A heart like a bushel basket

Considering how welfare and charity have become public functions, I reflect now and then on Grammie Curtis, who was attached to our family back in the 1920s in a manner that would probably not prevail today. She was not a grandmother to us, but would have been no more family had she been. She was a grandmother to some youngsters far out of state, but in her time of need her own folks were distant both in miles and kin, so she came to live with us.

It was her right name - Fidelia. She had been a Ward from Wardtown, a section of our community, and had married Orrin Curtis when still in her teens. It had been a good marriage, because she was devoted to waiting on Orrin, and Orrin was devoted to letting her. Today the feminists deplore that kind of slavish downgrading in wedlock, but Grammie Curtis knew no different and was happy.

I never knew just what Orrin's lifework had been, but he was retired and pretty much limited his activities to a neat summer garden just over the fence from us. There was nothing unusual in being retired in our town in those days, as just about every other house had a retired sea captain who had made his bundle by sharp trading, contraband, and even piracy, so he could leave the sea and live comfortably ashore by the time he was 25 or so. Orrin hadn't gone to sea, but we presumed he had some money in Western railroads or such. It turned out he didn't have much of anything, and when Fidelia was left a widow she was semi-destitute. It was not in her mind to ''call on'' her family and become beholden, so she moved in with us, became Grammie Curtis, and stayed for years.

We did have a big house, and there was room. And a big house requires care. Our mother was glad for help with the housework and family, and Grammie Curtis took over. She was first up in the morning, starting breakfast to get us children off to school, and then she did her day's work with laundry and cleaning, darning and dressmaking - whatever. She carried orts to the hens, picked up the eggs, set the milk, churned, and before long was reminding me to put on a clean shirt.

Grammie Curtis had not been favored with beauty, and had about as much feminine charm as a stepladder. Her feet were at least size 14 (men's) and she found lumberman's larrigans comfortable while doing housework. She walked splay-footed, and with determined stride about her affairs had often sidewheeled our pussies and puppies until they learned to keep out of her way. But her heart was a bushel basket and her love ran over. She was all but humorless, and while we youngsters and our family made witticisms and pleasantries in healthy badinage, we never made jokes with or about Grammie Curtis. She may have smiled, but I never knew her to laugh heartily.

In her years at our house she was faithful to her duties; her duties were to work her keep and not be a burden. Duties she established for herself, because they were never set down by my mother. Since the ancient adage runs that no home can serve two mistresses, it remains amazing that Grammie Curtis maintained harmony while she assumed so much authority. My mother, of course, played her part in that harmony.

Some folks didn't understand just how things went. One Sunday we had callers who stayed for supper, and from the way Grammie Curtis operated the stove, arranged the table, and brought on the food, they thought she was domestic help.

When she came to sit at the table with us and began serving the chicken, some doubts arose. When she asked for silence and said grace, there was wonder. And when she told my mother to be careful with the cranberry sauce on the clean tablecloth, there was real bafflement. Enough so that afterward they asked my mother who Grammie Curtis might be, anyway.

After some years her family arranged for her to come and be with them, somewhere in New Jersey, I think. She left us, but by then we children were older and Mother didn't need a Grammie Curtis so much. Never once, in all those years, did it enter our heads that Grammie Curtis came to us poor and needy, that she was a ''welfare case,'' and that we were giving of our substance.

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