Gone are the days when guests were greeted at the front door and led into the parlor. “ ‘Will you walk into my parlor?’ said the spider to the fly.” The old poem illustrates the formality of a place where visitors were, in a way, held captive. Because the parlor was where first impressions were made, furniture had to be of good quality. Family portraits and sconces of light adorned the papered walls. Company sat in upright chairs and paid visits. The parlor was a buffer between the outside and inside life of the house.
My ancestors had their picture taken in a parlor that is probably not the parlor at the farm. They appear to be at a wedding. You can see the bride reflected in the mirror. It may have been my grandmother Agnes and grandfather Ellsworth’s wedding or maybe the wedding of Alice Hall to Harry Dickerman. The seated family members wear their best clothes. They look uncomfortable. But I’ve always loved the ghostly look of this parlor photo.
The farm parlor I remember was a nearly square room with three windows and three doors. It faced south, and provided warmth, light, and sunshine. Cherished paintings and portraits hung on the wallpaper. It was sparsely furnished. A piano took up most of the west wall, and my grandmother’s planters most of the south wall. In one corner an antique marble-topped table held a basket of old photographs. My grandmother often sent me home from my visits with a photo or two from that basket. I’ve used many of them here in my blog posts.
In my mother’s day the parlor had taken on the role of a multi-purpose room. The family gathered around the piano after Thanksgiving dinner to sing songs accompanied on piano by my Aunt Hattie. Toys sometimes littered the floor. Because it was the warmest room in the house, (shutting all three doors kept in the heat from the cast iron radiator and the warmth of the sun shining through the windows) my great-grandmother sat in the parlor and watched her grandchildren play as chilling drafts of air cooled other rooms.
In 1930, when my mother was twelve, her three-year-old brother Luther died of pneumonia, and his little body lay in a coffin in the parlor during the days of mourning. Friends and family and neighbors came in and out through the front door to say goodbye to the child.
But as life went on and the days grew brighter for my grandparents and mother and aunts and uncles, the room again became a warm and cheerful place. The parlor hosted card games and club meetings. In 1932 the local newspaper ran this photograph of my mother and other members of the “Capable Cooks 4-H Club” doing a demonstration called “Many Ways with Carrots.” I wish I’d been there in the parlor to see that lesson. I would like to have known exactly how many ways there are with carrots.
My mother, standing on the right, looks tidy and professional. Because I was a 4-H member myself, I know that 4-H cooking demonstrations have to be detailed and exact. My mother cooked that way for the rest of her life. She measured her ingredients closely, cut her cucumber slices to a paper thinness, soaked cut onions in ice water, and greased and flowered her baking pans so thoroughly that not a single crumb would be left behind after the cake was turned out onto the plate. She learned her lessons well, and was always a “capable cook.”
In my dining room in Alaska, I have a Christmas cactus grown from a cutting of my grandmother’s original plant. In this photo my mother stands in front of one of the parlor windows. Through the window you can see the plants my grandmother Agnes grew – geraniums, Christmas cactus, amaryllis, and begonias – and also, reflected in the glass, the silhouette of the barn across the street with its rooftop cupola.
On Wednesday: The Tree