Saturday, April 20, 2013


My maternal grandmother, Theresa Gilmartin Loftus, died in the winter of 1907.  Her five- year- old daughter Hester, my mother, had gone sleigh riding down the hill in the back yard, had gone over the creek bank and through the ice of the Tunkhannock Creek, an offshoot of the Susquehanna River.  My grandmother must have panicked when the other children brought her the news.  Five years before, she had lost a son in that same spot.

She raced down the bank, threw herself into the creek, hoping to avoid a second death.  The icy water, terror and a congenital heart condition led, instead, to her own death.

My mother was brought to shore by rescuers only a few houses away and suffered no lasting ill effects, but my grandmother's body floated down the creek toward the Susquehanna and was recovered near the woolen mill further uptown.

My grandfather, John, called from his livery stable nearby, must have been devastated.  Now he had lost not only four of his six children, but his wife as well.

Into the breach stepped one of the last Gilmartin girls, Margaret.  She lived at the other end of town, near the river, with her widowed mother and her youngest sister, Kate, who taught school.  Margaret, called Maggie, was a short, slightly plump woman, patient and good humored. 

With a lack of suitable Irish Catholic beaux in a largely Anglo Saxon Protestant community, she must have long since resigned herself to spinsterhood.  Now here she was at age 34, the instant surrogate mother of a ten-year-old nephew Willie and a five-year-old niece, Hester, and housekeeper for a grieving brother-in-law.

I must say here that there was no instant or slowly developing romance between John Loftus and Maggie.  He had lost four children and a wife and was left with the spirit knocked out of him.

I have little information on the early years when Maggie took over the reins of the household.  There would have been little time on her hands.  There was the great black stove to feed every morning with coal, ashes to shake out, food to cook, clothes to wash outside, first in the tubs and in later years, the wringer-washer.  They had to be hung on the wire clothesline that stretched from the back porch to the end of the yard. 

There was hot breakfast, dinner at noon for my grandfather and the two children, then again supper at five o'clock or thereabouts.  There were beds to make, dusting and cleaning the rugs with the carpet sweeper.  Ironing, what there was, had to be done with several flatirons, heated in turn.

My mother, at five, would have started to learn the household chores.  She would feed the chickens, help with the dusting, run up the street to the neighbors to borrow some "starter" to bake bread with.  As she got older, she would be able to get oysters  uptown when the barrels arrived on a Friday.  She would put out the sign for the iceman just as I got to do when I was a little girl visiting.  She would help with the cooking and cleaning after school.

Life, for Maggie, would have settled into a routine in a year or so.  She would still go to mass at the Church of the Nativity, up the street one block.  Her mother and sister would come and visit and she could take Willie and Hester up to visit their grandmother in turn.

Tunkhannock in the 1900's consisted of perhaps two thousand people, mostly descendants of the English settlers who had arrived from Connecticut after the Revolutionary War.  There were a number of Polish and Lithuanian people and Irish families driven out by the potato famines, who settled in and around the town, farming, working with horses like my grandfather, working on the various canals and then the railroad. Maggie's only brothers, Willie and Tommy, worked for the Lackawanna Railroad and lived in nearby towns.

The town was prosperous and busy, being on the river and the railroad.  There was the Keeler House, the important hotel up at the corner of Tioga and Bridge Streets, where the salesmen, or "drummers" stayed.  There were the Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Baptist churches, mostly up at the other end of town where the large old Victorian houses were. There was the courthouse in its own little square and two blocks away there was the new moving picture theater.  There was a tiny library and a number of shops. The main street went northwest to Buffalo, N.Y. if one wanted to go that far, and southeast to Scranton, Stroudsburg and then on to New York City.

Maggie's cousins, the Madden girls, would come and visit occasionally and friends from church, Nellie Boyce or Eliza or Annie Harrigan.  It was a busy life.

As the children grew older, they were more help around the place.  Willie (or Leo depending upon which relative spoke of him) became good at the gardening chores. Hester could do both the dinner dishes at home and then run up to Grandma Gilmartin's to help her at the school noon break.

