Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Story About My Mother's Mother

Thinking about Mother's Day reminded me that we also consider grandmothers at this time. After all, they are the mother's of our mothers (and our fathers!). So today I'm going to pay tribute to my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Doonan Studham. And perhaps you will write about your own.

Born on a farm in Minnesota to Irish immigrants, she married a coal miner from Iowa. How I wish that I knew the story of where they met. They had five children, two of whom died of diptheria around age 4. In 1929, my grandmother did the unthinkable. 

She left Iowa with my mother, her youngest child, and went to Chicago where her two sons lived.. She and my grandfather lived separated but never divorced until he died. She had no means of income, just enough money to rent a tiny apartment for her and my mother who was 11 at the time. 

Then, she proceeded to build her own business, baking cakes and pies and rolls that she sold to the neighbors. No Health Department inspectors and rigid rules then. Her tiny at-home business grew to the point that she rented space to begin a neighborhood bakery in Oak Park, the Chicago suburb where she and my mother lived. She built it into a good business, adding catering as a sideline. She worked hard, putting in long hours. 

My mother quit high school after one year and helped in the bakery. It was the Depression years and work for teens came above education in many families. I leaned many good life lessons from my grandmother, and more than a few in the hours I spent with my mother at the bakery in my early years. I've written a story about it which you can read below, one that I've posted on the blog in the past but it seemed appropriate to do so again.

Elizabeth Doonan Studham
Lessons In Grandma’s Bakery

 My mother and I spent our mornings in the working area of my grandmother’s bakery during my early years, from 1939 to 1943. I picked up some good habits and learned a few things in a painless way. I watched and I listened. There was no need for a formal lecture.

One of those good habits concerned drinking tea. A long, narrow table, covered with a soft-green oilcloth sat parallel to the north wall in the workroom of the small neighborhood bakery. The table offered a resting place when Grandma, my mother and my Uncle Paul took breaks from the hours spent on their feet. Thick white cups on matching saucers were set before each of us and a plate of some fresh-baked delicacy graced the center of the table.

Grandma brewed the tea in a large brown pot. “You can only make good tea in a brown pot,” she often said as she tipped it enough to pour the steaming brown liquid into our cups. She filled my cup half-full, then added milk and a bit of sugar. “English tea for you,” she’d say before she sank onto the bench that ran the length of the table. She added some sugar to her tea and passed the plate of sweet rolls or cookies or whatever it happened to be that day. She conditioned me to crave a little something sweet when having a cup of tea.

Our tea breaks weren’t long for there was always a new task waiting for these three members of my family. When we’d eaten every crumb on the treat plate and drained our cups, Grandma and Uncle Paul went back to the baking, and my mother relieved the girl who worked in the front room serving customers. I’d kneel on the bench and wait for Adeline to come to the table and pour her own cup of tea. Grandma brought her a small plate with a treat on it, and I chattered while Adeline savored both her tea and a rest.. She was young and pretty with golden curls and always smiling or laughing.

I heard Grandma say one day that Adeline was a good worker despite being so young. “Those Czech girls know how to work. I’d hire another one to help her if I could afford it.” The bakery served as Grandma’s only income, and she watched her pennies carefully. Adeline never complained about low pay. When she finished her tea, she’d give me a hug and hurry back to the front room to continue selling bakery goods from the case and taking orders for later. I peeked around the edge of the doorway and watched as she wrapped the purchases carefully and handed them to the customers along with her warm smile. “There you go,” she’d say. “Come back soon.”

I wanted to go into that front room and spend my time with Adeline. I wanted to talk to the customers, too, but it was forbidden territory. My grandmother told me I must never go through that doorway. My mother told me. My Uncle Paul told me. The lure of that front room with people coming and going proved to be my undoing now and then. Once I started peeking around the doorway, I inched my way through it, quiet as the proverbial church mouse. I tried to stand behind the bakery cases and watch, but it never lasted long. I’d feel a strong hand grasp my skinny upper arm, and I got pulled, none too gently, into the work room. Two things happened next. First came the scolding followed by me being marched to the side of a large refrigerator. “Now you stand there and think about what you did,” Uncle Paul said. He turned me so that my back was against the fridge, and my face far away from that doorway that lured me like a siren of the sea so many times.

Years later, when he had his own children, I overheard him tell my mother how sorry he was that he’d made me stand by myself as punishment for so long. “She was just a little girl,” he said, “and the time must have been an eternity for her.”  I spent the half-hour watching all the activity around me--Grandma and my mother rolling dough or slicing apples for pies, and Uncle Paul hoisting huge tins of flour and sugar for them, and then he’d punch down the bread dough and begin shaping it into loaves. I loved the yeasty aroma that drifted into every corner of that big workroom. Sometimes I’d be able to see deliverymen come through the back door toting everything from lard to flour to butter to sugar, milk and eggs. Grandma got extra rations for her business during those WWII years. I learned that making a business successful meant hard work and being careful with money.

Occasionally, Adeline came to the workroom to get more baked goods for the cases. She didn’t dare talk to me during punishment time, nor could I speak to her. But as she walked by, arms loaded with bread and cinnamon rolls, she’d make a funny face and wink at me. I clapped my hands over my mouth so I wouldn’t giggle. I learned that punishment was serious business, but it didn’t mean the end of the world. Life would go on when I’d served my sentence.

When Uncle Paul gave me the signal, I dragged a flour tin close to Grandma and climbed onto it so I could watch at the high table where she worked. If she had nuts ready to use, I asked her, “Just one nut for me, Grandma?” and she’d hand me one beautiful, big pecan. I had my one pecan every day of the week. If she was making fancy tea sandwiches for a catering order, I’d ask, “Just one for me, Grandma?” and she’d hand me one without a word. I learned that even a little bit of something you crave is satisfying.

The mornings in Grandma’s bakery during the early 1940’s remain a clear memory. I can see my grandma in her Mother Hubbard apron, hair braided and wrapped atop her head like a crown. Her rimless glasses steamed often from the heat of the ovens and hot water in the deep sink. I can see my mother, young with a colored ribbon woven into her curls, apron wrapped around her cotton dress darting me warning looks if I ventured near the doorway to the front room. I see my Uncle Paul with his thick, blond hair swept straight back from his forehead, a large flour sack towel tied around his waist for an apron. At night, he performed as a magician wearing a tuxedo, but I never got see him except in photos. I see Adeline running back and forth from the front to the workroom, curls bouncing, with always a word or a pat for me.

It’s when I have a cup of tea now that these memories come floating back to me. Once again, I am at the oil-cloth covered table with Grandma pouring my English tea and handing me a sweet roll which smells of yeast and cinnamon. 

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