Has the meaning of “mother” changed over the years? No, not really.
But what it means to be a mother, in terms of daily routine, has changed greatly since my ancestral cousin, Clinton Burns, profiled the working life of his mother two centuries ago in a series of letters to his daughter Ruth. Farm life — and being a farm wife — meant hard work, dedication and endurance.
Clinton wrote …
“My mother was born in 1810 in Pennsylvania. She was a tall stately woman, straight as an arrow. Her hair was brown, her eyes were hazel, her forehead high, and her face bore the expression of great native intelligence. She was capable. She could do anything that any other woman could do and do it equally well or better. She was skillful with the needle. She could cut and fit a garment like a tailor.
“She was a good cook. As a boy, I did not care to eat away from home, for our own food was better. I remember hearing my mother wager my uncle that she could make honey that he could not distinguish from that made by a bee. She made the honey from sugar and other ingredients, and my uncle paid the wager. We had a cook stove, but she did a large part of the cooking on the open fire in the fireplace. My mother made us corn dodgers, corn meal mush, and buttermilk soup.
“We kept a large number of chickens, geese, and ducks. The geese and ducks had to be picked two or three times during the summer. Mother always did this work, and she would be so covered with down that she was as white as the goose she plucked. The two featherbeds in our home were from feathers plucked by my mother.
“Prior to the kerosene lamp being introduced during the Civil War, the only light we had was tallow candles that my mother made. The floors of the house were without carpet and were frequently scrubbed. To keep the doors and shelves bright and clean, they were frequently scoured with fine sand taken from a nearby stream. And the tinware was kept bright by scouring each day with wood ashes.
“My mother was an incessant worker, toiling indefatigably eighteen hours out of the twenty-four. During the day she attended to her household duties, and at night she made and mended our clothing by sewing and our stockings by knitting and darning.
“Mother was highly esteemed in the community for her many capabilities. In case of sickness, she was as good as a doctor and was always sent for in case of serious illness. There was neither birth nor death in the neighborhood at which my mother was not present.
“My mother was also intensely religious and regularly attended church. She was anxious that both her sons enter the ministry. One did; he inherited much of her deep religious nature.”
Clinton, who also had two sisters, said that his older brother, a Civil War soldier, “was in the wheat field where men were mowed down by the thousand at Gettysburg, [witnessing] wickedness which awakened the deepest feelings of his soul, and he entered the Christian ministry” after the war.
Clinton continued . . .
“After an absence of six years, I returned home in the summer of 1875 after graduating from college. I found my mother greatly broken. Her hair was white, her body frail, and her step tottering. That December, I received a telegram telling me to come home at once if I wanted to see my mother alive.Clinton, who spent most of his adult life teaching in small towns in western Illinois, continued …
“After an absence of six years, I returned home in the summer of 1875 after graduating from college. I found my mother greatly broken. Her hair was white, her body frail, and her step tottering. That December, I received a telegram telling me to come home at once if I wanted to see my mother alive.
“I arose at midnight. It was Saturday. By sunrise Sabbath I was in St. Louis, but there was no train except a special carrying government officials who had been investigating the great Whiskey Frauds in St. Louis.
“I sought permission to board that train and rode with these officials to Cameron, West Virginia. My brother and sisters were gathered there. The last reunion of our family was around the deathbed of my mother. She was buried in the Unity Church graveyard and sleeps there today side by side with my father.”
The family farm where Clinton’s mother, Elizabeth Auld Burns, made meals, clothes, candles and corn dodgers was in Greene County, Pennsylvania; but her life as a mother was typical of the times, laden with love and hard work. Her deep concern for her children was expressed in many ways, and Clinton returned that love by mirroring his mother’s values in his own life.
One of those values was family fealty, the flame of his mother’s fidelity to family burning bright in Clinton till the day he died. He always made the long journey home for family reunions — where he would recite the family history.
But for the 1930 reunion, Clinton encountered car trouble and arrived late at the Windy Gap Presbyterian Church in West Finley, Greene County. He was ushered to the front pew to catch his breath before delivering his speech.
Clinton never made it to the podium, suffering a fatal heart attack. The local newspaper account said his relatives ascribed the attack to the stress of being late to keep his commitment to his family — and to honor the memory of his mother.
Clinton Burns died at the Windy Gap Church two weeks short of his 80th birthday. But he had thoughtfully left behind a written record of his love for and admiration of his mother.
James F. Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.