus, everyone was acquainted.

Halloweening was a ritual. When we knocked on a door, the family invited us in and tried to guess who we were. That was fun. The better the disguise, the more difficult it was to recognize us. Seldom were costumes store-bought. Usually we made our own. Old sheets became ghosts, scarecrows emerged from rags, and dress-up clothes and hand-me-downs outfitted princesses, witches, and anything else our imaginations could conjure. Some clever mothers sewed elaborate, almost professional, costumes for their offspring. Everyone wore masks or makeup to change their appearance. After the family guessed us right, we unmasked and they gave us our treats.

Walking two or three miles was a lot for one night, especially for small children, so we spread Halloweening over three nights. Two days before Halloween, as soon as we got off the school bus, we’d dress up and head out. One evening we’d walk up East Maine Road, down the road another night, and the third night we’d canvass Reynolds Road. The only time our parents drove us was over to Finch Hollow where Grandma and Grandpa Masters lived. Pretending to be neighborhood kids, instead of calling at the kitchen door as usual, we’d go to the front door and make them guess who we were.

Grandma always made popcorn balls for Halloween. In those days, we didn’t worry about razor blades or poison, because we only went to homes of people we knew. Years later, I was appalled when a friend told me she went through her children’s Halloween bags before they were allowed to eat anything, and she threw out all the homemade treats! But she was one of those who took their children to neighborhoods where they didn’t know anyone, prosperous areas where they could get lots of loot. Better than candy were the homemade goodies from our neighbors, and of course Grandma Masters’ popcorn balls.

Only once did anyone question our arrival before Halloween Night. A new family moved into the neighborhood. We went to their house because their kids rode the school bus and we knew them. “But it’s not Halloween yet,” the man said and refused to give us treats. I’m sure someone set him straight by the following year.

Parents sometimes accompanied their children. My mother went Halloweening with us when we were young. Once she dressed as a scarecrow with a straw hat pulled down over her face. “I bet this is Barbara,” a lady said, as she tugged the hat up, and both of them laughed. Another new neighbor brought her children around so she could get acquainted. When my brothers and I were older, we went by ourselves and took our younger siblings with us. It could turn dark before we got home, but no one worried because all children in the neighborhood were out Halloweening.

One year I made a papier-mache Frankenstein mask at school. Somehow, word got around and my mask became the talk of the neighborhood. I was quite proud of it, but come Halloween, I knew if I wore it, everyone would know who I was, so I dressed as something else. That proved to be a disappointment to neighbors who had been looking forward to seeing “Frank.”

There was always a little mischief in the neighborhood, but nothing serious. Although most homes were modern, a few outhouses remained. Grandad had a little rental cottage with no plumbing, only a well pump and an outhouse, which was routinely tipped over every Halloween.

Ancestral Ourhouse

Ancestral Ourhouse

The schoolhouse had two outhouses, one for the girls and one for the boys. Apparently, the boys’ was adequately secured to its foundation, but when I was in first grade, someone tipped over the girls’ outhouse and we had to use the boys’ until it could be set right again. Today the culprits would be hunted down and charged with criminal mischief, but in those days, it was just part of Halloween.

This outhouse at Purdue Hill, Alabama, is similar to the girls' outhouse at Barnum Hill School.

This outhouse at Purdue Hill, Alabama, is similar to the girls’ outhouse at Barnum Hill School.

Ours was a three-seater, too.

Ours was a three-seater, too.

When I was older, our school district elected a trustee who let his position go to his head. He began making decisions contrary to the wishes of the parents, who got up in arms. The teenagers, aware of their elders’ discontent but too young to vote, took matters into their own hands. On Halloween night, the trustee found out what is meant by “tricks.” No real damage, only toilet paper, eggs, and garbage thrown at his house. He called the police, but as I remember, nothing much came of it except that the next election saw him voted out.

After we moved away, I was disappointed that other people didn’t practice Halloweening. When we went to neighbor’s houses, they’d just shove candy at us and send us on our way, no guessing or socializing.

