Susan Dorsey McLaughlin


I have recently become a grandmother. A blessing in itself, I am equally blessed in having my cousin’s detailed account of my own grandmother.  From her childhood memories of our grandmother, I can clearly see the role I want to play in my own grandaughter’s life.

But there is another lesson here. If we do not write these things down, they are lost forever from our children. My cousin, Sheila, has already left us, but I am deeply indebted to her for this letter she sent to me once when I asked the simple question: what can you tell me about  my grandmother?

Dear Susan,

The last time you wrote you said you would like more information about Gram – Susan Dorsey McLaughlin. I have been gathering my thoughts and memories of her. I knew and called her ‘Big Mama”. That is probably because I was under her care from when I was a baby. My mother had a hard time being a mother at that time and I recall quiet talk about her “breakdown.”Anyway, Big Mama was not big…she was statuesque with perfect posture, head held high and back ramrod straight. Later in life she had back problems like my mother and me. We called the “McLaughlin back.”   She was generous with love and attention, and she embraced her homemaker skills with zeal and dedication. Her house was always squeaky clean – spring and fall cleaning big time.  My mother was very unhappy that she did the same thing for the church, washing floors on hands and knees!

I have many, many cherished memories of her: coming home from the harvest and putting our feet in the warm oven and eating freshly baked donuts; she always called me “dear;” I was elated to have her permission to pick sweet peas my grandfather planted every year for her. Her porch, the “veranda”, had a blue ceiling just like the sky and one piece of furniture was a large rocker painted white with wallpaper flowers cut and pasted on the back. She also called her porch the “davenport” or the “piazza”, this being my favorite as I felt transported.  Her kitchen was to be admired – she had a 25 gallon ceramic flour bin – she baked constantly….one day for bread, another for donuts, and another for cakes and cookies; I knew that as a young wife she fed a crew of 40 men three meals a day!

She was a neatly dressed woman. She wore Sears housedresses, always an apron starched and adorned with her brooch of the day. She wore corsets with many ties and snaps that she had made in Canada. She loved jewelry and hats and wore each whenever she went out.  Every once in a while my grandmother would say “Get dressed up. We’re driving to Canada to visit our relatives.”  I did not know, nor did my mother, of any Canadian relatives, but I happily went along for the ride. My mother thought it was funny that I was the only one invited on these treks.   Before marrying , my grandmother taught school in a one-room schoolhouse. In her later years she would come to visit our back yard in the summer after Sunday mass. My father had two pitchers of orange juice, one plain for her – she abhorred liquor- and one spiked with vodka. Got forbid she’d get the wrong one, my mother said.

We spent many hours on the lawn in the summer preparing vegetables from the garden; shelling peas, snapping green beans. Quiet conversation and stories abounded. I liked going to my grandmother’s house for an overnight because she would let me stay in “the rose boudoir”. This was a small room with pale pink flower wallpaper, a bed covered in pink taffeta and crocheted coverlet. The vanity had mirrors and a small stool.  I wonder where my grandmother got this worldly streak –  the piazza and rose boudoir. Was it that she traveled to Florida several times by train?

She kept a pantry. In it were jars full of apples for pies, homemade mincemeat and preserved garden vegetables. The pantry also included two prizes: homemade crabapple jelly and green tomato pickles.  I cannot imagine the time it took to make each of them. So very much work.  She always had the latest utility – an ironing press to iron sheets and pillowcases and towels and linens. She and Papa had one of the first tv’s in town, though she turned it off when beer commercials came on….”Damn shits (Schlitz) beer”  she’d say.

We had a lot of family dinners at her house – she’d open the doors to the fancy living room for the occasion! I found a diary she once started- she wrote emotionally about the suffrage movement and  she detailed trips to Florida by train!

The women I knew who were  friends with my grandmother had lovely, tea-party names such as Viola, Vina, Phoebe, Dolly, Eva, Bessie, Gladys, Jen, Hazel, Elizabeth, and so one.  Phoebe was a relative who was almost emaciated-looking; yet, like other women of her time, she was gracious, strong, and enduring. She owned and managed a successful dress shop in Fort Fairfield.  The bridge parties were a big deal to both my grandmother and my mother. Being in a small rural town, one had to make an effort to socialize. People often lived far apart and could not get outside easily in the winter. So the isolation motivated them to get together the other three seasons. There were card table linens for tea and goodies. I think this was seen as more important than the game where they ignored the rules and bid like this: 3 spades, 1 heart, 2 clubs, 4 hearts, 2 spades, and so on.

Freddie Philbrook lived across the street from my grandmother.  He was a pig and potato farmer who had a round, ruddy face with that real Irishman look – and smile he did most of the time. Three or four times a year he would walk across the street down the long gravel highway to my grandparent’s house to visit my grandfather. Freddie called him “Romey”. He marched up the steps in his farmer overalls and muddy manured boots. He was greeted like royalty and immediately escorted into the formal living room where he was seated on the blue velvet couch.  My grandfather would ask Gram to pour two glasses of whiskey “neat”. But sometime he would chide her with saying “Ye watered it, Susie.” Freddie and Papa would visit a long time talking about potatoes, this and last year’s crop, other farmers and their crops. I have no idea how this relationship developed. Freddie was known to be a somewhat unsavory character. Rumor had it that Freddie smuggled at least two wives from Canada in empty potato barrels. What happened to the ones that were replaced was unknown. Some speculated that they lay at the bottom of the manure pile! I do know they liked and respected one another very much.

Well, these are only a few memories I have of her. I loved her greatly – she was my model for independence, beauty, and g race.  Gram was a woman of quiet yet diligent faith. She fulfilled all her Catholic duties, had a crucifix over her bed and holy water in a dispenser by the door. She said the rosary every night as did my mother. She lived to attend my wedding in July 1964 – wore her fox stole with a beautiful lace dress. Once when stopped by the local police for going through a stop sign, she said “Young man, I know I stopped because I put it in second gear!”

Her demise was long and painful. It exacted heavy toll on my Mom and Dad. And I don’t think my mother was ever the same again. “Eva dear” I hear her in my musings.

Lots of love, hope you are all well.


Susan Dorsey McLaughlin with her daughters, Eva and Bessie.



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