Perhaps my greatest unfulfilled desire as a child was to have a sister. The same had been true in my mother’s childhood-and it was also true in the life of my daughter. I had a baby brother when I was three, but he choked to death when he was about two years old. So I remained the youngest until I was ten years old. I thought I would surely have a sister at last! But when he was born, he was a four pound, skinny, pitiful-looking little old man. A new book was circulating in our community at that time, St. Elmo, so the little bundle became Elmo Fitz Randolph.
The neighbor women put him in a shoe box and put a wedding ring on his arm as a bracelet. They have said that they put Grandma’s thimble on his head, but I don’t remember this part and it seems far-fetched to me.
Ugly as he was, we loved him and cared for him until in a few months he was healthy and fat. His once bald head had changed into a beautiful head of blond curls. By this time, I wouldn’t have traded him for anybody’s girl. But I still wanted a sister! His hair grew in curls; down to his shoulders, and we could not bring ourselves to cut it until he was past three, then we all cried when we took him to the barber.
Brady was my oldest brother and when he finished eighth grade, he was sent to Salem to enter the academy which was connected with Salem College. There were no high schools in our county, and only a few young people even had the opportunity of going on to school. After Brady had been away one year, it was decided to move the family to Salem. Dad could get a school to teach in Harrison County and we would all have better school opportunities.
The place that had always been home was sold and a home bought in Salem. This move changed our lives in many ways, new friend were made and there were new hills to climb and new fields to roam. The home life was much the same, however. We ate oats or salt fish for breakfast as we had done for years.
Perhaps I should explain about salt fish. Each fall the folks would make out a grocery order to Sears, Roebuck and Co. It would be shipped by freight and would contain enough staple foods to last for the winter. There would be: 100 lbs. of rolled oats; 100 lbs. of rice, one or two kegs of salt fish; a ten-pound box of prunes, perhaps a few “specials” such as hard candy for Christmas, and ALWAYS one five-pound box of mixed cookies. This was the most important item in the order, as far as the children were concerned.
Now back to salt fish again. I don’t think they sell such a product on the market today, for which I am glad; and yet I would like to taste it once more and see if it is really as good as I remember it.
To prepare the fish for eating took at least twelve hours. My mother would take the fish from the brine in the afternoon if she was going to have them for breakfast the next morning. They were placed in a large pan of water in order to soak the salt out. The water would be changed two or three times to assist in the process of reducing the salt content. The next morning the fish were rolled in flour and fried. This was always a welcome change from the normal breakfast of oats or rice.
Our food was always good because my mother was an excellent cook. She made light bread, salt rising bread, and of course corn bread and biscuits. For many years, she sold warm bread to the grocery stores. She had quite a sale for loaves of salt rising bread three times a week. This sale of bread kept us in sugar, salt, vinegar, soda and baking powder and other staples.
My Dad bought a hog, and when finances permitted, a quarter of a beef front quarter, usually each fall. This meat was carefully preserved to last for the year. You were a poor housekeeper, indeed, if you didn’t have enough lard and meat to last until butchering time again.
Every family had a cellar where fruit and vegetables were kept for winter use. In the summer time milk and eggs were kept there also. Unless you had a thunderstorm, the morning milk would still be good at supper time if you set it in a pan of cold water just drawn from the well. If it was an especially hot day, you changed the water in the pan a couple of times. Supper usually consisted of mush and milk or corn bread and so it was too bad if the milk soured.
I remember two kinds of cellars, both very dark and damp and none would have won a medal for sweet odors. Some cellars were dug into the side of a hill and rocks were used to form the walls. It might be that flat stones were laid for the floor, and sometimes the ground was .just packed hard. Then dirt was filled in around it so that there was only one end left open where a big double door was hung. Potatoes and apples would not freeze in the winter, and it was reasonably cool in the summer.
Another kind of cellar was the one under the kitchen. A hole was dug out, shelves and bins were built in and a stairway fixed from the kitchen down into it. It had a “trap door” which was part of the kitchen floor. When you needed to go to the cellar, you lifted the door and used the stairs. This was quite a task, and the women made sure they got what they would need from the cellar so as not to have to make extra trips. Just to see this hole opened up in the floor was always good for a bit of excitement to the “smallfry.”
When I was twelve years old, I had a wonderful birthday! I can never remember a birthday cake before that time, although there might have been some. This cake had a white icing and “chocolate drops” in lieu of candles. My second special friend, Gladys Clark, came for supper that night and brought me a gift. She also furnished the candy for the top of the cake.
Gladys was the daughter of the president of Salem College. They lived in a big two-story house, and I was permitted a few times to spend the night there and to eat with the family in their very spacious dining room. In this house I saw my first indoor bathroom and learned to flush the commode.
The Clarks had some real treasures in their cellar! They kept a keg of sweet pickles, and many times there would be a bunch of bananas hanging from the rafters, and perhaps a large round yellow cheese. We never touched any of these “goodies” without special permission. We remained friends until Dr. Clark was sent to another school, I believe it was in Michigan, and I never saw Gladys again. It is sad that friendships were broken because of distance. It would not be so in this day, for we can go to the ends of the earth with less time and effort than we could travel a few hundred miles in 1916.
