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More Stories - The Way We Were
Left on the Shelf
My Great-Aunt Amelia Hine, a "spinster" who never married, lived with us until I was ten, after which we moved from New York State to Nebraska (see Who Do We Owe?). When I was very small, I couldn't get my tongue around the words "Aunt Amelia" and called her "Auntamee". Fifteen years later almost everyone that knew her called her that.
She was one of six children in a time when life was often cruel. She was less born than miscarried, actually being delivered by surprise in a potty, weighing far less than three pounds. It was a miracle she survived, but against all odds she did, to become a sturdy strong intelligent woman. The only sign of her humble beginnings was that her fingernails never fully developed, being thin little shells. One older brother, Carl, died young of juvenile diabetes. Another, Edward, had extremely poor eyesight. When her mother, great-grandmother Mary Hine, was already in her early forties and Aunt Amelia not quite a teenager, a polio epidemic swept the area. The children escaped, but Great-grandmother did not. She lived, but was never able to walk again without crutches and assistance. As part of the treatment to save her, she became addicted to morphine. Afterwards she overcame her addiction with great difficulty and by sheer grit. And surprisingly, in middle age, became pregnant once more, with my grandfather, Wilbur Hine.
Older sister Minnie had married, so Auntamee took over much of the burden of the household, cooking, sewing, weaving, knitting, caring for the barnyard animals, putting her own girlish dreams to rest. When her baby brother was born, her mother was unable to care for him, so Auntamee took on that task, too. This was at a time when young women usually married young or not at all, remaining "spinsters" or "old maids", and it seemingly was destined to be her fate.
Auntamee & goose Click to enlarge
Auntamee was an unusually talented person. She raised the finest geese, making feather beds and pillows. She raised turkeys, ducks and chickens. She bred sheep, then dyed and spun their wool into yarn, and the yarn into blankets and clothing. She knitted mittens, gloves, sweaters, scarves, socks and anything else needed, of exceptional quality and perfect fit. She pieced quilts, usually with a woolen inner lining of her own weaving. She tatted lace, embroidered mats and tablecloths and crocheted doilies and edgings for sheets and pillowcases. She made endless sizes of braided rag rugs. She wove caned bottoms in chairs. She kept bees, and was almost never stung. She taught me to let a bee climb on my finger, and I have never been stung by a honeybee either. She was an herb doctor, nursing and curing both humans and animals in the community. She was a naturalist and environmentalist long before her time.
Auntamee & lamb Click to enlarge
Auntamee canned, dried, salted and otherwise preserved foods, grown in her own lush garden and raised in her barnyard, one of the most important skills required for a woman in high northern climes where winters are long and harsh. She grafted trees and raised fruit for canning, drying and preserving, was an expert on edible mushrooms and knew where the nut trees grew in the forest and where the patches of wild fruit flourished. Her winter cellars, and later on ours, were always full with barrels of fruit and salted bacon, bags of grains, flats of nuts, root crops layered in straw, hanging smoked hams and gleaming rows of filled Mason jars. When freezing became popular, she took to that too. She butchered hogs, dressed chickens, milked cows and goats, made cheese, butter and buttermilk, baked bread, made calves-foot jelly (the precursor of Jell-o), head cheese, potted meat and sausage, collected maple sap to boil for maple syrup and sugar, brewed wine and cider. She made lye soap, a talent that was more than useful during depressions and wars (see Remember Oleo?). According to all accounts, she was a fun-loving person who highly enjoyed life and was greatly loved by all those around her.
The talents required of rural women years ago are unimaginable to women of today. Their mad rush against traffic from home to work to school to home to evening meeting or homework pales in comparison. It is incomprehensible to me how they accomplished all that had to be done. Auntamee had all those pioneer talents in abundance. Small wonder that at the ripe old age of 27, she fell in love and became engaged, although technically now an old maid. The man was handsome, well educated and had excellent prospects; quite a catch!
