As the third in a series on my blog about how things have changed a lot since I was a kid, I’m reminded of a prof years ago at the University of Hawaii who told us that our personal “stories” or historical heritage begins with the memories of the oldest people we’ve known. If that’s true, then for me that would essentially be my Grandma Johanna Hand [pictured at left], who was born in the Netherlands in 1874 and — mainly through her and my mom, because I was only a baby when he died — my Grandpa Hyrum Hand, who was born in England in 1866.
Because my Grandma Hand lived with us all the years I was growing up, and passed away at age 98 in 1972, I remember her very well. She pushes the envelope of memories and the spectrum of how things have changed for me back almost 150 years.
Think of it: The U.S. Civil War was officially declared over the year Grandpa Hand was born in Sutton Bonnington, Nottinghamshire — the Midlands of England. Jesse James was robbing banks, and here in Hawaii the Ministry of Health exiled the first leprosy patients to Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai. I can also remember my dad telling me how, when he was a kid, he knew and talked with Civil War veterans.
Grandpa’s parents had joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1850 — giving each of the eight-of-10 children born after that either a biblical or Mormon name, including Moroni, Orson, Brigham, Joseph and Hyrum — and planned to emigrate along with many other British Mormons to Utah. They decided to send their oldest son, my granduncle George who was born in 1848, with the idea that he would get established and help the others come.
In 1865 at age 16, George Hand left England for America and ended up driving a team of oxen across the plains as part of the great Mormon migration to Utah. Unfortunately, his parents, grandparents (who joined the Mormon Church in 1852) and several siblings died before the plan was fully put into action, and it wasn’t until 1885 that Grandpa Hyrum finally joined the remaining family in Benjamin, Utah, near Payson. Of course, I never knew my granduncle George, but I do remember visiting my grandaunt Nellie, who died in 1954.
Before arriving in Utah, Hyrum was put to work at age 6 helping weave stockings for many hours a day on hand looms. Later he worked in a lime quarry for 10-and-a-half hours a day, for which he was paid the normal wage of two schillings.
After Grandpa Hand came to Utah, I can remember my mom telling me he took classes at Brigham Young Academy, which would eventually become Brigham Young University — but not until almost 20 years later.
In 1896 my grandfather left his young wife and baby girl behind to serve a Mormon mission in England. As was the custom then, he traveled “without purse or scrip” (money) and reported going hungry so many times that the mission president transferred him to Holland because the Latter-day Saints there would feed him. Grandpa learned and spoke fluent Dutch for the remainder of his life.
In 1906 Grandpa Hand and his young family migrated to New Zealand, passing through the ruins of San Francisco, which had just experienced its great earthquake. Their outbound journey took one month. Within a few years, however, the family left Auckland for health reasons and, after a brief sojourn in Canada, returned to Utah where Grandpa’s first wife passed away in 1910 and he married my grandma in 1911. I seem to recall my dad telling me his father-in-law must have missed the British way of doing things during that New Zealand-Canada interlude.
Back in Salt Lake City, Grandpa Hand worked as a letter carrier, eventually delivering the mail in the Sugar House area of Salt Lake City in a horse and buggy. As his fortunes improved, he bought a house in 1912 on what came to be known as Green Street, but at that time had no water, sewage or electrical systems in the neighborhood. The barn where the horse stayed eventually became a two-story house that’s still standing, although our family no longer owns the property.
In 1931 Grandpa Hand retired and, accompanied by my grandma and mother, served another Mormon mission — this one starting in Holland and ending in England. My mom and all her maternal cousins learned Dutch while growing up…and every time they came over, or we went to their houses — people of that generation and culture were very big on visiting family — her generation and above would all speak Dutch to each other. None of us in the my generation, however, learned any Dutch; but my dad, brother and I apparently inherited an extra measure of talent for learning other languages.
My Grandma Hand was a very hard-working woman who left me a wealth of memories from my little-kid and teenage times. For example, I remember her telling how she grew up on a boat on the canals of Rotterdam, the same place she and her brother would ice skate in the winter. I also remember her telling me that, in the Dutch way, everything on the canal boat had to be clean and ship-shape, so she got a scolding from her father in 1883 before people realized that ashes from the eruption of Krakatoa in far-off Indonesia had spread all around the world, including all over their boat.
Grandma and her brother migrated to the U.S. in 1907 and settled in Salt Lake City. She soon learned English, but for the rest of her life spoke it with a Dutch accent and always read her Dutch Bible. In fact, to this day I can always recognize when someone is speaking English with a Dutch accent. I can also remember having to go with her once a year back in the 1950s to what was called “Old Folks Day” in Liberty Park, where we would search out the Dutch group and Grandma Hand would hang out with all her pals.
I think it’s fair to say my grandma was kind of a health fanatic. For example, I remember riding the bus with her from Sugar House to downtown Salt Lake City — 5 cents for me, 10 cents for her, each way — where we would invariably stop in at least one health food store, and I would have to drink the obligatory glass of carrot juice, if not something worse. She would buy lots of other stuff, which I wouldn’t dare taste. In addition, she grew and used her own peppermint, and gathered herbs and plants, drying them for homemade poultices and liniments.
