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Guest Post: What Do Children Notice About Other People’s Houses?

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - June 13, 2012

When I was a child my great-grandmother lived in a Craftsman-style house on Sherman Avenue in Salt Lake City. Until that time I had mostly lived in a single-story house in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Great-Grandma Glade’s laundry chute was beyond fascinating.

Childhood friends had a father who was an artist, later a professor at BYU. He had a printmaking shop in his garage, and we sometimes got to tiptoe through his shop and see his birdcages full of finches.

And then there was my grandmother’s “welfare room.” The basement pantry was lined with shelves full of home-bottled tomatoes and peaches and currant jelly and other food stores including boxes of cold cereals of types that we never ate at home.

I remembered my childhood sense of wonder about how other people lived when I read a passage from Kate Thurston’s book The Winds of Doctrine, which described a visit Kate and her mother, Mary Lockwood Kemp, made to the home of Seth and Eliza Pymm in St. George, Utah. The Pymms never had any children of their own until they adopted a son late in life.

While the women prepared the meal, Kate read Munsey’s Magazine and Youth’s Companion, publications she wouldn’t have had in her own poverty-stricken home. Here are some of her other memories:

[Seth went to milk] old bossie, for although they have no children, they sell milk and butter and feed a pig and four or five cats that are Aunt Eliza’s pets, along with some birds carefully caged away from the cat’s clutches.

At last, he comes puffing in, the evening chores all done, and finds a lovely supper laid out with a clean cloth and some of the china that Liza brought from England shining under a big kerosene oil lamp, with a bright and shining chimney and a newly trimmed wick….

When the blessing is asked on the food by Uncle Seth, [Kate] is more than interested because of the manner in which it is done. Uncle Seth drew one deep breath and said the blessing all in one breath, having to speak very fast to get it all said, which amused [Kate] very much, but she knew it wouldn’t have been polite to “let on” she noticed….

Uncle Seth had lost a hand in a thresher…. He had always told a story of knowing how it was laid in the box with the palm upward, when buried, without being told, and how his fingers always felt cold, though they were not there, if he did not wear his arm under an overcoat in cold weather….

[Kate] knew that after the dishes were cleared away, washed and put away carefully in the already overcrowded cupboard, filled with china you could see through…that she could play dominoes, and see through the stereoscope the views of distant places of historic interest.

Well, that was a little bit about what Kate Thurston and I found memorable from some childhood visits to others’ homes. What impressed you about the homes and practices of friends, relatives, or others you visited as a child? (Bonus points if the memories reflect Mormon culture.)



13 Comments »

  1. Elegance. Elegance and an exotic, extravagant life that I seemed to think was utterly missing from my own home. My cousins, for instance, got to eat enchanting food that I didn’t even know you could make at home. My grandmother had exquisite ornaments on her shelves that I could gaze at for hours. A pair of elderly family friends had a house full of things to examine, from floor to ceiling, all out on display for a child’s curious gaze.

    Eventually I turned ten or so, and saw things with new eyes. That elegant food my California aunt served her children? Tacos. My grandmother’s most beautiful ornament somehow became a pink plastic rose in a cheap glass globe. The family friends had a touch of the hoarder in them, and their museum-like home was really clutter, stuff stacked everywhere, on display because nothing was ever put away.

    I wasn’t disillusioned or disappointed, though. I learned to appreciate the order in my mother’s home, and I was delighted to learn that I could make tacos, too. And while my grandmother’s knickknacks were never again velvet and crystal to my maturing eyes, they were still Grandma, friendly and familiar and beloved.

