Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Elsie Elizabeth Durant Riddle

My great-grandparents at Niagara Falls.
My Great-Grandma Elsie was a summer solstice baby. She was born on June 21, 1904. She died January 9, 1994, my senior year of high school. This past solstice, as I stood in a dark wood surrounded by thick clouds of fireflies beneath a star-lit sky, I sang Happy Birthday to her. The memory of Elsie was strong with me- the cool feel of her skin, the sound of her laugh, and the crooked way her smile would lift up on one side before stretching across her face.
I realized she would have been 110 years old. There was something to that moment, as if it made missing her less painful, knowing that she likely would have expired naturally by now. There are no more lost years we could have had together, like the ones her disease robbed us of before she died. I still miss her, but I hold her close.
Her smile and laugh lit up the room. Her love filled my heart with warmth like the sun in the sky. She was special and I cannot celebrate summer without thinking about her. I was born nine months after my Great-Grandpa Harold Riddle died of a heart attack and the day I came into the world would have been their fifty-second wedding anniversary.
I don’t know anyone who didn’t love her. When I started high school, one of the band teachers, Mr. Allison, sought me out just to tell me how much she meant to him. During his formative years, she watched him, and he seemed to love her as much as I did. In that moment, my world shifted. I understood how one person can ripple through people’s lives without realizing it. Elsie was special. She was a pip.
Meeting her for the first time.
All of my childhood, my Grandma-from-Florida (that’s where they retired to so that’s what I called her) would come and live with us for the summer months. Every time I bite into a ripe sun-warmed strawberry, the sweetness I take in reminds me of those shared memories. There was a room in our small house that had been the upstairs bathroom. When the bathroom was moved downstairs, they left the toilet upstairs, a smart choice for a house with small children. This extra room was where she slept, right next to my bedroom. I used to sit on the edge of her bed while she dressed in the morning, slipping on her hose and open-toed cork sandals, to go with her culottes and the sweater she would throw over her shoulders.
Her touch was always cool and soothing in the summer heat. She tried to explain to me how it was much hotter where she lived, so she was cold during the summer. My small world couldn’t comprehend anything hotter than 100 degree heat.
            My Grandma Elsie was one of my first pen pals, encouraging me with my writing. When I got glasses in third grade, I was nervous because only a couple other kids in my class had them, and they were picked on. She wrote me about how absolutely no one had them when she was in school except for her, and it would be okay. She always said I could ask her anything.
Us again, 8th grade for me.
Every Christmas at my grandparents’ house, we would pass the phone around to talk to her, long before I was old enough to use the phone myself. I remember the wonder I had at her voice on the phone, sounding so close to me, as if I had expected the miles between us to manifest through the receiver. Science is magic to the mind of a child.
She was a practicing Catholic and she believed in it. I sing Ave Maria to her all the time. I know that somewhere, wherever she is, she hears it. In the years after, through my genealogical work, I discovered more about her than I knew in life.
Her parents were George Francis Durant and Emma Louise Burnah who were married in 1889. He was sixteen and she was twenty. The Durants were French-Canadian; both of George’s parents had emigrated from Quebec. The surname Burnah has been hard to place and has been found in a variety of forms such as Burnah, Burneh, Burmah, Bruneh, Brunet, and Burnett. I can follow the Durants, LaRoches, and Lavallees into Quebec and France. The Burnahs remain a mystery I dream of solving for Elsie. I want to know her mother. I want to know where her mother came from.
Her father George was a laborer, living in both New York and Vermont for work. George and Emma had seven living children, of which Elsie was the youngest. I remember her telling me that she was the baby, and she teased us that the baby was never spoiled- followed by her impish laughter. Elsie’s family lived in Burlington, Vermont before landing in Lockport, New York, a town along the Erie Canal.
She married Harold Riddle in 1924 at the age of 20. He was 21, the son of a farmer, and he worked as a chauffeur, driving motor truck and later working as a die setter at the local Radiator factory. They had three children together: Harold Jr. who was called “Sonny,” my grandpa Richard, and their daughter Donna.
Sonny was a bit of trouble through most of his life and I know he caused my great-grandma heartache. I only knew him as birthday cards, sent faithfully every year, singed “Love, Uncle Sonny.” He spent his early years in prison outside San Luis Obispo for bank robbery and was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He lost his legs to gangrene due to infections from his time on the run.
Great-grandma Elsie and my Grandpa Dick would often talk about Sonny as a young boy, telling censored stories from his childhood. But there was a truth to the quiet way his name was spoken, and the absence of him in family stories and the family time that included us children. I am old enough now to know how it feels to have things sit so painfully in you that you cannot bear it words. I know how you can love someone so deeply, even though their choices are hurtful to others, and you cannot condone the actions they take.
For a time, to make ends meet, my great-grandparents moved to Somerset where they owned a small convenient store and worked a farm for food while renting out their home in Lockport. While they lived there, my Poppa Harold lived part-time with family in Lockport, working at Harrison Radiator. Later, for a time, they shared a duplex with my mother and her parents, having their own space on one side. They retired to St. Petersburg, Florida, which is where my Poppa passed away.
Before he died, my Grandpa told me that his parents loved each other very much and that Harold doted on Elsie. His father was easy-going unless one of the children sassed their mother or talked back to her and then he would rise like a bear to her defense. I remember hearing her say, “You grandfather and I…” to my mom around the kitchen table. My brother remembered him. I knew all I needed to know from the way she spoke about him, the way her tone revealed how little her love for him had faded. I remember feeling wistfully like I had missed out on knowing a great man.
I discovered on the census reports that Elsie’s parents lived with them for most of her marriage, until they died. My mom said she declared that she would never live with her children. She didn’t think it was fair. And she never did.
There was one year she didn’t stay with us. She stayed with my Grandparents instead. My mom explained that she was ill and they wanted a quieter space for her. I heard the whispered stories during the summer of her forgetting where she was, who my Grandpa was, of her getting up at 3 a.m. in a panic, pulling her sweater on backwards over her nightgown, because she had to get lunch ready for the children. That was the year I learned the word Alzheimers.
She stayed in Florida after that and was moved into a nursing home. My great-Aunt Donna lived nearby. My mom and grandpa went down multiple times to visit her, but we never saw her again. Her mind descended quickly. She died on in 1994 after complications from a hip surgery she got from falling. She was 89 years old.

I have one recipe from her, for Swiss Steak. It was written in the early 1960s on an index card with a birdhouse decorating it. My dad said she used to make this all the time, and it was his favorite dish. I copied it out, exactly as she wrote it, line for line.

[side 1]
Round steak
cut in serving size pieces
sprinkle both sides with flour
pound flour in steak with
rolling pin or heavy utensil
brown on both sides in hot fat
I use oil.  place in small
roaster or cake pan.  Slice a
couple onions place in pan
salt +/ pepper meat + onions.
pour over tomatoe juice, or regularly canned
tomatoes, or a can of tomato soup (over)
[side 2]
delute with ½ can of water if you
use the soup.  Bake in oven
350 degrees about 1 hr 15 min.
or until Tender.  Turn meat
over when about half done.
can be cooked in electric
fry pan.  But has to be
watched so it doesn’t burn or

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