Stepping Stones: Memoir of a Life Together
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I liked pullet eggs because they were small, like me. Sometimes the neighbor would give us crabapple jelly in tiny jars. Letty Mamie stayed at Metacomet. Someone else was needed to take care of my sister and me and to travel with us from city to city during much of each year. One morning during the summer of , I was introduced to Mrs. She was with us from the time I was four until I was almost nine and her health did not permit her to continue. I think Letty had a profound influence on the person I became.
She was a Quaker. She dressed very simply. If I recall correctly, she always wore brown. Her husband was in a mental institution and she had no children. She loved my sister and me as if we were her own.
Letty was observant, inquisitive, resourceful, and knew how to do or could improvise a way to do all sorts of things. She taught each of us a whole range of hobbies with no overlap between what she taught Cushing and what she taught me. Cushing was a tomboy. Letty showed her how to take an old camera, build a photo enlarger, and eventually a dark room.
Letty did wood carving. And Letty could do all kinds of fine needlework. She taught me to sew, to embroider, and to crochet. When I was five years old, we lived for a few months in a house that had an old treadle sewing machine. If I sat at the machine where I could manage the cloth, my feet did not reach the foot treadle, so I would operate the foot treadle while Letty steered the cloth through the machine, or I would steer the cloth while Letty operated the treadle. We made hassocks a kind of stool , taking six large cans, wrapping them with cardboard and strips of muslin, padding the seat with cotton batting, then sewing a cover out of a sturdy fabric with a bottom of oilcloth.
Letty made me a chair out of an old wooden orange crate with a bin for my books and papers. She would notice something and act immediately on the thought that came into her mind. One time when we were staying in a rented apart- Beginnings 19 ment, after gazing at a bureau, she crossed the room and, to my amazement, pulled out what appeared to be a secret drawer with no handles at the bottom of the bureau! I took from Letty her Quaker simplicity, her ability to see possibilities and act on them, and confidence that I could make things.
When Letty was not with us, I mostly played by myself. I would string up blankets and make myself a little hiding place in the corner behind the bed in my room at Metacomet. I could peek out to see if anyone walked by but they could not see me, or so I thought. Grandpop loved roses and I remember him in the evenings watering the garden. When I was about ten, he showed me how he planted lettuce.
Stepping Stones: Memoir of a Life Together
Because we moved so much, I was unable to develop any sustained relationships with other children. Cushing was full of energy, boisterous, and had an explosive temper. I was meek and shy, often called a crybaby and told to stop whining. Cushing would break a rule, and I thought it was unfair that I was then expected to abide by that same rule. But that was not the way others saw it, so I learned to abide by the rules. My father, Henry Edward Niles, was an extremely gentle man, and a man of very high integrity.
He amused me by letting a snake run down his leg inside his trousers. Niles who died before I was born , and his brother, my Uncle Emory, were judges in Maryland state courts. During World War II gasoline was rationed. I think B-ration cards were issued only to people who had a particular work-related need for more gasoline than they could get with an A-ration card. My father was equally scrupulous. If he mailed a personal package from his office, he would be sure to pay the postage out of his own pocket.
He would prefer not to go to Friends Meeting if he would arrive late because he did not want to disturb other people. My father wanted to be a farmer. He would notice ripe berries or unusual wild flowers as he drove along country roads. He would find remote streams where he could tease snapping turtles, and he would pick wild grapes into a basket in the canoe.
Throughout her life, Mother believed that men got jobs for which she was better qualified. In college my mother completed a joint major in piano at the Peabody Conservatory of Music and economics at Johns Hopkins University where they let her into night school. It was shocking to her relatives that a woman would major in economics!
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Father studied economics including Veblen at the London School of Economics, and Mother completed all but the dissertation as a Ph. In the s, my parents went to Switzerland where the League of Nations was headquartered, searching for a way they could work for world peace. Salvador Madariaga advised them that they should do so among business executives in the United States. Father regarded his place on that list as his most distinguished achievement! When Staughton and I told my parents that we were planning to go to Nicaragua during wartime in , Mother told me she had opposed the invasion of Nicaragua by the U.
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My parents did not actually join the Society of Friends Quakers until the s. He left the Presbyterian Church and joined the Unitarian Church. For me it was a quiet time to sit beside her or lie on the bench next to her. During World War I, my father went through basic training in the Army but the war ended and he did not see combat. The hardest part for him was bayonet practice. During World War II he was still of draft age and, I think, seriously considered declaring himself to be a conscientious objec- Beginnings 21 tor.
But he concluded that if his family were attacked he would do what he could to defend us. He registered but was not drafted. Even though women were not drafted for military service in the United States, I later regarded myself as a conscientious objector to war. I used to make blueberry pies when he came home on furlough before he was sent to the Pacific. He was in command of two ships. Being experienced at reading nautical charts, on one occasion he determined that if he followed orders his ships would sail into a coral reef so he commanded them to go by a different route.
He was reprimanded and, according to family folklore, put the reprimand at the top of his file when he was discharged so that he would never be called back into service. In retrospect, I have often wondered whether his cancer resulted from exposure to nuclear radiation or from other toxic exposures during his military service.
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He did not want to go into the military so he figured he had better get a job in an essential industry. Being highly skilled with his hands, he became a superb tool and die maker. I, like Bill, had a difficult time with school work and I, like Bill, was not a good conversationalist. But I, like Bill, was very good at making things with my hands and doing detail work.
We were not particularly close as I was growing up, but as youngest children in families of fast-talkers, Bill and I had a lot in common. I have a few positive memories of my paternal grandmother, Mary Waters Niles. When I was nine-and-a-half years old, my father got a steady job in Baltimore and Letty was no longer with us. I still have it!
Every Christmas, Grandmother Niles would make a variety of cookies. Those cookies are still a family tradition. They did some of the early writing on human 22 Stepping Stones relations in management. However, when Father was offered a job by the Baltimore Life Insurance Company in , Mother consented because she thought the life of moving all the time was not good for me, and she set as a condition that she could take a job in Washington, D.
She was eventually hired to do personnel policy work for the U. When I was a small child, my parents would get home from work by p. We ate dinner at and bedtime was at After dinner, Mother would play with me until the alarm clock rang at When I was five years old, we lived for a time in a house that had a piano.
I remember Mother playing the piano as I was falling asleep. Father did not want her to work so hard.
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He said to me that he wished Mother was more like his sister who was on the board of the YWCA and worked only part time. I worked part time and was home most of the time when our children were not in school, except when full-time employment was necessary to sustain our family and Staughton could be home with the kids before and after school. Race There were strong racist undertones in what I heard as a child. Grandpop had an African-American cook named Blanche. Blanche would come from Baltimore to Metacomet in the summers. In the winter, when Blanche was not at Metacomet, Mamie would put out a set of white canisters that she thought Blanche would not keep clean.
She told us that one of her ancestors would go to the slave cabins and take care of the sick. And, so she said, a cousin took his slaves to Illinois, told them they were free, and the slaves asked him not to leave them because they did not know how to make it on their own. After we moved to Baltimore in , my mother hired an AfricanAmerican woman by the name of Geneva to cook, clean, and do the laundry.
I spent a great deal of time with Geneva in the kitchen and eventually I became an advocate for her. She told me exactly how much she had to pay for each item in her budget.