Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Eliza's Story

Eddie and Eliza's marriage certificate.
Back row: Lawrence; Minnie; Helen;

Front row: Eliza; Harold; Eddie.

Standing: Eliza; her MIL, Ann.

Seated: Eliza's step-daughters, Minnie and Helen.
circa 1910 at the home in upstate New York .

Early 1920's

Eddie and brother, Amos.

Eliza and SIL Belle.

circa 1930

Eliza and Eddie in front of the Vermont farmhouse.

My Favorite photo of them.

She wasn't a pretty woman. The earliest photo I have of her is a formal pose taken on the day of her 1892 marriage to my great-grandfather, Eddie. Her photo and his are part of an elegantly embellished marriage certificate. Eliza is gowned in a light colored suit with darker deep cuffs and yoke, probably of velvet. The fitted jacket has a row of large dark buttons down the front. Her matching full skirt has side pleats caught in a draped band. For the occasion of her wedding the front of her hair has been cut in a full bang and frizzed with a curling iron. She was not yet 20 when she became Eddie's second wife. He was nearly 10 years older, a father of three. Thirteen months earlier the birth of their third child had cost the life of his delicate first wife, my great grandmother.

The second marriage of Eddie's mother, Ann, to a widower, had made her sons, Amos and Eddie, a part of the close-knit Adirondack hamlet where Eliza would have grown up seeing Eddie and his family at church and neighborhood doings. After his first marriage Eddie continued to share the large white farmhouse on the hill with his mother and step-father--who became his father-in-law as well.

Suddenly this grieving household had to manage a motherless newborn, an active little boy not quite 2, and a serious big sister of 7. The handed down stories don't include the date when Eliza was called upon to help. I would guess that it was fairly soon. At first she may have come daily to the house to help with cooking and cleaning and child care. She may have been immediately asked to stay at the big house, bringing her clothing, her work basket, her sewing. By the time the NY census was enumerated in early 1892 she was considered part of the household. She was small and plain, gentle, patient and quietly competant. Her soft-spoken presence would have made no disturbance in that sorrowing family. I wonder: did she make friends first with the little girl who was old enough perhaps to understand that her mother would not be returning? Did she keep a watchful eye on that little boy who had so recently learned to walk and must be kept from mischief? Undoubtedly she washed diapers and ironed dresses for the tiny baby girl. How long before the family began to know her, not as a young woman whose parents were part of the rural community, but as someone whose ways were becoming a familiar and valued part of their lives? How many months passed before Eddie's natural sense of fun began to re-assert itself? How soon did he realize that he wanted Eliza to stay, to become his second wife?

Eliza's younger sister, Bessie, and Eddie's half-sister, Edna, both in their teens, signed the marriage certificate as witnesses. Perhaps they took over Eliza's household tasks for a few days so that Eddie and Eliza could enjoy a brief wedding trip before she moved her clothing, her dresser set, her hairpins, her personal treasures into Eddie's bedroom. Eliza was by then a cherished member of the household, familiar with their foibles, secure in her contribution to daily life. Her clean calico aprons hung on the same peg by the pantry door; she walked as usual to meet Helen after school, took Lawrence with her when she went outside to fetch clean laundry from the clothes line. She held her arms wide toward Minnie as the baby took her first stumbling steps. It would be more than 5 years before Eliza's son, her only child, was born.

On Saturdays she helped Ann with the preparation of baked beans and brown bread, made the pies for Sunday dinner. In the summer they canned fruit, sat on the back porch together to shell peas, sharing the care of the blended family. Eliza, whose voice could barely be heard on the Sunday hymns, stitched and mended, sitting near the glow of a lamp, while Helen played the piano. Lawrence learned the violin and eventually Minnie joined her sister at the piano. Eddie sang, his mellow tenor filling the parlor. Eddie and Eliza and their children remained a part of that joined household for more than 20 years. Eliza became the church treasurer, while Eddie taught Sunday school and chaperoned a youth group. Eddie's mother, Ann, died in 1911, just prior to Minnie's marriage to a young man who lived on the adjoining farm. Eddie's step-father's death followed in July, 1912.
By late autumn, Eddie had purchased a farm of his own across Lake Champlain in Vermont. Soon after the turn of the year the move was made. Lawrence divided his time between the farm and his job in Ticonderoga, NY. Helen's fiance rode the ferry across the lake to visit as often as he could before their Christmas time wedding in 1913. True to his word, Eddie made his son-in-law, Mac, a partner in the farm. Eliza and Helen, long accustomed, worked easily together in the narrow kitchen with its window that looked toward the big east meadow. In the evenings, especially on the weekends when Lawrence was there, this house, too, rang with music.

Lawrence went to war, didn't come back. The family celebrated Harold's marriage, wishing that Lawrence was there---not knowing yet of his death a week earlier in France. His fiancee came to weep, pouring out her heart, as Eliza sat with her in the warm kitchen, peeling potatoes, patting out biscuit dough, trying to spare Helen, pregnant with her second child. Gently she told Letha, "You must move on. Lawrence would have wanted that."

Eliza helped care for Mac and Helen's son Billy, delighted over the new baby, my mother. Helen's health, never the equal of her enthusiasm for life, declined. With Helen's death when my mother was 9, Eliza was once again the surrogate mother, taking over the raising of children who were not of her blood, but very much of her heart.

