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Voices Spring-Summer 2006:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “A Grandmother’s Legacy” by Virginia M. Scida here.
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Voices cover SS2006


Volume 32

A Grandmother's Legacy by Virginia M. Scida

More than forty years ago, on a cold February day, I rode along the Susquehanna River for the first time. It was a bright, sunny morning, and the banks of the river were draped in a blanket of sparkling snow. I remember thinking as we traveled through the area, leaving the river behind, how breathtakingly beautiful upstate New York was. We passed through little villages, including Sydney and Gilbertsville, with chimney smoke rising above the steep-roofed houses and pine trees with spatulated branches holding the newly fallen snow. Someday, I said to myself, I’ll come back here. In a kind of reverse family migration, I did.

My grandmother was a little Irish woman, whose family left the home country to escape the Irish potato famine. None of our family is sure just where my great-grandparents landed in the United States. I was told once that they came through New Orleans. My mother, who is ninety-two, knows that my grandmother was born in Illinois—I’d thought she was born in Ireland—but that doesn’t rule out New Orleans. Neither my oldest aunt, Kathleen, who recently celebrated her hundredth birthday, nor my aunt, Elizabeth, who is ninety-four, can recall things with certainty. What we do know is that, after landing in this country, Grandma’s parents headed west, stopping in places where there was work and then moving on, usually after the birth of another child. By the time they reached the Midwest, they had twelve children. Grandma, who was the second oldest daughter, had little education and married early—one less mouth to feed.

Her first husband, Edward, died in 1920 while building a home for her and their daughters. On a hot summer day, he drank water from a nearby stream, contracted typhoid fever, and died before the house was completed. The land and the unfinished house were sold, and Grandma went to work. She was hired as a housekeeper by a Mr. William Harrison, to care for his small home in the northeast section of Kansas City, Missouri. My mother and aunts tell me that Mr. Harrison wanted to marry Gram, but she didn’t feel it was proper. Finally, after scandalized neighbors left a mattress on Mr. Harrison’s front lawn, Grandma consented, and they were married in 1923. For all of the couple’s married life, his stepdaughters, who loved him dearly, called him Mr. Harrison. By the time he died in the late 1930s, leaving Grandma a widow again, another daughter had been born, and one of the others had sickened and died.

When I knew Gram, she stood four foot ten and weighed eighty-five pounds. Once my mother showed me a picture of Grandma as a young woman. In those days, she was almost as round as she was tall, and it was hard for me to believe that she had looked so different.

My parents divorced when I was an infant, so sometime before I was a year old, my mother, brother, and I went to live with Grandma. There are things a person remembers, and there are things we are told so often that they become part of our memories. Grandma used to tell about caring for me while my mother went off to work. My bassinet was lined with newspaper, and when I woke and moved around, she could hear the paper crinkling long before I cried out for attention. Of course, I don’t remember any of those very early years. I do remember feeling jealous of my cousin, Sharon, who was eighteen months younger than I. Her family didn’t live with Grandma, and I was certain that Grandma loved her best, because she saw her less. As we got older, Sharon always had to go to the bathroom when it was time to dry dishes—at least that was my perception of the situation. And, because she was Grandma’s favorite, she always got away with it.

Grandma’s life was hard, no two ways about it. She rode the trolley downtown at night, hat pin in hand for self-defense if necessary, to scrub the floors of the office buildings. As a widow with six daughters, she taught these young ladies the true meaning of “being on the rag.” In later years, my Aunt Betty often told of washing, bleaching, and drying their monthly rags, since there was no money for store-bought items. Each girl owned one set of long underwear, which had to be washed on a scrub board, then hung up and dried for use again the next day.

Through the years, Grandma retained some of her old thrifty habits, even when they were no longer necessary. Vinegar was my hair rinse as a child. Not only did it give a shine to my hair, it also cut any leftover soap residue. There were no dish soap products in our house. Grandma had a little cage-like device that held remnants of bar soap. The cage had handles, and to get suds to wash dishes, you shook the thing back and forth in a sink full of water until you worked up a frothy lather. Sometimes, if the dishes or pans were particularly greasy, you’d have to empty the dishwater and start over. Prior to World War II, this water came ice-cold from a hand pump built into the counter next to the kitchen sink. We washed our hair on Saturday nights, so that we were sparkling for church the next morning. I vaguely remember having to use the bath water after Grandma— no hardship for me, since she never seemed to get dirty anyway.

