Saturday, October 25, 2008

Chapter 2 - Sassie and Ninnie

I'm sharing a portion of the book, "From Scenes Like These, Life in a Christian Family", by Ethel Wallace, copyright 1945. To read from the beginning, go here.

Now for Chapter 2, called, "Sassie and Ninnie."

Mother and Sassie and Ninnie had always lived together and felt toward each other as sisters, in spite of the great difference in their ages. Sassie and Ninnie were the eldest children of Grandma's eldest sister, Aunt Mary, who with a large family even for those days, was called on by her husband to leave their home in the East and go to the "wild and woolly" state of Ohio. As traveling was rough and life there difficult, she left her two oldest girls to be raised and educated by her sister. Many were the tales which came from Aunt Mary of pioneer hardships - of terrifying visits from Indians who would leave only after they had been given a chicken or a side of ham or something to wear. To the young woman raised in Philadelphia, it was a trying experience.

Aunt Mary had named the eldest daughter, Sarah Jane, after two of her sisters, and the second daughter, Virginia Isabel, the first name after a heroine of one of her favorite novels, the second after her husband's first wife. When we children were learning to talk we changed the names "Cousin Sallie and Jennie" into "Sassie and Ninnie" which nicknames were their delight, although it was often suggested by others that they were neither appropriate nor complimentary. But so they remained, and were used by all the children of the community.

Sassie and Ninnie lived on the third floor, their rooms filled with heavy Colonial and Victorian furniture. Ninnie's room, much smaller than Sassie's, was crowded by a huge wardrobe where her few dresses hung almost lost in the vastness. On her walls were framed prints, one of Saint Cecilia being visited by angels, the other of Evangeline dreaming of her lost lover.

Ninnie was "a lady" in everything she said or did and inspired in us awe as well as affection. She had enormous gray eyes much too large for her frail delicate face. Tall and painfully thin, she carried herself with a dignity becoming a queen. Such slenderness was considered a detriment in those days so she always wore ruffs and starched things to make her stick out here and there in the right places as she swept through the rooms in her long dresses. Her clothes and person were always immaculate although a new dress was such a rarity with her that I can only recall three. When she went out, even if it were just to the corner, she wore gloves and a bonnet tied under her pointed chin.

It was a period when delicate ladies were very much in style, and almost every family could boast of one who was in a state of decline. All our family even to the distant relatives were filled with anxiety and solicitude for Ninnie. She could eat scarcely anything and do nothing in the way of housework except see to Sassie's and her rooms. Occasionally when she was feeling at her best she would make some sugar cookies which she worried over as she mixed them and guarded carefully when baked, counting them out one by one. She never could go anywhere because she was always laid low with a sick headache the very day she had expected to start. Yet she lived to be seventy-three and as far as I can remember never had a severe illness although a prolonged coughing period in the early morning was part of her daily routine. I sometimes wonder whether if she had lived today when sickness no longer seems attractive and women do so much hard work in the world, she could not have done her share.

Ninnie was a dreamer and romanticist and outside of the walls which she inhabited, her spirit soared in search of beauty and elegance. She and Mother were very close in their relation and would spend long hours in conversation, sometimes discussing things that had happened that day, oftener what had occurred years before. It was a relaxation for Mother and an inspiration for Ninnie, for her life was very confined and uninteresting it seemed to us children. The greatest excitement I ever remember her having was when she went to town one day before Christmas and had the bag in which she was carrying twenty-five dollars which she had saved up all year for Christmas presents for the family stolen by a pickpocket. She was a nervous wreck when she returned home, but was provided with a dramatic incident to relate again and again in years to come.

Ninnie had had one beau in her youth, she modestly boasted to us girls. She had met Thedy Eustick on one of her visits to cousins in the country. He was so shy that he hadn't come to see her, but when she returned to the city, he had written her a letter signed, "With love, Your Thedy."

It was thought dishonorable for a young lady to receive continued attentions from a young gentleman unless she expected to marry him. I can well remember Ninnie's horror-filled eyes as she listened to the gleeful account of numerous proposals and rejections by an attractive relative from the South where innocent flirtations have always been in vogue.

