Times Past, Pausing to Remember

by Helen Strowbridge Sutherland

Helen was a woman of nearly 70 years when she set down her memories of her life on a large and productive farm in the Fingerlakes region of New York State.

In the beginning was mother, gentle and affectionate, whose sweet personality created a paradise for her large family of children and no house was ever so sweet as our first one.

When we began to be, the large front yard was guarded on three sides by a white picket fence - the greenest and softest grass in the world grew there - and the tall old cherry trees touched the sky. Life, at first, was one long summer day in which you ran and played to your hearts content. I do not remember that there was any night at first. The world, for you, was now - just created - and you were deeply moved by the wonders of nature by which you were surrounded. To watch the cherries ripening in the sun and the birds feeding on them - to hear the golden oriole sing his glorious song and to see his flashing golden wings against the deep blue sky was an ecstasy quite beyond any expression. The morning sun above this sweet place - and you could see over the hills and far away. You early learned to know that Seneca Lake lay to the East and Keuka to the West, and on clear days other ranges of hills appeared beyond.

sketch of the farm
The Family's Farm

Those were the days when bread and butter with brown sugar was a treat, and there was no such thing as lessons. You did not have to sit still, except in church when you were dressed up. A lump on the head, or a cut finger was the sum of disaster - and there was no pain that mother could not cure; no danger that father could not protect us from. In this yard grew many shrubs, planted by our dear mother’s hands, and flower beds here bloomed in season. The huge old cherry trees gave the place its name - Cherry Hill. These were small, red, earliest recollections - here was a large swing. Two long poles were hung to a timber laid from one tree to another and a wide seat of boards made an enchanting place for four children to sit at one time - side by side.

A short distance down the road was a deep ravine, --"gully," we called it. You were always a little frightened whenever you crossed the bridge while driving to town with father and mother. There was a swift-rushing stream here during the spring freshets - but only a small brook with some deep pools in the summer time. It was here you came to play and make mud pies - to wade and splash. It was fun, even when you grew up. Dogwood bloomed on the steep banks in the springtime and in the fall you could gather chestnuts on the rim. A long way up this gully, that ran through the farm, was a spring that was always coated with oil and unfit to drink. You believed there was an oil well somewhere below.

Across the road from the house was an old hay barn where you spent many happy hours in spring watching the mud swallows build mud nests under the eaves. They made a sweet twittering sound as they brought pellets of mud in their beaks and built the walls of their nesting places. You could sit almost motionless for hours just watching and listening to these birds - and it was here you began to dream. At this time you had not yet learned to read and you had never heard a fairy story....

Grandfather Strobridge [mother's father] was a gentle, lovely, soul - truly religious. A most devoted Methodist. His Bible, that he read every morning, is almost worn out. The Book of Job actually in shreds. Grandmother was a very difficult woman to live with and this worn part of the Bible that Grandfather used is acute evidence of his need of patience. By trade he was a cabinetmaker and wheelwright. He made much of the early American spinning wheels and furniture of Yates County and the wheels for ox carts and other vehicles. There is a beautiful birds-eye, maple bureau that was made by him, but chairs and spinning wheels were his special work. Mother used to say that the smell of glue and shavings always reminded her of her father’s shop where he worked with his turning lathe.

spinning wheel

Grandmother Strobridge [mother's mother] was Sarah Greene. Her family came from Rhode Island and she was proud that General Nathaniel Greene, of Revolutionary War fame, was her grandfather’s brother. In her old age she lived with us part of the time. She had the best room in the house and never did any work or helped mother in any way. She sat in her rocking chair, the folds of her black dress very long, a starched white apron and a cap of black lace and ribbon on her thin but never white hair.

She was very straight and tall and of a nature so cold and unsympathetic that no one could be happy in her presence. She was proud and tyrannical never satisfied unless she could rule. She could not sew and had no creative faculty. When she was angry she retired to her room and read from her large family Bible in a loud voice. Sometimes you hid and listened. It was always from the Old Testament that she read at these times and told of the punishment of the wicked and of the calamity sure to befall the ungodly. She was a great trial to her three daughters. She died as a result of a fall.

Like many of her generation, she was superstitious, and had a sign for every small occurrence. The way a knife or fork or spoon fell- the broom or mop - had certain meanings. The wind in the chimney had a voice, that to her, foretold the weather - also the moon and its phases was an open book to her. Seeds should be planted at a certain time and the pigs must be slaughtered only in a growing moon. The cat and the dog knew things, and could see things, we humans could not and the cry of an owl at night had a weird meaning in which you put absolute faith. She had seen witches when she was young and told tales of their evil works. You must put spilled salt on the fire to protect yourself. But, you must never go to a dance, or play cards, or read novels - if you did you were certain to land in eternal punishment.

It gratified her to have someone listen with interest to the accounts of her experiences. While you never felt any affection for Grandmother, and you were certain she felt none for you, never the less, the tales of her youth and her belief in the occult made a deep impression on my childish mind. She must have been a beauty in her day and was proud and aristocratic by nature. Old age and disappointment made her bitter and unhappy.

When she was ready to retire for the night her appearance filled me with awe if not terror. She wore a long white night dress - high in the neck and long in the sleeve - and a large nightcap tied under the chin with string like apron strings; and she prayed aloud after her door was closed. You often wondered if she knelt on her knees while she prayed - but there was no way I could find out. But, I suppose she did, manners were important in those days and you did not approach your God in any flippant manner. Her God was revengeful and terrible.

page 2