Friday, April 13, 2007

Laundry Day

Thinking of my maternal grandmother on this Mother's Day.

I have several things of hers in my apartment that mean a lot to me:

Her Atlantic #511 washboard, from the National Washboard Co., Chicago, Saginaw, Memphis.

Her cast iron iron. It's small, ways at least 5 pounds. You would put it on the stove burners to heat, and then use to iron clothes/sheets.

A ceramic rooster from her old kitchen.

Small dinner plates that her mother brought with her "on the boat" when she came over from Switerland.

A box hand-carved by her father.

That washboard is a testament to the realities of my grandmother's life. Regina Caroline was born in 1900 on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, to immigrant Swiss German parents. The family history is sketchy—-my mother’s generation didn’t ask questions of their parents, and by the time I was interested in knowing, it was too late.

I know my great-grandparents were painfully poor. They had 11 children, only the first and last of whom survived childhood (my grandmother being the youngest). My great-grandfather died when my grandmother was still a child, leaving great-grandma with two little girls to fend for themselves.

Grammy rarely spoke about her childhood, except in an offhand comment once that when she was still in the highchair her mother put an  iron in her hand so that she could iron handkerchiefs for one of the summer resorts in the area for pennies. And one other specific, that when she was a young girl her dog ate poison that a neighbor had put out to kill a fox, and died.  At 80 she could start crying whenever she told that story, so deep was her love for her dog.

Her history picks up when she was 18 or so. She got a job at the Forest Lake County Club, near Honesdale, as a waitress, and, in fact, a laundress. Doing the resort’s sheets by hand was not easy. Hard work, hard manual labor followed her from the farm to the resort—it was all she knew.

Grammy had a very winning personality, and it turned out that a dowager who summered at the club offered her a job in the Big City as a paid companion—which always made me think of the Second Mrs. De Winter traveling with Mrs. Van Hopper to Monaco in the film Rebecca.

Grammy was an adventurous spirit who knew there was a big world beyond her farm. She took the job, and landed on Riverside Drive at 116 Street in Manhattan (where, 7 decades later, I would find an apartment. Hmm).

She eventually got her own apartment in Brooklyn, and picked-up “day work,” cleaning apartments for the well-to-do. The years passed; when she turned 30 she had the opportunity to travel to Europe. She said to her beau, Arthur, “we get married, now, or I’m going to Europe.”

They got married.

I never met my grandfather, but it seems that married life did not turn out as Grammy was expecting. She had worked for wealthy people, and had received beautiful furniture and china as wedding gifts. She thought that she would be entertaining a lot herself, but Grandpa was a mailman who worked hard, and he wasn’t interested in much of a social life. It's also that he had been a bachelor for almost 40 years, and maybe that was too long.

My mother once told me that when she was a teenager she came upon her mother in the middle of a crying jag. I think about that sometimes. The life Grammy imagined was not her reality, even after all her will power had gotten her off the farm and into the most fabulous city in the world, where she was a success in many, many ways. She had her own money and her own bank account. She had a mailman who came home, every day (something she liked to repeat), and two little girls, but something was missing, or wasn’t right.

I loved and admire her for all her struggles—-for her strength, in surviving the pandemic influenza of 1918 (when the coffins in NY lined the streets), for her encyclopedic knowledge of the NY subway system, her life-long love of her dogs, for raising such a special daughter, for always sending money back to her sister who never left rural Pennsylvania, for playing tea party with me when I was 5 with much patience, and keeping her spirits up, even as old, old age descended on her, until at 93 she passed on.


jenrenwin said...

We are about to gift my grandmother's atlantic 511 to my aunt who was with her when she died at 88. She survived the depression in new jersey with 18 children by building a 2 room "house" in the mountains from "found" materials and raising chickens. she did her laundry by the river with her children and her wash board. I really enjoyed your post, it's nice to know there are lots of us out there with grandmother's who knew how to set an example in work ethic.