One of the incidents which Ninnie recalled oftenest was her visit to the stormy sessions of the General Assembly of our Church which met in Philadelphia at the start of the Civil War. When a group of Northerners insisted that the Southerners swear allegiance to the flag, the latter in a body left the Assembly and the Church. Although not at all in sympathy with the Southern position, Ninnie anonymously sent flowers to the offended commissioners, feeling that they had been treated in an ungracious manner.

Sassie's room was very large. In the center a marble-topped table on which was a big oil lamp topped by a white china shade, and a huge cookie jar set purposely in a conspicuous and handy position, and a small pile of books on top of which lay a shabby, much-read Bible. On the walls hung life-sized photographs in oval walnut frames of an old and well-loved pastor and of a niece who had died as a beautiful young girl. On top of the Sheraton bureau and sewing table were trinkets which we had brought her from our trips, marked conspicuously with the names of the places visited as was customary in souvenirs of those days. A blue and white Sheffield china pitcher and basin stood on a small wash-stand in an inconspicuous corner.

But the bed in Sassie's room was the most interesting of all her furniture - a huge old four-poster with a deep feather mattress. Every Friday night when small we girls would sleep with her. In anticipation of this visit, she would bring home five big round gingerbread cookies which we would either eat out of the bag or toast on the kerosene heater which warmed her room in very cold weather. Having disposed of this treat, we would all jump into bed and cuddle up in the feather mattress. And Sassie would tell us stories of her childhood or of the aunties' childhood, or repeat over and over again at our solicitation old rhymes which tickled our fancy such as

"Rory O'More courted Kathleen O'Brawn
She was mild as a doe and he bold as the dawn,
He tried every way his young Kathleen to please
But all he could do was to kiss and to tease."

Or we would whisper about a farm which she promised she would buy when she retired out of the gold she was saving in a bag. And as we were to go there every week-end to visit her we would discuss at length what animals we would want. (The farm was never bought and the gold pieces - $140 - were found in a little bag among her valuables after her death.)

In the morning Sassie would rise and be gone before we had unclosed our heavy eyes. She worked in a religious publishing house for fifty dollars a month from the time she was eighteen until the day of her death. She started to the train with such regularity in the mornings that some of our neighbors said they set their watches by her passing.

Sassie was rosy and well formed, with small hands and feet. She wore her hair piled high in bands around her head with spit curls on her forehead. She was animated at home and even in her later years could sing like a lark. She always dressed in black and was unassuming in her manner as befitted a woman earning her living in those days when this was considered a misfortune if not a disgrace.

At Christmas time her room gradually became a veritable sweet shop filled with the choicest candy in elaborate boxes given to her by her customer friends. A week or two before Christmas the first question we would ask when she arrived home was: "Did you get any presents today?" and she would answer, "Come up to my room after dinner." So we would run up there three steps at a time and help her untie the beautiful packages and gaze long and covetously at the contents before succeeding in making our choice. And then the box was laid out open on the bureau to be joined by others which kept arriving up to the very day before Christmas.

On Christmas Day Ninnie would untie her presents delicately, smelling the fragrant salts or smoothing out the fine handkershiefs we had given her. But Sassie would open each package with little screeches of joy, and hold the homemade carrot-shaped pincushion or the lacquered box up for all to admire while she expatiated beamingly on its merits. I say it now although many years have passed since our last Christmas together that Sassie's enthusiasm and joy at that time is one of the most fragrant impressions I have of childhood.

My husband just pointed out that I can scan the pages of this book. Duh. What a dummy I am - I've been typing all this out and getting a sore wrist. Tomorrow, for the next chapter, I will be scanning!!! Hope you are enjoying this book.


Unknown said...

You must be one fast typer! Scanning if you ask me is always a hassle.

Anonymous said...

Although I only see two posts on this book I thank you for them. I would like to even return to the America we had when I was a child. Everything that then was right and good and we all agreed were, are now turned upside down and now wrong is said to be the right thing to be and do. I never thought I would live to see things so turned around...and many don't even believe we used to be/think/ do differently. When they took God out of the classroom they must have taken reason out of their minds too. Don't get me started! :) Jody

Susan Humeston said...

I feel kind of guilty that I never finished this. It is a wonderful story - someone's reminiscences from long ago - I think the late 1800's. The person wrote when they were older, in the 1940's, I think. It is a quick read.....