Friday, July 14, 2017

Grampa Didn't Have a Blog

July  9, 1941: showery. drew milk to Bristol, logs to mill.
July 10, 1941: "nice day. showers. got tires for truck. Hall's funeral.
July 11, 1941: "nice day. hoeing and bugging potatoes."
August 1, 1941: " nice clear day, Beulah and Lawrence married, gone north. Finished north haying. "

[Thus was the mention of my parents' wedding and honeymoon trip to Ausable Chasm in upstate New York noted along with the weather of the day and the fact that the hay crop from the north meadow was in.]

Grampa Mac didn't spill emotions onto the pages of his diaries. The facts and happenings of each day were recorded briefly, as he perceived them, with scant commentary.
For a farmer and country-dweller, weather was important and the 'weather report' served as the heading of each entry.

Many of the tasks of a dairy farmer are repeated--daily, seasonally, yearly. 
The cycles of planting, tending, harvesting, varied only slightly, crops planted on time--or not--as springtime arrived to warm the soil and the air.  A dry year, or a wet one, late frost, early frost--the blessings or difficulties of a particular season could only be taken into account, dealt with.

The Diary for 1941 is the earliest in my possession.
In July, 1941 Mac was within weeks of his 55th birthday, a widower since 1929, enumerated in the 1940 census as Head of Household, a roll assumed with the death of his father-in-law and farm partner  in the spring of 1934.

I suspect that my Grandmother Helen had been the first keeper of the diaries and that Grampa Mac assumed the roll after her death.
The entries above are typical: weather, chores, errands and the doings of the small rural community.
A bit of research turned up the details of the funeral--that of a farmer's wife living a few miles away.
Whether Grampa attended the funeral is debatable--he wasn't one for formal occasions.  

The marriage of my parents wasn't a grand occasion; she was deeply involved from girlhood in the village Congregational Church, he was a Catholic of French Canadian lineage. Their vows were pledged at the Catholic Rectory and they came home from their brief wedding trip to set up housekeeping in three rooms of the farmhouse.

Of interest is the fact that Mac always recorded the run to the milk plant, trips to town for groceries or machinery repairs as though he drove there;  Mac calmly refused to drive a vehicle--whether one of the farm tractors, the old truck or the Plymouth automobile that resided in the garage between the horse barn and the woodshed.  
He kept a team of work horses until 1963. 

In earlier years he was driven about by his father-in-law [my great grandfather] later by my mother who learned to drive in her teens.  He was often a passenger when the hired man drove 'to town'--for banking, haircuts, to the feed store. Many years later my younger sister took on the duty of chauffeur. 

Grampa Mac's penmanship was a loose scrawl, his spelling erratic and punctuation minimal Over the decades he noted when family members were 'sick'--though no details of their ailments. The progress of recovery was labeled 'not too good' or 'better.'

Visits from family or neighbors were meticulously recorded, even the to and fro treks of my sisters and I from the small house built next door. in 1949.  If one of us stayed to eat supper with him, we later created the diary entry of the day in careful schoolgirl cursive, taking dictation from Grampa, but allowed to add any small detail we felt was important.

July 8, 1957: "good bright day, hayed here and Downey's, got all was ready, showers in eve."

[The Downey family were neighbors from up Knox Hill. The three 'boys' farmed for their aging father and were usually referred to collectively as 'the Downey boys.'  The oldest of them served as Grampa Mac's hired man for many years.]

July 10, 1957: "showers, cooler, no hay, to Middlebury for mower repairs. Stopped in Brandon for supplies and boy a haircut"---[later recorded as costing 90 cents!]
"Frank [Phelps] over for a chat.  cow barn 3/4 full."

[I'm assuming he meant the area over the milking barn was now 3/4 full of baled hay.
For a few summers Mac and neighboring farmers participated in a program sponsored by the agriculture extension department whereby teenage boys from 'the city' [usually New York or New Jersey] arrived for a 2 month stay as farm help. They received room and board and a small wage.]

