A Tilted Saucer of Delight
When I started this memoir, I was seventy years old and had lived on
the same farm in the same house almost all my life. Now I am eighty and
still live on the same farm but in the "Little House" down the road from
the farmhouse. The fact that I have lived all these years in the same
place is not a certifiable claim to fame but an urgent call to describe
how it was to grow up and grow old in the Appalachian hills of northern
Steuben County in the twentieth century.
I was born in the farmhouse at 4140 County Road 70, Avoca, New York,
on February 21, 1925, at 2 am. in the era when babies were more often
born at home than in the hospital. Mary Mattoon, who lived into her nineties,
often recalled the day and the hour. I found that comforting especially
since my mother and father, my older sister and an even older cousin,
who was staying that winter expressly to help my mother with me, have
all died. Mary's husband Kenneth was the hired man that year and Mary
helped Mamma care for Grandma Shults. Soon after, Kenneth and Mary bought
their own farm over the hill from us. Their oldest child and only daughter
Norma and I have literally been life-long friends.
My father Lee Nellis Shults and his father Horatio Nellis Shults were
born on the same farm but in the old house. My great grandfather Josiah
Shults and great grandmother Catherine Nellis Shults were the Shults family
pioneers although not the first owners of the farm. Joseph Nellis, Catherine's
father, bought the farm. The Nellises were French Huguenots, the Shultses
were Mohawk Dutch. Both groups came to New York Colony to escape persecution
by the French government. The Mohawk Dutch were descendants of the Palatine
Germans who came to New York Colony between 1709-1722 as a result of scorched-earth
warfare waged upon them by the French. They had lived in a fertile area
of the upper Rhine Valley called the Palatinate by the Roman invaders
of Gaul many centuries earlier. These persecuted people were invited to
come to New York by the British government under Queen Anne, but, after
they arrived in the Hudson Valley, they were cheated by both the colonial
government and rapacious land speculators. Many moved from their homes
along the Hudson to Schoharie Creek and then to the Mohawk Valley. They
were industrious farmers and eventually became prosperous. They were also
prolific and their progeny took up the available land.
After the Panic of 1837, many of the original settlers of the Pulteney
Estate in Steuben County could not make their payments and moved on west,
leaving buildings and partially cleared farms to be resold by the land
agents. Circa 1840 many extended families, my ancestors among them, came
to the Avoca area from Palatine Bridge in the Mohawk Valley. In 1843,
Avoca became a town, and for many years Shultses played an important part
in its economic and social life. In 2000, the cemetery rolls listed sixty
Shultses but the phone book only two. Now those two old ladies, Mary and
Sarah Shults are dead. This is why I sometimes write my name Grace Shults
After our children grew up and I retired from teaching, and after my
mother and Stanley's mother died, I became historian for the Town of Avoca
and started writing family and community stories. One of my first efforts
was a tribute to my great grandmother:
Cupped by Appalachia's hills
The simple farmstead sat unsentient,
No longer trod by Seneca feet,
Not attractive enough for ambitious
Young men, the sons of a well-to-do farmer
Investing in land and sons and dream of West.
No stand of pine with mighty girths uncut,
No walnut here or chestnut, oak or beech;
But graceful elm, the sugar maple, sweet
Flowering locust bowed to summer breeze
And winter blast. The father, undeterred,
Then sent his daughter, bride of the Palatine,
To clear the land, to build a life, a joy,
To own a tilted saucer of delight.
My mother, Helen Jennie Bowker, came to Avoca in 1912 to teach at the
high school. She came from Cortland in the central part of the state and
had been well educated at Cortland Normal School. She [had] started teaching
at seventeen in a rural one-room school in Summer Hill and then, when
her parents moved into Cortland, she enrolled in the normal school. She
could and did teach biology, algebra and geometry, English, German and
Latin. Before coming to Avoca, she taught in Leicester. At Avoca she was
also preceptress, a position equivalent to vice-principal, and taught
biology, geometry and English. In later years her students spoke of her
to me with affection and awe as she was a determined lady and a strict
disciplinarian. Myrtle Fox Griswold who became my aunt-in-law, said "She
worked us like horses!" In 1912 my mother was twenty-seven years old and
so considered herself an old maid.
