This story is told in such a way that you might think it is fiction – but it is not. It is a reminiscence by Fay Ollerton Tarlock about a childhood encounter with Susa Young Gates and Elizabeth Claridge McCune, both extremely prominent Relief Society women of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Enjoy!
From the Relief Society Magazine, March 1948 –
By Fay Tarlock
The news came during breakfast. The First Counselor telephoned that, in the absence of the Stake President, he wished my parents to entertain the daughter of Brigham Young and the wife of a millionaire; and that the illustrious ladies would arrive from Panguitch at about noon, to give a week’s course in some special Church work.
So began the enchanted week! Even today tiny details remain clear – the brightness of the summer morning, the music of the canyon stream, and the figures of my mother and my older sisters as they rushed upstairs and down. The carpet from the largest bedroom was taken up, beaten, and turned. The entire room was scrubbed, curtains and spreads swiftly laundered. My sisters worried about the beds. The springs were known to sag in the middle, but, after all, there was a bed for each lady, and so a little sag wouldn”t hurt. Thorough cleanings were given the parlor and the dining room.
Then, merciful goodness! The large picture of Brigham Young, which had long ago adorned the living room, was found to be hanging at the dark end of the upstairs hallway. Father and mother spoke in favor of bringing it right down to the parlor to hang by Bonheur’s horses. The sisters said no, definitely. It would look as if we were trying to impress. After a quick debate, the picture was placed in what was once intended to be the guestroom, but which had evolved into a haven for old books and magazines and the winter’s supply of dried fruit and corn.
Everything was done now, my mother said, except cleaning the sitting room. This room was a perpetual clutter of family living. My skin was tight with pride when I called Mother to see what I had done unaided while the others were working.
In the kitchen there was a last-minute scurry to prepare the vegetables. Then we all changed into clean summer dresses and Father put on his second-best pants, and sat on the front porch to await the arrival. We were not as calm as we looked.
For me it was as if someone had rubbed the magic lamp. Susa Young Gates and Elizabeth Claridge McCune were coming to our home! High Church people had been in our home before, but none so eminent as Mrs. Gates, a celebrity in her own right, in addition to her famous name. And the McCune name was a fabulous one. Rich people, I thought, were of a different world. Their manners, their dress, their very ways of thinking were beyond us. Yet tonight Mrs. McCune would sleep in my bed.
It was not a long wait. Soon there came the noise of a car bumping its way to our street. Out of the dust emerged the First Counselor’s car. The First Counselor, dark and dignified, opened the rear car door for two passengers, swathed in grayish
linen dusters and veils. As they came towards us under the shade of the mulberry trees, they shook the red dust of Southern Utah from their clothes. Another year or so, and cars should be gliding over smooth roads. This day, however, some of our roads had a kinship with pioneer trails.
The First Counselor brought the ladies hurriedly down the gravel walk to the front porch. He told the ladies, not without anxiety in his well-bred voice, that he was sorry the Stake President was away. They would, he felt sure, be comfortable with Brother and Sister Ollerton. Then he made a hasty exit, his very back showing his relief.
The ladies, still swathed in veils, sat in the porch chairs. Among their bags was a large one with foreign labels. My hands itched to touch it. Father, as if he read my thoughts, picked up this bag and a still larger one, and started towards the stairs. Mrs. McCune, a slender, gray-haired woman, rose to follow him.
Mrs. Gates, whose hair was a more beautiful gray, and who was heavier in figure, did not rise. Other than her brief greeting, she had been silent. Now she lifted her right hand, and in the voice of one used to command she said, “Elizabeth! Wait a moment!”
Startled, as were we all, Mrs. McCune came back.
What could be wrong with our house? It was a white brick one, made of the best native materials and put together by the best craftsmen in Parowan. Guiltily, I thought of the sagging springs. No, Mrs. Gates could not know of them.