She was also a gifted masseuse, and I would often accompany her on her rounds of massaging old people who, in retrospect, must have been suffering diabetic leg pains, although I didn’t understand this at the time.
She was dead-set against drinking ice water — thought it was terribly unhealthy — and she observed a lot of what others might call superstitions or folk medicine. For example, we all enjoyed eating apricots from the tree Grandpa Hand had planted in the yard, but grandma would also encourage us to save the pits, dry and crack them open, then eat the bitter-tasting seed inside that was smaller than a pea. This sort of thing, in part, was said to have inspired her step-son, my uncle Wayland Hand, Ph.D., to eventually become a UCLA professor for many years and one of the leading American folklore scholars of his day. Much later I learned the apricot seeds were a source of laetrile — which for a while was incorrectly believed to help cure cancer. They were also chemically related to cyanide; no wonder they were so bitter.
The family’s mission to Europe undoubtedly made a big impression on my mother, who ever after enjoyed traveling by train and liked the idea of large cruise ships, but was not keen at all on flying. In fact, during all her remaining years I lived in Hawaii I was only able to get her to visit us once — and was quite surprised when she actually came. My dad, on the other hand, loved their trip to Hawaii: He went swimming at Hukilau Beach, and he and I took a day-trip to the Big Island where he thoroughly enjoyed the Puna rain forest and Volcanoes National Park.
Not only my grandparents but also my parents experienced huge advances in transportation and other conveniences during their lifetimes. For example, my dad grew up in Portland, Oregon, where his family owned a Model-A Ford — the kind you had to hand-crank to start. In the late 1950s, in fact, he bought a British Hillman Minx car (which I eventually inherited) that had a hand-crank option, which proved very useful on more than one freezing and snowy occasion: Pull out the choke, pump the gas a couple of times, back-off the choke, and one good crank would start it right up on even the coldest nights. In fact I taught my friend how to crank, and I also taught my girlfriend at the time how to work the choke when I had cranking duty.
I remember one time when we went on a road trip to Canada in the 1950s, we came across an old-style mechanical (i.e. non-electric) gas pump: I had never seen one before, but dad went straight to the lever that hand-pumped the gas into a large glass container at the top. Then he put the hose into the car tank, and opened the valve that let the gas drain into it by gravity. If I’m not mistaken there were five- and 10-gallon pumps, with hash-marks for the numbers in between, so the whole process had to be repeated sometimes to fill a bigger tank. I don’t know if they still do, but in those days Canada used imperial gallons, which were larger than U.S. gallons and seemed an extra bargain to us at the time.
For her part on another front, my mom went from hand-washing laundry with a scrubbing board when she was a girl to using an electric washer with the roller wringers — the kind where you carefully fed wet clothes into so you didn’t mangle your hands. I also remember she had this special rack with little sharp spines on it where she would hang her curtains out to dry so they wouldn’t need ironing.
Mom would always bottle or can her own fruits and some vegetables in season every year, and then we would store them in the basement. We would drive up to Farmington to buy peaches and apricots, and down to the orchards in Pleasant Grove and Provo areas to buy apples, cherries and pears. If I remember correctly, a whole bushel of fruit cost less than $5 back then. My dad also liked to tell us how he used to buy whole watermelon in Texas for five-cents each.
|My grandma’s sewing machine was just
like this. You rocked the treadle below
with your foot to operate the needle. I
can also remember stubbing my toe on
those cast-iron legs.
That’s a little like when my mission president, H. Burton Price, was himself a young missionary in Samoa in the 1930s: He told us they could buy a whole bunch of green bananas for a seleni or two — a schilling, which I think was equivalent to about a quarter back then.
Of course, grandma and mom also used a beautiful Singer sewing machine with a manual foot treadle — one you activated by pressing the treadle up and down in a rocking motion.
Another historical thing I always remember about my dad was that, typical of almost all men in the U.S. in the first half of the 1900s, he always wore a fedora-style hat when he was outside. It’s said that President John F. Kennedy, who didn’t wear one, killed the custom. My dad was also very stoic about cold weather and would rarely wear more than a jacket when he went out in the snow, even as an older man when he would push his snow blower all around the neighborhood, or as a younger man when he rode his motorcycles — a big Indian and a smaller British Matchless. In fact, as a younger man he rode a motorcycle all over the continent, including Canada and Mexico.
Strangely, however, the more things change over time, the more I notice some things are still the same. This notion came more forcefully to my mind about 35 years ago when I was working on a project printing a century-old collection of photographic glass negatives at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah: Obviously the style of clothing, poses and backdrops dated the images, but the long-dead people in those pictures could easily have been someone I would meet in the mall. Of course, they would have adjusted to the newer clothing styles, conditions and conveniences of today . . . because that’s what people always do.
Photo caption: Me (right) about 1950. For some reason my parents had me wear bib overalls when I was a kid; I didn’t switch to regular pants until I was in the second or third grade (and haven’t worn bib overalls ever since, even when they went through a fashion fad while I was in high school). At this time, before I learned to read in about the second grade, I had to beg my brother to read our comic books to me. They cost 10 cents each.