Mamma roomed and boarded with Clark and Mary Loucks on Alexander Street
in the village. It so happened that Clark Loucks was my father's cousin
and, in the course of several family dinners, Daddy fell in love with
mother's sparkling brown eyes and auburn hair, or so he said. Apparently
the feeling was mutual because in December 1914 they were married.
In many ways they were opposites. My father was an only child whose father
had died of tuberculosis when Daddy was nine years old. His mother, Rebecca
Garlock Shults, and maiden aunt, Nellie Garlock, taught him the good principles
by which he conducted his life, but they also coddled him. This was a
fortunate circumstance for my sister and me because he passed on the coddling
to us. Grandma Shults ran the farm while my father was growing up although
she hired a skilled farmer, John Kennedy to manage day-to-day operations.
My father took over when he was sixteen. These years and the years before
and during the first World War were prosperous times for the farm.
Grandma and Aunt Nellie had a sister, Anna Garlock Bliss Alexander, who
lived in Tonawanda and was well off. Her first husband made a fortune
in lumber; her second husband, DeAlva Stanwood Alexander, was in politics,
first as a Cleveland "gold standard" Democrat and then as a Republican
supporter of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. In Grandma Shults's
and Aunt Nellie's trunks in the farmhouse attic were mementos from the
McKinley-Roosevelt years: an invitation to my father to a reception at
the executive mansion in February 1899 when he made a trip to the capital
as a young man of seventeen; an invitation to Aunt Anna and Aunt Nellie
to a reception given by Mrs. McKinley in 1898 and another to a Congressional
ladies "At Home"; and an invitation to Mr. and Mrs. Alexander to a reception
given by President and Mrs. Roosevelt at the White House in 1903.
Grandma Shults made the beautiful silvery gray silk dress that Aunt Anna
wore to the reception. It has been preserved and handed down in my family
as Aunt Anna had no children. The dress has been worn in various theatricals
and last graced the social scene in 1993 when Betty Mitchell, President
of the Avoca Historical Society, wore it to a banquet celebrating the
sesquicentennial of the formation of the Town of Avoca. Later, it appeared
in a fashion show sponsored by the Cohocton Historical Society to commemorate
the Steuben Count Bicentennial of 1996. There was material left over and
my cousin-in-law, Alice Bowker, used it to dress a doll, my "Aunt Anna"
doll, in 1997 when Stanley and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary.
Aunt Nellie died the winter after Mamma and Daddy were married but Grandma
Shults continued living in the farmhouse (the old one). She and Aunt Nellie
had planned to move to the village where Grandma owned a house but Grandma
did not want to live alone. I know that there was tension between my mother
and grandmother. Mamma once said that Grandma complained when Mamma read
in the evening: Grandma thought she should sew. More important was their
disagreement over women's suffrage. Naturally, Mamma was a suffragist.
She was well educated, well informed and had earned her own living for
ten years before she married. The vote was her right and she was responsible.
Grandma had earned her own living, too, both before she married and after
she was widowed, but she was always in a home environment. I do not think
that she ever voted although she did not die until June, 1930.
I do not remember Grandma Shults very well. I was five years old when
she died and recall her only as a sick old lady. I remember her sitting
in the rocking chair in the kitchen by the wood stove. There is a photo
of her in a rocker on the porch. She had an old-fashioned chiffonier in
her bedroom. Occasionally, she let me play with the old buttons and pieces
of lace that she had stored in one particular drawer. When my sister Dorothy
was little, Grandma made doll clothes of scraps of velvet and satin left
over from her dressmaking years. The doll clothes were beautiful and I
enjoyed them, too. I also wore them out.
Grandma was often in bed with heart pains and eventually became incontinent.
Often I woke up in the night to hear my father and mother helping Grandma
to the bathroom. I remember my mother doing loads and loads of laundry.
