“Birthday Cake for Janet,” Carol Crump Bryner, watercolor and colored pencil, 2014
My mom, Janet Hall Crump, appears often in my blog posts. She was my most direct connection to the farm. The stories she told became part of my stories – as though I’d been right there with her when things happened. Her sentiments became my sentiments, and sometimes it seems she lives on in my head, speaking to me moment to moment – thinking out loud the way she always did.
The other day, while making lunch, I heard her say, “Never put tomato on a chicken salad sandwich.” The lovely heirloom tomato I was about to slice stayed whole – my chicken salad unadorned. She’s been gone for six years, but there are times I feel she’s not only always with me, but that I’m becoming her. When I look at my hands, I see her hands. My sideways glance in the mirror shows her face. Her words come out of my mouth when I speak to my children and my husband and my grandchildren. Her adages and advice (“break your ear before you eat it” – “he who hesitates is lost” – “you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”) and mispronunciations (“clorestoral” – “bronical pneumonia” – “Manatuska Valley”) have become part of my family’s vocabulary. She was so full of life, always, and memories of her – both loveable and annoying – keep me company as I cut tomatoes, boil corn, do my shopping, and work on this blog.
Carol and Janet, near Palmer, Alaska, 1971
Yesterday would have been her ninety-sixth birthday. On the farm they celebrated birthdays with cake and ice cream and presents. They donned their best clothes and took time away from chores to mark special occasions – birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. On her last birthday, her eighty-ninth, when she was in a nursing home after a stroke, we gave her a party. She was paralyzed on one side and could barely speak. But she still had her cheerful smile and her sense of humor. My brother gave her a toy hippo dressed in a pink tutu. When the hippo danced across the table to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” my mother laughed so hard tears ran down her face. She watched the hippo do its act several times, then turned to me and said, “Where’s my cake?”
In my very favorite photo of Janet, her face is hidden. She’s at a party, and she’s falling out of a little chair. It was typical for her to be in motion. Her personality was outgoing. She thrived on the chaos of farm and family life, and avoided quiet solitude. She didn’t hold anything back, and gave generously of her love, opinions, and judgments.
Janet Falling off a Chair, 1919
Another photo taken that same day shows her sitting in her white outfit – still just a baby, but already with her grown up face. She always looked like herself. She had powerful features and dynamic hair, and she took great pride in looking just right.
Janet in a white bonnet, sitting on the ground, 1919
One of her most frequent complaints about her childhood, which seemed otherwise idyllic, was that because she was the third child, no one had time to cut her hair properly or dress her in new clothes. But in entries from my great-grandmother’s journals it’s obvious Janet was loved and celebrated.
Friday, May 13, 1921 – “Nice day. Janet Hall went to the barbers with her mother and sister & brother – came home with her hair all nicely cut. Looking so sweet and peachy. Everyone admires her.” – Lydia Jane Hall
Her family threw a festive party for her on her third birthday.
Tuesday, August 9, 1921 – “Agnes & Hattie, Lydia, Francis & Janet went to Meriden to do some shopping. Janet has a birthday tomorrow. She is three years old. They are getting up a little party of cousins for her all near her age, the oldest seven, youngest three. Agnes is making birthday cake & cookies. She has returned from Meriden with her arms full of packages. Emily is making caps of red, pink & blue paper for each one.” – Lydia Jane Hall
Wednesday, August 10, 1921 – “A very nice time for everyone. All busy with getting apples outside and getting ready for the party indoors. Emily & Agnes setting the house in order, etc., which looks very homelike. The party came about half after three & stayed until after five. Such a happy crowd came marching in with their gifts for little Janet. She was so sweet in receiving them. Ellen with her two, Alice with two, Gertrude with her two, Agnes with her three. Mrs. J. D. McGuaghey with little David, & Hattie. It was a treat to see them around the table eating ice cream & cake. Nine cousins, ten in all. The party a success. Very pleasing to me.” – Lydia Jane Hall
Janet’s third birthday party – Janet in front on right, 1921
In the photo from the party, the cousins are dressed in white outfits, the standard in those days for party wear, maybe because ice cream stains could be bleached out. She does look, however, in need of a haircut. For the rest of her life she took great care with her appearance –she loved nice clothes and red lipstick and a proper hairdo. She posed over and over for my dad’s camera when they were courting, wearing stylish suits, dresses, coats, and shoes.
Janet near Muddy River, 1942
My brother, father, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and I were the happy recipients of her party-loving nature. We each had a special cake or pie for our own birthdays – my brother an orange cake for his June birthday, my grandfather a coconut cake for his December birthday, my uncle Aaron a blueberry pie. On my ninth birthday she gave me a party at the farm, and invited twenty-one girls, our entire Girl Scout troop. She wouldn’t let me pick and choose my favorite friends – I wasn’t allowed to leave anyone out. She organized games and party favors and food, as she did for all my birthdays. She always made me feel special.
Carol’s Farm Birthday Party
In 1938 she went to college in Boston to study art. She stayed only one year, but she was a good student and became an accomplished painter. As much as she loved school, however, her heart was at the farm. My grandmother wrote her weekly letters relating the news of Whirlwind Hill. In this note Agnes talks about her own birthday.
“Dear Janet, Just a line or two this morning to thank you for the dearest birthday card I have ever had. Did you get your piece of my birthday cake? I forgot and left it in the oven all night and it was a little dry in spots, but I took your piece out of the middle, or center, should I say.” Agnes Biggs Hall
The happiest occasion of her life may have been marrying my father. She always knew what she liked, and she liked my dad. My grandmother warned her that he was a “playboy,” and not to be trusted. But as my mother told me often, she was madly in love with her Charlie. They married during the war and wrote letters to each other daily. On Wednesday I’ll talk about my dad – the other half of the equation that made me.
Janet’s Wedding, February 6, 1943
I never knew until I had my own children about the fears that plagued my mother. She suffered panic attacks, and it was sometimes torture for her to drive long distances. But if she loved someone, she made a beeline through her anxiety, and got to where she needed to be. She drove me to New York, to Massachusetts, to New Hampshire. She flew to Alaska by herself to visit me seventeen times, and I never realized how hard those trips might have been for her.
Janet told me once that she wanted to be remembered the way she looked in this 1966 photo, taken on a bridge on the Wheaton College campus in Norton, Massachusetts during a visit to me. She looks so happy – so well dressed in her suit, gloves, and matching shoes and pocketbook. She had arranged her legs just the way she always told me to pose for the camera. “Bend one knee, Carol, so you cover up your other leg, because you have a ‘funny’ leg.”
If you’re listening Mom, I still try to hide that funny leg. And I still think of you every day. Happy, Happy Birthday. I miss you!
On Wednesday: Charlie