Not often did Grampa Mac miss an evening of jotting down the day's events. When he did, the diary pages show the printed date at the top crossed out or written over, with perhaps a bit of confusion in sorting recent happenings, one day being so similar to another.

The page headed July 9, 1957 is blank. Tues.--9--is scrawled at the top of the page for July 11. 
"Nice day, cool, hay slow, got load in eve, more drying.  mistake."
Beneath is firmly written: "Thursday July 11__1957. Showery no hay, tractor to Middlebury, 
valve trouble.
Got black heffer home--bulled." 

So much for cattle breeding records!  Mac would not have recited that bit of earthy detail for one of his granddaughters to enter.
It appears from other entries that one or more 'heffers' had been marched up the hill to the farm of "Lambert" to be serviced. 
Another arrangement was made on July 17th--"turned bull north with heffers." 

The diary for the current year was kept on the square walnut table in the farmhouse living room along with a red can of Prince Albert tobacco, an ashtray and a pipe. An assortment of ball point pens and stumpy pencils rolled about on the tablecloth. A tipple of farm magazines and Montgomery Ward catalogs flanked the wall. Grampa Mac's rocking chair was slotted alongside the window, with the table and the shelf that held the radio handy by.
Behind the rocking chair a heavy curtain covered a rank of built in shelves. The diaries for former years were stacked there in orderly fashion. 
If by chance I complained that springtime was tardy, July too hot, or the first snow falling afore-time, Grampa Mac's remedy was to take down a random sampling of diaries and suggest that I look up relevant dates for comparison.  We usually concluded that 'on average' weather and seasons were occurring within  an acceptably 'normal' range.

I page through Grampa Mac's diaries from time to time, always besieged by the tumble of memories stirred by his pithy entries. Reading the fragmented sentences, deciphering his scrawls, dredging up a sequence of events, I inhabit his familiar landscape, walk again through the rooms of the farmhouse, follow him across the pasture brook and up the rutted track that led to the blackberry thicket behind the old sugar house. 
I am reminded afresh of the part that my sisters and I played in his life. 

Sunday, December, 15, 1957
"Sharon and MC went for evergreens for wreaths." 
[He often referred to himself in the third person abbreviating his first name, 'McKenzie.'

His notes on my wedding day filled the entire page of the diary.
Saturday, June 22, 1963
"nice cool day, light shower,
James got car, fixed fence, got cows in Larry's field,
mowed thistles.
Sharon and Jimmy married tonight in church. resepshion in hall, Hague folks over,
big crowd.
2205 #'s of milk."

Grampa Mac's sister, Julia Lewis Ross, died 8 July, 1971.
His entry simply states, "Juley Ross died July 8 in Ti Hospital.'

The last diary I have is for 1973, five years before Mac's death in January, 1978. 
My next younger sister and her family were living with him in the farmhouse, my youngest sister and her husband were across the road.
Grampa Mac gardened, noted the weather, recorded the visits and doings of the family and neighbors.  His entry for June 30, 1973 poignantly records what was likely his last trip 'home' to Hague, NY.  He doesn't mention who drove him there, bumping up the grass-grown track to the old Davis Homestead.

"Went back where I was raised, Hague, NY, all grown to timber, buildings all gone. Maple tree was nice shade.  Struck by lightning, still leaning. 
Hardly [k]new place."
He noted when the swallows gathered to leave on their early autumn flight, remarked on the potato crop [good] recorded the first heavy frost on October 1st. 
In December the end of an era came when the WWII veteran who had come round twice weekly with a grocery van, retired.
Saturday, December, 22, 1973
"M. Broughton got done delivering bread and baking. Been here better than 25 years.
Good Service."

Typically December brought snow, cold days, freezing rain, minor ailments, needed repairs to make the house ready for winter.  Most days Mac recorded his health as 'half good' or 'fare.'
He affirmed that it had been a "Good Xmas, presents for all."

Grampa Mac's long life didn't take him far: there was the Davis Farm in the shadow of Tongue Mountain--the farm which had first belonged to his maternal grandfather.  With marriage he assumed partnership in the Vermont farm where he lived out his days. His bond with the land was deep, his knowledge of the seasons a storehouse of earthy wisdom.