Grandma made slips for Sharon (yes, her again!) and me from flour sacks, which my Aunt Alice, Sharon’s mother, bought from a local mill. Sometimes we had plain white slips, but other times the sacks would be patterned, and we would get slips with beautiful sprigs of flowers. All of them were made by hand, because we had no sewing machine. Grandma taught me to cross-stitch, embroider, turn collars on men’s shirts, and darn both socks and stockings. Her stockings were the heavy cotton variety, held up with cloth-covered garters, torturous things that were little more than disguised rubber bands. Those garters left great indentations on her upper calves, marks that remained long after she’d removed her stockings for the evening.

Grandma and I shared a bed for as long as we lived in her house. She had a high bed that was a delight for a small child. It was a bed you truly climbed into, with a headboard as tall as I was and a dark veneer that matched the rest of her bedroom furniture. The lady’s dresser had a long mirror, flanked on each side by small, delicate drawers with fancy pulls. Each night, after she knelt to say her prayers—“Ginger, did you say your prayers?” “Yes, Grandma.”—she placed her false teeth in a special container on top of the drawers. Whether or not her teeth should be blamed, it is no exaggeration to say that her snoring gave me many a night of broken sleep. She always told me to shake her and ask her to turn over, which I soon learned to do, but it didn’t help. Once she turned, her snores just shifted to a different key, until I finally slipped off to sleep myself. It always amazed me that such a little person could make such a big noise!

Grandma’s house boasted a number of special features. Built between her bedroom and my brother’s were a bathroom and a closet. The bathroom, no doubt a luxury for her, was for me somewhat scary with its clawfoot tub and echoing acoustics. But the closet—it was a gem! It ran all the way through from one bedroom to the other. It was long and dark, but not at all scary. It was a place to hide, or to play, or to use for spying on my brother and his friends. All of our hanging clothes were in there, so if you were hiding, you had to be very careful. The shelf, far out of my reach, held ladies’ hats tucked away in great round boxes. Of course no one, not even me, went to church without a hat, so there were a number of boxes up in the darkest recesses.

The basement was another fascinating place. Reached by a set of twisting stairs, it was the nether world of the home. It was there, through the coal chute window, that tons of coal rumbled down a metal slide and into one corner that was specially walled off to prevent the coal from cascading all over the basement floor. The wringer washer was down there, as well. Set on four delicate legs, the washer had a large tub with an agitator and a lid. The tub was filled from a hose near the two rinse sinks. The clothes had to be pulled out of the washer’s tub and put through the wringer. Once squeezed of excess water and soap, they fell into the first rinse tub, where the washing process continued until everything had passed through the final rinse tub. Then they went through the wringer and dropped into a laundry basket. My brother and I always wanted to put the clothes through the wringer, but it was, in truth, a dangerous activity for children, so we were never allowed to wring the laundry unless an adult was around. Over the years many buttons were crushed or broken, and anything left in a pocket came through flat and misshapen. In later years I caught my hair in just such a washing machine because I remembered too late the admonition to put my hair up before using the wringer.

In summer, the wet laundry was hauled upstairs to the outside clothes lines. In winter, our clothes hung on rope lines that crisscrossed the basement, drying into stiff, board-like things with pinch marks where the clothes pins had held them. Once dry, they were sorted. Since socks and underwear were about the only things that were not ironed, every other item was then sprinkled with water, rolled, and lined up with similar items to wait for the ironing board.

The basement also held whole walnuts, their outer skins still green. Once the skins had withered, the nuts could be shelled—a messy job under the best of circumstances. The shelled walnuts were a real treat and were used in all sorts of dishes, especially through the holiday season. The recipe that follows is one my mother adapted and still uses every Christmas season.

Food was, of course, of paramount importance to Grandma. Having done without for so long, little was wasted or squandered. The black walnut tree took up most of the sun and prevented many things from growing, but during the hot summer months, she always planted tomatoes along the back fence. I learned to love them at a very early age. Grandma, as was typical for older women of that time, wore an apron over her housedress. Her aprons usually had quite large pockets, and she always carried a handkerchief in one pocket and sometimes a rosary in the other, even if she was just stepping out to the backyard. Going out to pick tomatoes also meant picking greens. She showed us a particular dandelion leaf that, picked early, is as tasty and tender as any organic spinach. There was also the occasional mushroom to find. Morels grew in our area, and Grandma knew how to find and select both greens and mushrooms: skills learned through hardship, not education. As fall approached, green tomatoes were the order of the day. Yummy soft slices, coated in seasoned flour and fried in bacon grease, graced our plates and satisfied our yearning for comfort food.

