Who would have ever imagined how getting up at six-thirty, eating dinner at eleven-thirty in the morning and supper at four-thirty, and having "lunch" before bed would shape my entire life!
As I was growing up, I was taught that work never hurt anybodythus the reason for getting up early every morning. When my father worked, everybody worked. My dad, Rube La Pier, used to say, "You cant get nothin done laying in bed all day." I tried that approach with my own children but it just didnt seem to have the same meaning.
I attended a small school, where early on I was thought a little "different." I was the only girl who wore flannel-lined pants under her skirt, and the other kids didnt know that it was my chore, before school, to go to the hen house and gather the eggs. Those hens would lay even when it was freezing cold outside.
My grandmother was Mrs. Viola White La Pier. We were, as she would say, "tight as bark to a tree." I loved every minute of every day that I was with her. Grandma would cut wool triangles and I would string them into long strings. Later on she taught me how to put them all together in a quilt.
She taught me that berrying is serious business. You put the berry pail on your beltthat way, you have two hands free to pick with. Now make sure the dew has dried before going out. Grandma wore pants on this occasionright up over the dress, apron and all. The running berries were just as important as the high-bushed ones to pick: thats why God made you so close to the ground. Grandma was under five feet tall; I beat her by two inches.
Where I lived, on the top of West Mountain, out of Corinth, there was a little community consisting of my parents home on one side, my grandmothers house right across the road through the field, and down over the bank was my Uncle Henry La Pier and Aunt Jimmy. I made a well-used path between these three homesteads. We also had some great neighbors who held box partiessquare dances in their kitchensand kept a pretty close eye on what I was doing, just in case they thought it necessary to call Mom and let her know what I was up to.
Ruby Marcotte teaches her granddaughter Jennifer about quilting by showing her the details in a quilt made by Rubys grandmother. Photo: Laura Chessin.
We were very self-sufficient when I was a child. My father was a farmer at heart even though he had a full-time job at the International Paper company. We raised and butchered pigs. I still hate that sound of a squealing pig. Have you ever wondered how heavy a pail full of pig slop is for a little girl trying to dump it in the pig trough? But that was certainly no excuse for not doing it. The pigs gotta eat, right?
We had a cow, too, from which I learned a very valuable lesson. I never liked to wear shoes. The worst thing about having to go somewhere was having to dress my feet. My Dad had told me not to go into the cow barn without my shoes on. I must have "forgot" that one day. Dad came running when he heard me scream for help. I was milking and the cow stepped right on my bare foot. Well, as Dad knew, cows wont pick up their feet, and he had to scrape the cows hoof off the top of my foot, hide and all. I think I wore my shoes in the cow barn from then on.
We always had chickens and lots of eggs. When the day came to kill the chickens, it was a family affair that everyone worked at. Most things around my house everybody worked at together. Grandma always said, "Many hands make light work." My family saw to it that I learned the whole job, not just one part of it. If it became necessary, I would still be able to cut the head off a chicken, scald it in buckets of hot water, singe the pin feathers off, clean it, and cut it up. We could do about twenty-five hens in a day. But please dont close the supermarkets.
I used to spend a lot of time with Aunt Jimmy and Uncle Henry, who owned their own sawmill. Grandma and I spent a lot of time in the lumber camp. I remember when she was "helping" into camp and a stick came right up and hit her in the forehead, requiring several stitches. She was over seventy. My uncle never could figure out how she got such a clean gash from a gnarly stick when it resembled the bit of an axe so much. Alongside my aunt I could use a peavey, take tailings from the saw, and once in a while have the fun of riding out into the lumberyard on the trolley. My Aunt Jimmy had a cleft palate, and sometimes I just had to listen a little harder. She taught me the meaning of humor. I could always count on her to have wrapped, someplace in my presents, tubes that jumped out at me. I always got the same crystal glass that leaked. I played along: no sense in hurting her feelings and spoiling her fun.
I think all of us La Pier women have had our turn on the mowing machine and the hay rake. Dad always said I was good at making the load. I think it was just because he started me so little that I couldnt reach the top of the wagon with my pitchfork. We are still using the same mowing machine and hay rake today. The only difference is we now use Dads 47 Willys instead of horses. I think gas is cheaper than feeding a horse, and its a whole lot less work.
While Dad was teaching me life skills (you never know when you might need to change an engine in a 47 Willys), my Mom was showing me about independence. Mom worked hard on the farm, doing chores, and she also worked at the school cafeteria for twenty-five years. I watched her go from being a bread-and-butter girl to cafeteria manager. She liked her job and it showed. She raised her family, took care of the house, but also managed to be independent. She loved to travel and didnt think twice about chaperoning a group of high schoolers to England, flying to Germany to see a new granddaughter, or traveling snowy roads to attend the cafeteria meeting fifty miles away.
At retirement age, much to my fathers dismay"Women dont do woodworking," he saidshe took a course and went on to make a beautiful dry sink, a china cabinet, and jelly cupboard, and hundreds of other wooden items. It was inspiring to see her venture out into what was considered a mans world. During World War II both my mother and my grandmother worked in the paper mill. The men had gone off to war so the mill needed women. Suddenly it wasnt important that it was "mans work."
I am proud that photographs of Grandma appear on the Adirondack Women poster and booklet. You can see a picture of my mom, Frances, riding the mowing machine and makin a load of hay on a horse-drawn wagon. The picture of my Aunt Jimmy is her shoveling off the ice before my Dad and Uncle Hank cut it for delivery to the nearby lumber camps.
I have been truly blessed by the women in my family, and I have tried to pass along some of their teachings to my daughter Roette. She has a good head on her shoulders and is raising a family of girls and isnt afraid to think for herself and take risks as need be. I have already taught my oldest granddaughter how to quilt on my treadle machine. And I have four more to pass along knowledge to. The best that I could ever hope for is that they love me as much as I loved and cherished my grandmother.
|Ruby La Pier Marcotte is historian for the Town of Day and assistant director of the Black Crow Network, which supports regional folk culture in the Mohawk-Champlain corridor and eastern Adirondacks.
A slightly different version of this reminiscence was published in Adirondack Women Then and Now, October 24, 1998, by Black Crow Network.
Grandma always said, “Many hands make light work.”
My family saw to it that I learned the whole job, not just one part of it.
This article appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Spring-Summer 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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