Old Granny

Filed under: Family History — Chamberlain @ 3:26 pm
No. 98

For our 100th posting to OurRumpus, something special is in order.

As you may know, there is an ongoing family archive project directed by Eleanor Withers. Volunteers have been culling family letters, audio tapes, photographs and memorabilia for inclusion into a formal archive. Recently, family recollections have been solicited. For this occasion we present one which is especially poignant.


Sarah Eliza Chambers Polk

by Lemoine Skinner III

I remember the world that Granny created for us when we were little. The original part of Taille de Noyer was an old farm house purchased by John Mullanphy, Granny’s great great grandfather from Hyacinth, a French fur trapper. It had a screened front porch and a front door with a window that could be protected in the case of an Indian attack by a wooden flap put up to keep out arrows. We had breakfast on the porch in the summer.

The front door led to a front hall where Calvin and I had wrestled for top command of our army. Granny broke up the wrestling match after Calvin pinned me, and she resolved the argument by making one of us General of the Armies and the other an eight star general. Our army was top heavy. The next ranks were corporal held by Sarah Dunn and buck private held by Cynthia. When Bill came along we made him buck sergeant.

On the right of the hall was the library where Baupau read Uncle Remus to us. We would sit on his lap in an easy chair. His rack of pipes was at his side. This room later was the center of games of caroms and checkers. And Baupau’s reading was followed by Granny’s readings of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, The Deerslayer, and The Pathfinder. Barnaby Rudge, The Pickwick Papers, and Kenilworth Castle came later. Granny also taught us to play bridge and canasta in this room.

On the left of the front hall was the dining room where formal dinners were held. When we were little after Christmas Mass at the Cathedral and opening presents at home, we drove out to Taille de Noyer for Christmas dinner with Granny. It was a second Christmas. She had a small Christmas tree on a table in the living room, which could be reached from the library by a small stairway. It was decorated with ornaments and angel hair that looked like spun glass. Grandmother, grandfather, and Uncle Claiborne came as well; and the grownups had dinner in the dining room, while the children had dinner at a table in the front hall. There was a second opening of presents.

Further down the front hall was the kitchen on the left and the laundry room on the right. Granny’s cook when we were little was Mary. She and her husband and two sons, James and John, lived behind Taille de Noyer in what formerly had been a slave cabin. This was where each of Granny’s cooks and her family lived. James and John were friends of Calvin and me. We used to chase the horses together. They had a television, which neither Granny nor my family had, and I loved to watch Howdy Doody on their television.

Behind the original farm house was a cistern and a well with a pump. Next to this on the left was a summer kitchen that had been converted into living quarters for Mr. Hope, a mechanic at McDonald Aircraft, and his wife. Mr. Hope kept the grass cut on the place. Next to the summer kitchen was a big garage with Granny’s car and Uncle Polky’s Studebaker that had only a front seat. There was a big grindstone for grinding knives in the garage.

Upstairs in the original farm house were Uncle Polky’s bedroom with great closets for all his clothes, Baupau’s bathroom with a leather strap that he sharpened his razor on, Granny’s bathroom where one summer I saw a children’s nurse holding Anne have a heart attack and drop Anne, and Baupau’s bedroom.

We spent most of our summers, except the month we spent in Michigan and the summers Granny took us to Europe, at Taille de Noyer. When we were little, it included over 100 acres. Part of it was farmed by a Thatcher cousin of Granny’s. There were two barns (one of them later burned down) and horses, most of whom were pastured on the farm by other people. We played in the hayloft of the barn that did not burn down and loved to chase the horses. We learned to ride on Pegasus, a mustang from Texas that belonged to Baupau and Granny, who was very gentle but liked to buck. We built forts and foxholes and took our army on maneuvers against Jenny and Sarah Fehlig, who were the enemy. There was a hammock we loved to swing in and an oak tree we loved to climb. There was a doll’s house big enough to hold us that we made a clubhouse.

Aunt Alicia and the Withers girls came up from Georgia by train every summer to join us at the farm. We met them with much excitement at Union Station.

