December 1995

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Letters to Suzanna

Grandmother's Stay


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,

During the year when Grandmother stayed with us to recover from her illness, at first I used to read our Bible to her when she was uncomfortable or uneasy. I wrote letters to Grandfather saying what she told me to. Sometimes I helped her eat when she felt the worst. She ate so little, at first, I could not see how she would even stay alive, say nothing about getting well again.

Mama used her own type of medicines for Grandmother. Every time she could, she coddled an egg and put it on toast with hot milk. She said it was easy to digest and was nourishing for an invalid. However, her chickens did not lay much in winter so there were no eggs, at times.

When Grandmother began to feel well enough to sit by the hearth part of every day, she wrote to Grandfather herself. She had brought paper and pencils from home. At Christmas time, she had improved enough to stay home alone while we attended observances in the school and with our church congregation. We were gone each time about two hours.

The second time, when we returned home, there was Mama's brother John. He had come by horseback and carried many things sent by Grandfather.

We each had an orange. There was a wooly hat for Will and one trimmed in fur for Ruth. Grandfather sent Mama enough cloth for a new gown and sent Papa a razor strop. Until then, Papa had sharpened his razor on a whetstone which he held on his knees. Johnny received a whole tablet of paper and a pencil to go with it.

Grandfather also sent some fine flour, nutmegs and real coffee beans as well as more green tea. My gift was a big surprise. He sent me several hanks of blue yarn and knitting needles. I had not known it, but Grandmother had asked for those for me. We spent the rest of the winter with Grandmother teaching me to knit whenever she felt well enough and I had spare time. I cannot tell you how many times I had to unravel the socks I was trying to make. I did not find knitting easy.

But Grandmother was very patient and, by warm weather, I finally had a pair of hose that did not need to be unraveled. She and I had conspired to make them large enough for Papa. Papa said they were as fine as any footwear he had ever had. His old hose were badly worn with both patches and darning mends. He thanked me for the new ones. He wore them to our meeting, the next Sabbath. It was one of the times he held services in our cabin. (Incidently, can you imagine a service where a half dozen worshippers were sitting along the edges of a bed?)

Grandmother taught Ruth and Johnny to play checkers which Grandmother called draughts. Father gave us a board and Johnny carefully made all the lines on it for the squares. Papa showed him how to make a black paint with chimney soot and a kind of oil which Telenemut made from twigs of a wild bush that grew near the creek. Then Johnny sliced some dry corn cobs to make checkers and painted half of them black.

When our friends called on us, from that time on, we always had a checker game. Johnny became quite a champion player. There were not many checkerboards among our neighbors.

That spring before Grandmother went back to Connecticut, Papa went to the warehouse in Catharinestown to do some trading. Someone happened to mention that there was a whole hill of blue clay a little ways to the south. They told him it was on the hill west of and bordering Catharine Creek. That gave him an idea.

He hiked on down the valley and easily found the hill because some of it had made a slide or little avalanche in heavy spring rains and Mother Nature had not had time to conceal it with weeds. The bank of clay was bared for all to see. Papa cut away a square of it and brought it home. He thought we could use it to make pottery cups or bowls. We tried but that never worked out, partly because none of us really knew how to shape them and partly because we did not have the right kind of oven or kiln to bake goods properly.

In fact, at that time, we did not have any kind of real oven. Mama baked by putting her goodies on two stones to allow the heat to glow underneath and she held in the heat by making a pile of stones behind and beside the dish, topping this "oven" with a lid.

Papa said that a true pottery oven is a kiln, pronounced kill. He always meant to make one in our yard and go get more blue clay but that never happened.

He gave Johnny a chunk of the raw clay. Grandmother showed him how to moisten his hands and roll the clay into a smooth ball about as big as a sparrow egg but round as could be. Then he laid them in the sun for a few days, every night placing them at the edge of the hearth, surrounded by heated rocks that cooled overnight. That is how Johnny acquired his first marbles. He made enough to give some to his best friend. Then they had another game to play.

Grandmother also made a ball for Will. She packed it with dried grasses and sewed it up tight. Will had that ball for many years before it gave out. She helped Ruth make a doll from a corncob. It was the first doll ever in our house. Mama donated scraps of cloth from her rag bag so Ruth could dress her "baby."

I never had a doll, Will was my "doll," you might say.

Using some of the woolen yarn left over when I made Papa's new hose, Grandmother taught us to play Cat's Cradle. Thanks to her, we now had a number of new ways to entertain ourselves on shut-in days or any other suitable time.

She was feeling so well, that spring, that she could cook and bake. That let Mama spend more time helping Papa plow and plant. By that time, I often worked in the fields, too, and to Ruth fell the chore of washing dishes and tidying the cabin daily.

As I had done when I first helped with dishes, Ruth stood on her tree trunk stool to reach the table. She was luckier than I had been because she had Grandmother's help.

Grandmother taught me more about cooking and baking. I made my first pot pie and baked a cake with her help. She was there when we were making maple syrup and sugar. She was there for the closing day exercises at school and made me very proud when she stood up and sang a patriotic song. Grandmother had a sweet voice.

Mama said that Grandmother was spoiling us all. She often mended clothes or helped hang out clothes on wash day or bring them in. Washing was still too strenuous for her to do that very much. She helped plant Mama's Morning Trumpet seeds, that year. She had Grandfather send some other seeds for the kitchen garden. That was the first year we had beets or green peas in our garden.

In the middle of summer, Grandfather asked his son, John, and family to mind the store with his only clerk, and he came himself to take her home. While he was at our home, he told Johnny that he could come live with them anytime and help in the store. He could still go to school. In fact, Grandfather said, it would be a good thing for him to learn more ciphering so that he could keep the store ledgers.

Long afterwards, Papa told us that his heart fell when Grandfather said that. Papa had become used to having Johnny for his "right-hand man" and was not sure how he could manage the farm work without him. But Papa did not say anything then. If his son preferred to move to Connecticut and become a storekeeper, he would never stand in the way.

He need not have worried. Johnny loved our farm even though he did not say so to Grandfather at the moment. He did not want to hurt his feelings. It was a kind and generous offer and most thoughty of Grandfather, and Johnny never dreamed Papa was unaware that he loved farming too much to leave.

Johnny never did leave our farm. When he grew up, Johnny and his wife built a new house at the west end of our acreage. They were able to buy abutting lands and, in time, Johnny had his own farm.

I will never forget the year Grandmother lived with us. It was wonderful having here there. We all benefitted in so many ways. After she left, Ruth and I shared the new room Papa had made for her. She even left her big bed for us and the flannel covers and featherbeds and pillows!

© 1992, Barbara H. Bell
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