There were always flannel gowns and sheets soaking in soda water in the
laundry tub. Grandma lost her appetite. On Sunday morning, I often went
with my father to Wallace to get the Sunday paper. Daddy bought me an
ice cream cone and Grandma a pint of vanilla ice cream, about the only
food she really enjoyed. The care of Grandma was a great burden to Mamma.
When the time came that I had the care of Mamma and then of Mom Fox, I
felt very close to both who had also been caregivers. I also appreciated
the appliances that made housework and laundry so much easier for me than
it had been for them. Even more, I appreciated the women who helped me
with a difficult task and the siblings who visited often and brought cheer
to gallant old women.
Daddy and Mamma told me that Grandma had been an avid gardener. In fact,
she had her vegetable garden in the same spot I had mine. Between the
lawn and the garden was a picket fence along which she had flowers. The
daffodils and peonies she planted over a hundred years ago still do their
blooming thing every year. The fence is gone and over the years I planted
other old-fashioned flowers: snowdrops and crocuses, lemon lilies and
coreopsis, sweet William and iris and unfortunately, Chinese lanterns.
When I garden, I think of Grandma and of peasant women around the world
because I do everything by hand except plow. When our youngest daughter
Mary was serving in the Peace Corps in Nepal she, of course, took photos
of home. She told me that the photo which impressed her new friends and
work groups the most was of me hoeing potatoes. They were also interested
in a photo of our fireplace with its wood stove insert and pile of chunks.
They burned wood exclusively but did not realize anyone in the United
I wrote a tribute to Grandma Shults's life entitled:
This garden was wilderness once,
Terraced and furrowed by glaciers,
Its topsoil then washed from rocky hills
Now washed by the tears of expected widowhood.
The lady seamstress put her hand to the plow,
Built the picket fence, nurtured the growing son
And growing carrots with equal vigor and pride.
"One must cultivate one's garden" she knew
The philosopher had said, but neglected
To say how long. The son upleaped to manhood.
The spinster sister, sharer of days and duties,
Died. Stout heart and springy muscles yielded
To rocking chair and invalid bed.
So, too, the garden rested, a wilderness again.
My mother was the daughter of rather poor parents and one of twelve children.
Undoubtedly, that is one reason why they were poor. Her father, Frank
Drake Bowker, was a country school teacher, a small farmer, and then a
factory worker. Her mother, Helen Hall Bowker, after her children and
a set of grandchildren grew up, did practical nursing. Several years before
I was born, a tragedy occurred in their family life. Their oldest daughter,
Mabel Bowker Hopkins, came down with tuberculosis. After she died, Grandpa
and Grandma took her four children, ages two to eight, and brought them
up. The youngest child Gladys spent a lot of time with us. She seemed
like another sister—an exotic sister from the city. While Grandma
was caring for her dying daughter, one of Mamma's younger sisters, Ruth,
looked after the children. Later she and Mabel's husband married and moved
A happy time for Grandma and Grandpa was a trip they took to the West
Coast and San Francisco. When I was a child playing in our attic, I was
fascinated by a souvenir from Chinatown, coins strung together in the
shape of a sword.
Grandpa and Grandma Bowker still lived in Cortland. One winter, when
I was five or six, they spent a few months with us. I was sick with whooping
cough for most of the time they were here. Grandpa, to help amuse me,
taught me to play euchre, a game I still enjoy on occasion. Grandpa played
the fiddle and specialized in such tunes as "Marching through Georgia"
and "Turkey in the Straw." I especially liked "Pop goes the Weasel." My
memory of Grandpa fiddling is entwined with my memory of "sugaring off."
That involved two succulent sweets: wax which was boiled-down syrup poured
onto a pan of snow, and sugar cakes which had to be stirred as the syrup
cooled giving them their light tan appearance and sugary texture. When
Grandma and Grandpa visited us, they and we were always invited to dinner
by our neighbors and good friends, Cass and Eva Calkins, whose farm bounded
ours across Castle Creek. Mrs. Calkins made wonderful chicken and biscuits.