Today, Halloween has fallen into disrepute. Some people think it has something to do with devil worship. Actually, the old Celts of the British Isles celebrated Sondheim, a harvest festival. They dressed up in costumes to trick the evil spirits, so they could do no harm. The early Christians adopted the holiday and called it All Hallows Eve, meaning the evening before All Hallows or All Saints Day, November 1st. What’s ironic is that those who today substitute “Fall Festivals” for Halloween have returned the holiday to its ancient Celtic purpose—a Harvest Festival!

 

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Grandma Rogers loved flowers. On the south side of her house, where the winter sun warmed the cinder-block wall of the garage, she had a large flower bed. I could not name all she grew there, but I remember roses, and pansies, which she loved because they looked like little faces, and the bright yellow and orange blossoms we called snow flowers. We so named them because one autumn while they were in full bloom, we had an early snow. The snow flowers were undeterred. They did not turn brown and die, but continued to bloom through the snow, subsequent thaw, and past Indian summer, until winter claimed them at last. Later in life, I learned that our snow flowers are called Calendulas.

Last year I came across some Calendula seeds at a store. I remembered Grandma’s snow flowers and thought it would be nice to plant some. They grew and bloomed bravely in the cool weather. Calendulas like full sun and my yard is shady, but when the oak trees shed their leaves, the flowers enjoyed winter sunshine. Then came spring and the oaks’ new foliage cast shadows over the flower bed. With summer, my Calendulas seemed to melt in the Florida heat and humidity.

In the meantime, I learned more about these amazing flowers. Their petals and leaves are edible and Calendula officinalis, has medicinal properties. To my knowledge, my grandmother never used Calendula for food or medicine. This puzzles me. Dandelion greens were an annual spring ritual and, despite limited formal education, Grandma was a skilled practical nurse. I was a recipient of her herbal skills when, as a colicky infant, she soothed me with catnip tea. Catnip is still my favorite medicinal herb. One plant thrives in the same shady bed where the snow flowers melted.

Calendula is related to the marigold and called Pot Marigold because the Germans used the petals in soup. Other European and Asian cultures used them in various dishes, to color butter, for tea, and as a dye. The flowers are also an important nectar and pollen source for bees and other pollinators, including butterflies.

We planted Calendula in a butterfly plot at the local elementary school. The other day, the children and I surveyed the butterfly beds where cassia, fennel, and salvia had succumbed to frost. All that remained were dry brown sticks and a few seed heads. I explained to the children that the plants weren’t dead. Only the tops had frozen, but the roots, safe below the soil, were alive and would send out new growth come spring. I pointed out some leaves that had already emerged on brown stems and said we would wait a little longer to be sure what was dead before we cut them back.

Then, around on the south side of the school, in full sunshine, one Calendula stood against the brown of winter, bright yellow flowers and green leaves belying the season.

My grandmother’s Calendula came to mind and I told the children the story of her snow flowers. I am now resolved to plant more Calendula.

 

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When I was a child, Grandma Rogers ran a little dairy with about half dozen milchers. She and my father milked the cows twice a day, morning and evening. When my brothers were old enough, they helped. After each milking, they carried the pails into her creamery where the milk was strained and poured into the separator. This contraption was about four feet tall with a large bowl on top to receive milk. Grandma would wind it up by turning a large crank on its side, and the milk would spiral through the machine, centrifugal force separating the lighter cream from the heavier milk. The liquids would exit through separate spouts to be collected in containers. Grandma always reserved some of the rich whole milk for the family. The skim milk was mostly fed to calves.

Her creamery was located in the cellar of the house, a short walk from the barn. That corner of the cellar was always clean and cool, even in summer. During winter, the furnace put out enough heat to temper the cold. Buckets and separator parts were washed in a double stone sink, and her large chest freezer doubled as a work bench. She had a collection of crocks imbued, I’m sure, with just the right microorganisms to ferment the cream.

When it was ready, Grandma took the cream upstairs to the kitchen. Instead of an upright dash churn such as you see in pictures, hers resembled a section of a barrel turned on its side. I’m sure her barrel churn was more efficient than the upright model. A crank on its side turned a paddle inside the barrel, beating the particles of butterfat together until they coalesced into a golden mass floating in buttermilk.