    And I don’t get any bonus points at all, unless it counts that everybody I’ve mentioned was Mormon.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 13, 2012 @ 8:31 am

  2. My grandfathers house near 17th South and State Street in Salt Lake always seemed otherworldly to me as a child. Our visits were events because we lived so far away. The furniture was unlike any I had seen in any other house (it was stylish in the 30s and this was the 70′s). Lids cut from tin cans were placed under the feet of chairs and sofas. I was told it was to protect the carpet. There was no showers, only bathtubs, and no shampoo, just bar soap. The basement, where we stayed during our visits, was a little shorter than the rest of the house, making it seem like an exotic dungeon. His freezer always had a five gallon container of ice cream in it, like in the ice cream parlors. I often wondered silently how he could buy such a thing, and why we couldn’t.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — June 13, 2012 @ 8:46 am

  3. Smell.

    I don’t mean that my grandparents’ home stank, but it somehow smelled different. It’s hard to put a finger on. Almost subliminal.

    True of other homes not my own, but to a much lesser extent.

    Comment by Vader — June 13, 2012 @ 9:07 am

  4. I always loved my Grandma Emily Frazier’s house in Woodruff, Utah. She had a long red linoleum covered counter in her kitchen. And there was a little metal woodpecker with a sharp beak that picked up a toothpick if you needed one that sat on the windowsill over her sink. I couldn’t reach it, but I looked at it a lot. Grandma loved me and welcomed our family when we came to live with her and grandpa in 1949. I can almost feel the warmth of that kitchen sixty-two years later. I remember the shelf in the kitchen where her radio sat. It was up high on the wall and every Sunday morning she listened to the Sunday Morning broadcast from Salt Lake. Grandma helped me memorize the first talk I ever gave in Sunday School. And that was in front of everybody. We practiced and practiced there in her kitchen, and I could give it without the paper. On the Sunday I stood up behind the railing in the Woodruff Chapel to give my talk they let me take the paper–just in case. I stood there with the sun streaming through those old windows onto me, put my head down, pulled out the paper, and read every word. I didn’t look up once, she loved me anyway. And I love remembering her and her kitchen.

    Comment by Bessie — June 13, 2012 @ 9:33 am

  5. I think I know what you mean, Vader. I think the smell in my older relatives’ [clean] homes came from their using older types of cleaning products and toiletries, and an abundance of leather over plastic. Everything in my house was lemon and pine and peppermint; everything in theirs was wax and shoe polish and camphor and old-lady-hair-products.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 13, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  6. That’s such a touching story, Bessie.

    Oh, smells can be so evocative, Vader. I read recently that old people smell different than younger people, but homes are probably another thing altogether.

    That’s funny about the ice cream and soap and tin can lids, Bruce!

    Ardis, thanks for the note about how views can change about these childhood impressions.

    Comment by Amy T — June 13, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

  7. Here’s a link to a story on the “old person smell” study.

    http://gizmodo.com/5914450/old-people-smell-confirms-science

    Comment by Last Lemming — June 13, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

  8. I remember visiting my Great-Grandparents’ house on Quincy Avenue in Ogden – one of those brick houses with the brick half-walled porch. My Great-Grandmother had little porcelain figurines of a Dutch boy and girl kissing (if you placed them close enough). She would take them down from the shelf to show me and say that the little boy was me and the little blond girl with a blue cap was my girlfriend. I never found that little girl. But considering that my Great-Grandmother’s Mother was named Gertruida ter Bruggen (1859-1910), born in Amsterdam, Holland, I think it was maybe one of those connections across generations.

    Comment by Grant — June 13, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

  9. The transplant of my mother’s family from Provo, Utah to southern California was completed in 1939 after her father, Fred Larsen, died unexpectedly from an infection caused by a cat bite. Mom’s older brother and sister had moved from Utah to California years earlier and so my widowed grandmother sold the Provo house, and she and Mom moved in with Mom’s older sister, Edith, in Southgate, California. Because my paternal grandparents lived in Massachusetts and Grandma Larsen had died by the time my sisters and I had arrived in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Aunt Edie became the “grandma” figure in our lives.

    Her home was where we had most of our family holiday gatherings. And, yes, her 1930s home did have a unique fragrance. It often smelled of homemade crescent rolls rising or roses just picked. There was another smell, too, that our new tract home didn’t have. To me it smelled like heaven.