She used an old hen from her flock—somehow it had more flavor than
our modern fowl.
Grandpa died in June, 1933, and Grandma, very painfully of stomach cancer,
in June, 1934. Mamma was so sad: My cousin Gladys and other, older members
of the family said that Grandma had the sweetest temperament of anyone
they ever knew.
My mother was part of a boisterous, outgoing clan who seemed to me to
be from another world. Mamma was one of the older siblings so she had
helped take care of many of my aunts and uncles when they were little.
When they visited there was much affectionate hugging and kissing and
talking all at once. They kept up with each other's rites of passage.
To this day I keep in touch with literally dozens of cousins, second cousins,
even third cousins and look forward to the occasions when we meet.
To me, the child who was born when my mother was forty and looking after
an aging, ill, cantankerous mother-in-law, Mamma seemed stern and careworn.
As I grew older, I appreciated her sense of justice, her compassion, her
ability to look beyond herself. Her next younger sister Matie and her
niece Hazel treated her like the jolly, beautiful girl she had been. She
and my father were devoted to each other, depended on each other, looked
at the outside world with a similar tolerant point of view. They survived
the Great Depression by grim determination but, when they were taking
every possible frugal step to limit their expenses, they took it for granted
that my sister would go to college. She entered Geneseo Normal School
in 1932 and graduated with a permanent teaching certificate in 1935. To
make this possible, my mother went back to teaching in rural one-room
schools. She started at Lent Hill School substituting for an expectant
mother, then taught in the Beagle District, our home district where I
was one of her pupils, and was serving the Greenville School when the
rural schools of this area centralized in 1936.
The "Little House" where Stanley and I now live is on the site of Beagle
School just down the hill from the farmhouse. Momma didn't drive. When
she taught at Lent Hill, she boarded during the school week with a district
family. She and I walked together to Beagle School: Daddy drove her to
Greenville about three miles away. After centralization, both Mamma and
my sister Dorothy taught at the central school. By this time Dottie had
a car and was still living at home so they could go together. I was a
freshman in high school and rode the bus. Mamma only taught one year at
Avoca. She was dismissed because the Board of Education had a policy not
to hire married teachers. This was a policy they could not continue after
the United States became involved in World War II but Mamma never went
back to teaching.
I think that she felt betrayed by our neighbors. When the rural schools
centralized, the rural districts were assured that all the teachers would
have jobs. For the new Board of Education not to honor this commitment
was obviously unfair but no one objected. The local citizens agreed that
married women shouldn't work and, besides, my sister was teaching and
I think there might have been a feeling that one person per family was
enough to be on the public payroll. Our neighbor and good friend, Gladys
Robords, who was the last teacher at Beagle District, was not hired for
reasons that remain murky to me. Too much politics! When my mother was
not rehired at Avoca Central, my college plans changed. I had been accepted
at the University of Rochester, but even with a partial scholarship, it
was too expensive. I went to Albany Teachers' College instead. No regrets.
My mother's ancestors were English-Irish. Her mother, Helen Hall was
a direct descendant of Edward Hall who came to Massachusetts Colony in
1636. After the Revolutionary War, Hall descendants moved to New York
State and settled near Moravia. The New York ancestor was Ezra Russell
Hall. Mamma's father was Frank Bowker. His paternal ancestors also came
from England to Massachusetts. Edward Bowker came to Dorchester in 1635
and moved to Sudbury in 1666. The New York Bowkers trace their ancestry
to Silas and Amy Harding Bowker. Silas, a soldier in the Revolutionary
War, was born in Tamequa, Pennsylvania, but served most of the war in
the Ulster county Militia. He served under General Sullivan in the campaign
against the Iroquois and fought at the Battle of Newtown near Elmira,
New York. When he and Amy moved to New York State after the war, they
lived first in the Chemung Valley region but later settled permanently
in Cayuga County. In 1798, Silas purchased lot #40 in the Town of Locke
and this became the homestead of the Bowker family. In 1814 and 1815,
Silas Bowker was a member of the New York State Assembly and in 1823 and
1824 he was the New York State Senator from the 7th District.