One day, while crossing a city street, he was trampled by a team of runaway horses, sustaining a number of broken bones and a back injury. Although he would heal and walk again, he was in constant pain, and took morphine to bear it. He soon became badly addicted.
Over the following year or two, he slowly had to increase the dose of narcotic in order to ease the pain. Auntamee, approaching thirty, had a hard decision. Could she marry a man who might very well become disabled or die, leaving her with small children to raise alone? This was much more daunting a prospect than today in the USA, with social security, welfare and food stamps available, and good jobs waiting for educated women.
She knew what addiction could do. She decided she couldn't marry him, and broke off the engagement. Auntamee's hair began to lose its color, and within a few months I'm told she was completely white-headed. And the man did go downhill fairly rapidly, indeed dying not too many years later.
As members of the family passed on or drifted away from the homestead on Barnes Hill, and it became evident that Aunt Amelia and her brother David would both remain single, they decided to buy a farm together on the edges of Newfield, New York, just a few hills over from my grandfather's farm. They lived there quite contentedly for many years until Uncle David suddenly died of kidney failure. Auntamee was so distraught she became ill. Since my maternal grandmother had died very young and Mother suffered increasingly bad relations with her step-mother, she was sent to live with Auntamee at fourteen years of age both for her own sake and to keep Auntamee company, and it was there that she met my father. Other relatives have told me that Auntamee spoiled her terribly, but my mother undoubtedly needed some "spoiling" at this point, having had a very difficult childhood, and our aunt had been given one last child to finish raising, and she made the most of it.
I myself was born in this farmhouse (during which both my mother and I nearly died), and it is unfortunately no longer in our family although family members live adjacent, having moved on to other things.
Auntamee spent the next few years of life as a contributing member of our household until a year before we moved to Nebraska. In declining health and temperament, she went to live with her brother, my grandfather. Not too much after, she had the first of several strokes, became mostly deaf and lost her sight to glaucoma.
By the time I was seventeen she was in her late eighties and completely bedridden. I had lost my job in Florida and none were to be found in the summertime, so I hitched a ride to New York with acquaintances and stayed with Grandpa and Auntamee for almost three months. I spent a lot of time with her, learning a lot, as she remembered how to do so many things and explained the processes clearly. Her mind was still intact, but when alone most of the time she had nothing to use it for, nor any chore for her previously busy hands. Instead, she invented an entire life for herself in which her fiancé had never been injured, where she had married and borne three children, and those children had married and given her grandchildren. She would tell me stories about their lives and accomplishments.
One day when Grandpa came in from the fields and went to greet Auntamee in her small bedroom, as he always did several times a day, she was in the middle of one of her stories. Grandpa indignantly and firmly insisted that her mind was wandering, that she knew none of that had ever happened and to stop it right now!!! Auntamee began to cry; she was inconsolable. Eventually she fell into an exhausted sleep.
I went to find my Grandpa, and scolded him thoroughly. "What do you think she has to do except make up stories," I asked him. "Never, never scold her again, and if she is so lucky as to ever speak of any of it to you again, go along with it!" Grandpa was very upset, at first with me and later with himself for not having thought it through, but later he assured me that he would never do that again, even though he wasn't sure it was right.
For a day or two Auntamee was very quiet and sad. When I started asking her questions about her life, and her children, and she brightened up and again started making stories in her mind of what might have been.
It wasn't a perfect solution for her; one day shortly before I left I found her laying with tears silently running down her soft, wrinkled cheeks and into her pillow. "What's happened?", I asked. "Are you in pain?"
"No," she replied, "But I know none of that about marrying and having children is really true, and I wish it had been."
Auntamee died in her sleep a few months later, still an untouched "old maid", but having touched a great many lives.
For a number of reasons I won't go into, it took a great deal of courage for me to dare to marry and have children. One of the factors that persuaded me to do so was remembering Auntamee and her regrets. If ever there was a woman eminently qualified to have and care for a husband and family it was our Auntamee, with her bright mind, strength and energy, skilled hands and loving heart. A few years later, I wrote the poem, Contrasts, with her in mind.