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EACH MEMBER OF OUR FAMILY, as in most families with several children, had a job to do. The household work was divided among the family to get it all done.
Few houses had electric lights in my earliest memory, so of course, oil lamps of all sizes and shapes provided homes with light. If the house had several rooms, it also had several lamps to minimize the danger of dropping a lamp when carrying it from room to room.
I especially remember my mother’s favorite lamp. It was called a Ray-O and had a large, white opaque shade that extended like an umbrella over a silvery metal base. When filled with oil and kept in good condition, it flooded a room with a soft inviting light that was adequate as well as beautiful. In later years, when we had a bathroom, this lamp served as a small stove. Often it was lit, put in a safe place, and used to take the chill out of the bathroom.
Some homes had parlor lamps that most people prized and thought attractive. Usually, they were bulbous in shape and made of colored glass with flowers on the base and/or shade for adornment. These big lamps were always in the parlor on the fanciest table in the house and were considered quite elegant.
Keeping the lamps cleaned and well-trimmed was an important daily job. Usually, younger girls in a family were assigned to do this job after school so the lamps would be ready for evening study.
First, bits of the lamp’s wick that were charred by burning the night before had to be trimmed, and the chimneys had to be washed to get rid of excess black carbon. The glass chimneys were then shined with a lintless cloth or crumpled newspaper to allow the flame to shine its brightest through the thin glass. The lamps were ready to be used again after being refilled with oil.
Bringing in the slop pails and night chambers was another important evening task. These receptacles were usually placed on the back steps in the morning to sun all day, which eliminated odors. Of course, getting them back in the proper place for use was a must because nobody wanted to go out in the dark to the little house after the doors were closed for the night.
Speaking of slop pails makes me remember how we were tussling and playing one night in our bedroom and some unfortunate turned over a full slop pail. Mother was flabbergasted when she saw the unwelcome contents streaming over the floor. However, she made the guilty culprits get rags and clean it all up before going to bed. This helped us to remember that tussling in the house wasn’t a good practice.
A big, four-legged iron range was in our kitchen. It burned wood or coal and kept the back part of our house warm and comfortable. A favorite spot for our little dog to sleep on a cold winter day was underneath the range.
A box for kindling wood was beside the range. One of my brothers was required to fill this box with fine pieces of wood or fatty pine every night so the earliest riser could start the fire easily. Getting the fire started on time for cooking breakfast was important because it meant we would get to school on time. Our daily schedule in winter seemed to revolve around school hours.
The hot water tank was behind the range. We tried to keep a brisk fire burning in the range to have hot water for our daily needs. A section called the warmer was on top of the stove. Food was placed there to keep it warm until time for it to be eaten. The warmer was a much used part of the range, particularly to keep meals warm for those who had to eat later than the others.
Dainty white curtains trimmed with rick-rack braid hung at the windows. Sometimes Mother made her curtains, and sometimes she bought them from the store; but she took great pride in having starched curtains that hung like little girl’s pinafores at her window.
The kitchen seemed to have been the core room of the house. It provided warmth and happiness all say, and the main joy seemed to stem from the fact that Mother was usually there. I remember how completely happy I would be when school vacation came because I knew Mother would be home the greater part of the time. It always gave me the utmost satisfaction and confidence just to know that she was at home. As soon as we reached the door and we threw down our books or packages, we would call, Hey Mama! Where are you? The answer would usually be, Here in the kitchen. What do you want? Oh, nothing! We just wanted to know where you were, we would answer.
Our mother was a stay-at-home type of individual, and if no answer came to our call for her, we’d be filled with wonder and fear. It always seemed to be possessed with a personal inexplainable phobia that at some time and in some sudden way, Mother might be lost or disappear, and I would be left all alone.
When she did not answer my call, I immediately searched the garden nearby or a nearby house where I presumed she might have gone. Once she was discovered, I was completely satisfied because I knew it wouldn’t be long before she would be right back home again.
I can see her now as she stayed up late every Saturday night to make bread for Sunday. She always made up a big mass of dough in a large yellow earthenware bowl to form into rolls for breakfast and loaf bread for slicing during the week.
A cake of Fleischman’s yeast was always used for this chore. In later years, I remembered a younger member of the family who slipped into the refrigerator and ate this treasured possession-a real tragedy that was not soon forgotten by the would-be bread-maker.
Mother never thought of going to bed until the bread dough was made, covered with a clean white cloth, and placed in a warm place to rise. If the kitchen wasn’t warm enough for the bread, the bowl was placed on the hearth in front of the fireplace. A bed of red coals and ashes usually radiated heat until the late hours of the night. Sometimes the bread would get too hot in front of the fire and rise to fast, which resulted in long, white figures of dough streaming over the sides of the bowl. On Sunday morning, she would get up early, make the bread, and had hot rolls ready for breakfast.
I often think of those hot rolls and butter along with a streaming bowl of hominy grits and a dish of bacon and scrambled eggs. A good breakfast for my mother always had to include eggs in some form, scrambled, boiled or fried.
Hominy grits was the favorite breakfast cereal in most homes. Before the advent of quick-cooking grits, hominy grits were put in cold water to soak for a while, sometimes all night, before being cooked. This ensured that the hominy would be thoroughly cooked and easily digestable.
The fuels used for cooking did not give off such a fast, intense heat as those used today. Most pots of food could sit on a stove and simmer for a long time without burning. In fact, many people thought that long, slow cooking added to the flavor of the food. Cooking vegetables quickly was almost unheard of, and few housewives tried to do it. We often removed the stove eye to boil a pot faster because our time was limited or because of hunger. After long periods of use, our cooking utensils would sometimes get burned rather black from exposure to direct flames when the stove eye or top was removed.
At times, Mother would take note of the blackened condition of the bottom of our pots and assign the girls the task of scouring them clean. We used a store-bought cleanser if we had it; if not, we were sent into the yard for sand or wood ashes. We always had a deep pile of wood ashes in our out-of-the-way spot in the yard. These homemade abrasives coupled with vigorous rubbing soon made the pots and pans shine like new. Few kitchens were build with storage space or cabinets, so most cooking utensils hung on the wall or in the pantry.
When the kitchen cutlery would get tarnished, the wood ashes were used again. In our childish way, we would scour knives, forms, and spoons until they had recovered their gleam. Mother was usually well pleased—or at least pleased with our efforts.
Love, Rose Leary. Plum Thickets and Field Daisies: A Memoir. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1996