At one time my mother started doing the research to achieve membership
in the Daughters of the American Revolution. This is a worthy organization
which has helped teach generations of women the research skills needed
to prove their ancestor's involvement in the war. It had a feminist agenda
from its beginning in that the organization coalesced when women weren't
allowed to belong to the Sons of the American Revolution. It has been
a networking organization where women learned practical skills which they
put to use in government or club work. Most of all, it is a patriotic
organization which encourages girls to become involved in civic duties.
Local D. A. R's for years have given good Citizenship awards to high school
girls. Of all the prizes and honors that have come my way, I am most proud
of receiving the D. A. R. award when I was a high school senior in 1940.
I still have it.
Mary and Sarah Shults, third cousins on my father's side and good friends,
were very active in the D.A. R. Our mutual ancestors served the revolutionary
cause in the Mohawk Valley but I do not have any specific information
about them. Even in elementary school my favorite subject was history.
After I learned about the Revolutionary War, I always hoped that my Mohawk
Valley ancestors fought with General Herkimer at Oriskany. The British
campaign in New York unfolded from an elegant plan. Even a child could
understand the strategy and the glamour of the participants: General Burgoyne
to come from the north along Lake Champlain; Lord Howe from the south
leaving New York City to come up the Hudson; and Colonel Barry St. Leger
from the west from Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario to the Mohawk Valley. St.
Leger was harried enough by General Herkimer at Oriskany that he limped
back to Oswego. Lord Howe never came to the party. And Gentleman Johnny
Burgoyne was defeated at the Battle of Saratoga by Generals Horatio Gates
and Benedict Arnold, then an American patriot. Arnold's sad story teaches
us the lesson that success doesn't necessarily bring happiness. When Arnold
betrayed the American cause at West Point, his part of the story from
our point of view became a tragedy even though he lived on in England.
These events were fascinating to me. Many years later, Stanley and I visited
the battle grounds at Oriskany and Saratoga as well as Forts Crown Point
For many years Mary Shults was Avoca's best known citizen: as a teacher,
as Republican Party committee woman, as Justice of Peace and member of
the town council, as president of the library board and of the Conhocton
Valley D. A. R., as historian for both the Town and Village of Avoca.
Her sister Sarah was teacher, a WAC in World War II, active in the Republican
Party, the Order of the Eastern Star and Avoca Grange, active in the D.
A. R. and on the Village of Avoca Planning Board. Both ladies encouraged
Mary and her sister Sarah were caregivers. They and their mother cared
for their brother Winfield, always called Winnie, as he struggled with
multiple sclerosis. They made their mother comfortable at home as she
became frail in her last years. After their brother Lyman died, they took
great interest in their three nephews and niece. In recent years, Mary
took care of Sarah as she became weaker with osteoporosis, arthritis and
Alsheimer's. Eventually Sarah resided at the Steuben County Health Care
Facility where Mary visited her often until her own health worsened. Mary
told me how much she missed Sarah's sharp mind and good memory both of
which helped Mary many times when she was questioned about ancestral connections
or community events. Now I miss their memories.
In spite of the respect I have for the D. A. R. ladies I know and the
help I would have received from Mary as I did the necessary research,
I never did become a member. One reason is idealistic. When I was in college,
there was a great furor over the fact that the D. A. R. refused to allow
Marian Anderson, a great Negro singer, to give a concert in Constitution
Hall, the D. A. R. building in Washington, D. C. At the time, First Lady
Eleanor Roosevelt, whom I admired very much, withdrew her membership and
my mother ceased working on her family research. I know that the modern
D. A. R. no longer has racist policies, but the bad memory lingers. Another
reason is practical. Living on a farm, nurturing six children, teaching
either as a substitute or full time over a period of thirty-five years,
and, then, in my retirement years taking care of Stanley's mother gave
me little time to make the needed trips to cemeteries, libraries and county
clerks' offices and little money to order copies of birth and death certificates.
