“The most memorable character we have met”
“It was in a small village in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, back in 1891 that we four children, from three to ten years of age, were introduced to the lady who was destined to become to us the most devoted stepmother in the world. From the very outset none of her brood of healthy boys realized that she was a stepmother and we never had occasion to be reminded of that fact. From the very day of her arrival in our home she just naturally took possession of our young hearts, and retained this hold all through the years until her recent death, just 24 hours after she had reached her 91st birthday. During this period she never lost interest in the fortunes of her children although many thousands of miles separated us a great part of the time. The fact that she later had three children of her own in no way seemed to change her affection for us nor our affection for her.
This could be considered something of an understatement when in 1955, 64 years later, we four sons, aged from 66 to 74, agree that this grand lady became to us (and to many others) “the most unforgettable character we have met”. Over all the years she automatically retained the devotion of all of us – from impressionable boys to fully developed manhood, and even to old age.
All four of her older sons developed a taste for wanderlust. Born in Europe, we visited or migrated to America, Africa or Australia. We married women from four different continents and from the wealth of our experiences we now consider ourselves in position to evaluate the fine character of the one always known as “Mother”. (We never resorted to the more modern manner of addressing our stepmother by her given name, nor for that matter by any name less dignified than that of “Mother”).
It has always been a wonder to us that this fine looking, charming young woman of 27 years of age should have elected to assume the great responsibility of raising the four sons of another charming lady. However, our father, being a handsome six-footer and always in first class physical shape and under 200 pounds, must have been the deciding factor. Not alone was she charming, poised, well educated and capable, but she was completely understanding, kind, gentle and sympathetic to all of us. A good manager always, she was to prove a capable nurse on her first Christmas with us when she had the added responsibility of her eldest isolated with scarlet fever. Even this disruption did not disturb her serenity or the festivities of that Christmas Day.
Good management qualifications were necessary to run a home in those days. Ours was no small place; it contained a drawing room, dining room, breakfast room, kitchen, pantry and laundry; with five bedrooms, sewing room and bathroom on the second floor. A maid was employed when available, but there was no limit to the number of hours the mistress and the help put in. Today it seems inconceivable that so much work could have been accomplished with the means at their disposal. With no modern conveniences available it should be remembered that we used oil lamps all over the house (there must have been dozens of them); they were trimmed and cleaned every week at least. All cooking and baking were done on the old-fashioned coal-fired range; in the early days water for bathing was heated on this range and carried by pail to the bath. (A hot water system was installed later). There were absolutely no labor saving devices before 1920. All laundry work was done in the house, and in Ireland, drying clothes was always a problem because of the weather. Water was pumped by hand to a tank under the roof. It was not until about 1930 that electric lights were available, and other modern gadgets were only recently adaptable to local use.
High-principled and deeply religious, mother was meticulous in every particular. Her precise neat handwriting, so well known to all of us, reflected her character in so many ways. She had an appointed place for everything in the home, and as a strict disciplinarian, she insisted on neatness and system. This was a fine training and of great service to us in later years. In some of us there are still traces of this upbringing, but to a notably less degree than in Mother. When the bell rang for meals we knew we had to be there, scrubbed and in presentable shape. Shoes were not permitted beyond the confines of the kitchen for Irish roads kept shoes damp and muddy most of the time. We had stout slippers for wear in the house. When piano or violin practice hours came round there was no way to avoid them. Winter or summer, in frigid or warm rooms, sometimes behind locked doors, we practiced. How long some of those hours seemed to be!!! Being strict about practice was not unreasonable, for music lessons were not that easy to come by in Ireland in those days, and they naturally cost quite a bit with three or four students in the house. Strange that parents were so determined to have at least on musician in the family, which really did not materialize; we were musically inclined naturally, but certainly not musicians of any note.
To the eternal credit of both Father and Mother, chastisement was the sole prerogative of the master of the house. We lads were often astonished about the knowledge of some infringement of the proprieties which called for his attention. He never revealed the source of his information and he never questioned the need for corrective action when mother reported to him. When mother told us to repair to our bedroom and await the arrival of father, we knew we were in for something, well deserved, without any doubt.
One occasion we boys remembered for years was having our mouths washed out with a well-soaped shaving brush, following a session in the use of curse words; we having failed to realize that there was company on the other side of the hedge listening in on the fun and laughter. That ‘company’ was Father!
Looking back, it sees odd that none of us can recall ever seeing Father and Mother angry with one other. This restraint and perfect control was a sure indication of the wonderful understanding between these two ideal parents. Harsh or loud language was never resorted to by either, nor was it tolerated in the home. As a matter of fact, none of us can ever recall when either exhibited rage in any form. Naturally, being extremely annoyed was not unusual. Punishment was only meted out after reasonable delay and consideration, sometimes after several hours of deep reflection in he quiet of our bedroom. Sudden physical abuse or unreasonable ‘slapping’ was never indulged in. It must be admitted here that it is only after due refection and ripe experience could we fully appreciate the value of such restraint. Probably all of us lost much of the value of this example. One thing is certain, we were always made to feel we were deserving of whatever punishment fitted the crime’. Active consciences and religious training gave us a fairly clear understanding of what was right and what was wrong as far so we lads could understand. Mother’s influence and example have had a great effect on the lives of all of us.
The family was blessed with a fair measure of good health, due greatly to the home location, a rugged father and good food. Mother had more than ordinary good health and did an amazing amount of work in the home when maids were not available. She was so ‘down to earth’ that her own children were breast-fed and for many years she did not have a sick day.
When she was 82 years old, on a sightseeing trip, she fell and broke her hip. While in great pain, and not realizing the cause, she insisted on walking to the car and even had her hair done on the way home. Next morning she was in hospital, operated on, and a pin inserted in the break. No cast was used and she was immobilized by sandbags; and from all appearances in her hospital room she seemed to be in for no more that a routine check up. Her spirit was marvelous and she never made any complaint. The result was that she was up and around without crutches, and with little sign of the trouble, within four months. From then on she never seemed to have any bad results of the accident: which, for one of her years, was most unusual and just another proof of her wonderful health and stamina.
In addition to all he other duties around her home, her garden was her delight. The heavier work was always done by others but she loved to have her hands in the good earth and among her beloved flowers and more useful vegetables. However weary she felt, it was a lost day for her when she could not work outside, weather and the time to spend permitting.
The home place is not going to be the same without either the master or the mistress around. They celebrated 50 years of married life in 1941 and when he died in 1948 they were just three weeks sort of their 57th anniversary. However, each of us, the older we grow, can appreciate the good fortune that came our way as children when we were so impressionable and the right influences so vital to us.
Signed Thomas W. Harland 21 Aug. 1955