by Mary Ellen Ryall
My grandmother, Ann Veronica Sullivan, was a live-in housekeeper and cook to Margaret and Josephine Harrington, retired high school teachers. Josephine had been the principal, and Margaret taught English. In 1956, I was in the eighth grade and attended St. Peter’s Academy, on Broadway, in Saratoga Springs, New York. The Catholic school was near Gram’s house at 21 Whitney Place. I could walk there at lunch time, and I used to go to Gram’s frequently from home too.
One winter day, I scampered up the steep back stairs to visit Margaret. She was silently sitting at a card table looking out the bay window. I glanced outside too. She was reverently in thought as she gazed at the newly fallen snow that blanketed the branches of an old spruce tree. The setting was both peaceful and calming, and then Margaret began to recite the first lines of The First Snowfall by James Russell Lowell, 1819 – 1891.
Every pine, and fir, and hemlock
Wore ermine too dear for an Earl
And the poorest twig on the Elm tree
was ridged inch deep with pearl.
The poem of the snow and a recent snow storm suggested that sweet time, at the beloved 1891 Victorian home, at 21 Whitney Place. The large front parlor had a marble-topped table that proudly displayed a clock that chimed, and I fell into a meditative mood just hearing the soothing tones. The house was silent with Persian rugs. The back parlor included a wall lined bookcase that housed books that my sister and I could borrow. What a privilege. The rooms were elegant to a young person who had nothing. There was no fancy furniture at my house. My parent’s bedroom had tacky nylon patterned curtains. They looked cheap. My small bedroom was painted red, loud, and uninviting. There was no privacy to speak of because the room was off the kitchen. A lot of yelling went on in the kitchen. Most family events happened around the kitchen table from early morning until night.
Gram’s house was such a joy to a young girl. The home was beautiful, and a safe place to come home to, and I was always welcome here. My home, on the other hand, was a garage apartment on Madison Street. I can’t remember one happy time there. The house was uninviting with a deep, dark, and steep stairway. At the top of the stairs was a door with a glass window and a sheer curtain, the only light that was inviting came from the kitchen. I never knew what to expect when I opened the kitchen door.
Would my mother be sitting at the kitchen table intoxicated or sober? I dreaded finding her half unconscious with a lit cigarette in her hand. I didn’t know what it was like to feel a mother’s love. Mothering felt like a betrayal to me. I couldn’t trust my mom because she was always covering up and lying to me, a child with a broken heart. She would tell me if I cleaned the house, I could go swimming with the Lenahan’s. I would clean the house, but she would always find something that was not to her liking, and at the
last moment, she would yank the swimming privilege away. It felt like bribery to me.
My sister and I cleaned our home because we wanted dad to come home to a well-maintained home. Even though I was a child, I acted like an adult. My sister and I made a game of housecleaning and sang as we worked. The weekdays seemed terribly stretched out, and I would count the days till the weekend. I was happy on Friday. Sometimes, I would excitedly wait to watch my dad drive down Madison Street in the blue and white Chevy with the tail fins. I would run home to greet him as he got out of the car. My mother was usually dressed up on Friday and sober. The deceit continued.
At the Harrington’s, I knew what to expect. The sisters lived upstairs. Margaret was petite, had a stooped back, and milky blue eyes. She took care of her sister Josephine, who was bedridden because of a stroke, which paralyzed her. Margaret was a gentle soul and never complained about being a companion to her sister. Just before noon, cautiously and slowly, Margaret climbed down the steep back stairs, holding on ever so carefully to the hand rail. She took her main meal in the sunny yellow kitchen promptly at noon. Gram and Margaret sat at the small kitchen table under an old chiming wall clock. I loved to hear the pendulum swinging and the clock chime on the hour and half hour. I sat at a side table when I joined them.
Margaret was kind to me. She was always happy to see me. I liked to spend time with her because she always had something interesting to say. We would talk about flowers, trees, and poetry. One expression, “Never a dull moment,” didn’t make sense to a 13-year-old girl, but I understand the words now and even use the phrase on occasion. Another time, she showed me a photo of a much younger Margaret and a young man. The young man was wearing a suit and hat. He stood solemnly next to Margaret. She was dressed up in a lovely white dress that went to the ankles. The setting was in Congress Park. Margaret mentioned spooning, but I didn’t know what the word meant back then.
The Victorian home was always pristine and perfectly arranged with furniture settings. The muted silk Damask light green Victorian carved couch was against the wall, and embroidered smaller chairs made up a sitting area. No one used the downstairs rooms. Gram cooked on an old black stove that used coal. The delicious smells that radiated from the kitchen made my mouth water. Gram made the best cakes and pies from scratch. I was often hungry when I arrived there. My grandmother was a professional cook.
After several years of service, the house became too large for Gram to manage. Now that I was old enough, she hired me to come on Saturday mornings to dust and vacuum. I loved the job. Grandmother taught me housekeeping skills. A curio cabinet in the front parlor was dear to Margaret, and at times she allowed me to dust the delicate figurines inside. Each was a gift from former students.
