I remember asking Ma a couple times about her childhood. She never said much except explaining that her father left school when he was in the third grade to help support his family by working in the woods.
One reads it takes a village to raise a child. Well, through the years I learned it took the hamlet of Rowe Hill to make sure my mother was warm and well looked after as she walked from her home up the mountain to the little school located above what was to become in later years, the Sumner homestead. Maggie Bryant and Stella Ring (known to me as Grammy) had daughters of their own, Winnie and Norma and they made sure my mother had mittens, hats and a coat during the cold winter seasons. She stopped in one house or the other to get warm on those below zero mornings. In the early fall and late spring, she walked barefoot to school, but they made sure her feet were well protected come the winter.
My grandfather did the best he could by his family, caring for my grandmother, who was never well. Because he could not read nor write, the task fell to my mother to care for her brothers and sisters and run the household the best she could. I only knew of her sister, Addie and her two brothers, Bill and Pete. It was very late in life that I learned of many siblings who died as infants or at a very young age. My mother kept all of this to herself.
She was determined to graduate high school and did so in 1933 from Woodstock High School. She worked as a maid for summer folk for $1 a week to earn the money for her class ring. That was her prized possession and one time while visiting her in Greenwood, she gave it to me because she said “she wanted me to have it.” It is now one of my prized possessions.
Ma was a strong woman. She made do with so little, which as a child, I thought, was a normal way to live. She was the morning fire builder, the one who went off to work in a mill with her husband and came home to more work . There was no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no telephone. Even so, Ma did not complain about the lack of conveniences if all of us pulled together.
Ma loved to dance. She lived for the Saturday nights she could take a friend and go to Benny’s or Abner’s and sometimes the Top Hat to hear Lord’s Orchestra. She taught me how to dance the Polka around our kitchen floor. Remember to move those feet fast in two beats and shift to the other foot, she’d say, and away we’d go.
She probably was the best seamstress I have ever known. We wore coats she fashioned out of old adult coats given her. The treadle machine stood in the corner of the kitchen and without a pattern, she eye-balled my brother and me and away the machine would whirr. Later on, she made all her blouses to wear to work..no pattern, just the old eyeball.
Ma became a widow when she was 50. There were a few weak moments shortly after my Dad’s death, but I never saw her cry..never in my entire life. She kept working at the mill and went dancing when the mood hit her.
One time we decided to go camping in Rangeley. The tent was up and we were ready for a meal when Ma discovered half the rocks in our fire place were missing. Well, under the cloak of darkness, she rounded the camp ground and the next morning we had a fire place that spoke of splendor. Don’t even ask, she said,as I raised my eyebrows.
Ma loved performing and did skits with her sister-in-law, Norma at the mill picnics. She teamed up with Willie Hathaway and was a howling success at many shows in the local town hall. My mother’s sense of humor was coming through for the whole world to see. She loved every minute of it.
Growing up, we had our rough patches as many mothers and daughters do, but as I grew older with children of my own, I understood how much my mother gave of herself in order to raise the four children she brought into this world.
She took me in when I needed her; she rejoiced when I finally found happiness. In the last conversation I had with Ma, I reminded her of one great adventure we had and in spite of her illness, she laughed and laughed. We went to a garage sale and I bought a vacuum cleaner..not just any vacuum cleaner, but one that powered itself. We brought it home, dragged it up the stairs to my new home and plug it in. The cleaner took off on its own, actually chasing me . I jumped on the sofa and yelled, while she tried to chase the cleaner down to shut it off. We both laughed so hard we were breathless. Finally I heard her say above the roar of the machine, “oh, for heaven sakes” and she reached over and pulled the plug out of the wall. For years after, she would ask if I had bought any more good vacuum cleaners.
If I had one wish, it would be that my mother could have had an easier life when we were all young and clamoring at her feet. She gave us the fifty cents we needed to take to high school for the Reader’s Digest subscription; she drove me to my basketball games and cheered and this after working all day.
The picture I hold in my mind is Ma standing at the kitchen cupboard with four brown bags in a row. To her left is a loaf of bread, to her right, a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jelly. She is making our lunch to take to school the next day. Another rip-p-p-p and the wax paper is binding another sandwich together.
That is my favorite picture of her. We had Ma for almost 92 years. Ma would be celebrating her 99th birthday on Christmas Eve. If she could read this, her only words would be “oh, for heaven sakes…”