Because I want you to know her as I did, let me tell you about Leah. She was my mother and the most valued gift I have ever been given.
Leah was heavy, about 210 or 220 pounds. There were times when I was ashamed of her weight and even of her misuse of the English language. Since she had only gone to the eighth grade, not uncommon for girls in 1909, she sometimes mixed up tenses and often confused the number of subject and verb. Isn't it interesting that I can be critical of one who had the command of 2 languages, French, as well as English, when I can only use one myself?
I hated those old grandmother shoes she always wore. They were always black, laced-up oxfords, with 1 1/2 inch heels, like the shoes old-fashioned nuns used to wear. I can still smell the leather as I did when I went to retrieve them for her from one floor of the house or the other.
I was always proud of the fact that my mother was an excellent cook. Everyone who visited our house, always gravitated to Leah's kitchen where she might be baking bread, making galettes, soaking a rabbit in wine for tomorrow's dinner, or baking French tarts.
My mother really enjoyed life. She loved to dance and laugh. After she came back from Puerto Rico where she visited Mary Anne, her grand-niece whom she adored, she told me how much she loved Puerto Rico. She loved it mostly because the people were happy, singing, laughing and gregarious.
Despite her weight, Leah was light on her feet. Since my father did not dance, I never saw my parents dance together. One day, though, in the middle of our kitchen floor, I saw a gentleman friend who was visiting us, grab my mother and swing her around the kitchen floor. That day I experienced my first real confrontation with jealousy. I was absolutely devastated to see another man's arms around my mother. I cried bitterly.
Around the house, my mother always wore a cotton print house dress with a large apron covering the front. Sometimes she made those aprons from feed sacks. It was common for animal feed to come in large printed cotton sacks which were suitable for fashioning into useful items like, dresses, skirts, aprons, tea towels, etc. Since my father kept a coop full of chickens for eggs and meat for the table, we sometimes had available sacks for sewing.
Every day at 2:00 p.m., Leah went upstairs to have her bath and put on a clean house dress and apron before my father returned from work. On some afternoons, she and her neighborhood friends, Mary Moine, Lucy Deems, and Rosie Malfregeot, had "tea parties" at each others homes. We all knew that at the tea parties, the beverage of choice would be freshly-brewed hot coffee with good fresh cream and some kind of French tart or cookie. On very special occasions, especially later in their lives, the "girl friends" might even have a little glass of wine, usually Mogan David, with their treats.
Later in the day, when Leah started dinner, the cooking odors of onions, garlic, thyme and bayleaf as they permeated beef and veal stews, meat loaf, beef roast, pork and lamb chops, roast pork and even venison sometimes, were almost more than I could bear. I would get so hungry it was hard to wait until dinner was ready.
But my sister and I were never allowed to sit down to dinner until my father came to the table. He always responded promptly to the call, but it always seemed an eternity to me. My mother taught us respect for our father in many subtle ways.
Leah was often the neighborhood nurse. The story is told of her that during the "big flu epidemic of 1918," she was the only one who never contracted the flu, despite the fact that she cared for all the flu victims in the neighborhood. It seems she wore a large clove of garlic on a string around her neck and was convinced that that had saved her from the fate of her friends and neighbors. Probably the garlic around her neck did nothing to protect her, but her belief in its efficacy might have.
She was still caring for the sick and bereaved 40 years later: she was the one who sat with Mrs. Morris, the neighbor across the street, as she lay dying in her bed; she bathed the new Leuliette baby for six weeks because his mother was too nervous to do so; she went to Rosie Malfregeot's house every day to feed and bathe her during her last illness; she made pots and pots of all kinds of soups for people who had a particular liking for a certain kind; and she even lanced a boil after creating a vacuum in a coke bottle and applying it to the cheek of my youngest son. It was she who baby sat with the little retarded girl down the street when her mother could get no one else to sit with her. In fact, Laurie Ann and Leah had become quite good friends by the time Laurie had to be institutionalized.
Although she was not overtly religious, my mother was intensely spiritual and compassionate. She was not baptized into the Christian faith until she was 35 years old. This was not because her parents were irreligious, but rather because the rest of her baptized siblings had been born in France where priests and Catholic churches were plentiful and she was born in Arnold, Pennsylvania where there were no Catholic churches at the time. The family's move to Clarksburg, WV, made access to Catholic clergy even more remote. So it was that my mother was not baptized until 1936 at St. James Church in Clarksburg. It was just after her baptism that my mother and father were married in a sacramental marriage in the church. My sister and I served as witnesses to my parents official marriage. I remember well that we were on our way to the grocery store and we stopped off at the church on our way to get our parents properly married "in the church."
I believe my mother was innately spiritual because she taught me many prayers of praise and thanks years before she herself was baptized and began to officially practice her faith. As I pull up the bed covers on a cold, snowy night, I can still hear my mother say as she tucked me into my warm bed, "Oh, honey, aren't we fortunate to have a nice warm house to live in." To this day, I think of those who are cold every time I turn up the furnace or pull up the bedclothes. Leah's attitude was truly one of gratitude.
While I was still a pre-school child in the early 30's, many people were still suffering from the "great depression." Many times, I watched through the screen door as my mother served food to a poor beggar and sometimes his children as well. There were always sandwiches and cold drinks. Never did I hear my mother refuse a request for food or drink. I never saw her give money, but she always gave an ample quantity of delicious food and drink. As a matter of fact, her now grown-up paper boy told me just the other day how much he loved my mother. It seems that when he delivered the paper on hot summer afternoons, she always sat him down in a chair on the porch and served him a glass of iced tea or lemonade.
Isn't life filled with irony? Just imagine how I felt when my mother's hefty 220 pound frame shrank to less than 80 pounds as she lay dying from pancreatic cancer. She was an early experimental patient for hyper-alimentation. She had been unable to eat or drink anything for 5 months before her death. But by allowing scientific experimentation with her ailing body, she helped to make "hyper-al" commonplace. Leah continues to "feed the hungry."
It is 21 years after Leah's death and my youngest son called me from 2000 miles away and said, "Boy, Mom, I sure miss grandma, don't you?"
" Indeed I do, son. The memory of her and all I learned from her are
among my greatest treasures."
© 1995 Olga S. Hardman