Lori Thatcher

Writing and Thinking about writing

My Mother’s Stories

3 Comments

A woman stood next to a black cast-iron coal stove. Her long graying hair was braided and wrapped tightly around her head. She had just placed a huge pot of peeled turnips on the back of the stove to cook. As I entered the room she turned and her tired eyes lit up as she smiled at me.
It was not really me she was smiling at, the memories are not mine, but the picture does remain as clear to me as if it was my own memory.
As my own mother Nellie Haskins stood at the stove putting turnips on to boil, she told me stories of the grandmother I never knew, Agnes Slazak, who came from Austria as a teenager to work in the fabric mills of Falls River, Massachusetts. My grandfather, Stanley Kurtyka, had also emigrated from Austria a few years earlier and worked on a farm. They met and eventually settled in Montague, Massachusetts, on a large piece of land they were able to purchase after years of scrimping and saving.
My mother, Nellie, told me that during the Depression, those turnips boiling on the stove would be the only food my grandmother ate, saving the meager bounty of the farm to peddle to neighboring towns. They loaded the wagon with milk, butter, cheese and whatever vegetables were being harvested or could be taken from storage. Some food would be saved for the men folk and the two young girls, but my grandmother would eat only whatever was left, along with the perpetual turnips.
When my grandmother Agnes was asked why she ate so many turnips, she would say “I like turnips.”
So they weathered the lean times without losing the farm. In one particularly low moment, my grandfather arranged to sell acres of the land, but my normally submissive grandmother refused to sign her name, saying, “Not the land, Stanley. We can never get the land back.”
Three of my grandparent’s children died in childhood and after several miscarriages, my grandmother Agnes died, leaving my mother, at eleven, the youngest of four surviving children. My grandfather remarried quickly and the stepmother who came to live at the farm with her own two daughters didn’t smile at my mother when she entered the room.
She sent Nellie to the fields before breakfast to weed the long rows and “earn her keep.” She said one dress was enough for school and Nellie could wash it herself if she wanted a clean garment. Nellie now was the one to eat last when she returned from the fields long after supper was over, if there was anything left.
The nearest neighbor, Mrs. Dodge, entreated my grandfather, “For God’s sake, take care of your own, Stanley.”
But he did not stand up to his new wife.
Nellie was scolded for crying, so she snuck out at night and walked either along the roads or to the blueberry fields where she had loved picking berries with her mother. She spent hours sobbing and yearning for her mother. No one at home noticed or cared that she was missing.
As she grew older, the overwhelming sense of loss did not diminish, but now it was accompanied by a fierce anger at her father for allowing her stepmother to treat her so badly. She was also furious that her father treated her stepmother so much better than he had treated her mother. It felt like betrayal of the worst kind.
Nellie quit school on her 16th birthday and in an early morning snowstorm, with a tiny cardboard suitcase, walked 10 miles to Greenfield where her older sister Carolyn lived. She didn’t say goodbye to her father, stepmother or step sisters. One of her brothers, Charlie, hugged her and told her to go with God and that he would try to come to see her sometime.
When she arrived in Greenfield, her sister Carolyn’s husband said Nellie could only stay a few days, but she helped my mother find a place to live and work as a kitchen helper at the Shelburne House. Thus began her adult life.
My mother loved turnips and I have always loved turnips, I like to think it could be because they occupied such a place in the life of the grandmother that I never knew, except through my mother’s stories.

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3 thoughts on “My Mother’s Stories

  1. Hi Lori,
    I love how you captured this story from your mother. It’s a wonderful way for you to get to know her, and her relationship with her own mother/stepmother.
    Getting to see our mothers as adult women is so helpful. We feel more connected and have stronger relationships later in life. Keep writing 🙂

    • Thank you Val.
      My mother has been gone from this world for 15 years, and there are many things I wish I had said while she was alive. I hope others are not waiting too long – you’ll always have regret if you do.

  2. Hi Lori, Why not write her a letter telling her what you wish you had been able to say to her and how her legacy has influenced you today as an older woman. That might release the regret within you and bring you peace of mind.

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