Holidays at grandma’s
November 17, 2015
Holiday season always brings back memories of our family get-togethers at grandma Hill's house in the Logan section in northeast Philadelphia. Her modest working class row house wasn't more than 20-feet wide. How, I wonder, did grandma Hill ever fit us all in for holiday meals?
Adeline Wells Hill, my mother-in-law, was a remarkable woman. She had been a schoolteacher in western Pennsylvania where she met her husband, Clayton Hill, after World War I. Shortly after their marriage, they moved to Philly where Clayton was a pharmacist. Adeline was a frugal woman who never let anything go to waste. Her cooking skills were beyond compare, and she could stretch limited supplies to meet needs.
Back then there were no "supermarkets." Adeline had to pull a handcart two blocks from her home to Broad Street. She then went from shop to shop to get her groceries and other household items. I always marveled at how she was able to have fresh vegetables. My older sons, Don Jr. and Doug, often talk about shucking corn or shelling peas. They also remember overnight visits to grandmas and her fantastic pancakes.
To this day, I still try to recreate Adeline's pancakes; but to no avail. She had an old iron skillet and used a "salt bag" with some kind of grease that over time, had embedded itself into the iron. But I digress. In the 40s, 50s, and early 60s, as many of the entire Hill clan would get together, especially for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Grandma had four sons, and three of them were married.
Reaching the small row house involved climbing up four stairs from street level, to a wooden rail lined porch. To each side were other porches of the neighbors, all connected. There were few secrets then, it seemed that everyone spent some time on swings on these porches talking to their neighbors. What a concept! The front door had a large picture window beside it that took up most of the front of the house.
Inside were a small living room, then the dining room, the kitchen, and a small pantry area. The back door led to a small backyard with a tiny plot of grass, or often a garden. Between the dining room and kitchen was a door to the basement. In the living room there was a set of stairs that led to three bedrooms and a bathroom. These homes were extremely functional, no space was wasted.
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Now the fun part. My husband Don had three brothers. Clayton was the oldest and he and wife Peggy had two children. Don and I, at that time, had four children.
Brother Bob and his wife Betty had four children. Youngest brother Gene married later on and he and wife Alice had one child. Great-Grandma Wells also lived with the Hills. Sounds like a school math problem doesn't it? The total was 22.
Turkey was served at Thanksgiving, and ham at Christmas. Meals always included homemade rolls, coleslaw, olives, carrots, celery, mashed and sweet potatoes, peas, string beans, corn, fantastic gravy and stuffing. Dessert was pumpkin or apple pie, with hot fresh coffee. There was often homemade Boston cream pie, my son Doug's favorite. Naturally, the turkey was huge, as was the ham; which was crosscut and covered with clove. As I write this, my mouth is watering.
Adeline never asked for help getting this together. More remarkably, there were no canned vegetables, everything was fresh. Later on, when frozen food came out, she would sometime relent, especially as she got older. Seated very closely, we would hold hands and pray. It was usually short; "God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food." Perhaps we should have added "And we also thank Adeline and husband Clayton too?"
Cleanup time, however, was a different story. The men and children went to the living room or outside onto the porch while the women completed this chore. No automatic dishwasher then, everything was done by hand. One sink held soapy water, the other a tub with water to rinse. As I said, Grandma Hill never wasted anything. Once the rinse water was too soapy she would use it to water her plants.
My son Doug also remembers, while staying at Grandma's, that bath time water was only two inches or less deep. He still remembers red Lifebuoy soap. Yes, it was also placed in his mouth if he said anything, as kids often do, inappropriate.
Edna Van Leuven is a Churchill County writer and columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.