During these years there was a growing realization among us children that we were individuals. Brady was the oldest, and in Salem College, and we all had a special pride in him and in his debating ability. Everyone at home listened to his opinions and generally accepted them. I can remember how he pressed his “blue serge suits” until they shined as much as these fancy suits I see an television today; and they were not supposed to shine! A shine revealed their age. Once in a while he would have a date and take her to the “nickelodeon” to see a movie. That was a great experience for the whole family, for he would spend hours telling us the stories he saw. Mama would bake an extra loaf of bread for him to sell so he could have the dime for their tickets.
Ashby was two years older than I was, and we were naturally much more together. Because he was a boy and older, he felt that he should always be the boss. It was all right on occasions for him to give orders, but I felt compelled to take up for myself. He was stout and there was no way I could out-fight him, so I had to try to out-smart him. Once in a while that would be successful. I would promise to do some of his reading or writing if he would do something for me that I didn’t like to do, arithmetic, for instance. There were times he bent me to his will by saying he wouldn’t keep the snakes off me if I didn’t.
I was stubborn and once I told him I wouldn’t do something, I never changed my mind. If he hit me, I went crying to Mama. He used to flip a towel at me. If just a corner would hit my arm, it would burn and hurt. One time I picked up a salt shaker, it was loaded so it wouldn’t tip over, and threw it at him. He ducked and it hit the door facing and bent it badly. He would have had a sore head for sure if he hadn’t seen that coming.
Mama had a brother, Waitman Sutton, who lived out in the country several miles below Salem. When we went to visit him, we went by train for about twenty miles and then we walked across the hills to his house. One spring weekend Ashby and I had been out to Uncle Watie’s and they had given us a bucket of strawberries to take home. When I thought I had carried them “my share” of the way, I insisted that he take them. He was busy throwing at birds and squirrels, or just throwing, and he couldn’t be bothered. I set the bucket down and told him he would have to carry them or they would be left there. He gave no heed to my words and we walked on, sans the berries! We had gone perhaps a half mile when he became aware that I really had left the berries, and he retraced his steps to pick them up.
You see, I had something on him that made it very difficult for him not to “knuckle under” to me in an instance like this. He was older and would be held responsible for this fruit when we arrived home. I had something else going for me too. I was the only girl in the family, and there were times when that fact weighed heavily in my favor. In fact, I guess it over-balanced his greater fighting ability.
There was an interesting ending to this strawberry story, however. We came to a little creek beside the railroad track and there was a blacksnake curled up. I was instructed to guard the berries at a safe distance while Ashby killed the snake. When that heroic deed was finished, I just picked up the bucket and we walked on. Now I am not sure that he didn’t win the battle of wills after all! That snake might have been left to sun itself in peace if it hadn’t been needed to bring me into line.
There are two vivid memories of my visits to Uncle Watie’s home. He had not married a West Virginia girl, I can’t remember where her home had been, and her cooking was different.
Aunt Maggie drank coffee all day long, and there was always a large open kettle boiling on the old-fashioned iron stove which was built to burn coal. However, since they had free gas, it was converted to burn gas, which was allowed to burn constantly. Every morning she put some fresh coffee into the kettle but did not remove the grounds that were already there. As I recall it, there must have been four- pounds of coffee grounds and a dozen egg shells boiling there at any given time. That coffee was as black as tar and strong enough to set your “inwards” burning. Plain coffee was never quite strong enough, so she added “essence” which gave it color and bitterness. When I got the chance to take a few sips of this “brew,” I felt like a heroine, for I didn’t let on how nasty it really tasted to me.
The other memorable thing about Aunt Maggie was the decorations in her home. She attended all the county fairs in the area, and she must have been lucky in winning things, for her walls and tables were crowded with the rare works of art which can be won for a dime on the midway. Never before or since have I seen such a treasure house of useless, but impressive looking, things!
My mother was an amateur photographer, so we had pictures to show of all the memorable events of our lives. She not only took the pictures, she developed the films and made the prints. We always had a “Dark room” for this work, and it never lost its air of mystery for me. Mama would shut herself in and place a film and paper into a frame. Then she would step outside and hold this frame up to the window for a count of three or four and step back and place this blank-looking paper in a pan of developer and count again as she came to the light. When she could see the picture clearly, she moved it quickly to another pan of solution. This “set” the picture and then she washed it under- running water to take all the acid off. It was hung up on a curtain to dry then it was placed between two books to press and it was ready to keep forever. (I have many of these homemade pictures and they have not faded away in these sixty years.)
There were times when I was permitted to stand in the corner of this dark room and sense the excitement and expectancy of each step of the process. She had a small lamp with a red shade which she burned in this dark room in order to be able to see how to “feel her way” to do this work. She used to earn a few extra pennies by making pictures for other people.
We lived on College Hill in one of the last houses on the last street, near the top. There were no paved streets up there and not even a sidewalk the last block of the way. I have heard about a famous “board-walk” at Atlantic City. I haven’t seen it; but I suspicion that it is quite different from our walks of those olden days. They were not as wide as our cement walks of today and were always built well off the ground with wide cracks between the boards to let the water run off. Steps, steps, and more steps to climb! Unless it was very muddy or the dust was too thick, we usually preferred the climb on the street rather than by the steps. I recall where we lived later, when I was in college. There were forty-eight steps straight up the side of the hill.
O, the West Virginia hills,
How majestic and how grand!
With their summits pointing skyward
To the Great Almighty’s land;
If o’er land or sea I roam,
Still I think of happy home
And my friends among those
West Virginia hills!