The summer was in full swing when Grandfather Rees’ entourage consisting of his family, foreign trunks, and boxes was unloaded from the canal boat in Newark. A strange town and a new country, not to mention an unknown language, challenged their hearts and minds. Most important, a house had to be found, bought and made livable. Fortunately Grandfather had the wherewithal in his pocket and with surprising haste the deal was completed, and David Rees submitted himself to become Americanized.
Summer is a lovely season in which to adopt a new country. Birds seem to sing songs of cheer and welcome; trees to wave in friendliness; while warm winds quiet the longings for homely scenes and beloved faces no longer visible.
The Rees children were a healthy lot and while Grandfather could not duplicate the spaciousness of Killolog in the adopted community, the place that he purchased had garden greenery, romping space, and generous shade trees. The house was a comfortable two-story frame one set back from the street. It was light and sunny and able to exclude the howling winds that search the cracks for entrance when winter dominates the scene.
Grandfather had chosen his home site carefully and now with the same caution he set about finding a church. The group that had embarked with him were as unfamiliar with the language and customs of the new country.
“And why not worship in our own language till we learn the new? Tammas and ye David can take turns with the devotions and with your harp ye David can line the psalms and hymns,” queried a follower. When put to the majority it was quickly settled and for several Sabbaths the strange foreigners met in a somewhat underfurnished parlor of the new domicile and worshipped God in the old Welsh manner.
In the old country the harp held a position of distinction and was regarded as a symbol of gentility. Perhaps Americans would respect this also, Grandfather hoped, and he continued to sing the old folk tunes to the children. One day he came home greatly excited. “I have bought thee a gift, my children,” He announced at the suppertable. “O Father tell us what is it,” Sally implored. “It is what the people of America use in place of a harp.” He suggested. “I know, a piano!” said Letty. “O Father is it? Tell us.” “Thou shalt see for thyselves on the morrow,” Grandfather concluded. “But thou art a bright child Letitia.” His smile was tantamount to an admission and the next day proved she was correct in her guess. Grandfather had purchased one of the first pianos in town. The children were all excitement. Letty was the most eager to learn to play so she became the custodian. When the birds peeped at four in the morning she popped out of bed, donned her voluminous petticoats, frock, and pinafore and attacked her scales and exercises.
The work of settling the home and learning the language had so absorbed the hours of David Rees that the business of cultivating his neighbors had not progressed rapidly. He had had to buy the supplies since he was more fluent, and as he set out for market one day his thoughts turned with slight nostalgia to Killolog. The hedgerows would be bright with asters and the garden yielding vegetables he now had need to buy in a shop. He strove to shake off the mood as he entered the store, and had given his order when near him a voice began to speak. It was rich and full and unmistakably the brogue of a Welshman. Grandfather’s heart did a cartwheel; hearing his own language from the lips of a compatriot would be akin to being suddenly transported to his homeland. He crossed the floor and addressed the stranger: “Sharad kum reig?” (Do you speak Welsh?) David pronounced his words in a low voice standing behind the stranger.
If he had been struck, the man’s reaction would not have been sharper. He turned and grasping Grandfather’s hand rattled off a string of guttural sounds. Grandfather became as voluble as he. They chatted long and happily, and when Grandfather set out on his return trip, the first friendship in a new land had been welded.
The meeting between the two men had not only established a bond between them but it became the entering wedge into the community. Religious and national ties were strong, and the members of the Newark parish opened their arms to the newcomers.
Grandfather and his followers decided at once to abandon their temporary place of worship in the Rees menage and unite with the congregation of the Welsh church. Among the first to greet him in his new relation was Grandfather Howels, and his children and the Rees youngsters forged fast friendships with one another.
“Bring your harp and sing for us on the Sabbath, David,” the elder asked and Grandfather delighted to participate in the Lord’s service readily assented.
Sundays from then on were entirely given over to church. Grandfather was strict about keeping the Sabbath and it was understood that no cooking was to be done on that day. Shannavach was expected to carry out the order, but my virtuous little grandmere for all her “thees” and “thous” had her own private shenanigans like any common sinner. She slipped the leash. Perhaps her right hand didn’t know what her left hand was accomplishing, directly by that masculine mind. To quote her, before leaving for church she only ‘stuck a piece of meat in the oven and threw a few potatoes after it.’ Then she climbed into the family carryall beside Grandfather, the children in tow. When they returned from church she merely ‘put the food on the table.’ If her children questioned the ethics she compounded, they said nothing. “Honor thy father and thy mother,” was a commandment greatly respected in the Rees household.
