The house all nine of us were raised in was quite small and certainly had none of the conveniences of homes today. How my mother coped with what she had to work with and sent out her 9 children well-dressed, well-fed, with good manners, and the ability to absorb as much education as was available in Teeswater, I do not know.
Teeswater, ON c. 1910
The house contained fairly large living room or parlour which was called “The Room”. It had a carpet woven of rags with a dark border around the edges. It was tacked down and was lifted every spring and fall, taken out to the backyard, and whacked with a carpet beater. This was a wire a heavy wire in a long loop with the two ends driven into a wooden handle. We all took turns whacking the dust out of the carpet, no doubt working out a lot of hostilities unknowingly. (No one had ever heard of hostilities or working out anger then!) We always had a piano, a couch, several cane bottomed chairs and two rocking chairs. I don’t know what became of them. We did not know enough to appreciate or preserve them.
Off “the Room” were two bedrooms. The one at the front of the house was occupied by our parents and the other was the “spare room”. Some of the family slept there and vacated it when we had company. In those days people would visit each other for several days or weeks at a time. This was the room occupied by our father when he nearly died of typhoid fever in 1902. I remember at 6 peeking in at him in fear when he was delirious. His face was red and he was raving. Many people died of typhoid at that time as it was easily transmitted by unsafe water.
Our paternal grandmother Marion Cochrane Skilling McIntosh also died in that room. I remember peeking in again then and hearing my father saying: “Mother, mother can you hear me? Squeeze my hand if you can hear me.” I remember a little of the funeral in 1902 and seeing my aunts with white shirt waists tucked into long black skirts. The skirts had little trains on them and their tiny waists above bustles gave them an interesting figure. I remember seeing them with their hands over their faces standing in different windows weeping.
We had another fairly large room on the main floor which contained the wood stove. The stove was brought into that room in the fall and taken out to what was the summer kitchen in the spring. It was always a very traumatic affair, heaving that heavy iron stove down 2 steps and setting it up out there. Moving it also necessitated removal of the stovepipes which extended half way across the room to the chimney and were usually filled with soot. These pipes were about 9 inches in diameter and were composed of many short lengths about 30 inches long fitted together. It was essential to be very careful when removing them as the pieces could come apart spraying everything nearby with soot. Sometimes some of my brothers would get impatient and try to hurry. The deluge of soot was nothing compared to the roar of epithets from our father. Mother was usually patient but this activity used to raise her ire too. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the pipes were set outside well beyond the house. They we had to bang the pipes with sticks until all the winter’s soot was dislodged before putting them in their summer quarters.
This same room also contained a work table with a leaf which could be raised to hold extra things or dropped to a flat perpendicular position on hinges when not in use. These are called “fall leaf or drop leaf tables” and can bring a pretty penny now at auctions. Mother did her baking here and I washed the dishes here too. Just beside this table was the pantry door and this was the only place our mother had for storing food. She usually had 100 lb. bags of flour and sugar which stood on the floor. This pantry was under the stairs and its space diminished as the stairs came down. On the floor of the pantry was a trap door with hinges which could be opened by lifting a metal ring then fastening the ring on a large hook attached to a lower shelf. This was the inside entrance to the cellar. Often people with short memories would go off and leave that trap door open. It appalls me to think we all made it to adulthood without anyone falling down those stairs. Only one minor disaster I know of occurred and it is still a family anecdote. One summer our brother Orville and his four lively children were visiting us and my mother, using the outside entrance, had set a couple of pans of milk on the cellar steps for the cream to rise. She would then skim off the lovely thick rich cream and leave the skim milk. Someone left the trap door open in the pantry and little Jack (one of the twins), 20 months old, opened the pantry door and hurtled down the steps right into the two pans of milk. We all worried about his safety but found nothing but a skinned upper lip. He kept showing his sore lip to everyone saying: “Fa down a milk”. To this day, that is a family saying.
At the other end of the room was the dining room, with an oak extension dining room table, a cupboard for the dishes, and several chicken coop chairs painted yellow. My job every Saturday was to wash all these chairs. I was proud of my handiwork. Our father’s desk stood at the end of the room and was called “the secretary”. It had a bookcase above enclosed with 2 glass doors. One of the books inside I remember was a doctor book and the front and back pages were an ugly colour I called “bitter”. My father kept great ledgers where he accounted for every twenty-five cents. Why I don’t know, since he never balanced them that I know of and there weren’t even any income taxes then!
Mother’s sewing machine stood under the window at the end of the room. Along one side was what we called “the lounge”, a plain upholstered couch raised at one end. This couch was so comfortable that nearly every evening one or another of us children had to be carried up to bed, having succumbed to the sandman in eyes of a tired child after a busy day. My brother Bill occasionally used to have night terrors after falling asleep on the lounge.
Two steps down took us to the summer kitchen which contained a table, the wood stove in summer, and a cupboard of sorts and the wash tub. Under the table was another trap door, similar to the one in the pantry, but when it was opened, it disclosed the cistern which collected all the rain and melted snow collected and piped from the eaves around the outside of the house. We never had a pump for it. To obtain water we had a pail with a chain attached to the handle. The pail was dangled down to the surface of the water and, with an adroit twist of the wrist, was turned over and sank in the cool depths then drawn up hand over hand. This is the way we obtained all our water used for washing clothes, bathing, and washing hands and faces in an enamel basin set on a backless chair. Again I am shaken at the thought of how easily any of us might have drowned, so easy would it have been to slip into that deep cistern.