“Don’t talk to me about the good old days!” said my Aunt Catherine who was usually calm and soft-spoken. “There was nothing good about them.”
I stared, shocked by her indignant tone of voice. “What do you mean? What was so bad?”
“For one thing, I mean how hot it was in summer with no air conditioning. Day after day of one hundred degrees or above. And it doesn’t cool off at night here in Texas. We had iron bedsteads, and they were too hot to touch. We’d rinse our nightgowns in cool water then put them on and jump into bed and hope we could get to sleep. Mama hung wet dish towels across the windows so the air would be a little cool after blowing through the wet cloth.”
“I never thought about what it would be like without air conditioning. I don’t see how y’all survived.”
Catherine’s hands were on her hips as she paced, her eyebrows knit together. “Every day Mama baked pies, cakes, biscuits, and loaves of bread on our wood stove. And always, without exception, she wore a dress with a collar half-way up her neck, long sleeves that ended in cuffs at her wrists, and the hem of her skirt brushed the top of her shoes, which were laced up past her ankles. Underneath her dress, she wore several petticoats and a corset and chemise. That’s what all the women wore in those days.”
“Wait a minute. A stove in the house that used wood, like from actual trees?”
“Yes, a wood stove. And everything she cooked always turned out perfect. You couldn’t regulate the temperature like our stoves today. But somehow, she knew how much wood to use to bake everything just right.”
“But didn’t that wood stove make the house even hotter?”
“Of course it did. I bet it was at least one hundred twenty degrees in the house in the summer while she was baking. And there she was in all that garb, summer, winter, spring and fall.” Catherine stopped pacing and sat on a straight-backed chair at the kitchen table.
“Since Mama was the wife of the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, it was mandatory that she take fresh baked goods to the sick, the bereaved, and the widowed congregants. Five days a week, all year round. Every day she baked and visited in addition to regular household duties. There were us kids, to take care of, meals to cook for our family, and the house to keep spotless since members of our congregation dropped in day and night.
“There were no grocery stores with packaged bread or chicken ready to cook. No, everything Mama cooked was from scratch. We had chickens. Mama had to wring the chicken’s neck and pluck it before it was ready to cook. Vegetables came from our garden. In those days people ate three square meals a day. Breakfast was usually bacon, eggs, biscuits, hash brown potatoes (not the frozen kind, they didn’t exist then) and sometimes, fried chicken. Every lunch and supper included meat, vegetables, potatoes, rolls, and fruit pie or cobbler for dessert. Mama concocted most of our desserts from fruit which we picked from a farmer’s orchard. She canned fruit every summer so she’d have enough during the winter.
“Oh, I almost forgot. Mama washed our clothes and linens in a big metal tub over a wood fire in the backyard then hung them on the clothesline. After they were dry, she ironed most everything. The iron was set on the wood stove until it was hot, then she used it until it was too cold to get the wrinkles out. That process continued until everything was pressed and ready to wear. Life for a woman was very hard in those days. Especially when you think about being pregnant and doing all that.”
Catherine got up from the table and poured a glass of sweet tea. She took a long drink. “And a minister’s wife had church duties, too. Her house, kids, and clothes had to be perfect, all the time. The pastor’s family was held to a much higher standard than anyone else in the community. It was hard on us kids, too.”
“I can’t imagine Grandmother, or any woman, doing all that. Especially in the summer.” I sat across the table from Aunt Catherine.
“Mama did it all and did it well.” Catherine's eyes focused on some faraway scene. “She was barely past five feet tall, a tiny little thing. You weren’t old enough to remember but her hair hung all the way to the floor. It was thick and glossy, a honey brown color. She kept it wound up in a bun at the nape of her neck like most women of her time. She got so she couldn’t wash her hair without help. It was a huge job. I finally convinced her to let me cut it, but she insisted it had to reach her waist and no shorter.”
My grandmother was in her eighties before I was old enough to notice much about any of the adults in my life. All I remember about her hair was the thin, white bun at the back of her head and a few loose wisps around her face.
We were silent for a minute before I asked, “How was it hard on you kids?”
“Because we were the preacher’s kids, we were expected to be perfect. We weren’t allowed to be kids like all the others. We were considered a direct reflection of our parents. Any and all deviation from what was considered perfect behavior stirred up the ire of the congregation and garnered gossip all over town. It was a lot of pressure, and all of us kids resented it: the feeling of always being judged and never living up to others’ expectations, of knowing we were always being watched, and the unfairness of our parents’ condemnation because of us. Mama and Papa didn’t yell or anything like that, but the looks on their faces when we misbehaved or made a mistake…. I think that was worse than anything.”
“I’m sorry it was so difficult for y’all. I know my daddy was a handful from some of the stories he’s told us.” I patted her arm.
Catherine smiled. “Yes, he pulled some stunts, all right. Our poor Mama, trying to deal with him…she was under the same pressure we kids were. But my dad thrived on being a pastor and dealing with people. If he ever felt pressured or judged, he never showed it. I don’t think he was aware of it or else he didn’t care. But we all survived. And everyone has pressure of one sort or another. Anyway, the point of my diatribe was to make you understand that the old days weren’t so good. Now is much better.”
“Yeah. I couldn’t live without fast food, grocery stores, and especially air conditioning. Or having to dress like you all did back then.”
“In honor of all our modern conveniences, let’s get in my air-conditioned car and go get a hamburger.”
I try to remember this long-ago conversation with my Aunt Catherine whenever I catch myself whining about the heat. I also thank God for planting me in this era and this country.