No, the above title is not a typographical error. This beautiful month of May, 1950, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of a certain human welding process. To appreciate the courage and the kindness of the welders, let us go back a few years, when the disintegrating forces began their evil work. In 1895 a young mother, dying of "quick consumption," exacted from her husband a promise that he would let her widowed mother have the baby, a two-year-old girl. Since the husband's sight was rapidly failing, and he could no longer support his two little daughters, there was no room for argument. Only God knows the anguish in that father's heart. He and his four-year-old went to live with his parents. The maternal grandmother - God rest her soul - was in her 70's, ill and neurotic. For four, long, terrible years she tried to cope with a restless, exploring, exasperating child (let's call her Jane) who tormented the very wits out of her. Her only recourse was the rod - and she used it freely. Jane's only happy memories, aside from the delightful Christmas and birthday gifts from her faithful father, were those periods when the grandmother was completely bedfast - and someone else took over. Someone who knew how to cuddle a little child. There was Molly Taylor, who was Jane's mother's best friend. There was Judge Telford, who slipped a quarter into the child's hand on the street one day. There was the guardian angel, Mrs. Sarah Christy, who taught Jane, at four, how to read and write and say "Please" and "Thank you," and how NOT to steal the neighbors' fruits and flowers. The child was assured at least one good, well-balanced meal a day: breakfast at Mrs. Christy's - plus a good grooming, plus "school" and an educational game. But there was the education of the street arab, too: the encounters with sex perverts of all ages, who took fiendish satisfaction in "indecent exposure;" the encounters with bullies, who kept Jane in mortal terror of policemen, and sent her in panic for cover - bursting through the nearest door of strange houses, and hiding under the farthest bed. To this day her first reaction at the sight of a policeman is an involuntary shudder.
Every spring the grandmother's daughter-in-law, called "Caroline," would come and clean house for her. She was hard-working and a bit grim, but her eyes were kind. Jane liked her. Then one hot night in July - in the last year of the old century - the grandmother died. The next morning Mrs. Christy gently woke Jane and told her that Grandmother had "gone to Heaven." After a few well-shed tears Jane began to be glad for Grandmother that she was safely ensconced in that Better Land - and celebrated by running of to watch the circus parade in town. She came home with glowing accounts of her thrilling day, but some grown-up with a macabre sense of duty and reverence punished the child by shutting her in the darkened parlor to contemplate the mystery of death - in the person of her grandmother's corpse in a black coffin. Mercifully she soon fell fast asleep. After the funeral - what to do with the orphan? Her father, now totally blind, was in a school for the blind, learning a trade. A kind uncle - a minister - decided to take Jane home with him to Iowa, although he already had five young mouths to feed - on a preacher's meager salary. His wife was one of earth's saints, who knew and loved Jane's father and mother. But Uncle John took sick and died the following October. Another good uncle from Pennsylvania took over, and became Jane's guardian. But this harum-scarum youngster was too much for his well-ordered household, and when the youngest member of the family took mortally ill with typhoid, Jane was farmed out with a family in Saltsburg who had been tenants on the grandmother's farm.
To spare the feelings of a member of that family, who is a respected citizen in his community, let us omit the gruesome details, except to say that Jane was an utterly unhappy child, feeling that nobody wanted her. She tried to run away, but the pangs of hunger brought her back. Then one day, as she sat by the roadside - up near the cemetery - aimlessly making mud pies, this "Aunt Caroline" of Indiana house-cleaning days came by, with horse and buggy. Jane recognized her, and asked for a ride. With that wish granted, she begged to go home with her. The warm heart behind those deep blue, searching eyes could not withstand a child's pleading and Jane was granted a week's leave of absence - to go to the farm for a visit.
Years later "Aunt Caroline" told how Jane begged so hard to stay with her and her family that this good aunt-by-marriage, widowed and poor, wrote to the child's guardian, offering a home to the orphan. The offer was accepted with alacrity. Two weeks after this visit Aunt Caroline's son, Ellis, pulled his milk-wagon team to a halt in front of the house where Jane was staying. Someone helped him with the black trunk with the curved top. This trunk was valuable. It held priceless paisley shawls, brocaded black satin shawls with silk fringes, rich velvet and laces, linen table-cloths and bed-spreads made from the flax on Grandmother's farm, and Jane's mother's flat silver. But there was not one child's dress. Jane wore her "one and only," a red-and-white check, on her spindly body. Psychologists say that children remember in detail a deeply happy experience. Jane remembers every detail of that ride. She remembers Ellis' faded blue shirt with the white polka-dots, the gray-white suspenders, the Sunday-go-meetin' stiff straw hat, now sun-tanned and dingy on top, and used only for trips to town. She can remember the horses, Dick, a dark bay, and Fannie, a "flea-bitten gray" - and the wonderful thrill of holding the reins, or "lines," as they were called. Every tree and bush and flower along the road to Paradise was glorified that day. Jane leaned far over the dash-board to dislodge one of the lines, trapped under Fannie's tail. Ellis gently pulled her back to safety, and with pseudo-sternness - and the kindest voice she had ever heard - said, "You mustn't lean out like that; you might fall and get killed; and," he added, "I'm so busy right now, I wouldn't have time to bury you" And Jane, who had wept bitter tears over teasing and taunts, laughed gaily at his little joke. She was all warm and happy inside. They had reached the Nancy Gill place (now Nannie Nowry's), and there below - to the right - smiling under the bright May sun - were the undulating fields, Nature's fine feather-stitching of pale green on a dark brown coverlet, the new crop of corn for 1900; there was the orchard; there was the assembly of house and barn and corn-crib and granary and wagon-shed, coal shed, and Dutch oven that spelled HOME.
When we pulled into the yard (yes, it was WE), Ina was wiping her hands on a fresh, crisp roller towel by the open back door; and through the kitchen window came the singing voice of Aunt Caroline, as she kneaded her sixteen loaves of bread, "Tis the song, the sigh of the weary; Hard times, hard times come again no mo'. She little knew how prophetic was her song. ****
Yes, that was fifty years ago. Although dear Aunt Caroline went to her reward thirty-four years ago, and kind Ellis,15 years ago, the appreciation of their kindness deepens with the passing years. As for Ina (Mrs. Clyde Lemon), no flesh-and-blood sister could possibly be more loyal and steadfast in her affection. And now another important member of that family steps into the picture: Knox. Knox, who was always interested in the moral and spiritual welfare of the family protege; Dr. Knox, who has dedicated his whole life to helping others; Knox, the sentimental old codger, who just has to come back every now and then to the old haunts, and hunt up all his old friends and schoolmates. He is on his way East now - with his wife and daughter, Helen. Knox is sole delegate from his Glendale, Calif., church to the Presbyterian General Assembly in Cincinnati, O., May 22-27. Then he and his family will be at Ina's for a family reunion over that week-end and through Memorial Day. He is hoping to see many of his old friends at the Memorial Day services in Saltsburg. I shall be hanging onto his coat-tail - and looking hard, too.
It will be a day of memories - and Remembrance - for all of us. Forgive the personal angle. This letter is my memorial to that wonderful Gilkerson family, who put Christianity to work.
With love - and sympathy for the sorrowing.
Florence B. Taylor
Next - 7/13/50 - The Little White House at Warm Springs
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