Somewhere in time - after Willie had graduated from Tunkhannock High School and had gone on to Penn State - my grandfather's mother, Mary Dunleavey Loftus, came to stay at 130 East Tioga Street.  Facts are few about the stay except she was in her later 70's or early 80's and not well.  Had she come from Staten Island where her other son, Bernard, and her married daughters lived?  It is unclear, but one fact stands out.  As she grew older and in poorer health, she was difficult to live with, staying mostly in her room and sending out orders for things which either my mother or Maggie would be obliged to get.

World War One was drawing to its close when Willie enlisted in the Army. After a stay at Fort Dix, he got as far as England before the Armistice was signed.  There is a letter to him in England from Maggie telling him of his grandmother Loftus’ death. "She was filling up fast and had the pneumonia that old people take," she wrote.  Maggie also said that the Staten Island people "neither came nor sent word and would probably have some kind of excuse when they did write."

At the same time, Maggie wrote of Eliza's death.  Eliza had had a big bruise on her head and there was a mystery about her death.  Maggie surmised that she must have got drunk and fallen down.  No secrets in small towns.

When Willie returned after the war, he did not go back to Penn State but instead went to New Jersey and New York for various jobs. My mother, Hester, finished high school and went a year to Marywood College in Scranton.  She enjoyed it there but apparently was a little put off by the nuns' insistence that the girls look hard for their hidden vocations! 

My grandfather John, by this time had retired from work, due in part to age and partly because with the advent of the automobile there was less and less need of livery stable services.  He spent a great deal of time up at the taproom in the hotel, tired and saddened toward the end of his life.  He encouraged my mother to spend a year at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn where she could study and indulge her penchant for style and design.  She stayed for the term, but then, terribly homesick, returned to Tunkhannock and Maggie and her friends.  She got a job at Greenwood's furniture store and funeral parlor.

In 1923 Maggie's mother, known as Grandma Gilmartin to Willie and Hester, died at the age of 84, leaving six of her children to survive her.  The old house on River Street was sold to another family.  The following year, John Loftus, driving on an errand to the Billings farm outside of town, apparently had a stroke.  When found, he did not respond to any medical assistance. I have no record of whether the "Staten Island people" (his brother and the two married sisters) responded at all.

Next came a happy event, the wedding of Hester and a young civil engineer, Parker Dawes, from New York State who had been doing highway construction in the area.  The couple was married in the front sitting room of 130 East Tioga Street, as the church did not conduct mixed marriages in the church proper.  The wedding announcement said that it was a pretty marriage scene, the bride was beautifully gowned and, after a wedding supper, the bride and groom departed on the Black Diamond express for New York City.  It also mentioned that Miss Loftus was an orphan and resided with her aunt.  Now Maggie was alone in the house.  Perhaps she was pleased at the lessening of the work load but, then again, perhaps she was lonely.  Having been raised one of eight children perhaps the silence was difficult.

I first remember Aunty when I was four or five.  I had been visiting her off and on since birth. The summer that I was eight I got to go to Tunkhannock and stay with Auntie all by myself.  She had raised my mother and uncle and so she was really like my other grandmother, but she was Aunty to me.  My uncle and my mother called her Maggie. My mother and father were on a short trip by themselves.  My mother was joining me later.

Tunkhannock was an adventure.  I loved visiting there.  It was a small town and the house where my mother had been born was big and full of all kinds of things.  Besides there was Aunty, not big on long conversations but comfortable to be around.  She invariably made big sugar cookies which I secretly wished were smaller and thinner.  It always took a whole glass of milk to get one down.

In Tunkhannock, there were always the familiar things. First there was the house on its big lot-and-a-half on main street. There was the wide front porch and the Dutchman's pipe vine covering a trellis near the front door and my aunt's rocker. There was the swing in the side yard hanging from the big catalpa tree.  There was a little side porch leading into the new dining room.  It was the big old country kitchen which had been recently divided.  There was the back porch with the wringer washer standing by the door and a washboard hung up by the clothesline.  Oh, and more trellises and flowers.