On dusting days, I earned a $1.00 from Gram. Then I would go upstairs and receive another $1.00 from Margaret. She would take a book from the bookshelf, open a page, and pull out a crisp dollar bill. My gram and I were not the only workers. There was also a yard man who took care of the property and the outside of the house.
At the time, the Harrington’s house was painted yellow with brown trim. Gram always had time for me, even if she was washing dishes, she paid attention to me. I would chatter away about classes at St. Peter’s or about a school dance that my friend Susan and I attended on Saturday evenings. Gram would smile at me as she worked. Meanwhile, I dried the dishes, bowls, and platters, and put them away in the China pantry. The contrast between Gram and my mother was something. Mom led her chaotic life, and I didn’t find nurturing there.
Gram’s house, this is what we called it; I felt safe, it was a haven to a young girl. Gram was also safe here. Work kept her sober. When she occasionally came to visit my mother or babysit us, kids, she too would drink beer and become someone else. I remember my brother Billy and I would hide the beer bottles in the dryer. One time, we put soap suds in a bottle of beer. Gram became furious with us. We ran away and hid until it was safe to return. By then, Gram was intoxicated and drowsy. It was heartbreaking to witness. I separated her into two people. One who was sober and this was the Gram I loved and prayed for. The other was a person I did not even recognize. It was such a contrast.
At the Harrington’s, after awhile, I started to join my grandmother at the table once reserved for Margaret. It was then I realized that Margaret wasn’t coming down the back stairs anymore. Shortly after that, I started carrying a tray of food upstairs. Like Margaret would say, “Never a dull moment.” Maybe the steps became too much for her. I felt confident that I was a help to my Grandmother with the
I would drag the monstrous vacuum cleaner down the front stairs as I vacuumed the carpeted stairs and the rooms downstairs. I also dusted the furniture. It wasn’t long before I started reading The Saratogian to Margaret, her eyes were getting bad. A teacher who could no longer read was a hardship. I remember I wasn’t a confident reader and Margaret didn’t make a fuss about it. At times, she would pronounce the words for me. I never learned phonetics. I
had to use memory.
On days when I visited my grandmother, she would hint, “Go up and see Margaret.” As a young person, I didn’t realize what a visit would mean to Margaret. My sister and I were the only outside visitors, with two exceptions. Margaret’s niece, from Ballston Spa, came each week to do the banking. Her cousin, Ed Sullivan came to visit his aunts when he was in town during the racing season. Mr. Sullivan was a mystery to me. Margaret and Gram would watch the Sunday TV broadcast, The Ed Sullivan Show, faithfully. I never met him, but quietly my grandmother would tell me after he came and visited his aunts. There are many mysteries when one is growing up.
My father bought a gentleman’s farm when I was a senior. Whisked away to the country for my last year of high school was a hardship for someone who had a life in town. I had no friends out there, and country kids were different than in-town kids. In Saratoga Springs, I could walk everywhere. Now I was stuck without transportation begging my sister or father for a ride. There were periodic visits to 21 Whitney Place, but I missed the connection to a meaningful life with Gram and Margaret. Before I knew it, I graduated from St.
Peter’s Academy in 1963. Then my grandmother retired and joined us at the farm in Rock City Falls, New York.
I did visit Margaret after my grandmother retired. Gram told me she was in the hospital for a cataract operation. Margaret said she was afraid. She had never been in a hospital before. I tried to comfort her, old enough to understand how alone she was. Then shortly after that, my grandmother told me that Margaret died in the hospital. I could see my grandmother was upset with the news and she said, “the poor dear.” I was stunned to realize that I would never see Margaret again. It was as if a chapter of my life was over, but, our journey didn’t end here.
Margaret is always with me in a mystical way. I am 72 years old now, and a large white pine is visible from my dining area window, and I remember Margaret and the poem.
Death and Bereavement
The First Snow-Fall
James Russell Lowell (1819–1891)
The snow began in the gloaming
and busily all the night
had been heaping hill and highway
with a silence deep and white.
Every pine, fir, and hemlock
wore ermine too dear for an Earl
and the poorest twig on the Elm tree
as ridged inch deep with pearl.
From sheds new roofed with Carrara
Came Chanticleer’s muffled crow
The stiff rails were softened to swan’s down
And still muffled down the snow.
I stood and watched at the window,
The noiseless work of the sky
and the sudden flurry of snowbirds
Like brown leaves whirling by.
I thought of a mound in sweet Auburn
Where a little headstone stood;
How the flakes were folding it gently,
As did robins the babes in the wood.
Up spoke our own little Mabel,
Saying, “Father, who makes it snow?”
And I told of the good All-father
Who cares for us here below.
Again I looked at the snow-fall,
And thought of the leaden sky
That arched o’er our first great sorrow,
When that mound was heaped so high.
I remember the gradual patience
That fell from that cloud like snow,
Flake by flake, healing, and hiding
The scar of our deep-plunged woe.
And again to the child, I whispered,
“The snow that husheth all,
Darling, the merciful Father
Alone can make it fall!”
Then, with eyes that saw not, I kissed her;
And she, kissing back, could not know
That my kiss was given to her sister,
Folded close under deepening snow.