Father was silent and puzzled. With us, he waited for the pronouncement, which came after a long, dramatic pause. “We are requested to stay with the Stake President,” said the daughter of Brigham Young.
Father started to say something, changed his mind, and set down the luggage. He went to the telephone, fastened on the wall. After he had cranked the handle and contacted central, there was a slight wait, probably to give the First Counselor time to get inside his house. Father stated his message almost as briefly and firmly as Mrs. Gates. Turning from the telephone, he told the ladies the First Counselor would come at once.
Then with a suaveness of which we were proud, he sat down to entertain the ladies. He inquired about the journey, commiserating with them over the roughness of the roads, the heat, the dust.
Mrs. McCune laughed, lightly and melodiously, as a great lady should. “I told Susa this morning,” she answered, “that when we got to the railroad, I would faint in the arms of the first Pullman porter.
Mother excused herself quietly and came back with a pitcher of ice water. Nowadays, ice water would be only a common courtesy, but that day it was a social triumph. There were few ice houses in Southern Utah, and we had one. The ladies fairly seized upon the water, unable to believe the tinkle really meant ice.
Then father asked Mrs. McCune about her father, recalling a time long past. “Ah, my dear Father,” she said, and smiled wistfully as she told of him.
Turning to Mrs. Gates, father asked her about some men in Utah’s political life. Deftly he maneuvered the conversation to inquire if she were still writing. “It is time,” he said, ”that you gave us another John Stevens’ Courtship.”
A light came into Mrs. Gates’ eyes. She fairly scintillated as she talked. I could not take my eyes from her spirited face; her vibrant voice was like a spell.
The chugging of the First Counselor’s car was an unwelcome interruption. He told the ladies he would be only too happy to have them as his guests until the Stake President returned. Reaching for the bags, his gesture invited the ladies to rise. Mrs. McCune, on the edge of her chair, was poised for instant flight. Only Mrs. Gates was immobile.
“We will stay with Brother Ollerton,” she said, facing the now thoroughly mystified First Counselor, who stayed only long enough to tell the ladies he would call for them at two o’clock and convey them to the schoolhouse.
Mrs. McCune, with a light step, ran ahead of my father and the bags. Mrs. Gates, walking behind, was dignified, her head high. I wondered if the picture should not be hanging in the parlor, after all.
The next morning, and each morning thereafter, I smoothed my braids, put on a clean apron, and knocked at the visitors’ door. At my feet were two enormous white pitchers, one filled with warm water, one with cold. Pridefully I announced that first morning that by next summer there would be running water in the house, from the soon-to-be water system. This did not elicit so much as a raised eyebrow from the ladies. I suspect now that they were a little weary of performing their ablutions in water from a pitcher.
That was the last and only disappointment they gave me. The week became a veritable Arabian Night’s entertainment, with two gifted Scheherazades to make each minute seem a second. No two women could have been more charming or gracious guests. Totally unlike, they had a genuine love for each other, and they gave generously from the rich store of their past.
It was a quieter and a more innocent day. There were no radios; the movies were not common. The townspeople, awed, perhaps, by the luster surrounding the ladies, gave no entertainment for them. It may be that the ladies themselves requested quiet because of the labor of long classes. Whatever the reasons, we had them to ourselves during the late afternoons and evenings.
Nights we sat in the parlor, leaving the doors open to catch the canyon breezes. The room was a large one with a rose-splattered, axminster rug, white woodwork, and ecru net curtains. For furniture there were bookcases, a parlor organ, a congress chair, and a round table, made long ago by Parowan’s co-operative society, a low hanging wooden chandelier, wicker chairs, and a leather sofa bought from Sears and Roebuck. I thought it a charming room.
The mealtimes were also memorable. The food was wonderful – fruit and vegetables fresh from the orchard and garden. There was thick cream, butter, freshly churned, and ice cream made on the back porch, along with homemade bread, cakes, and pies. Chickens came from our hen house. In the morning there were omelettes, garnished with bacon and ham, home-cured. Mother brought out her best relishes and jellies to accompany her snowy Irish linen and her china with the wild-rose pattern. When the sign “Fresh beef for Sail hear” appeared in a local store window, we had roasts and steaks.