He left a sparse but telling record for those few of us who remember where the potato patch was located on the slope across the brook;  those who were there before the 'ellums' succumbed to beetles, those who can conjure the recollection of jolting rides with 'Dick and Babe' pulling the farm wagon.
With scrawling penmanship and imaginative spelling Grampa Mac created a legacy of his hard-working devotion to family and farm. 
 He gave us the bones of stories, his stories and our own, tightly woven together.  I read his diaries now with a greater awareness of the back-story and with the knowledge of how some stories came to their ending.  I read with a sense of stories 'to be continued' as long as any of us are dedicated to finding words.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"In the Deep Dark Hills of Eastern Kentucky"

The roads of eastern Kentucky spiral up and down the mountains, twisting past the small shabby houses, sagging barns, and vintage house trailers that cling to the steep hillsides.  Many homesteads have been abandoned; rank weeds, brush and kudzu clamber over skeletons of rusting vehicles and tap at broken windows.  There are no gas stations along the roads, no 'mom and pop' stores where one might stop to buy a candy bar, a bottled drink.

When our thoughts turned to Kentucky as a potential retirement location, the eastern counties, poorest in the state, didn't figure in our considerations.
In the late 1970's Jim worked for Lord Construction, delivering and setting up coal crushers. I traveled with him on a number of runs into the coal mining areas of Kentucky and neighboring West Virginia, bracing myself  as the truck ground around sharp curves, trying not to think what might happen should a coal truck come barreling at us.  There was no escape: sheer mountain wall on one side and on the other the plunge into deep ravine.

 Jim announced that we needed a day out on Saturday. He had a mind to drive through the Daniel Boone National Forest and tour Bell and Harlan counties.
There was little traffic on the roads as we neared our destination--with the coal industry languishing-- there were no lumbering coal trucks, few people out and about in the tiny hamlets.  Most had a post office, a church or two--Missionary Baptist or Holiness/Pentecostal. 
Harlan was busy. We didn't find a proper restaurant, only a selection of 'fast food' venues. There were several 'Dollar Stores.' 
We settled for a sandwich at Arbys, before tackling yet another mountain road. I tried to follow our route, peering at signs, comparing them to the road atlas open on my lap.
We suspected that many of the roads we encountered weren't really on the map!

Rain was spattering the windshield when a curve in the road brought us alongside the above-ground workings of the Bledsoe Mining Company.
Jim took several photos through the open car window.

Even on a day of sunshine the looming mountains block the light.
Turning, we caught up a wrecker grinding its slow way up the mountain, a disabled truck in tow.  There are no opportunities to 'pass' so we trundled along behind, relieved that at the next junction the wrecker took the opposite turning from the one we needed.

Last year when we traded cars, we took our business to a Honda dealership in Somerset, a small city on the edge of the eastern Kentucky coalfields.
The two young men who saw us through the transaction had moved to the city from coal counties.  As we waited for paperwork to be processed, one of them shared something of his family background--several generations of coal miners, struggling to make a living.  Pulling out his phone, he showed us photos of the tidy house he and his wife had just purchased in an area sub-division.  He marveled that he was the first in his family to own a 'real house--not a trailer house!'

It is too easy perhaps to think of the Appalachians in cliches--the songs and stories abound of mountain tragedies: coal mining disasters, moonshine stills, family feuds carried on through generations, general poverty, a lack of good schools, available medical services. 

