Monday, March 1, 2010

Esther Jane

The front of the Lewis home in Shoreham, VT. A trumpet vine climbs heavy wires on the side porch.  In the tiny garden between the side steps and the front porch is a white Scotch rose, Oriental poppy, a peony.  Barn swallows build their mud-daubed nests under the side porch rafters.  Esther Jane merely placed cardboard boxes under the nests to catch the mess when the birds were raising their young, and moved the porch chairs out of the way.  Sitting there with her in the evening we watched the swallows swoop and dive about the yard, catching insects to cram into the endlessly open maws of the nestlings.

The attached shed at the side of the old house. Esther Jane tended bees as had her father.  The shed smelled of coal, of honey, of old timbers.
Esther Jane Lewis was born March 1, 1909.  Her parents had been married for a decade and by then expected that they would likely remain childless.  Esther Jane chuckled as she recalled being told that they had been sure this child, coming well past their "first youth" would be a boy--to be called Peter.  Esther Jane's mother, daughter of an old area family, had been a school teacher until her hearing failed after a succession of bad ear infections.  Rose Lewis was a seamstress of rare ability and turned her talents to custom dressmaking. Esther Jane learned to sew, by hand and on her mother's treadle machine.  After her death I acquired a tattered hand peiced quilt from her old home.  I picked apart the blocks, separating them from the disintegrating batting, saved the best of them and found a blue calico print which had a vintage look to use as alternate setting squares.  One of the blocks was signed. "Esther Jane Lewis, made in her 9th year."

Esther Jane trained at the New England Sanitarium in Melrose, Massachusetts, taking several years due to financial constraints to attain her degree as a registered nurse. She did hospital nursing and private duty home care. She also helped her father in the bee-keeping business.
Although she never married she loved children, especially little girls. The casing of her sitting room door was scored with years of pencil marks where visiting children had been measured for height and their names and the dates inscribed.

I met Esther Jane when our 4-H club went to her home for a lecture on bee-keeping. At the close of the lecture we trouped into the house for a feast of home made biscuits with butter and honey.
We became friends many years later when Esther Jane was in her 70's and I in my late 30's, as by then we were attending the same church.  Several friends from the same congregation had young daughters and we were all frequent Saturday evening guests at the old house.  I played the wheezing parlour organ and we sang.  Esther Jane read to us--stories clipped from old magazines or bits from whatever delightful non-fiction book was currently on the table by her chair.  She popped corn for us, using an old wire popper, opening the door of the coal stove and shaking the kernals over the red embers.  
In the summer we went blueberrying, in her vintage car [an adventure!] or in my truck.

I wrote the following essay at a writer's retreat in Wentworth, New Hampshire.  It was printed on the program for her memorial service.

for Esther Jane
Dew clings to a dusty cobweb stretched over stubble, a tiny net of gems in the ditch.  Esther Jane paws with her palsied right hand for her old straw bonnet and the peanut butter pail, retrieves her cane from the back seat of her faded red Subaru.
I grab the flask of chamomile tea, my buckets, the bug spray, and we pick our way, a procession of two, toward the place of blueberries.  The first bushes are only a lure; small blue beads strung on twiggy stems which grasp at our ankles as we pass. Esther Jane's cane thumps the cadence of our progress like a muffled metronome, as we wind our slow way up the slope. The hilltop is already warming into the heat of an August day.  Insects dart, shimmering, on whirring metalic wings.
Esther Jane fills her peanut butter bucket, the berries with their dusky bloom rattling down through her old fingers.  I prowl farther seeking the clumps of huckleberries which glow inky black among all the blue, and return with my plunder to Esther Jane.
We sip our tea and rest in the ripeness of noonday warmth.  The white-throated sparrows sing their descant over the faraway throb of a farm tractor, their melody a chain of liquid silver notes dropping lightly over the familiar earth-bound sounds. Somewhere a dog barks.  A car drops into low gear to climb the dusty mountain road.  A dragonfly hovers.  Esther Jane sings in her strong cracked contralto, "Praise God, from whom all blessings flow."
I sprawl on my side in the springy cushion of the hillside, content. "I'll watch you," says Esther Jane, "if you'd like to sleep." 
One of the bedrooms in Esther Jane's house.
She lived in the most careful economy, especially during her last years at home, hoarding coal, confiding her fear of poverty only to her diary.  Having no younger kin, she left her estate to the church she had loved life-long.  When the contents of the house were auctioned, many thousands of dollars were realized.  The sale of even a few vintage pieces during her lifetime would have kept her comfortably.
Having lived with these belongings all her life, I wonder if it occured to her that they had such a monetary value. Perhaps she knew, and simply enjoyed keeping her familiar things about her.


  1. What a lovely lady she sounded and how sad that she should have eked out her final years, in fear of running out of fuel, money, whatever. I bet you never pick a blueberry or a huckleberry without thinking of her . . .

  2. What a delightful story and what a wonderful peep into this lady's home, I loved it!

  3. what a lovely story ... told with such warmth.
    re her belongings ..she may not have realized their worth.I remember breaking a beautiful bowl when I was in my early teens ..we used it to pop odds and ends in....Mum just said 'never mind, its old' Years later I found out that it was probably worth several hundreds of pounds ...I never told her.

  4. Hullo MM,

    'A procession of two'

    Beautiful, and a hundred pictures.


  5. Esther Jane sounds such a nice lady, how sad that she spent her last years worrying about financial issues. I'm pretty sure she wouldn't have sold her well loved possessions unless she was very desperate, they would have been too full of memories.

  6. This is an incredibly wonderful posting. Wow! You've written so beautifully about her. And the pictures make it perfect. I think there are many older people like this. My aunt died with nothing. Yet she had sent birthday cards with small bills enclosed to all her many, many relatives every year.

  7. I grew up knowing Esther Jane, as she was my Mum's dearest friend whom she went to nursing school with. We spent many long weekends at Esther Jane's house. When I was little she would dress me up in a bee suit and I would go out with her to tend her bees out behind the barn. My 4 older siblings got to each spend 2 weeks with Esther Jane at different summers. I loved her dearly and I loved her house. From about the age of 10 every time we went over to see Esther Jane I would play her pump organ to my hearts delight. When we were toddlers we had our baths in a big aluminium tub that was set in front of her big stove in the kitchen. She didn't have indoor plumbing till I was about 13 yrs old. Esther Jane was very special to my family! A very precious lady!! She was Family!!!!

    1. Dear Unknown; Its very possible that I would recognize your name. I have a few of Esther jane's diaries, as well as memories of her conversations re the visits of long time friends.


Word verification necessary at this time