June 1990

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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Grandma "D"

My Grandmother, Harriet Harkness Dillistin, was born in 1859, the daughter of Robert and Clarinda Smith Harkness of Lawrenceburg, Pennsylvania, who moved to Sidney, Ohio, in 1860. The Harknesses were Quakers. Grandfather, who was no Quaker, and I regularly appalled Grandmother by talking at the table. That wasn't done by good Quakers.

According to Aunt Laura Florance, the Elbert Dillistin and Harriet Harkness story went something like this: About the year 1888, an acquaintance of Elbert told him of a young woman living in the then semi-wilderness of Sidney, Ohio, who was looking for a husband, and he advised Elbert to travel from Dundee to her with an offer of marriage. He "took the cars" to Sidney, convinced her to marry him at her home and return with him to the Dillistin farm on the Pre-emption Road in New York's Schuyler County.

Here she found herself living with his parents and Elbert's fragile sister, Susie. We can conjecture about life for this slightly built, gentle Quaker girl living with two men and two women, each considering themselves her master or mistress. In 1888 it was truly a man's world. Women were expected to assume herculean tasks without complaint. I can understand her strong views on personal independence that she later drilled into me.

She was a tireless worker and she raised her two daughters, Clara and Laura, to be the same. Normal work days started about 5:30 in the morning on the farm, and for the women, finished late in the evening. Water for the farmhouse came from a well under the south porch by means of a hand-cranked windlass that hoisted an oaken bucket that had filled itself through a hinged leather valve centered in its bottom. Fuel came from a huge woodpile that had been gathered the preceding winter; and light came from numerous kerosene lamps that had be cleaned, trimmed, and filled daily. Grandma said the lamps were a great improvement over the candles or whale oil lamps used a generation before. Each morning a blue and white "slop pail" along with another bucket of rinse water was carried by the women through the bedrooms to empty and rinse the chamber pots found under the beds, a practice discontinued by the time Grandfather Elbert died.

Without refrigeration, food was stored in the earth-floored cellar, some in brine, some in lard-filled crocks, much of it canned. Smoked meat at times hung in the woodshed that in summer doubled as a summer kitchen. Pancakes were the breakfast staple. The batter was made Sunday night in a large earthenware pitcher, and was simply added to as required for the rest of the week. Poultry, cared for by the women, was caught, beheaded, and dressed by the women. If there was more than one male at the table, the women continued cooking and serving until the men were fed. The hard-working men required huge amounts of food three times a day, each eating several portions at a sitting.

After the mid-day meal Grandma D often would retire to her room, change clothes, primp herself a bit, put on some small adornments, such as ear rings, and declare a quiet time. Often she talked to her children, or later her grandchildren, during this time as she coaxed them into an afternoon nap. A touch of elegance in a hard world. The quiet time over, she returned to her work.

It was whispered that Grandfather Elbert had been spoiled as an only son by his father, Israel, and Grandma accused him of being lazy so many times that he finally accepted the title graciously, and spent much of his time with his corncob pipe filled to overflowing with "Corn Cake" tobacco. The aroma permeated his rocking chair and lasted a long time after his death.

Grandma regularly admonished me to be hard working and to "make something of myself, and not be like some people she knew." I was her favorite, according to my brothers, and from age four on, I received lectures on the virtues of ambition, honesty, charity, and particularly, independence. Independence was almost a fetish with her, sometimes carried to the extreme. After a squabble with her husband or a daughter, she might say, "Never get too close to anyone or anything—they may turn, leave, or die on you." Perhaps a touch of morbid shyness, but powerful stuff to set in a young boy's mind.

This lady, raised in southern Ohio, was an avowed racist, a term unfamiliar to us, as only two black families lived in the entire township, or county, as far as I knew. This was surprising considering her Quaker background, but it was a different time and place where she was raised, and her attitude may have been the prevailing view. I did not know her prejudices until at about age fourteen I brought home Cliff Peters, a black friend, for a little impromptu music session in the parlor, Cliff being a fine saxophone player. We were living with Grandma at the time, and I guessed she was upset about something when I noticed her pacing the floor in an adjoining room, but I thought it was our noise making. Cliff knew what was wrong and left. Grandma, furious, cornered me for an hour-long lecture about my bad choice of companions and the road to ruin it would take me. Even worse, I had brought a "nigger" into her house. I tried to state my point of view but was sharply cut off. "If you persist in this you'll never amount to anything and I'll not be bothered with you, ever again." I politely said "Yes, mum" and broke off the argument that I knew I could not win. Privately I vowed to defy her but would try to avoid confrontation. Early on, Dad had discussed the subject of racism with me, he taking the opposite view from Grandmother's. I opted to go with his view.

Grandfather Elbert died in 1925 of pneumonia following a hernia operation. I was taken to his bedside in the Penn Yan Soldiers and Sailors Hospital shortly before he expired. Grandma D buried him without tears, as far as I could tell. Soon her longed for independence began.

She, now sixty-six, began to take on a new life with the same vigor she applied to her work, but now I sensed in her an underlying theme of release, a glimpse of future brightness. I helped her clean out her attic over the woodshed, putting all her "trash" to the fire I had built in the back yard. Today I groan as I think of some of the never-to-be-replaced "trash" that had I dumbly watched disappear in smoke, including great grandfathers Civil War uniform and equipment.

She turned the farm over to Dad and Mother (Grandma retained title) to let them see what they could do with it. Then shedding her offspring and a lot of her Quakerish traits, she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to live with her well-to-do widowed brother, Edwin Harkness. Revealed in her letters, and on her return trips to Dundee, were the good times and new friends she enjoyed in a new setting. Within seven years this would be interrupted when she found herself nursing Edwin, stricken with cancer, until his death in 1932.

Shaken, but still with resolve, Grandma settled Edwin's estate and moved to Long Beach, California, to live with her brother, Henry, a life-long bachelor. Again the good life resumed, revealed in a photo I have of her relaxing on a sun deck wearing a bathing suit and a sly smile—age eighty-four. Each summer she would take trains, by herself, to cross the continent for a three or four week stay in the Dundee area. My brothers and I would come from wherever we were to see her and hear the sometimes shady California jokes she would tell to amuse us boys, and outrage our mother. Grandma was well into her eighties when she made the final cross-country trip, sometime after Henry died in 1941. She lived in Dundee with her daughter, Clara, until her death in 1954 at age ninety-four.

© 1990, Edwin N. Harris
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