As soon as dinner was over there were more services, and the children found them very tiresome so Sally livened them by making funny faces. She had what later in life she contended was an unusually large tongue. It may have been over-exercised in her youth. When the elder covered too much ground, Sally expressed her anguish in a variety of grimaces. If the children giggled she knew she was a success and gave her ego a good workout.
Grandmother kept a close watch on her but the elder also demanded attention so Grandmother fell back on dramatic gesture. By this means she could convey what would happen if Sally failed to present a pious front to the worshippers. Sometimes the fun was worth the penalty and Sally’s pores fairly exuded histrionics, and on Monday she paid the piper. Sally’s hair drew attention, teasing, scorched her pride, and the anger she was obliged to swallow developed into an aggressiveness that made her a leader.
Two years after they left Killolog, Grandfather slipped over the great divide and left the tiny but intrepid wife to carry on and rear the family. It was a problem for any mother to face but Grandmother had the co-operation of the group and she was very executive.
“Libby, have you finished your stocking?” she would inquire.
“Not quite Mother, but I will,” Libby would reply.
“Remember cold weather may catch you without warm ones. You should be glad that you have hands that can knit. Many there are that cannot.”
And Grandmother would sigh resignedly.
The Rees girls had only the wardrobe that their own hands provided, embroidery included. Sally was adept at needlework but Letty loathed the needle.
“If you’ll sweep and dust for me I’ll work on your petticoat,” Sally suggested to Letty.
“It’s a bargain,” Letty replied with enthusiasm. So Sally embroidered for Letty and Letty swept and garnished for Sally.
Somehow the family managed, the older ones sharing care of David the youngest. Sally always resented the fact that boys had so many more privileges than girls and had rebelled many times at the frustrations of her sex. When it was within her connivance, she conferred the favor of her society on David and his friend to their frankly expressed annoyance.
David was two years younger than she and, as he grew more daring and cocky, Sally longed more than ever to tag him on his jaunts. Sometimes he would run away and she would follow at a safe distance. If he suspected her he would say, “We don’t want any red-heads along. Do you understand?” and Sally abashed but unconvinced would have to be more subtle. Once he dove in a condemned swimming-hole strictly in defiance of home rule, and struck a stump concealed under the water. Sally, who had suspected his objective and stalked him, at the crucial moment did her good deed for the day by saving him from a fishy grave. At the moment of rescue he was grateful. He even treated her as an equal for a brief space, then the incident was forgotten.
The Rees children attended public school and year after year manouvered for an education. Then came the war. Dave was determined to enlist. He knew that his mother would not give her consent so he employed strategy. He was a big fellow though underage, and the army opened its arms to receive him. A birth certificate was unheard of in the ‘sixties’ and David was all set to be a red-haired hero.
He had reckoned, however, without his host. Grandmother’s clairvoyance had observed his elation and finding it of a brand she had seen before, she made a call on the examining board and Dave unpacked his knapsack and returned to school. Three times this happened and at the last repetition the officer a friend of Grandmother said: “Mrs. Rees, why not let him go? He’ll soon be of enlisting age and nothing will prevent his going then.”
“Perhaps you are right,” Grandmother replied, and with sagging shoulders took her way home.
The house never seemed so bid and empty as when she opened the door and walked in. It was the middle of August, warm and dry. The grass looked sere and the trees that shaded the walks already gave signs that frost would soon touch the pumpkins. How lonely the place would be, she thought, with no boy to break the monotony of its silence.
Fifteen years ago this month she and Father had bought the place. How much had happened since: Father gone; David enlisted. In a month Sally would return to the Female Seminary at Granville seven miles away. Libby was already looking with admiring eyes at a young Welshman. Only Letty gave promise of keeping the home fires burning. Well, that was pretty much the saga of all families – birth, death, marriage.
She untied her bonnet and carried it in to her bedroom closet. David would be home soon and she must have a good supper for him. It might be his last at home. How eager he was to serve his country. Her face lighted with an inner incandescence as she walked into the kitchen and took her apron from the hook on the door.
The next days were crowded with work, emotion and the sounds of marching feet; then a great silence settled over the place. Weeks passed. Snow fell and piled itself against the windows. Neighbors helped the girls to shovel the drifts while women’s minds pictured a red-haired soldier picketing in the cold of a winter’s night.
Seasons shifted but lighted by occasional letters from the front, and the Rees saga recorded only the hopes and dreams of its women – Libby weighing the cost of marriage, and Sally counting the days till college classrooms would be empty.