Friday, August 12, 2011

Great Grandmother Case

There is so little that I know about her. She was born in 1860 and passed away in 1947, a few months before I was born. I have two photos of her, though, and a small glimpse into her life come to me via various relatives.

One picture shows her as a young woman, with a serious expression dressed in a dark frock, surrounded by nine of her gaggle of eleven children . I look at her, and think she must have been of strong stock, though she looks thin and small. She left her hometown of Newport, RI and moved to New York state, to a small island off the eastern end of Long Island.  How did she meet the Shelter Island man she married and who lived with there? How did it come to be?  If he had been a mariner, I would imagine that he'd gone to the R.I. port, and they'd met there, in some way.  But no, he was a carpenter, and so far as I know, was not a traveler. How then, I wonder, did she make her way to Shelter Island?

As frail as she may appear in the photograph, she managed to give birth to all those children in a few years. That alone, in her day, was no small feat. Many things might occur in a natural act of child bearing, and medical methods were no where near as advanced at that time as they are these days. She achieved the goal of safely bringing forth her brood.  But that was only the beginning of her work. As any mother knows, it's not an easy task to raise even one child to adulthood. I can only imagine what her life was like.

Think of the laundry !  There were no machines to help her as she kept her family in clean clothes. She would have had to lug the hot water to the wash tub and then scrub each item on a wooden washboard, probably rubbing her knuckles raw at times. She'd have to wring out each item after rinsing a few times, and hang it to dry from a rope line in the yard.  There would be the folding and putting away, and I'm sure, some ironing as well.  That might have required the heating of a sad iron on her wood  cook stove, being careful not to burn herself.  I wonder what her hands looked like after strong soaps (perhaps she even made her own lye soap), washboards, scalding water, and possible burns from cast iron stoves, irons, and the pots she cooked the food in. Not only did she have to wash the clothes for the large family, she had to mend them and make them all, probably on a treadle sewing machine.

I know, from stories told by my great-aunt, that GreatGrandma was, indeed, a hearty woman. Her husband, Willard, had met an untimely death in 1903 when he fell from a roof, landing first on a scaffolding, and then falling to the ground, breaking his neck or back.  Many of  the Case youngsters at home, and they had to be cared for and fed. Great Grandmother opened a boarding house in the large farmhouse where my grandmother was born.  I'm told that there were some nights where thirteen or fourteen people sat at their table, served a hefty meal by Great Grandma.  Did she raise the food in the acreage behind the barns?

It is my guess that she did.  She would not have had the funds to purchase the vegetables and meat to feed such a crowd. I can assume that she and her sons ...and maybe the girls,too, worked in the garden in the summer...and at harvest-time, they gathered their crops. Then mother and daughters would gather in the large kitchen to prepare the peas, string beans, corn, and other vegetables for canning.  That would require hours on her feet, in front of a hot stove, cooking the vegetables, placing things in the mason jars,closing them, boiling the products in the jars in big kettles, until they safely sealed. When they'd cooled, they'd be set in the pantry for use until the next garden was ready to eat.

Think of the work involved in just one day! Without a husband to instruct her sons, she would have had to instill all the things they would need to know as adults. She would have had to teach her girls the skills involved in homemaking.

Because I know so little of truth about Great Grandmother, I have had to guess about a lot of things. The mid-1800's was not an easy time for most women, and my Great Grandmother was not living a life much different from others of her day. When I think about her, and all those other women, I feel admiration. If there was a need, they met it. They didn't have the choice. I don't imagine they complained about the tasks at hand, either. They just did what needed to be done.  Perhaps they bartered with others. Perhaps they sold their eggs, or their seamstress abilities, in order to buy what they could not do. Or perhaps they just did without.

Whatever is the actual story of my Great Grandma Case, she survived it all, living as a single mother for forty-four years. She became the old woman with gray hair, in that photo, who sits in her rocking chair on the porch. She was proof that a little hard work never hurt anybody.