Even the Hired Help Was Waited On
A STRAY news item tells me a museum about dogs has been installed in the renovated servants' quarters of a former farmstead just outside Berlin. As the recognized authority on former Yankee farmsteads, I shall comment on this Teutonic adaptation - without any wisecracks about going to the dogs. We, on the ancient New England rocky acres, did not have servants except in the whimsicalities of the ancestors, said whimsicalities being unlikely to find rapport with modern-day suburbanites of Berlin.Skip to next paragraph
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Grandmother, for instance, would sit at the dinner table in complete exhaustion after having prepared the menu for a family of 10 - home-grown pork chops, mashed potatoes, fresh bread, creamed carrots, beets, squash, green beans, turnip, pickles (sweet and sour), conserve, stewed onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, apple dumplings with maple syrup, applesauce, apple tarts, apple jelly, mince pie, and cry-baby cookies. Grandmother took some happy composure from hearing her family eat, so she would dawdle with he r plate knowing her destiny was secure and she was earning her keep and appreciated. When the hired girl (who always sat at table) asked for more potatoes, Grandmother would rouse and serve her.
Then, ha-ha-ha, Grandfather would wipe his sated lips with his big, blue bandanna and jollify the congregation by saying, "That was good! Now, call in the servants to do the dishes!"
Grandmother always got a smile out of that, and after she finished the dishes she would begin to prepare supper.
I suppose no Prussian Torfbauer is going to believe that our hired girl sat at table with us - or the hired man. Or that Grandmother cooked for them, too. Servants' quarters? We didn't have butler and upstairs maids, coachmen and game keepers. We had, instead, three kinds of nonfamily assistance that lived with us.
First, state children. Not every family took them; they were wards of the state and a family had to pass inspection before getting any. The government paid, but not much, for their board and room and "instruction." They were expected to appreciate their good fortune and help with small chores. It was the way things were.
The saying in our town was that nobody but a fool would work for Grandfather, so we had a succession of odd-hired men who had the "back room" under the shed eaves. It was a good room, but as each hired man did his own tidying it usually needed a woman's thorough "swamping out" between occupants who came and went.
When we had a hired girl, she got the spare chamber over the pantry. Grandmother cooked for both, and to some extent, waited on both of them. The old farm wasn't much like those British films on the public TV, where the housekeeper has her own sitting room.
As with hired men, who came and went as Grandfather did or did not cotton to them, the hired girls had their difficulties with Grandmother. She could offend in a well-meaning way. "Oh, no, no! Lucy!" she'd say. "Not like that. Here, look!" And she'd wipe a cream pan which Lucy had just wiped, keeping Lucy steamed up until one morning Lucy would be gone.
But while there, the current Lucy was expected to dress the children, feed the cat, peel potatoes, wipe the mudroom, and "make herself useful" about the kitchen. She should swat flies and water the geraniums.
Now and then a Lucy would be a gem, and my father told of one that helped him enormously with his trigonometry and his Latin.
But some were like Mildred Potts, who couldn't read and used to guess at what the notes said when Grandmother left instructions on the kitchen blackboard.
All was subject to Grandfather's running comments about the servants. "Now," he'd say, "I've made arrangements to let the butler and the cook and the maid have the evening off, so you kids stir your stumps and clear things away!" The maid and the cook meant Grandmother, pretty much, and the butler would have to be Soliloquy-Buster Freeland of Peppermint Corner, who talked to himself and had come for a week to shear sheep. He got 10 cents a clip. Grandmother would sometimes say, "Oh, it's no bother - I'd just as soon do it myself."