I used to watch her knead the butter and add salt, unless a customer wanted “sweet” butter for health reasons. She’d take about a pound of butter, form it into a block and weigh it with a spring scale which hung on a hook above the doorway. The scale supported a shallow pan for the butter. If the block was too heavy, she’d remove a little, if too light, add some. Once it was exactly one pound, she’d pat it into shape and wrap it in wax paper. I seldom saw her use a wooden butter mold such as you see in antique stores.

Butter route day fell on Thursdays. Since Grandma didn’t drive, her sister, Aunt Hazel, would take her. She always drove a Plymouth. When her car got too old, Aunt Hazel would get a new one, always a Plymouth. Unless we were in school, my siblings and I took turns accompanying them on the butter route.

Aunt Hazel would take us into Binghamton. Most of the butter customers were elderly ladies from the “Old Country”, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Armenia. The farm fresh butter may have cost more than store bought, but it reminded them of home. They were accustomed to cultured butter such as they had in the Old Country and found commercial butter a disappointment. I could not find Armenia on the map. I was too young to realize it had been swallowed up by the Soviet Union. Sometimes I wondered if all Armenians lived in Binghamton.

One day a customer’s daughter answered the door and hollered, “The butter lady is here!” I thought that was rather rude. My grandmother had a name. Her customers called her Mrs. Rogers. When I mentioned this to Grandma, she dismissed it, saying the young lady just didn’t know better.

These ladies baked delicious food with exotic names, and sometimes they’d offer us some. One was a Czechoslovakian fruit-filled pastry with a name that sounded like “ka-lach-key”.

Occasionally a butter customer would give me a nickel or a dime. After we completed the route, we’d shop at the A&P for groceries. Unless I decided to save my money for something else, I could spend it at the store. Nickels and dimes went a long way then. Back at Grandma’s house, she’d warm up canned soup for lunch. That was always a treat, a change from home cooked meals.

A lifetime later, I went to Texas for a niece’s wedding. Imagine my surprise when I spotted a donut shop advertizing “Kolaches, $1 or $11 a dozen”. How had these Old Country treats traveled from an eastern city to a cattle town half a continent away? Had people from Eastern Europe settled here, too? The girl behind the counter was Asian and she pronounced them “Ka-lat-keys”. I bought a dozen. This version was new to me. Instead of a fruit-filled pastry, it was a sausage wrapped in sweet dough. Texans like their meat. It was still delicious and reminded me of my “old country.”

I forgot to ask how Kolaches came to Texas. Maybe I need to go back and find out.

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In my childhood, sweets were not as readily available as they are today. One of my pleasant memories is of getting to lick the bowl after someone had mixed up a cake or a batch of cookies. Today, as I was beating some batter, I remembered a time a few years ago when my grandson Tristan was visiting. One day I made a cake. As I was pouring the batter into the pan, I asked him, “Who should I be today? Grandma Masters or Grandma Rogers?”

You see, my grandmothers were quite different individuals, but there were lessons to be learned from each. Both were strong women who reared their families during the Great Depression and made sacrifices during World War II.

Grandma Masters was French Canadian, one of 11 children who grew up on a farm. She once told me that when she was a child she had only one dress. On washday, she had to hide in a corner until it was clean and dry. Life was more comfortable after she married my grandfather, a factory worker, but they still had to be frugal. During the war when sugar was rationed, they used saccharine in their coffee. After the war, they continued this habit for the rest of their lives. Grandma Masters was also very clean and I swear you could eat off her floor. It was not surprising, then, that after she finished making cookies, she would scrape the bowl so clean it hardly needed to be washed. There was little left for an eager child to lick.

Grandma Rogers was one of two surviving children whose father was a wall paper hanger. She did not suffer as much privation as a child, but she married a farmer and the Depression hit them hard. She never talked much about the war when her only surviving son was a soldier in the Pacific theater. I can only imagine her anguish. She, too, was not one to waste anything, but when she finished a bowl, she would leave a satisfying amount of batter in it. I don’t know if it was because her arthritis made it harder for her to scrape the bowl clean, or if she was only trying to please a treasured grandchild.