Since our road trip  a ballad poignantly sung  by Patty Loveless  has echoed in my head.  There are several you tube presentations, including a live performance with Patty speaking of her father's death from 'black lung,' the great killer of coal miners.
I've chosen to share  the ballad accompanied by a collection of vintage photos that someone thoughtfully arranged. 
There is one photo of a 'snake handling' ritual at a Pentecostal church--I quickly averted my gaze from that one!
Snake handlers and moonshiners make the news just often enough in Kentucky to suggest that the old ways are still with us.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Round of Domesticity

The work of keeping a home doesn't change greatly from day to day. Bedrooms must be put to rights first thing, bathrooms need cleaning--I have a 'thing' about the cleanliness of bathrooms.
There are meals to prepare followed by tidying the kitchen; I do laundry as soon as I can justify putting in another load.
Cat hair is a renewable resource in this house, insuring that the vacuum cleaner is trundled about rather frequently.
Summer adds garden chores to the daily list--plants and seedlings to be watered, ever-burgeoning weeds to combat, produce to be dealt with.
Although these tasks demand my attention and call upon my energies, they hardly seem
 worthy of mention. 
If a week passes and I can cite no creative project undertaken or completed I feel a nagging lack of accomplishment, a slightly irritated sense that I have nothing to show for my time.

We have had a spate of guests during the past several weeks; extended family needing a rest stop during their travels, friends from our former neighborhood invited for lunch and an afternoon visit.
I love to make our bedrooms ready for guests, selecting fresh sheets from the stacks in the  linen cupboard, choosing the right quilt for each bed, arranging the simple touches that make each room welcoming and serene. 
Food to prepare and share, hours of talk--catching up.
Then suddenly a quiet house and mounds of sheets and towels to be laundered and 
returned to the shelves.

During the growing season tending the garden ranks high on the list of 'things to do.'

Harvesting green beans becomes more laborious each season.  We planted our spring crops this year in such tight rows that bean picking on my knees hasn't been an option. [My knees don't appreciate such demands!]  I've therefore hung over the bean bushes, picking beans, pinching the yellow larvae of Mexican bean beetles, straightening frequently to ease the kinks in my back.
We had a bumper crop of beans--as well as a heavy infestation of bean beetles.
This evening I put on my wellies and between rain showers uprooted the tattered bushes, noting with dismay the number of yellow 'bugs' that fell from the limp leaves onto the soil.
I have declared that if we grow green beans in the future it will be a variety that can be trained onto a fence for easier harvest.

The cucumbers have out done themselves. We planted early and some of the seeds were slow to germinate.  Jim became impatient, replanted  and bought some starts of cucumbers for good measure.
For about two weeks the cucumbers were a treat. We had extra to share.
A run of mellow weather apparently suited the cucumbers and the plants went into high gear.  We have begged visitors, neighbors--anyone--to take away the cucumbers!  When we find outsize ones that have grown hidden under leaves I slice them and take them to the billy goats down the lane.
A friend's mom wanted to make pickles--we were glad to supply the raw material.
Jim learned today that our Amish neighbors had a late start on their garden and would be happy to relieve us of cucumbers.

I was pleased to find [at Wal Mart] this expandable utensil tray. It took a mere quarter of an hour to turn out the jumble of 'tools' in this drawer and create a tidy space.

Curtains destined for the upstairs double hallway stayed piled on my sewing table for nearly three weeks needing the bottom hems pressed up and stitched.
I started work on them at about 9 o'clock one evening and was finished before 11.
The next morning I washed the relevant windows, hung the curtains and was very pleased with the effect.  This reminded me that every window in the house [there are nearly 30] was in need of washing.  I bundled an armload of dusty curtains down to the laundry, rummaged out windex and paper towels, dragged a kitchen chair from window to window.  Jim showed me how to pop out the lower sash so that the outside of the glass could be cleaned.  In theory the upper sash is meant to slide down and tilt out--my one attempt at that needed Jim to thump the window back in place with considerable force.
Gleaming window glass, curtains line-dried, carefully pressed;  tiring work but a visible reward for the effort.  There are 9 windows with their curtains yet to be done.

I bargined on ebay for indoor/outdoor fabric to make cushions for our new Amish-crafted porch rockers.
The chair-maker offered cushions at $50 per set--thick wedges of foam covered [by his wife] in the ubiquitous bright blue polyester fabric favored by the local Amish.  I announced that I would prefer to make my own. We opted for much flatter cushions. My investment of $60 included a roll of 1 inch foam, the colorful fabric with enough left to recover the cushion on the wicker loveseat. A few hours spent drafting templates from newspaper  and constructing the cushions leaves me satisfied that I have put my own creative touch on the chairs.