    Built into the wall next to the back door was a small metal box with a door on the outside and one on the inside. The milkman left the bottled milk and sometimes butter in the box. We left notes to Edie. Everything in her house was pink, including a buffet that Dad built for her with scalloped trim. Her carpet was green with large pink roses, procured for her by her son-in-law who was a mortician and had access to special floor coverings. She had ruffled chintz curtains covered with roses that she had made herself and her green sofa had long twisted fringe along the bottom. Her dining table was small until she folded it out and added several leaves to seat our entire family. I usually sat on the piano bench at the end of the table.

    I don’t recall any toys at her house, but who needed them? She had a shelf in the kitchen that held such things as a china hound dog whose head sat independently on the neck and bobbed when you touched it. There was a very small hollowed out wooden pig with a cork for a nose and eyes and ears that were small, wiggly pegs. If we were lucky, my cousin would catch a fly and carefully put it through the uncorked nose, quickly re-corking it with the fly inside. The angry fly would buzz around inside the pig, making the eyes and ears wiggle furiously. We didn’t think it was cruel because if we had left the fly cruising around Edie’s house, it wouldn’t have been long before she slapped him dead with the fly swatter that hung on the knob on the ironing board cabinet.

    There is lots more to say about Edie’s house, including the cedar chest, from which came a silky nightgown I got to wear once when I unexpectedly got to spend the night and the long hanging doorbell chimes that I liked to clank against each other since I was forbidden to ring the bell more than once a visit. Suffice it to say that we had none of these exciting and exotic devices or accessories in our own home.

    Today is Edie’s birthday, June 14, Flag Day. She would have been 101 today. I miss her as much as I do my own mother. What a wonderful aunt-turned-grandma we had!

    Comment by Tracy Taylor — June 14, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  10. At my grandparents’ house, I remember the coal stove in the kitchen. They didn’t get a gas stove until the 60s. I also recall my grandfather’s shaving stand in the bathroom. A four-foot tall, one-square foot platform with his leather razor-sharpening strap hanging on a nail. Grandma always had a glass sitting on the kitchen sink and would drink water frequently when she happened to be passing by. I think about Grandma when I drink from the glass on my cupboard.

    My best friend’s house was dark, quiet, orderly, and smelled of face cream. There were two children in the family and a semi-invalid mother. In my identical house lived seven children and a lot more chaos.

    Comment by charlene — June 14, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

  11. Happy birthday to Edie! What a delightful and affectionate portrait, Tracy.

    Charlene — it’s so curious how we remember certain things like the shaving stand, or the drinking glass, and these things can be such a persistent part of our memories.

    I will confess that I wrote this post to memorialize the Pymms, but I am really enjoying all the beautiful and intriguing memories being shared here.

    Kate Thurston’s portrait of the Pymms ended up being one of the most memorable passages of her book. I’ve added the Pymms’ obituaries to their Findagrave entries: Seth Austin Pymm and Eliza Dent Pymm. Eliza’s said, “Aunt Eliza as she was affectionately termed was a good woman and a devout Latter-day Saint. She was of a kindly nature and very charitable. Her deeds will live after her.” Her obituary and Seth’s are both very generous, but not as meaningful as Kate Thurston’s story which really brings the two to life.

    Comment by Amy T — June 14, 2012 @ 7:34 pm

  12. Amy,

    I inherited the shaving stand…a memorable but unstable and less than useful piece of furniture.

    Comment by charlene — June 15, 2012 @ 11:58 am

  13. Milking a cow one-handed. That’s a feat worth commemorating!

    While reading the comments, I’ve taken a mental tour of my grandparents homes. Because my parents moved frequently in my childhood, my grandparents’ homes in some ways were more familiar and homey than my own. One smelled of minty muscle cream and bag balm; the other of dried fruit and fresh-baked bread. Ah the memories. It’s like Whittier going “Out to Old Aunt Mary’s”

    Comment by The Other Clark — June 25, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

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