At first, Mrs. Gates came only to the noonday dinner, it being her custom to eat but one meal a day. One evening, however, she was in the parlor walking back and forth in her long black dress. “Is that what you have for supper every night?” she asked, stopping suddenly, and peering through the arch that separated her from the dining room.
”Yes, every night,” answered Mrs. McCune, “and it gets better every meal.”
Mother brought out an extra service and adjusted our seating to give Mrs. Gates her accustomed place at the foot of the table. From then on her conversation enriched every meal.
Much of what they talked about was over my head, but I listened breathlessly. I sensed the things of which they talked – the universal problems of the human mind. Contact with Mrs. Gates’ bright intellect stirred something within me for the first time.
Best of the conversations were about travel. Even as a small child I had a strong urge to see the world. Now the door opened slightly for me. Enchanted, I moved through art galleries and cathedrals. In awe, I watched the Pope give audiences in the Vatican. And I was silent before the Roman graves of Keats and Shelley.
Mrs. Gates was a leader in the fight for woman’s rights. She had represented the women of the Church and of Utah on many a valiant battleground. Thirteen times she had crossed the continent in a chair car as a spokesman for some Utah organization. I can still hear her clear voice telling us that she went via chair car because there had been no money to waste on Pullmans.
Mrs. McCune, who had a light heart and a delightful wit, told of being in London with a Utah friend whom I shall call Mrs. X. Mrs. X. came in one day all aflutter. She had been invited by a member of Parliament to have tea in the House of Commons. Mrs. McCune was to go, also.
“Now, Elizabeth,” pleaded Mrs. X, “for goodness sakes, forget the Word of Wisdom for once. I could never stand the humiliation if you refuse tea.”
“I didn’t want to humiliate anyone,” Mrs. McCune told us. “I said that I would try to be wise and ask for a cup of hot water.”
They went to the House of Commons. Mrs. X sent up her card. They waited, Mrs. X nervous in her anticipation. The nervousness turned to anxiety. Still no reply.
“I couldn’t stand to see her disappointed,” Mrs. McCune related, “so I told her that we would go over to the House of Lords. I knew a member there.”
They went to the House of Lords, and were received by a duke who had been a guest of the McCunes in South America. For tea he took them to a terrace overlooking St. James Park and Buckingham Palace.
“You,” said the duke, in his charming way, ”do not drink tea.” Bowing to Mrs. X, he smiled and said, “I am acquainted with the habits of Utah people. For the three of us today I shall order a special lemonade.”
That was a lesson to me. I could see the trio so plainly, a duke, with two ladies dressed in silk and ostrich plumes and white kid gloves, sipping lemonade on the terrace.
Mrs. Gates took the mantel of Scheherazade. She told us a tale of a European tour in the company of the McCunes, her daughter Emma Lucy, and a number of Utah girls. Emma Lucy was a music student enjoying a holiday. It has never been my pleasure to know Mrs. Bowen, but she is a vivid part of my early memories. To me she is always a fair-haired girl with a golden voice and a radiant smile.
All over Europe the other girls complained about the hotels, the trains, and foreigners in general, in the true tourist manner, but Emma Lucy of the golden voice enjoyed it all. One day, because she did not “grizzle,” Mrs. McCune gave her a golden guinea. A guinea in those days bought something.
There was the delightful story of Mrs. McCune’s daughter who had two children and lived in France. A policeman tried to arrest her because she was running a school without a license. Five children, in Parowan, was a small family.
And there was the guide in the catacombs. He was frankly showing off his European polish and gift of language before the stupid one-tongued Americans. Mrs. McCune listened to him all through the dark catacombs, then she turned to him
and asked him a question in the tongue of the Ute Indians. There was one deflated guide.