We're finding that the chairs lure us to the porch: to take a break from work, iced tea or perhaps dessert on the little table between us.  I sit there with a book, raising my eyes to watch the hummingbirds when they whir in to sip from the feeders hanging a few feet away.

My burst of creative housekeeping--not necessarily the stuff that makes for good reading--has inspired me. After a lull in all but mundane tasks, I think I am rebooted, looking forward to tackling a number of projects which have languished for want of the best use of time and energy. 
It may be that I need to list these domestic accomplishments, simply to assure myself that I can still make things happen!

Monday, July 3, 2017

"Keeping House"

Rising Homestead in West Hague, NY

Ann R: Age 39; Wife; Keeping House
Thus reads the 1880 census entry for my great-great-grandmother, Ann Rebecca.

Housekeeping was likely a practice of strict economy in rented housing during the years of Ann Rebecca's marriage to my g-g-grandfather, Henry Ross. Wed in 1854 the young couple are listed in the 1855 Bolton, New York census as part of his parents' household. Ann was age 16, Henry was 20 and listed as 'child' of the head of household, while Ann was designated as 'child-in-law.'

The 1860 census poses an interesting view of the extended Ross family--one that has led a few researchers to wildly inaccurate conclusions.
 On 6th July, 1860, the Ross home in Bolton, NY [previously described as a log house of 'no value'] was teeming.
In addition to parents Valorus and Fannie Ross, three young married couples were in residence, at least on the day of enumeration.
Henry and Ann with their 2 year old daughter, Emma; Sarah [Ross] and husband Thomas Baker with 3 month old son, Horton Baker; Harley Ross and wife Mary, both age 19.
The household also included Henry's younger brother and sister. 
All four of the married women were listed as 'house keeper' while the three younger married men gave their occupation as 'lumbering.'

Three weeks later on 31st July,  Henry and Ann were enumerated in Schroon, NY, a few miles away in an adjoining county.  Next door to them was the household of Thomas and Sarah Baker. 
I wonder: did the census taker for Bolton happen upon the Ross home with family gathered for the 4th of July holiday?  Perhaps Henry Ross and Thomas Baker were transferring at the time to the 'lumbering' job in Schroon and the parental home was a stop along the way? 

The birth month for Ann and Henry's older son, Amos, is traditionally given as July, 1860. 
This being correct, Ann would have been heavily pregnant or the birth very recent, although the infant Amos is not included in either listing.
I can imagine the crowded conditions, the untidiness, the early summer heat endured as the four women attempted their housekeeping; even though I assume a temporary situation, my heart yearns after them, coping as they were with men to feed, small children fussing, soiled laundry piling up.

Keeping house in Schroon at least eased the situation of over-crowding for Ann Rebecca, although a young single man is listed there as a 'boarder.'
Perhaps this move indicated the first time that Henry and Ann had 'set up housekeeping' away from his parents' residence.  Their housing may have been 'tied' to the lumbering job, company owned and poorly maintained.  Possibly Henry and Ann shared a house with the Bakers with Ann and her sister-in-law, Sarah keeping house as a team, a comfort to each other during the long days when their husbands were toiling through the heat and the swarms of 'black flies' that are a significant factor of summer in the Adirondacks.

When the census was enumerated on 14 June, 1870, Henry and Ann were living in a rented house in Ft. Edward, NY.  Henry was employed in a local sawmill; his 'personal estate' was valued at $150. Daughter Emma was 13, Amos 9, Eddie, 6.
A year later, in June, 1871, Henry, age 36, died leaving Ann Rebecca, age 32, a widow with three children. 
The following several years were difficult ones for Ann and her family.
Henry's parents, now in their 60's, had vacated the run-down log house in Bolton and were living in Ft. Edward, dependent on what Valorus earned working at a livery stable.
Thomas Baker, in pain from a badly healed hip wound during his service in the Civil War, worked in a sawmill, perhaps the same one where Henry was last employed. The Bakers shared a home with Sarah's younger sister Elvira and her husband Charles Southworth.