Eventually my mother married again. We continued to live with Grandma for a while under these new circumstances, finally moving to another house when I was twelve. Our new house was about two miles away from Grandma’s, in another parish and a different community. With the self-absorption of the young, I often wondered if she was lonely after we left. While madness and mayhem are going on, solitude seems like a fine thing; sometimes, though, silence is very loud. In 1954 I was caught up in my first year of high school, a freshman at an all-girls school to which I’d won a scholarship. Of course we saw Grandma on Sunday when we picked her up for church, and there were often Sunday dinners at her house when various relatives, including Sharon and her family, dropped by to say hello. And there was the odd Saturday, when the weather was good, and I walked the two miles to share breakfast with her while we listened to the Hillbilly Hit Parade, ate buckwheat pancakes, and drank café au lait—always, of course, without Sharon around to steal the attention!

A few years later, Grandma moved into a tiny apartment close to my mother’s house. In 1960, she and I took a Greyhound bus from Kansas City, Missouri, to Santa Monica, California, to attend my favorite cousin’s wedding. It was in Santa Monica that I met the man I would marry the following year. As a Navy family we moved around the country, always far away from my grandmother and the rest of the family. Gram’s transformation from roly-poly to teeny-tiny was the result of diabetes, which eventually took her life after I left home.

Today, I try to share with all seven of my grandchildren times that have nothing to do with things, but everything to do with feelings. When Sarah and Casey, who live in Weedsport, New York, were babies, I started by singing some of my old camp songs: “HaggaLenaMaggaLena,” the states song, “Five Little Ducks,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and on and on. They loved them, and it helped pass the time en route from their house to mine. Sometimes now, we play hide the genuine, imitation hidden treasure (a bag of “pirate” coins I picked up on vacation in Charleston, South Carolina). We share stories about their fathers as small children. That’s a great fun time, because they imagine their dad getting into trouble, and they have a good laugh at his expense. They often ask me to tell those stories as we ride along in the car. Since I can’t teach Anna, my granddaughter in Oklahoma, my camp songs in person, I’ve made a tape of them for her. My daughter Theresa plays them in their car. I included some family stories in between songs, so Anna can hear from me just how smart her mother was as a small child.

When Sarah, my oldest granddaughter, was small, I purchased a little red-and-green apron for her to wear while she sat on a stool at my kitchen table and painted her masterpieces. I saved large pieces of cardboard or plain paper for their canvases. Now I share horseback riding and cross-country skiing with Casey. Julie and Jake, who live in Liverpool, New York, love to use a handheld tape recorder to record their version of “The Today Show with Julie and Jake, coming to you from Grandma Gin’s house.”

Both my oldest and youngest children live far away, one in Washington State and one in Oklahoma, so I don’t get to see their children as much as I’d like, but I still try to keep in contact. I recently returned from a cross-country trip, after visiting both of them. My son who is in Washington lives across the street from a lake. While I was with his family, we did some good old-fashioned rock skipping. It’s an activity I remember so well from my own childhood, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Joe has taught his children, Joseph and Alexis, the fine art of selecting and then skipping a flat rock across the water’s surface. Once I arrived back home, I sent Joe a box of rocks: flat stones I’d accumulated as I made my way from Washington to New York. The idea was to share with him and his family a little piece of my trip and home, which would become part of their landscape.

While some of my children and grandchildren have moved away, I have chosen to remain here in upstate New York. Most of my working life has been spent here and now, in retirement, I find a great deal of pleasure in owning a very small bookstore in a very small community, with a view of the hills and snow scenes that so entranced me many years ago. I hope to pass this love of place and family on to all of my grandchildren. My own grandmother used her talents to teach without even being aware that she was doing so. Her songs were Irish ballads, and her “hidden treasures” were mushrooms and tomatoes. She loved her home, she loved her children, and I have no doubt that she loved her grandchildren. My hope is that my grandchildren will carry in their hearts the same kind of wonderful memories of our times together.


Ginny Scida, a member of the Greater Tully Writer’s Group, retired as college accountant from the State University of New York at Cortland in 1995. She owns and operates a used bookstore, Bookhounds, in Fabius, New York. She is a 1976 graduate of Syracuse University.

Grandma used to tell about caring for me while my mother went off to work. My bassinet was lined with newspaper, and when I woke and moved around, she could hear the paper crinkling long before I cried out for attention.

Doris’ Applesauce Cake

1 cup raisins
1/4 cup rum
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup margarine or butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 dash nutmeg
2 cups applesauce (or one 16 oz. can or jar)
2 tsp. baking soda
1 cup chopped black walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put raisins in cup, pour rum over them, and set aside. Cream sugar and butter. Sift flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg and set aside. Mix baking soda into applesauce then add to sugar and butter mixture. Gradually add flour mixture and beat until mixed well, scraping bottom and sides of bowl. Add raisins, rum, and nuts a little at a time, mixing well after each addition. Pour into greased and floured bundt pan and bake for about 50 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. This cake is very moist!

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 32, Spring-Summer 2006. 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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