Eliza managed the house, fretted over Billy's uncertain health and shy ways. She boarded the school teacher, made the plaid gingham dresses my mother, Beulah, wore to school, taught her to use the treadle sewing machine, encouraged and corrected in her wise and quiet manner. In speaking of those years my mother said once of Eliza, "My grandfather adored her."
By the spring of 1934 only Eliza and her son-in-law, my Grampa Mac remained of the original partnership.

My parents created a three room apartment in the farmhouse when they were married. My younger sister and I learned that Grandma's kitchen was a welcoming place. When I shut my finger in the screen door, she made bandages of gauze, tied in a bow over a coating of Raleigh's salve. Her touch was so light, her manner so calm that I didn't think to cry. Eliza's fine hair was white now, wisps of it escaped from her hairpins and blew in her face when she sat on the front porch with my mother while they hemmed pinafores or darned socks. With my mother's third pregnancy we were out-growing the three rooms at the back of the farmhouse and a new house began to take shape a few hundred yards along the road. Through the dusty golden weeks of that autumn I walked beside my mother, my sister, barely 3, clinging to her other hand. We watched the little house taking shape, then returned to the familiarity of Grandma Eliza's kitchen.
We moved into the unfinished house just weeks before my youngest sister's arrival. My mother, weary and uncomfortable, watched from the front steps as I carried a well wrapped cake plate next door to where Grandma Eliza waited on her back porch. It was my 5th birthday and Grandma would make my cake. My baby sister was born a week later.

With our mother recuperating from childbirth and trying to settle into a new house, my sister and I were often at the farmhouse for a part of the day. Sometimes Grandma Eliza phoned our mother to say that we would have supper there and our dad could fetch us home after. We were there waiting for him to collect us on the evening a month and a day after my birthday, when looking toward the dining room from our game in the parlor, we saw Grandma Eliza suddenly standing still, a dish towel clutched to her chest. My uncle was at her side in an instant, my grandfather Mac was out of his chair by the radio. Suddenly our father was coming in from the yard, hustling us into coats and hats.

I woke in the night in the room I shared with my sister. Lights were on in that still unfamiliar house. When I crept downstairs, a young neighbor woman whom we loved was there. She explained that my grandmother was sick and that my parents, taking the baby with them, had gone next door to be with Grandma Eliza. She offered to read to me, but I trudged back up to bed, mute, with an odd sense of something wrong. The memory of Grandma Eliza's stricken face, the way my uncle held her arm, spoke of something outside my experience.

The next days were strange. When we were briefly allowed next door Grandma Eliza was not there. People we didn't know came and went. Flowers stood in large baskets and vases. It was a week or so before I knew that Eliza's presence was forever gone away. It was then that my tears broke in a flood.
It was years before I realized how deep my mother's grieving must have been. Eliza had been both mother and grandmother for her. In speaking of this time many years later my mother still worried that she had allowed grandma to do too much for us. Remembering that quiet lady, having learned more about her, I expect that it was as she wished--her long life was spent in caring for others, those children, grandchildren and great grandchildren--not of her blood and bone, but of her warm and loving heart.


  1. What an amazing story was a really good read. isn't it great to have such amazing photos to go with your tale. The Wedding Cert is beyond words .... I have NEVER come across anything like it before... so beautiful.

    I have been looking up Wyoming (and New England) so I could get a feel for your home ....Wow ... one of the largest States and with the least people.!!...and one of the homes of the Shoshone.The Native Americans and their history fascinate me ...wish i knew more.

  2. Angie, I am so glad you enjoyed Eliza's story and left a comment. These tales have rolled about in my mind for years. If I had more time and better tech skills I might have two blogs--one for family history and one for day to day.
    I am fascinated by other people's history and photos, so I'm pleased that readers are responding to the postings about my family.
    The marriage cert. is really beautiful--large--about 12" wide by 16" long. It was languishing with the ragged quilt and the glass was broken. I simply took it! A frame shop in town repaired the original frame and put in protective glass. The copperplate script on the cert had faded and I need to copy the details on a card for the back. Wish I had your skills for mounting and embellishing photos--getting anywhere near glue is for me a disaster.

  3. Basic scrapping is not hard but very addictive.If you think I am good you should look at some who are really good but sometimes their photos are lost in the art of it all. I have a simple style but my technique has gradually improved.

    Keep the stories rolling ...I look forward to reading more.It might be worth you doing a seperate FH Blog.

    Thanks for continuing to visit my blog

  4. One rare, fair woman, as Thomas Hardy would have said. A quite remarkable woman in fact, to take on what she did - so much responsibility at so tender an age. Thank you for telling us about her, and with such wonderful photographs too, and it ties in nicely with those lovely quilt blocks that you re-set.

  5. What a wonderful story, I have so enjoyed reading this. Eliza sounds like the kind of mother and grandmother that everyone dreams of - I hope she knew how much she was loved. From your writing I feel sure that she did and she still lives on in the hearts of those who knew her.

  6. I think that Eliza did know she was appreciated. My late mother and I both were given her name as a middle name--surely a tribute from the two generations she helped to raise. She must have had some human faults, but the stories that have been handed down portray a quiet, even-tempered and serious woman.
    Your interest and comments warm my heart!