Anyway, I briefly explained to Tristan the differences between my two grandmothers. Again I asked him which one he wanted me to be that day. Not surprisingly, he chose Grandma Rogers. I obliged him and left a generous amount in the bowl for him.

Today as I poured my batter, with no grandchild in attendance, I declared, “I should be Grandma Masters today.” Actually though, my performance fell short. Scrape though I might, I still had to wash the bowl.

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I keep a box of old Christmas cards. Every year, like most folks, I display Christmas cards as they come in. Unlike most, however, I do not discard them after the season is over, but add them to my collection.

Like most people, when I was a child, we would go to my grandparents’ house on Christmas night for supper with aunts, uncles, and cousins, and there would be presents for all. Unlike most people, however, Grandma Masters did not label her gifts with store-bought stickers. She used the pictures from old Christmas cards. She might wrap a package in paper with pictures of the three wise men, then decorate it with a card showing a manger scene, and a ribbon.    

When I became an adult and established my own home, like most people I began to send and receive Christmas cards. That’s when I continued my grandmother’s tradition of labeling gifts with last year’s cards. I use the front face and usually discard the rest of the card unless it has a smaller picture, as some do, that I can use on a small gift. In any particular year, I may not use all my old cards, so they will collect in a box. Some cards get recycled if the gift was opened at my house and the card not spoiled. I try to coordinate the card with the wrapping paper and give, especially for the children, one that would appeal to the recipient. A card may be a clue as to the gift inside. A box containing a doll might have a card showing a little girl holding a doll. It’s handy to have lots of cards to choose from, and every year my collection grows. Some years I have to graduate to a larger box.

My Christmas card collection has yielded an unforeseen delight. It has become a time capsule, going back many years. As I dig to the bottom of the box, it’s like an archeological excavation, refreshing long forgotten memories. Most senders list their children, and I have a record, in reverse order, of the changes in their families. Children who have grown, moved out, and are no longer listed on recent cards will appear in earlier cards. Their names disappear again in cards sent before they were born. Some senders named my children individually and that list has also grown and shrunk over time, as some of my adult children have moved out, and in, and out again.

Here are cards from nieces and nephews before they had children. Afterwards, they may be too busy to send cards. I have a record of my former boss’ daughter growing up, in the photo cards he gave out every year. Since those are not suitable for labeling gifts, they collect in my box. Here is a card from a family I cannot recall. Perhaps one day something will nudge my memory. There is one signed “your paper carrier” with only her first name. Here’s one from my daughter-in-law before she married my son.

 Some people faithfully send cards every year and some are sporadic. Some I have only a card or two from, and some, like one of my brothers, never, although I will send him one. One couple faithfully sent cards for seven years after they moved away, then there was silence. I never found out why.

Like an archeological record, the collection is incomplete. Some cards no longer exist as they have been used and discarded, and many lack the signature page, so their origin is forgotten. Here is one I will never use, from a dear friend who has passed away. Indeed, the deeper I dig, the more poignant they become. One card my parents also signed “Cookie Grandma”, in the last year of her life after my grandfather had passed. Another is signed only “Grandpa Masters” after Grandma Masters was no longer with us. There is one whose picture page had been used long ago and only the message page remains. I will keep this one forever as it is signed, “All our love, Grandma and Grandpa Masters”. It was probably the last I received from them before Grandma died. 

Some of my relatives have sent home made cards so special that although I may use them to label a gift, I will not throw them away even if they become wrinkled or torn. Deep in the box are cards my own children made when they were small. Scattered throughout the box are annual letters sent with or in lieu of cards. Someday I will go back and read them.

What will happen to my box of cards after I am no longer able to enjoy it? Hopefully, before that time comes, I will put them into a scrapbook, making a history for succeeding generations. In the meantime, I will continue to dig through the box every Christmas, looking for just the right card for a particular gift, being reminded of the past, and surprised by new discoveries.

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