The main reason is respect for the continuing immigrant experience. Each
wave of immigrants becomes productive citizens and patriotic Americans.
Why give special recognition to those who came before 1783.
When I was a child, the ancestor whose story galvanized my attention
was that of Roseanna Wiggins Bowker. Roseanna was Irish and came from
Dublin to Brooklyn in 1848 at the time of the potato blight and subsequent
famine. Here is her story based on the account of her son Frank, my grandfather.
He intended to make the story into a novel but never did.
Roseanna Wiggins Bowker
The old woman rimmed the dottle out of her clay pipe
To the wonderment of the child who called her Grandma.
"Tell me again," the child insisted, "how you came to America."
The old woman was at the age when her thoughts often turned
To the reality of her youth. It gave her pleasure.
"The famine was bad, not so bad in Dublin as in the country.
My uncle went to America early before the troubles started.
He lived in Brooklyn and owned a grocery store.
He sent us money and wanted us to come, but
We spent the money for flour and the doctor.
'It won't do no good,' my mother said but Pop would have him.
She was coughin' and spittin' blood and we all knew it was consumption.
'You go,' Mamma said to me and Pop but Pop wouldn't
And I was scared to go alone.
At Christmas time Uncle Frank wrote again.
He sent more money and a sailing ship ticket and he said,
'Rosie must come.'
I cried but Pop told me I couldn't do no good in Dublin.
Down the street was a couple we knew that was goin'.
Their eldest son worked in America laying railroad tracks.
He wanted a home to come home to and kids to tousle.
'My Rosie'll help you with your wee ones.' Pop told them
'If you'll look after her a bit. She don't want to leave her mother.'
So it was agreed and in Mid April we set out across the Irish Sea."
The child squirmed on her stool in fearful anticipation.
"Go on, Grandma." Her words were quick but her eyes were worried.
"The ocean is an awesome thing, Little Helen,
And a boat on the ocean is like a rocking chair in the wind.
'Tis never still. Oh, we was cozy enough.
Each family put up its quilts around its bunks.
The lone men had a section to themselves.
In the morning the steward brought us hot tea
And hunks of bread and butter, more than we could eat.
At night it was stew or boiled fish and more bread.
We took food, too. Momma made me soda bread
And beans cooked with ham hocks. Pop got me oranges and raisins.
We'd set out our dainties on our trunks that was lashed to the deck.
'Twas a picnic every day. The little boys leap-frogged
Amongst the trunks and the little girls played with their rag dolls.
One man brought his fiddle and played the old ballads.
We sang at night in the moonlight, Papists and us together.
On the boat it didn't seem to matter.
Then a day came when we was about two weeks out.
The sun was hot in a cloudless sky. The chill wind died down
We took off our cloaks and shawls and stood on the deck
Overcome by a strange listlessness. Even the children didn't play.
The mothers said it was spring fever and we needed sulpher and molasses.
The fathers said it was a weather breeder and a storm was coming.
That night the wind came up hard and we stayed in our bunks.
In the morning the captain sent word for all to stay inside
And families to stay together.
It got cold and sleety rain pounded the portholes.
We couldn't stand up without falling and we couldn't walk at all.
We strung up a rope to the head and crawled along it on hands and knees.
We was sore afraid but we was quiet except to croon to the children
The wind roared on and waves pounded and shook us
Like your Taffy shaking a woodchuck to break its neck.
We dosed a little off and on and the children slept in our arms.
Towards morning on the third day we felt a lessening of blow and pound.
The steward brought hot tea and bread and told us the worst was overl
We could walk and talk and compare our bruises and feelings.
By afternoon the sun came out and we could go out on deck.
The deck looked different, cleaner and less cluttered.
Then we realized that our trunks were gone, washed overboard,
All but two or three that jammed against the hatchways.
Mine was gone. I didn't worry about it. I was thankful to be alive."
The child stirred and released tension with a soft murmur.
"Oh, Grandma, what did you do without your things?"
"We just wore what we had on, Little Helen.
