November 1995

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Letters to Suzanna

Grandmother Comes


Barbara H. Bell

Letters to Suzanna is a series of fictional letters based closely on historical facts that tell of the day-to-day experiences of a family establishing a homestead in the region near the south end of Seneca Lake in the early nineteenth century. Click here for more letters.

Dear Suzanna,

There was a big change in our living when I was almost twelve. Papa was able to build a real barn, It was not as big as Judge Dow's or the one on the Culver homestead but it was more convenient than our livestock lean-to.

The word went around that Papa had everything ready for the raising and, on the appointed day, neighbors came from miles away as did those who lived nearer. Whole families came, in most cases. The women brought dishes of food or meat to be cooked.

While the men and big boys raised the sides and put beams across the top for the roof, little children played their games. Girls my age took care of babies and toddlers and the women set up a quilting frame to finish a quilt which someone had brought.

At noon we had a party-picinic. By the time the farmers needed to get home for chores, the heavy work was done on the barn and the quilt was finished except for the border which the owner expected to do at home. Not long after, Uncle John and Aunt Jerusha came from Connecticut with their family. Since our last visit from them, they had had another son. His name was Harry.

Uncle John and Papa not only finished our barn, while they stayed with us, but they tore the livestock lean-to off the cabin. Mama was so happy about that! When we were closed in for the winter months, some animal smells filtered into the house. It was so bad that, sometimes, our clothes and bedding took on the same odor. That might be fine in a barn or pasture, Mama said but not for people. We used to air out our clothing and bedding quite often during those early winters.

She and Aunt Jerusha made scrub brooms from cedar branches and swept the ground where the livestock had been in that shed until there were no hoof prints left. You could never have told what that side of the cabin had been used for all those years. I have to admit it was a relief not to have that smell all winter although I might not have noticed it much if Mama had not made such a fuss about getting aired out. It was just something that was there every winter, infiltrating gradually. But it had always mattered to Mama although she never scolded Papa about it. The lean-to had been needed.

Papa made separate stalls for our two horses and made a box stable for the oxen. Then he built a small lean-to of logs (the new barn was of milled boards) and put a fence of tree roots, taken from our yard years before, around it. He would not tell us what that was for although we kept teasing and guessing.

Then, when we came home from school one day, we found out. We had two little pigs! We petted them and, at first, enjoyed taking them their slop. We even pulled some weeds that we found out they liked and gave them some every day. Ruth wanted to name them and we let her. She chose Adam and Eve. Papa told us not to get too fond of them or think of them as pets because, when they were big enough, they would have babies. After that, the time would come when they would be slaughtered for food.

That would make a change in meat for us, and Mama looked forward to having some good white lard for cooking and baking.

The next year, Eve bore ten piglets. Oh, they were so pretty!

All of us children were home the first time Papa butchered. Young Mr. Culver came to help as Papa had similarly helped him several times. When Adam began to squeal as the men took him to the barnyard where Papa had erected a T-shaped support to hang him during the dressing process, Ruth ran out and grabbed Paps's legs.

"Leave him be!" she yelled, crying as though her heart would break.

It was all David Culver could do to hang onto that shrieking struggling pig when Papa had to let go. Papa tried to calm Ruth and reason with her but she kept bawling and hitting Papa. Mama went out and picked her up, kicking and squalling, and called to me.

"You take Ruth and Johnny and go stay at the Culver's until Mr. Culver gets home," she instructed.

That's is what we did. We walked that two miles along the wagon lane. The butchering did not start until we were out of hearing. Ruth sobbed most of the way but stopped when Mrs. Culver gave us milk and ginger cake in her kitchen room. Soon we were all playing games with the Culver children. For a while Ruth seemed to forget her misery, but she grew sober enough when Mr. Culver came home so we could start back. The nearer we came to our cabin, the more she hung back. Her lower lip began to quiver and, next step or two, she was sobbing again.

When we reached the clearing, she scampered for the house, avoiding any glance toward the barnyard. She threw herself at Mama's legs and began to wail louder. Mama sat down and held Ruth on her lap, rocking back and forth and murmuring quietly. When Ruth cried, it made me feel like doing the same but I was too old for that. I stirred the vegetables which were stewing on the hearth, I played with little Will for a while.

Soon Ruth stopped crying and Mama asked her to set the table. I went to the well for a bucket of water. Johnny had been in the barn and was heading toward the cabin, I told him what had happened and warned him not to talk about what he had seen in the barn.

The next day, we went to Culver's again while Papa and Mama finished the job with Adam. When we came home, Mama was trying out lard, melting down chunks of fat in her biggest iron kettle. She told us that now we would be able to have real pie and tart crusts, using that smooth white lard. That is what the melted fat turned into when it cooled. She would have crusts for berry and pumpkin and squash desserts. Some would be used for pot pies. Our meals would be more varied. And that is indeed what happened.

Another of my memories belongs in this letter, I think.

Mama's mother fell ill about a year after our barn was built. Grandfather had his store to tend. That was their income so he could not give it up to care for and nurse her as needed. For a while one of my aunts and one of Grandfather's cousins took turns taking care of Grandmother for she could not even get out of bed.

Somedays, Grandmother could not even feed herself. Weeks passed and she did not seem to be getting much better. The aunt and cousin had families of their own. That made it hard for them to continue to take care of the invalid. Grandfather was getting very tired, keeping store for twelve or more hours a day and often being awakened in the night to tend Grandmother's needs.