In 1875 Ann Rebecca, age 35 lived in the home of her mother and stepfather.  Emma, age 18, was employed as 'domestic servant' in the home of a jeweler.  Amos had found a position with the in-laws of Ann's younger sister.
I have not found [g-grandfather] Eddie age 12, in the 1875 census, though I assume that he was staying with extended family.

When a family provider died leaving a widow and children, the household was often 'broken up' as grandparents or other relatives might be unable to take on the support of the entire family. 
Ann is listed as 'domestic servant' in 1875.  The designation is ambiguous--was she merely helping in her mother's household or was she 'going out to work' for those who could afford household help.

Left rear: Amos Ross, Emma Ross, Henry Rising, Minnie Jane Rising.
Seated: Ann Rebecca Andrews Ross-Rising, Rufus Rising, Jr.
Missing from the family photo is Ann's younger son, Eddie.

 In 1877 life changed dramatically for Ann Rebecca when she became the second
 wife of Rufus Rising. The wedding took place at the home of Ann's mother and step-father.

Rufus in the preceding 18 months had lost a toddler daughter, with his wife Mary's death following within the year.
The Rising family were well established in Hague, NY, described as 'prosperous' with income from the home farm, timber lots, interest in a sawmill.
Rufus inherited the spacious and well-kept farmhouse that had belonged to his parents.
Ann Rebecca may have had few of her own possessions to carry with her to the comfortably furnished  house with its wide front porch and white-washed picket fence.

The 1880 census for Hague listed the blended household:  Rufus, 54; Ann 39; Henry and Minnie Rising, ages 18 and 15 respectively--children of Rufus's first marriage.  Edna, age 2, was the product of Ann and Rufus's union. Amos and Eddie Ross, ages 19 and 17 were in residence and working on the home farm.
I can image Ann Rebecca's quiet joy as she settled into keeping house in her 'forever' home, the sense of security as extreme frugality was replaced with the assurance of a deep pantry.   I picture her finding her place in a hamlet where her 2nd husband's family had been established for several generations. 
How long did it take to win the confidence and respect of her step-children?
Henry has been described by those who knew him well as a rather self-important being, his entrepreneurial efforts as an adult cushioned by his father's standing in financial matters.
Minnie Jane was 'delicate' and likely more affected by her mother's death and the loss of that tiny sister than her brother had been. Did she welcome her step-mother and the arrival of another sister the year after her father's marriage?
Minnie Jane was on the cusp of her teens when Ann became part of the family and it would have been her task to share with her step-daughter the arts of home making.

Family stories suggest that young Eddie Ross was not always a part of his step-father's household--that he may have worked for a time in his own father's trade of lumberman.
In April of 1883 a month past Minnie Jane Rising's 18th birthday she became the bride of Eddie Ross who had turned 20 earlier in the year. 
The wedding was a shared occasion with Amos Ross and his bride, Belle Woodcock.
Eddie and Minnie Jane continued in the household of her father and his mother.

Eddie and Minnie Jane [Rising] Ross with daughter Helen and infant son, Lawrence circa 1890.

Eddie and Minnie Jane's daughter Helen was born 10 September,1884, 18 months after their marriage.
No doubt Minnie Jane found comfort in the presence of her step-mother, Ann Rebecca as she learned the ways of motherhood; hopefully they were in accord as joint keepers of the home.
A son, Lawrence was born  6 May, 1889.
When Lawrence was 2 months shy of his second birthday Minnie Jane died giving birth to the baby girl who would be named for her. 

Minnie Jane's death on her 26th birthday, left Ann Rebecca, now in her early 50's, not only keeper of the home but with the responsibility of three young children in addition to her own daughter Edna, now a school girl of 11 years.
 Eliza Bartlett, a quiet neighbor girl of 18 came to help soon after Minnie Jane's death, easing the burden of housekeeping which had fallen on Ann Rebecca. Thirteen months later she and Eddie were married.
I have told her story here. Eliza's Story

Ann Rebecca spent the rest of her life as chatelaine of the comfortable white farmhouse, keeping house with her daughter-in-law, Eliza, who shared the responsibility of nurturing another generation in the craft of making a home. 