Anyway, I still had some things in my carpetbag in my bunk.
The important thing was what the ship was going to do.
The main mast was broken and the sails in tatters.
Two sailors had lost their lives in the storm;
The others were bruised and sore.
The captain sent word that anyone could help.
Some of the men helped the sailors put up the repaired mast.
Some of the women sewed canvas. It's hard to sew canvas, Little Helen.
But we were glad to be busy. It took weeks.
Food and water got scarce and full of wigglies. Ugh!
We finally limped into the Brooklyn docks in October
Three months after our due date. No one could believe it."
"Was Uncle Frank there to meet you?"
The little girl knew the answer but asked anyway.
She wanted to be sure that her Grandma didn't leave out a thing.
"Oh, no. Little Helen. He thought like everyone else
That our ship had gone down. The customs people showed us
A row of cheap boarding houses near by. Everyone scattered
Never to see each other again. Anyway I didn't.
'Twas strange to be on land, to see scores of people and not know anyone.
'Twas grand to have hot water and a wash basin and clean myself.
I felt like a robin in a rain puddle.
The next morning I asked the boarding house folks how to find my uncle.
But they couldn't help me. I started out thinking I would find
Some one who knew him but Brooklyn is big and I wasn't used to walking.
I had Uncle Frank's street name in my head
But the directions had been in the trunk—long gone.
I went up one street and down another until I was exhausted.
Besides, I'd got to the edge of the city where the streets
Were bounded my meadows. I was so tuckered out and worried,
I just sat down on a rock and cried.
There was a house a ways off and a woman going in and out to her clothesline.
She kept looking at me and pretty soon she came over.
She heard my story and took me into her house
She tucked some food into me and told me her husband would help me.
Her husband was a drayman who delivered all over the city.
When he got home, he told me that he'd heard of Uncle Frank.
They said I should stay with them until my uncle came for me.
That's what happened, Little Helen, on my first day in Brooklyn.
From that day to this, I've known the USA to be a friendly place."
"Your job, Grandma. Tell me about your job."
The child jumped off her stool in happy anticipation.
"I was anxious to go to work, Little Helen.
My money was nearly gone and I needed everything.
One day Uncle Frank came home from the store to say that a customer
Knew a Mrs. Benson who was looking for a girl.
My cousin Annie lent me some clothes and went with me.
Mrs. Benson had a beautiful house in Brooklyn Heights and a big family.
There were little ones bouncing around everywhere.
They needed another housemaid who could help with the youngsters.
Mr. Benson came in and they made a bet with each other over
Which one of us wanted the job. Mr. Benson won. He said that
He could tell that I had just got off the boat, I was so brown.
They took me on and I started right in. I couldn't do anything right.
To tell the truth, I wasn't used to taking orders.
Mrs. Benson seemed critical and quick-tempered.
Or so I thought, and I wasn't afraid to answer back.
I loved the babies, though, and they seemed to like me.
It wasn't long before I felt at home there
And realized they were awfully good to me.
Mr. Benson was a businessman who made and lost a fortune in guano.
He had political connections so there was always lots of company.
Mrs. Benson had been a singer in Boston. That's how they met.
They went to musical entertainments all the time.
Once they took the children and me to hear Jenny Lind.
I did everything around the house but mostly helped with the children.
The Bensons came to depend on me especially when they went to
Washington and I liked them like family."
"Now Grandma, tell me how you came here."
The child spoke solemnly but she was smiling.
She loved the happy ending.
The old woman reached out to hug the little girl.
Secretly she thought this was the beginning of her true life.
Summer Hill - 1954
"Mrs. Benson had come from central New York near Owasco Lake.
She owned property there and Mr. Benson bought more.
Mrs. Benson's brother ran the farm.
One winter we were all sick with grippes and coughs,
Especially Baby Philomela. The Bensons decided that we would
Spend the summer at Summer Hill on the farm.
We went on the train to Auburn, then along the lake to Moravia
On a stage and up to Summer Hill in a lumber wagon.
Mr. and Mrs. Benson, the four younger children and me,
And all our bags and baggage—what a sight!
