During the month of March, my family celebrates several important birthdays. Grandma Helen turned 97 on March 11. My dad Ben turns 74 on Saturday, and my mother-in-law Paula has a birthday on the 19th. In their honor, I’m doing a “Grandparents Series.” You’ll learn more about these amazing people through their stories and pictures. Enjoy!
First up: Grandma Helen Norman, my maternal grandmother.
The Early Years
Helen Isabelle Lowry was born March 11, 1913. She has no idea why she was named Helen, but Isabelle is after a good friend of her mom’s. Helen was born in a house in the country, in the township of Byesville, Ohio.
This is Helen in her mother’s arms, probably the day she was baptized. Mom is Elsie Marie Johnson Lowry.
Helen’s grandfather, Frank Lowry, came to the United States in the 1800’s from Ireland to start a farm. She’s not exactly sure why her grandfather emigrated here. “It had something to do with the potato famine,” she says. “There were lots of problems in Ireland. My grandfather had no money, so he came in the steerage section of the boat.”
No Family or Friends
Helen does not remember any other family members living nearby, as the home was quite isolated. The nearest neighbor was five miles away. Helen didn’t have any childhood friends, and she would see relatives from her mom’s side only a couple weeks a year. “It was always fun when my cousins came!”
Sisters: Pauline and Margaret
Helen spent all her free time with her sisters Margaret, four years her junior, and Pauline, six years younger. (Margaret passed away March 12, 2010 at the age of 93; Pauline still lives in Ohio) “Growing up it wasn’t much fun playing with Margaret. She was a heavy child, and she couldn’t run very well,” she says. “She couldn’t climb trees, and I had to push her to get her up on the tree limbs.” This was a bad problem at their age. But things changed. Throughout the rest of Helen’s life, “I got heavier and Margaret got thinner.”
This is Helen, Pauline, and Margaret with their dad, Homer:
There were no bathrooms in the house. “We had to go outside to use the privy. We used the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs as toilet paper in the outhouse,” she says. “The catalog paper felt slick. I hated to go in the middle of the night. If you didn’t want to go outside to the privy you had to keep a pot in your room.”
There were no telephones or electricity, only oil lamps. Helen does recall that they had an organ. Her mother knew how to play, and her little sister Margaret could also play a little bit. She remembers a sitting room that had a pot-bellied stove.
On the Porch
To pass the time, the family would sit on the big porch surrounding the house and look at the clouds. “We didn’t like our dad very much. We couldn’t talk to him. But my grandfather was nice,” she says. “He had more of an understanding of kids, and on the porch he would tell us stories of his childhood.” Other times they’d catch lightning bugs. Helen would put the bugs in a jar and they’d light up her room at night. “The lightning bugs were my electricity. That was my entertainment.”
When asked about her earliest childhood memory, Helen retorts, “Do you know how long ago that was? 97 years!” But a memory does emerge. She and her sisters used to tease a bull. They would wave something red in front of him, and then run over the fence when he came charging.
Getting Into Trouble
The 150 acre farm was surrounded by woods, which she loved to explore. “Nobody knew where we were during the day!” She climbed trees all the time, tearing her black bloomers, which she describes as “big, black, billowy, bloomy things—just horrid!” Helen was always getting into trouble, and her father was always punishing her. He would pick the finest little branch he could find, and give her a switching. “That hurt. And it would leave little welts,” she says.
Helen did not have material things growing up. She never had a sled or a bicycle. “There would be no place to ride it anyway.” She remembers only one toy, a doll she got for Christmas. The following Christmas her mother Elsie Marie would sew clothes for the doll, and that would be her gift. “My mom was a really good seamstress.”
“I remember my mother had the tiniest waist, and my sisters and I would try on her clothes, which were stored in a trunk.” Helen liked brushing her mother’s hair, which was quite long and reached to below her waist when she let it down. But while Helen and her sisters were brushing mom’s hair, their father would say “why don’t you brush mine?”
But nobody wanted to brush his hair.
The family didn’t have any pets, but nameless dogs and cats roamed the farm. “There were gobs of cats. And there were little kittens everywhere.” There were so many it became a problem, and we had to get rid of them. “I resented that my dad would drown the cats. To this day I resent that.” But in some way, she can understand it. “Nobody wanted the kittens. And it was over pretty fast when you put them down in the rain barrel.”
Helen’s primary chore was to tend the chickens. She had to feed them and take care of them. Ironically, she remembers that her dad would bring the little chicks into the house, so that they wouldn’t get too cold and die. “They were part of the food chain.”
Her dad also sent her to get the mail. This usually happened at dusk. The mailbox was a mile away, and Helen would run through the woods, which was terribly frightening. “The family said they could hear me scream the whole way. The woods were scary at night. You’d hear all these noises!” To this day, she has a fear of the dark, which she theorizes may have originated from those scary runs to the postbox.
Did she receive an allowance? “Never!” she says emphatically. “I don’t know what I would have done with money anyway; we were miles away from everything.”
Occasionally, on Sundays, the family would dress up and go to the Presbyterian Church, ten miles away. “We didn’t go often because it was a big chore hitching up the horse and buggy.”
The school Helen attended was five miles away. “We really did have to walk five miles to school and back!” she exclaims. It was a little country school, eight grades in the same room—she remembers learning a lot from the upper classes. “The lower grades were supposed to be studying while the upper classes were being taught.” Helen liked reading, but she says she was “no good at math.”
Helen does not remember ever celebrating a birthday when she was a kid. The family usually ate dinner together at a big oblong table. “My mother was just starting to teach me how to cook a few things.”
Coming Up Next in @Home with Cheri: The Tragedy that Changed Helen’s Life Forever