 Ann Rebecca with daughter in law, Eliza and grand daughters Minnie and Helen
Ann Rebecca died, age 72 on 8 June, 1911.

Her obituary stated: "A large attendance at the funeral of Mrs. Rufus Rising of West Hague, who was buried Friday.  The deceased was a very friendly woman, and her loss is deeply deplored as she was greatly respected and loved by all who knew her."

Our recent span of cooler days has inspired me to tackle several 'housekeeping' tasks in addition to the usual things that need doing to keep us reasonably tidy.
As I've worked I've pondered this designation of 'keeping house.'

For generations it has been assumed that a young woman [and many were very young!] brought to the marriage certain basic skills, learned from the women of her own family. 
She needed to know how to prepare meals, [tend a wood-fired cook stove, bake good bread, prepare wild game or home-butchered meat, deal with garden produce.]  Hopefully, even a bride in her mid teens could darn a sock, sew on buttons, churn butter, care for a flock of hens.  Most newly married couples spent at least the first years living in  the home of the young man's parents, and the young woman, sharing duties of the household with her mother-in-law, would expand her range of skills, until the day came when, in a home of her own, she might be known as one who had 'a light hand with pastry' or such a fine housekeeper that 'you could eat off her floors!'  A woman's standing in family and neighborhood was in large part dependent on her proficiency at keeping house.

An unmarried woman might teach school or take in sewing, she might work for a time as a 'domestic servant' for a family who could afford the luxury of hired help.  Once wed, her duty was to care for husband and children.
Membership in their local church gave many women an opportunity to shine--to hostess the Ladies' Aide Society meeting, to labor on the committee who organized the annual strawberry festival or harvest supper. 
The expectations and opportunities for women were slow to change.

My mother and Jim's were both born in 1919. Both were college educated. Both young women were still single when the census was enumerated in 1940.
My mother's occupation is listed as 'school teacher.'
Jim's mother is listed as 'trained nurse, working in hospital.'

Vermont birth certificates in the 1940's had a space to enter the occupation of both parents.
In spite of their professional standing while single, on our respective birth certificates from the mid 1940's our mothers are designated 'house wife.'

My mother continued to teach for two years after marriage.  In the mid 1950's with the younger of my two sisters about to enter first grade, mother prepared to resume teaching. At the time she was certified, the requirement for teaching grades 1-8 had been a two year course at the local 'normal school.'  Mother, along with several of her teacher contemporaries, attended summer or evening classes to update their qualifications.  During this time she began teaching music in several of the area one-room schools.  Her return to full time teaching was interrupted by bouts of ill health, but she continued for many years to teach music--her first love--both in the public school and as a private instructor of piano and organ.  She also served for many years as church pipe organist and choir director. 
Jim's mother had achieved her training as a practical nurse before the United States entrance into WWII prompted upheavals and changes to her plans. 
She was in her early 50's when she returned to her alma mater and embarked on the two year course which resulted in her degree as a Registered Nurse.  She worked for a time at New England Sanitarium, preferring the 3-11 shift. When semi-retirement took Jim parents south for the winter months, they returned each summer, and she worked again at a local hospital often serving as 'charge nurse' on her evening shift.

'Keeping house' as a life work has fallen out of favor in recent decades, but ironically even career woman with high paid jobs still own the major responsibility for keeping home and family in order.
The term 'home maker' gives a bit more grace as a title.

My thoughts have brought me to a concept of 'tending the home'--maintaining implies a sense of needed responsibility, but tending conveys a feeling of carefully creating a refuge, a place of familiar and beloved spaces, of good meals, inviting bedrooms, a welcoming place to enfold the family at the end of a day.
We can take a class in gourmet cookery, learn to make curtains and cushions, figure out how to shop wisely, stretch the budget. 
Keeping house well means acquiring skills, learning old ways and new;  there's no certification, no degree--other than that of satisfaction in realizing we are encouraging each other in the age old arts of caring for a family.