The children and I loved the country. We went barefoot in the grass,
We explored the woods and the creek. We picked berries and flowers.
It was haying season so there were extra men working:
Cutting the grass with their scythes, forking it into hay cocks,
Filling the hay ricks and mowing it away in the barn.
The children and I watched and helped.
I suppose what we really did was get underfoot but no one complained.
One of the farm hands was young and good looking.
He had an old clarinet and played it for us in the evening.
When we went back to the city, he asked if he could write to me.
Of course, I said 'yes'.
We went to Summer Hill again the following summer.
Eri wasn't working on the Benson's farm; he had bought his own place.
But he would come over in the evening and join in the fun with the
Children and me. Sometimes we walked in the moonlight.
The summer flew by and I hated to go back to the city.
We hadn't said anything serious to each other, hadn't even kissed.
The third summer we went up earlier than usual, in May.
The Bensons had bought another farm and planned to make
Summer Hill their permanent home.
I didn't see much of Eri at first. He said he was too busy.
When he did come, he didn't laugh or joke no matter how much I coaxed.
The Bensons called him 'Rosie's hayseed.' I hated that.
One Sunday afternoon, he came with a new buggy.
'Come for a ride with me,' he said, 'and don't bring the children.'
That afternoon he asked me to marry him. I said 'yes.'
He said he'd been gruff because he was afraid
I wouldn't leave the comforts of the Benson establishment
For a poorer life in a simple farmhouse.
But I said that we'd be together and that was what mattered.
The Bensons didn't like my leaving. They said they needed me more.
That was silly. Eri and I were married that fall.
That was a long time ago, Little Helen; I've lived here a long, long time."
The child was satisfied and ran off to play with her sisters.
The old woman dozed by the fire.
The Irish who came to the United States by the thousands each year, eventually
adding up to millions, were a motley bunch. My mother said people categorized
them "Shanty Irish" or "Lace-curtain Irish." They suffered their share
of intolerance and spite but went on to attain their share of success
and fame, perhaps more than their share in some fields such as politics.
My Irish great grandmother was urban so never experienced the terrible
potato famine first hand although she left Ireland in the deepest famine
year, 1848. Her father worked on the docks in Dublin until an accident
caused the loss of a leg. There was no governmental assistance in those
days to cushion such a blow. The Wiggenses owned two houses. They sold
one and survived as best they could. My mother and aunts and uncles sang
a ditty that is apropos:
"Father sits around all day
Smoking his pipe of clay.
Mother takes in washings,
So does Sister Anne.
Everybody works at our house
But my old man."
My grandfather mentions that Roseanna had a sister who also came to Brooklyn
for a time. She didn't like the life here and went back. Roseanna saved
her money and went back to Ireland once but she never saw her mother again.
She died of tuberculosis just before Roseanna arrived.
The Irish immigration is a stream that hasn't yet dried up. When our
youngest daughter Mary was a graduate student at the University of Rochester
1987 - 1989, she became, and still is a good friend of Donna Mason (Bryant)
whose mother Kathleen migrated from Ireland to Boston at age 28. She was
a nurse who had trained in England. She married a dentist. They lived
in a suburb of Boston. In the summer of 1991 Stanley, Mary and I visited
them and had a wonderful personalized tour of Boston and its environs.
We also discovered a bad tire on our car. The Masons vouched for us at
their garage so we could get a new tire paying by check since we never
joined the credit card age. Sadly, both of Donna's parents died soon after.
Even casual acquaintances turn up Irish. At an Avoca Historical Society
meeting, I sat by Mary Ellen Johnson. Her conversation opener was "Grace,
do you have any Irish connections?" This was my golden opportunity to
tell Rose Anna's story one more time. Mary Ellen and her family had, just
the weekend before, gone to Radio City Music Hall to see the Irish musical
River Dance. The river of migration bursts forth, recedes, burst
forth again on and on like the River Liffey in a James Joyce novel.
Mohawk, Dutch, English, Irish—and there's more to come.