Then there was a small barn in the back yard-- another world, with its collection of firewood, lumber, tools, and piles of old newspapers and magazines.  There were also unfinished chairs hanging from the rafters waiting to be caned, wheelbarrows and wagon wheels and a workbench by the dusty window covered with glass jars of nails and nuts, bolts and screws.  Inside there was the heady, musty smell of damp wood, oil, metal and bags of black walnuts stored there.

There was a grape vine down one side of the yard on the property line, a cherry tree and an apple tree.  There were currant bushes growing near the barn and a sloping path past the barn next to the vegetable garden to where there was a level shady spot with tall trees and bushes overlooking the Tunkhannock Creek, a branch of the Susquehanna.  People threw old leftover things down the creek bank and there were cans and broken glass among them. I was never to go down the creek bank.  It was fun to stand on that flat grassy spot and watch the shallow creek flow past.  Occasionally a train would go by on the other side of the creek, gathering speed, whistle blowing importantly as it rolled past the town on its way to Wilkes Barre, Sunbury, Harrisburg and points south.

I had my own room upstairs across from Aunty's and near the bathroom.  The front room on the left was rented out.  Aunty had a big white sign out front toward the street which said "Tourists."  I remember different people coming and going, but I didn't pay too much attention because I was busy.

I had two friends in Tunkhannock.  There was Shirley who lived across on the next street.  I could get to her house by looking both ways and then running across Tioga Street, past Mrs. Lott’s house, through the gas station, down the tracks for a few feet, then up the bank into Shirley's back yard.  Or I could walk on the sidewalk past the gas station up Pine Street then turn at Second and go three houses.

Shirley was my age and her mother let me pound on their piano almost forever.  Then she would say "Sally, I think that's enough."  Shirley and I could ride our bicycles, play games and go up on the next block and see Katharine who was also around our age.  She had just come with her mother and sister from Persia. I didn't know where that was really, but she had red pigtails and blue tennis shoes.  She had a piano in her house, too, and a swing in her barn.  We would all go to the library together and borrow one of the Twins books and sit at the little children's table and laugh at the Goops.

The days therefore could stretch out magically to the sound of cars going by on Tioga Street and the cicada in the trees counting cadence in the heat.  Then there were the owls and whip-poor-wills in the evening. There were snowball bushes in the side yard big enough to hide under, cherries to pick from the tree in back and the occasional sound of green apples falling from the tree in the side yard on to the tin roof of the side porch.

A week or so after I arrived that summer, I had done all my things.  I had cereal every morning.  I had explored the house and barn.  I had listened to Aunt Jenny's True Life Stories at noon and Uncle Don in the evening on the little radio in the living room.  I had gone uptown for Aunty and stood in Rosengrant's meat market looking at the sawdust on the floor, savoring the smell of raw beef and sausage while waiting for my package of pork chops or hamburger.  I had gotten penny candy uptown, too, and gone as far as Henrie's drugstore to get Dixie cups in the afternoon.  These were special because they had little flat wooden spoons to eat the ice cream with and they also had a movie star's picture on the inside lid.  You licked carefully and there was Kay Francis or Jean Harlow or Claudette Colbert smiling at you forever.  You could collect lids.

This day I had decided to go barefoot and I wandered around the backyard.  The grapes on the vine between Mrs. Skrynski's house and Auntie's were still green. The barn was boring and I wandered down the path to the back creek bank.  I stared at the gently flowing, shallow creek for awhile.  Then I saw something shining down the bank among the rocks and grass and bits of junk.  I thought, well, just once won't hurt and I climbed down to inspect.  I felt a sudden sharp pain in my foot and saw that I had stepped on a piece of broken glass. My foot was bleeding and I climbed back up whimpering -- up the path, up the back steps to the kitchen where Aunty was finishing the noon dishes.  "Oh, Sally, I told you not to go down there!" she said sharply.  Then, clucking, "Sit down."  I sat on the little kitchen chair by the cellar door.  She brought a basin of warm water and put my foot in it.  Then she put some disinfectant on the cut which was not long but fairly deep.  It stung.

(It would appear that Doris Sanford combined two separate stories, a remembrance of Auntie and a recollection of her Tunkhannock childhood. - SFS)

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