Life was not all sitting at the feet of these captivating storytellers. There was work to be done! I had to churn. How I hated that churning! Turning the handle of the big yellow churn while the cream slowly thickened and broke into globs of golden butter was a weary process. I was at the tedious routine when Mrs. McCune came to the back porch.
”Would you let me turn it just a minute?” she asked me, as if it were a favor.
I was aghast. Surely no one in her right mind would want to churn unless it were a necessity, but I relinquished the handle. She lifted the lid.
“Oh, beautiful!” she rhapsodized. “Oh, beautiful!”
“You wouldn’t think it was beautiful if you had to do it as often as I do,” I countered, twisting my apron.
She smiled, and I know now that there was nostalgia in her smile. “I have done it many times,” she told me, “not with a churn like this, but one with a heavy dasher.”
Smiling still, she turned the handle until the butter was formed. After that I felt there might be a faint hope that I, too, could escape spending all my days with a chum. But I would never call it beautiful.
Later, I was to learn more about Elizabeth McCune. Her story is one of the great Cinderella sagas, a motherless girl, who had lived on the so-called Muddy Mission, in Nevada. With the slender hands that I saw wearing diamonds, she had helped her father build an adobe house. As a young married woman she had lived above a little store in a Utah village. Then, suddenly, just as in the fairy stories, she was wealthy beyond all thoughts of avarice. She traveled the world over, had a great home in Salt Lake City, and how many others I don’t know, and knew the great and the near-great of the world. Always, she had the ability to adapt herself without sacrificing her integrity.
”When you hear that I am rid of that big wickiup in Salt Lake,” she told us, ‘you will know that it is the happiest day of my life.” She wanted a bungalow on a quiet side street.
I had an extra duty that week, a duty I did not relish. It was to protect Mrs. Gates from the cattle of Parowan. Occasionally a cow or calf would go astray when it was turned into the street for its watering. Often as not some owner would allow his calf to graze the grass off the sidewalks and streets. On our own place calves were forever on the lawns or in the orchard. Whenever Mrs. Gates walked about I accompanied her, armed with a stout stick. At home I did not mind. I could giggle about it secretly with my sister Sadie, but the day I had to escort the ladies uptown, I was downright humiliated.
It was washday. Mother made it known to some of the Relief Society sisters that she wished the visitors invited to dinner. A dear, gentle lady who was related to a high Church family offered her home.
We walked the six blocks in the hot noonday sun, I going ahead with my stout stick. There was only one calf abroad; it was dozing in the shade. Hurriedly I left the ladies at the gate. I wanted no request to return later.
The week was racing along. One night, unannounced, the Stake President came with his wife. They had returned only an hour earlier and had come to offer their home to the ladies. Their house was a large one, far better furnished than ours. The Stake President, himself, was an engaging man, with a charming little wife of Scotch descent, witty and generous. I was fearful lest the visitors would decide to go.
Again we were all waiting for Mrs. Gates to speak. Never one to lounge, she was sitting upright in the wicker chair. Quite casually, she faced the Stake President, thanked him, and said she would not think of leaving. Mrs. McCune said quickly that she preferred to remain with us. My heart was suddenly light.
That night Father got Mrs. Gates to talk about her writing. She was a woman of tremendous vitality. When she talked she imparted some of it to us. I think we would have stayed up all night without tiring.
John Stevens’ Courtship had not been mentioned since the first day. It was Father’s opinion that this book was the best one thus far to come from Utah writers. He wanted to know about its writing. Much of what she told us is gone from me,
but I do remember that the fair haired heroine was drawn from life, with her daughter, the present Mrs. Widtsoe, as the model. She told us that all of the incidents connected with the United States Army were based on actual happenings.
The last day came too soon. Dinner was special, with the best of everything. My sister Anne, who has a light hand with pies, made her choicest. Each was given a generous fourth. We ate the pie almost in silence, a tribute to its delectableness. The silence was shattered by a sudden noise from the foot of the table. It was made by Mrs. Gates clapping her hands together.
