Helen Baker Reynolds (Part III) by Ed Wenig
This is the third in a series of articles consisting of quotations from passages in Helen Baker Reynold’s book, “Family Album”. The Following is from the chapter, Day’s Ritual.
Our household was a smug little world. Father was its Absolute Monarch, whose cardinal principle in dealing with children was “No Talking Back”. Mother’s cardinal principle was taken from the Bible: “Little Children, Love One Another.” If Father was Absolute Monarch, Mother was High Priestess. Between the two of them the family’s world rode its orbit with the exactitude of any heavenly body.
Breakfast was at seven o’clock. Actually the daily routine was not nearly so arduous as to demand such early hours, but, regarding the principle involved, Father was adamant. To lie abed after six o’clock was, in his judgment, slothful, and his own father always had said, “A slothful man is a sinful man.” So that was that.
Breakfast was the opening Trumpet blast introducing the daily rituals. As we assembled in the sitting room, each greeting the other with a “Good Morning!” which must ring with loving kindness (otherwise Mother would be grieved), Esing (the Chinese servant) would thrust his head in at the door, announcing “Blekfassy he alledy.”
“Good morning, Esing!” we would chorus, and all would troop into the dining room.
Along the sides of the table, with Father and Mother at the two ends, would be ranged as many of the seven children as were not away at school: also Grandmother and usually some visiting relatives or one of the old family friends who came to live with us from time to time. Seldom fewer than seven and more often nine or ten would be seated at the table.
The casual in-and-out breakfast of today, the fast consuming of coffee and toast behind sections of the morning paper, was unknown in our home. Our parents would have thought it rude and unseemly and from the standpoint of nourishment shamefully inadequate.
Breakfast with us was a ritual the pattern of which never varied. It began with a long and fervent “blessing” pronounced by Mother, while we sat with bowed heads. Mother’s blessings were not mere murmured formalities. She went before the Throne of God and took her family with her, earnestly thankful for favors received, leading us willy-nilly, into a day of Christian Goodness.
Our regular fare for breakfast included cooked cereal, bacon, eggs, steak, potatoes, two or three kinds of hot bread, fruit, jam and jelly, and a large assortment of breakfast drinks. Calorie counting was unknown. To be fat was to be healthy. Fortunately obesity did not run in our family.
Breakfast lasted for nearly an hour. It was a time for conversation. Conversation abounded at all of our meals, Esing often joining in. “In Chiny,” he would say from the kitchen doorway, balancing a tray on the palm of his hand and squinting his eyes to slits, “in Chiny we no do sings like you do”. Then he would hold forth on Chinese customs, while we listened with respect. Father sometimes would laugh tolerantly, as if humoring a child, but we young people were taught to be very respectful to servants. Mother never used the word “servant” except in the general sense. A household worker she called “Our Helper”. This was an affectation on her part; it was natural to her, expressing her Christianity.
There were duties for everyone after breakfast. Father would have had the boys up at five-thirty for the early-morning chores, but girls were accorded consideration on account of being delicate.
Of my sisters’ morning assignments the two most dreaded were cleaning and filling the coal oil lamps, a sooty, smelly job and (even worse) servicing the chamber pots. Not until I was ten years old did we have an indoor toilet. For several years after the modern fixture was available and installed in most “good homes,” Father held out against the innovation. His contention was that the things wouldn’t work; hence, they would be unsanitary. Only after one in an outdoor privy had proven its competence beyond the shadow of a doubt was he finally induced to assume the risk of having them inside. Meanwhile he saw nothing unsanitary about the chamber pot. It was time-honored; therefore, it was right.
Most of the routine of cleaning and tidying was done by my mother and sisters. Esing did the entire family laundry, with boilers steaming on the wood stove in the “wash house” outside the kitchen. I always found it fascinating to watch him sprinkle the clothes before ironing. He would fill his mouth with water, then blow in a fine spray. Mother had forbidden this unsanitary method and had shown him how to sprinkle with a whisk broom. Accordingly, Esing kept the whisk broom at hand to use when he heard Mother’s quick, light step approaching. At other times he went back to his own technique. Cheeks bulging, squirrel-like, he would blow out a spray so fine as to be no more than a mist. Between mouthfuls of water he would look at me, who stood watching him, wide-eyed, and would squint his almond eyes to slits with a mischievous, conspiratorial smile. Once in a while he would say to me, “You no tell your mudda.” This admonition always made me feel guilty, for deceiving one’s mother was wicked. I never did make a report, however.
The Intangible Spirit of the Ojai, by Ed Wenig