Friday, November 8, 2013

How People Used to Live

Still poking among the ancestors. Now, however, I've worked around to the folks who were here within living memory (mine). As you might expect of any storyteller, my immediate forebears were storytellers, too. So I've heard many of the family stories over the years. These tales are of interest to my cousins, and maybe also to you. I feel that we are an extraordinary race. Your family is, too. There are, after all, no dull people, only forgetful relatives.

So we remember each other. There are family members whose titanic personalities cause them to stick out above the rest of the tribe like the faces on Mount Rushmore. My father's mother, for one, known to all as Ma Gallison, who used to run the family store in Vanceboro, Maine, without a bank account. She took the train to Bangor to settle the accounts with the wholesalers in cash. Ma ran the family as well as the store; she was feared. Her father, George W. Eales, Sr., was another towering figure. He joined the British navy at the age of ten, in 1825, and got off a ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the age of thirty, declaring that he was now a farmer. Thanks to various cousins I have pictures of him. He was clearly a seaman, even when he was old. That jacket looks to me like original purser's issue.

He died in 1907. In addition to his widow he left four sons and three daughters, of whom my grandmother was the youngest. His sons had daughters who were friends with my grandmother. All these women remained close their whole lives long, helping each other in time of need. I used to hear their names all the time, but since most of them married, their names were all different. I never understood exactly how we were related until last week, when I sat down with and mended the Eales branch of the family tree.

Two of those cousins or aunts or whoever were expected to come and take care of little Bobbie, Aunt Mildred's boy, so that Mildred could pursue her career with the Bureau of Immigration and Ma could work in the store. One would come for six months, then send a letter to the other one, who would come and relieve her. I heard this story from my father, but I can't remember which aunts or cousins were involved. Anyway the one who was on duty gave my dad the letter asking to be relieved, and he put it in the pocket of his band uniform, which was hung in the closet and forgotten, band season being over. When the second woman failed to show up for duty it caused much ill feeling and many hard words.

You're thinking, why did they do that? Why didn't they hire an au pair, or send the kid to day care? It wasn't done. First of all Vanceboro practically ran on a barter economy, especially during the Great Depression, when Bobby was small. Secondly, the tradition was to take care of one's own. My great grandmother, George Eales's wife, prepared corpses for burial, my father told me. She was the one who did that in Vanceboro, washed the bodies and so on. You didn't pay a funeral director to do that. You didn't pay for help when someone was sick in the house, either. You summoned a cousin. When my mother was operated on for breast cancer in 1948, Cousin Mae Glew came all the way from Vanceboro to Crystal Lake, Illinois, to take care of us while she recovered. The loveliest woman. She used to make us cinnamon buns, all hot and buttery. They would be waiting when we came home from school.

And needless to say you never stayed at a hotel when there was a cousin within fifty miles. Our house in North Plainfield, New Jersey, was on the road to Florida for some of the cousins. I remember a number of merry visits. If we didn't have enough beds we doubled up. Good times.

Now and then I think about the old Vanceboro days when I hear people talk about the American Way of Life. What way is that, exactly?

© 2013 Kate Gallison

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