”Anne!” she called in the vigorous tone I was to hear many times later in Utah tabernacles.
Anne hurried in from the kitchen, a startled look on her face.
”What other kind of pie have you?” the lady wanted to know.
“Lemon,” answered Anne, relieved.
Mrs. Gates dropped her hand on the table in her regal gesture and said, “I will take a piece.”
There was a dreadful moment when Sadie and I might have forever disgraced our house by giggling. Not even the pressure of Mother’s foot could save us.
It was Mrs. McCune who did. “I, too, will have another piece,” she said to Anne, just in time. Father immediately ordered a second. It ended with all of us having another piece.
Right after dinner Mrs. McCune followed Anne into the kitchen. When that lady had gone upstairs, my sister came in to say in a low voice that Mrs. McCune had invited her to stay at the McCune home during the coming Teachers’ Institute.
How wonderful, I thought. Mrs. Gates had told us about the great stone house with its pink satin and gold ballroom, the crystal chandeliers, and marble statues brought from Italy. She had made us feel the soft thickness of the velvet rugs, had described the oil paintings from famous masters. And there were bathrooms for almost every bedroom!
Yet Anne did not want to go. She was fearful of the elegance and did not want Mrs. McCune to feel that she was obligated to invite her.
Mother did not know how to advise her. It was Mrs. Gates, with her understanding heart, who helped in the decision. She told Anne that Mrs. McCune sincerely wanted her.
“You do not get opportunities like this many times,” she appealed. “You will feel as much at home in Elizabeth’s mansion as we have felt in your home.”
Anne went, taking a cousin with her. Both of them enjoyed every minute. It made a perfect ending to our enchanted week to hear firsthand about the ballroom and the servants who even made the beds.
The last dav was also the one in which I learned a lesson in values. My Aunt Juliette stopped at our house on her way from the afternoon classes. The visitors had not yet returned. Aunt Juliette was a large, handsome woman, beautifully dressed in the basic black of the day, a swishing taffeta, and a feathered hat.
“I said to myself,” the Aunt was saying, “that if Mrs. McCune could wear a patched dress I needn’t be too proud to wear one, too.” Then she chuckled, “It wasn’t any better patched than if I had done it.”
Covertly I watched Mrs. McCune when she came home. She had worn the same dress most of the week, and I had seen no patch. I watched her raise her right arm. There was the patch, plain as day.
Why did she wear the patched dress? Not because she had to wear it. Nor did she wear it to show the other women she was one of them. There was not a particle of exhibitionism in her make-up. I decided she wore it because she liked the dress. It was a good, dark silk, easy to pack, and comfortable. Why shouldn’t it be patched if it gave her a few months’ more wear? It was not in her to be wasteful.
The final morning came. Again we were on the white porch; the air was fresh with the dew from the lawn and flowers. The visitors were wrapped in their gray veils and dusters. I held the bag with the foreign labels. No one wanted to say goodbye.
Up drove the Stake President. Still we lingered.
It was Mrs. Gates who spoke for all of us. “You will always be dear to us,” she said, facing us. “I want each of you when you see me in the years to come to speak to me and tell me you are an Ollerton from Parowan. I shall not forget.”
They got into the car and went bumping up the street in a cloud of dust. silently we watched the dust disappear. The house behind us seemed quiet and empty. Soon, but not today, we would say, “Do you remember when…?”
Neither did the visitors forget us. The thank-you letters came first. One day the mail brought a package of books. For me, was John Stevens’ Courtship, autographed by the author.
Mrs. McCune I never saw again, though my parents did several times. But Mrs. Gates I saw often. The first time was in a Salt Lake City restaurant. I was undecided about speaking. I had grown taller now and feared she might not remember me. Just then she looked up from her table and stood up, saying, “You are one of the Ollerton girls!”