Remembering the life of Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016
“Missy, you’re gonna wear that swing out,” called Mary Ellen’s mother from the kitchen. “I need you to set this table.”
At age ten chores were an interruption in her imaginative world, but Mary Ellen dutifully slid off the porch swing and slammed the screen door as she entered the house.
Her mother turned from the stove, hands on her hips. “Do you have to slam that door? I’ve asked you a million times not to do that.”
“I’m sorry. I forgot.”
Her mother shook her head. “Well, I hope you haven’t forgotten how to set the table.”
“No, Ma’am.” Mary got to work.
Decades earlier what was now the kitchen had been the Townsend family’s original log cabin. It had gradually been expanded to include a dining room and parlor on the first floor, and three bedrooms upstairs. The kitchen was arranged around a table with chairs in the center, and cupboards, a wood stove, an ice box, and a sink against the surrounding walls. To Mary Ellen there was a cozy timelessness about this room that she liked–even though it was uncomfortably hot when the wood stove was fired up.
Mary had learned to give her mom space when her words grew abrupt or short. Her mother’s maiden name had been Merle Kemp Smith, and she had some Irish blood in her. She often told the children stories about her mother, Romina, who had come to America from Ireland. Her father was a doctor, which became an important connection when Merle came down with tuberculosis.
A family friend, Dr. William Savage, was studying to become a surgeon.. He was one of several doctors who were exploring a theory about using ether to treat TB. Merle’s case gave him the opportunity to test the theory. He periodically administered either through a face cone, spacing treatments with rest periods. It took a long time, but Merle recovered with only some scar tissue in her lungs. There were no lasting effects beyond that. She went on to give birth to her youngest boy, Bud, and learned to drive a car. She became active in organizations like the church, Mother’s Club (a forerunner to the PTA), and the Order of the Eastern Star. Her husband, Elmer, came to refer to her as a “joiner.” She would live to be eighty-nine.
The TB experience spanned an entire year. Elmer built a sleeping porch on the back of the house to isolate his wife. She stayed there day and night, sleeping in a hooded, down-lined sleeping bag on a twin bed. Elmer slept on the other bed to be available if she needed something during the night. The room had screened windows on three sides, with heavy canvas blinds that were rolled down when it rained hard and during the winter months. All of that had been a harrowing time that Mary knew she would remember clearly for the rest of her life.
Having life centered around TB didn’t prevent Merle’s children from being normal kids. Mary Ellen’s sister, Helen was a typical sixteen-year-old. She had an attitude that seemed to put her in conflict with people around her, especially her mother. To her family this was balanced by the fact that she had developed rheumatic fever at age three which resulted in having to wear a brace to walk for eight years. Mary thought that had a lot to do with her attitudes. Helen wasn’t around much now. She had a boyfriend down the road and spent a lot of time there.
Mary’s twin brothers, John and Gene, were fifteen and created frequent havoc with their behavior. They had jobs caddying for golfers at the country club where their father was a member. Merle felt they spent too much time at the clubhouse picking up bad ideas and habits. Mary thought that was probably right. The two boys seemed to stay away from the house as much as possible.
Mary felt a close bond with her younger brother, Bud. He often became her charge.. While she hated doing household chores, she never rebelled about caring for Bud. At age three he had developed a serious illness. It was during a time when the family enjoyed trips to a wicket dam called Fernbank on the Ohio River near Cincinnati. It had been constructed the year Mary was born, 1911, to deepen the water channel for navigation. Families visited the dam and children loved to drink from a public water fountain with a pedal you stepped on to make the water flow. Mary’s parents became convinced that Bud got sick from that fountain.
The doctor disagreed. The family had a well outside the kitchen with a bucket they used to pull water up from an underground source. The doctor had the well tested and found it was filled with bacteria. The well was closed and Bud recovered–Mary Ellen said–without becoming bossy like his sister, Helen.
Mary set the table as asked, then her mother sent her into the parlor where Bud was playing on the floor with a metal farm set. She picked up a toy chicken. “Well, well, you forgot to lock up your chickens.”
“No, I didn’t!”
He grabbed for it.
“Time to put everybody in the barn so we can eat supper.” Mary made a game out of playfully helping Bud put away his toys, then took him to the sink and washed his hands. Helen came in and helped her mother serve the plates, then they settled into eating. Merle had fixed Mary’s favorite dish–vegetable beef soup.”
“Ugh! Not this again,” said Helen in a sulking mood.
“It’s good for you and you’ll eat it, young lady!”
“I like it,” said Mary.
Helen made a face at her.
“Now, children, that’s enough of that,” said their mother. “I think I smell a rhubarb pie in the oven. Everybody who finishes their soup gets a piece of pie.” She looked at Helen. “If you don’t finish…no pie.”
That resolved the soup issue.
Mary’s dad came in after dinner was over. She ran to him. She loved hugging him around his legs. He reached down and had her put her feet on his shoes, then walked her around the room. She wished he could work there on the farm instead of at the dairy downtown. She wanted to be with him more often. Elmer’s job required so much time that he frequently left for work before Mary got up, and came home after she was in bed.
This particular night Mary Ellen was glad her daddy had gotten home a bit early. When he tucked her in bed she fell asleep with pleasant thoughts to round out an adventuresome day. For the dairyman’s daughter, life could not have felt more comfortable. She had learned to adapt to challenges, knew when to stay in the background, and was quite adept at simply being herself. Mary Ellen couldn’t imagine that things would ever really change.
She could never have dreamed that thirty years later she would have her own kitchen in a farmhouse in Virginia that would remind her of the cozy timelessness she felt at age ten in her mother’s kitchen!
(An excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter,” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)