Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mary Hutchinson: Grandmother Carpenter and Gram Dustin

From my own family album: A Balch family picnic (that's Grandma Small on the left).
It's interesting to note how many of the Hale Street Gang grew up in households that included grandmothers and grandfathers. "Assisted living" meant moving in with the kids. The older folks helped with the many chores that were typical of rural households before World War II. My mother remembers her grandfather churning butter, tending the vegetable garden, and keeping hens, as well as peddling the eggs door-to-door, on foot, in town. This was when he was well into his eighties. Grandmothers helped with the sewing (most clothes were made by hand), the ironing (a long day's work), and dozens of other tasks that don't exist today (does anyone darn socks anymore?). Families looked after their own, a situation that naturally caused a certain amount of tension. I love this piece of Mary Hutchinson's because it looks at the situation from both angles, plusses and minuses, and with a good deal of humor. She says it is "written from the viewpoint of my younger sister, Carol." The theme of contrasting grandmas was arrived at independently by both Mary and Ruth, whose piece "My Two Grandmas" was posted earlier this week. 

“Stand tall, point your toes straight ahead, and walk on the balls of your feet.” —Grandmother [Alice] Carpenter

“Just walk and get there the best you can, child.” —Gram [Jennie] Dustin

My grandmothers, both widows, lived with us for ten years. These were trying years for an overweight adolescent of twelve. I was the youngest of five children; the other four had left to go to college or war, leaving me to fend for myself.

Grandmother Carpenter was from an aristocratic family of Harvard graduates. Her father and brother had been prosperous dentists, and her deceased husband had been chief justice of the Supreme Court for the state of Connecticut. One of the highlights of her social life was leading the grand march with the governor at the Governor’s Ball. I remember how she would don her sparkling diamonds and rubies and strut around the living room as though she were back in the ballroom. How straight and tall she walked: She kept herself in condition by faithfully performing a ritual of exercise each morning. Her teeth were her own, she continually reminded everyone. Every afternoon she took a brisk walk. In the winter, if the conditions were such that she could not walk in the road, she would briskly walk back and forth across the porch which stretched the entire length of our house.

According to Grandmother Carpenter I never could speak properly. As we washed the dinner dishes in the evening, she would have me practice saying, “How now, brown cow.” I would exaggerate my Vermont accent to irritate her. She was constantly correcting my grammar and pronunciation. My eating habits irritated her as well. I loved to eat: She would actually grab candy right out of my hand. “Can’t love anything that can’t love you” was her immediate retort in the event that I dared to mention that I loved apple pie. She was determined that I was to lose weight. There were no fat people in Connecticut according to her, “Just in Vermont.” When she returned to Connecticut for a short visit, her first errand would be to go into the bank and exchange her “dirty Vermont money” for new money.

Grandma Dustin, my father’s mother, was a native Vermonter raised on a farm and accustomed to hard work. Married and teaching school at sixteen years of age, I’m sure she had little time to worry about her physical appearance. She was short with a definite hump to her back, slightly pigeon-toed, and walked with a slow gait. But how she could cook: I loved her homemade bread, cookies, and pies. I was especially fond of the creamed salt pork gravy she made to heap on mounds of fluffy mashed potato. I could devour half a loaf of her bread spread with her creamy homemade butter.

Gram Dustin never wasted a thing. She would rip out old sweaters to knit mittens for her five grandchildren. Our clothes were patched and repatched. She would fashion dresses and coats out of old clothing discarded by others. She would save bits of ribbon, lace, buttons; anything that would add a touch of elegance to the recycled clothing.

Each morning after breakfast Gram Dustin would come out to the kitchen sink, take out her false teeth, and brush them. Another of her distracting morning rituals was to march through the kitchen to the downstairs bathroom to empty her slop pail.

I remember the presidential election of 1944 (when Franklin Roosevelt was running for what would be his fourth term) extremely well. Grandmother Carpenter was a staunch Republican and was positive that Thomas Dewey would win. Gram Dustin, a Democrat, was rooting for FDR. Each night at the dinner table they would debate the qualifications of their respective candidates. At times these debates got very heated and the two elderly women would be practically screaming at each other. Roosevelt carried thirty-six of the forty-eight states, settling the entire affair. Needless to say, conversation regarding the election came to an immediate halt.

The presidential election soon was forgotten as the two women gathered anxiously in front of the radio each evening to listen to Lowell Thomas report on the progress of the war. Two of their grandsons were involved in the draft and this seemed to be a bonding factor in their relationship. As they sat knitting, Grandmother Carpenter working on war bandages, Gram Dustin creating mittens, they became closer because of their common concern: two grandsons off to war. At other times they would work on crossword puzzles or play solitaire. Gram Dustin never missed a day of “When a Girl Marries.” As soon as this “awful program” came on the air, Grandmother Carpenter would pick up her knitting and leave the room.

How my parents ever managed to control their frustrations through those years remains a mystery to me. To have lived ten years so peacefully with these two contrasting personalities, both strong-willed and proud of their heritage, was a challenge, an amazing feat and highly commendable.

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