The Suitcase Lady


December 25, 2012, 10:01 pm

Their house never had running water. Heat came from a cast iron cook stove and a wood stove in the parlor. One winter the stove was stoked with wooden hairbrush seconds (minus the bristles) from a nearby woodworking factory. The heat never made it upstairs: the boys got to sleep upstairs in the frosty rooms.

An electric line ran to the farmhouse, but all the cooking was done on the wood burning stove. Hot water was dipped from the stove’s reservoir. Water was pumped at the kitchen sink.

Walking into my husband’s grandparent’s home was like falling into a Little House on the Prairie book, only the time was the 1960s and the setting was northern Wisconsin. We had many memorable meals in that farmhouse kitchen, but my husband speaks most often of the “panycakes” and “Hard Times Cookies”. I have the recipe for these big, fat sugar cookies and they taste delicious despite the frugality of the ingredients.

We have only one memento from that weathered, wood farmhouse on Lonesome Road, and it graces our home every Christmas. Well over sixty years ago, my husband’s grandmother recycled her old kerosene lamp into a Christmas decoration. Nothing was ever wasted or unused in that household.

Grandma put Christmas ornaments in the glass base of the lamp and then replaced the chimney. Those ornaments, put there by her hands, have remained ever since. The first ritual of our Christmas season is to unwrap the old lamp with great care and place it on the kitchen buffet where it is in constant view.

Holidays aren’t about the new and the glittery, they are about our ties to the past. We are lucky to have a direct link.

4 Comments for this entry

  • Sutapa Mukherjee

    Blast from the past! growing up in Kolkata in the 70s and 80s we used to have power outages almost every evening and I used the kerosene lamp to do my homework. I can still smell the burning kerosene and remember how long it took me to clean the lamp as I look at this beautifully decorated lamp :-)

  • eve

    Mary–Oh, it’s lovely. So is the memory. My mom used to bring her old lamp down (she grew up on a farm) every time we had an alectrical storm. We loved it, & it always made her smile . . .

  • Joan Bodden

    That was a wonderful story. A few years ago when my parents gave up their home, I received some old ornaments. A cardboard drum,hung every year, may not seem to have a story,but my mom told me that during WW 2 many factories had to make war supplies. Some of the only ornaments were made of cardboard,including the drum now hanging on my tree.

  • Jim Smith

    Reminds me of home. No, the heat never made it up to the boys’ room. We had a container with water in it that froze every night it was below 20 degrees. We had to carry all our water from a well that was about 100 feet away from the house. If children had to carry all the water they used, we would not have to worry about shortages of water. That also explains the large tub in the kitchen and the bath only on Saturday night.