Sunday, March 11, 2012

Grandma Nan

Some of my earliest memories are of spending the weekend at Grandma Minnie’s house in the Mohawk Valley. My sister and I would travel there with Aunts Doris and Glenadore on a Friday evening and return home with them on Sunday afternoon. Our weekend in the country gave Mom and Dad a break, and enabled my sister and me to get to know our Dad’s family better. 

Me and my sis at Grandma Minnie's (Summer 1954)
Saturdays would be spent either picking berries in the back garden or visiting the dairy farm outside of town, where Minnie’s cousin Gladys lived with her family. On Sundays, sometimes we would walk down to the main street of town (Canal Street) to attend Sunday school at the Reformed Church.

At Grandma’s house, my sister and I shared a small back bedroom with birdseye maple furniture, including a bookcase crammed with fairy tales and old editions of The Wizard of Oz and other stories by L. Frank Baum. If I woke earlier than the rest of the household, sometimes I would tiptoe down the hall to Great Grandma Nan’s room, slip into bed with her and listen to her tales of life along the Erie Canal in the late 1800’s.

It was hard for me to picture the slight woman in the flannel nightgown with the long braid of silver hair as a vigorous young woman helping her husband run a grocery store at the lock along the canal. But that was what Fred and Kittie did during the early years of their marriage. Her life spanned nearly a century  --  from the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War to the Cold War of the 1960’s.

Grandma Nan was born February 10, 1868, christened Kittie Elizabeth Van Slyke. She married Fred Fineour in May 1884, when she was a mere sixteen years old. An undated photograph in the family archives shows Kittie in a heavy dark dress with what looks like a hundred pleats to the skirt. Guessing by the clothing style, I estimate that the photo was taken in the mid 1880’s, close to the time she and Fred married. 

Kittie - 1880's
A close-up portrait shows a dreamy young woman with doe-like eyes, a fancy lace collar, and a fringe of carefully curled bangs. Gazing at this portrait of graceful femininity, I can see why Kittie might have frowned upon my early rambunctiousness. I vaguely recall a childhood excursion to the bank of the canal when while running gaily along the water’s edge, I fell and skinned my knee. I was admonished not to let Grandma Nan know of my mishap; after all, in her day, young ladies did not run wild out in the countryside. 

Undated portrait of Kittie

The family archives also contain an early tintype of Fred and Kittie, which is unfortunately quite damaged. (Tintype is a type of photography developed in 1853, post-dating the daguerreotype.) The young couple are frozen in time, Fred seated looking confidently into the camera, with Kittie diffidently placing a hand on his shoulder. In spite of the damaged plate, we can clearly see their facial expressions and speculate about what they were thinking at just that moment. (I really wish I knew!) And it looks like Kittie is wearing the same hundred-pleated skirt. Perhaps it was her wedding dress. 

Could this be a wedding portrait?

Grandma Nan died February 6, 1962, just four days short of her 94th birthday, during the Cuban missile crisis, and the same month that John Glen orbited the earth  --  a long time and a far cry from the horse and buggy era of Reconstruction.

A half century later, I close my eyes and dig deep into my memories of Grandma Nan’s room. As the light grows stronger in the bedroom, it falls upon the heavy Victorian furniture  --  the tall headboard with its ornately carved mahogany, the dresser and mirror that reflect Grandma and me in the bed, and the armoire full of old toys and papers.

I think of that line from a poem by French poet Charles Baudelaire: “J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais mille ans”: “I have more memories than if I were a thousand years old. . .”

The mahogany bed is still there, but Grandma Nan is no longer there to tell me stories.

Grandma Nan, Grandma Minnie & Me (Summer 1959)


  1. This is a great post! I can really picture you as a little girl listening to Grandma Nan's stories, early in the morning before anyone else is awake! I wish I were there!!! :)

  2. Thank you Liz! Sometimes it boggles my mind that I can reach back through my childhood memories to the early life of an ancestor who was born just after the Civil War. I feel a great connection to my forebears through their stories and old photos.