In those days, stores like theirs opened right after an early breakfast. At times, they did not close until ten or eleven at night because neighborhood men dropped by after supper and stayed to discuss politics or to otherwise converse about affairs which were important to them. By this time, too, Grandfather had built his store next to his house. It had outgrown the one-room store in his front room.

Grandfather sent word to ask if Mama would move in with them, bringing us children, to look after her mother. Mama and Papa discussed it. Mama felt that she and Johnny needed to stay at our farm to help Papa but she did want to help her mother.

So Papa said he would build another room on our cabin where the livestock lean-to had been and he would go with a horse and wagon to bring Grandmother to live with us. Grandfather objected, saying he did not see how his sick wife could stand such a trip, but Grandmother was anxious to come. She felt very bad to be such a burden to her husband.

By that time, there was a wagon road part of the way between Reading Center and the Connecticut relatives! Grandfather helped Papa fix a cover over the wagon. They stretched some good canvas on it and made both ends so they could be shut or open. They put Grandmother's bed in the wagon and secured it to the floor boards with wooden blocks all around every leg of the bed. Papa placed two fat featherbeds on it and made it up with flannels and quilts and Grandmother's two goosedown feather pillows.

They started for York State. Where the roads had been scraped level and smooth, they made good time. Grandmother was very brave. When she began to feel faint or hungry or was thirsty or needed to use the chamber pot, they would stop. Sometimes Papa made a fire and warmed the broth they had brought. If Grandmother could not feed herself he fed her. They also had journey cake, some beef jerky for Papa and plenty of water. One day, Papa picked a few berries along one road stop. They proved a welcome treat for his patient.

It was about two hundred miles from Grandmother's home to ours. It was warm weather but the nights were chilly and sometimes damp. One night, as the sun set, Papa saw an inn. He went in to inquire about a night's lodging. He told us, later, that the innkeeper's family was very kind and cordial. They let Grandmother sleep in a downstairs room all by herself. Papa carried her in and the lady of the house made her comfortable. The children brought water to her bedside and also a bowl and towel.

Papa slept in her bed in the wagon.

The next morning, Grandmother had a change of diet because the innkeeper's wife made oat gruel and put cow's milk and white sugar on it. Papa had a hearty breakfast and bought some ginger cake to have later in the day.

It was unusual for a traveler to have a room all alone in an inn or roadside tavern, in those days. If one paid rent to sleep, he might find himself with a total stranger in the same bed and with several others in pallets on the floor of the room. Some inns had big rooms to be used for dances or public gatherings. If there were a large number of travelers staying over night, they would be given floor space in the ballroom. There was no privacy for men. Sometimes women would share a room with a door. Everyone used the same necessary outside the tavern.

We learned that Grandmother had been given the bedroom of the innkeeper and his wife. They had slept in an upstairs room with their children. Papa said there had been no other visitors but he stayed in the wagon to be sure raccoons or dogs and cats did not get in to do possible damage to the bed.

On the warmest night they experienced, Grandmother stayed in the wagon while Papa bedded down outside.

They never had any problem refilling the water barrel. People were most considerate that way. Some nights, they stayed in homes along the way. It was common practise for travelers to seek lodging in the nearest house or cabin. Of course, they had to be willing to accept the loft or whatever accommodations might be shared. At one stop, the farmer had Papa drive the wagon into his barn and he and Grandmother slept there. He said it was as comfortable as a pallet on a cabin floor would have been.

The day they arrived at our place, it was dusk, the sun almost set. Grandmother was feeling especially poorly after the tedious trek. Papa had offered to stop in Catharinestown where there was a tavern but, knowing they were so near Reading, she had insisted on continuing. Their last two days had been over the worst of the roads of the whole trip and she had been jounced a lot.

Papa carried her into our cabin and laid her in the bed that he and Mama usually shared. Mama fed her some milk pudding. That was all Grandmother could manage, that night. Mama spent the night in Ruth's bunk and Ruth with me in mine. Papa used a pallet on the floor. Grandmother's bed remained in the wagon which stood in the barn while Papa did some last minute carpentering in the new lean-to to make it ready for Grandmother's bed.

To make a long story short, Grandmother stayed with us until the next summer. By then, she had recovered and was well enough to sit in a stagecoach for the return trip to Connecticut.

There is a memorable reason why I feel this much of her story belongs in this letter. That is because of a gift Grandfather had sent to us with her. It was a toaster.

We children had never heard of toasting bread although we particularly favored eating bread still warm from the oven. The toaster was a lot of wires woven together into a sort of grid. It was flat. To use it, we would pull some hot coals from the fireplace to the edge of the stone hearth where we put two flat stones just far apart enough to hold the toaster.

We would lay two slices of bread on it and keep close watch. When it turned brown on the bottom, we could turn it to toast the other side.

Nobody in our whole big neighborhood had a toaster like ours! Not even Mrs. Culver in the tavern had one. After that, when we went visiting for a meal, Mama might take the toaster for our hosts to try out. Johnny called it a toaster-roaster.

So, you see, that year three things happened to change our everyday life. Papa built a barn, Grandfather gave us a toaster and Grandmother came to stay. I will tell you more about her long visit in another letter.

© 1992, Barbara H. Bell
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