Next to the original part of Taille de Noyer was an ante bellum addition built by John Mullanphy with a colonnaded front porch. The first floor included the living room used at Christmas, a small bedroom, and a parlor that had been turned into a lumber room. Upstairs were Granny’s bedroom where when I was little she rocked me to sleep with lullabies like My Old Kentucky Home, Old Black Joe, and Down Went McGinty to the Bottom of the Sea. Down the hall on the other side was a guest bedroom that became Aunt Alicia’s bedroom on her visits. This was the room where Baupau died. At the end of the hall was a bedroom on the right with a double bed with a goose down quilt that was warm to sleep under on fall and winter nights when you could hear the wind whistling outside. Opposite this was the nursery with a great bed that was fun to share with house guests. I found another nurse dead in this bed from a heart attack the same summer as the nurse who held Anne in Granny’s bathroom died. The ambulance drivers must have wondered what was going on at the farm that summer.

Outside the nursery was a sleeping porch we all took naps on and slept on at night when we were little. The naps were policed by Granny’s or Aunt Alicia’s “Sh’s.” During the day you could hear the chirp of the crickets, and at night you could see the navigation lights of the planes coming to and from Lambert Field. Later this porch became the girls’ sleeping porch, and Calvin and I shared the smaller sleeping porch behind Baupau’s bedroom. I remember reading books Granny had given me to read during naptime like G.H. Henty’s Through the Sikh War and a book on famous cavalry leaders.

Down the middle of the second floor was a hall in which we used to play “Dark Hall.” In the game all the lights were turned out, and we jumped out of hiding places to scare each other. We also played Hide and Seek and Sardines in which the object was to see how many people could fit in a small space. Above the second floor was an attic with chests of old clothes – I remember Chinese pajamas—that were used as dress ups.

Our days were spent exploring the pasture, the creek, and the fields. There was an abandoned tennis court that had reverted to jungle and an arbor with a gazebo at the end. Baupau had planted beautiful evergreen and flowering trees. There were extensive flower gardens that became the site of Easter egg hunts. The forsythia bushes were the fort of Jenny and Sarah Fehlig. Granny had a vegetable garden from which she harvested rhubarb. There was a chicken house and pen. I remember when I was little seeing Granny twist a chicken’s head off and it running around the pen without its head. There was a spring in the pasture called the Indian Well that had been a gathering place of the Osage nation. I still have an arrowhead found near there. In the evenings we would play Kick the Can and Cat and Canaries. I can’t remember the difference between them now. When we were older we played a war game called “Calvin Gatch Shot.” I had a birthday party at the farm based on that game in which everyone was given water pistols.

On hot summer days, Granny would bundle us into her car and take us to Cousin Joe’s to swim. Cousin Joe was Joe Desloges. His house Vouziers was built in the style of a French chateau. The property, which was on the Missouri River, included about 2,000 acres. There was an underground ball room. The pool was a great oval pool in the woods fed by an artesian well with water that smelt like sulphur. We would bring a picnic lunch.

There was a farm near Florissant where Granny took us to pick strawberries. We could eat strawberries as we picked. She also bought asparagus there. We saw baby pigs there. Granny made strawberry jam by putting the strawberries and sugar in trays out in the sun. There were pecan orchards on the Missouri river where we had picnics. There were mud banks there where we took mud baths.

I remember Mass at St. Ferdinand’s in Florissant. The pastor was an old Jesuit. I remember his sermons as angry exhortations that I thought were directed at Granny. I remember Granny taking us to a Corpus Christi procession in Florissant and meeting some of the old Florissant families there.

One summer we put on a play Hansel and Gretel with back drops painted by Aunt Delphine. I was Hansel, Sarah Dunn was Gretel, Calvin was the Sandman, and Jenny was the witch. We practiced The Barber of Seville but never put it on.

On summer evenings at Taille de Noyer, there were sometimes barbecues. The grownups would grill thick steaks char broiled on the outside and rare inside. They would stand around talking and drinking mint juleps with mint from Granny’s garden or other high balls while the steak cooked. Before going to bed we would play Hocus Pocus going round in a circle with our eyes closed and opening them at the words “Jack Robinson” to find candy in the center of the circle. The rhyme we said while going around in the circle was “Hocus pocus, Fifth and Locust.” I think Dad’s office was at Fifth and Locust in downtown St. Louis.

On summer evenings the record player in the front hall of Taille de Noyer would play, and the girls, especially Anne and Sarah Withers would dance on the front lawn. The dance was a free form of ballet. Calvin and I would turn somersaults. I remember the year My Fair Lady opened in New York – the music from it played all summer.

On weekends during the school year, we had dates with Granny. We saw Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin comedies, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in On the Road movies, John Wayne in The Quiet Man , Alec Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob , Danny Kaye comedies, and many more movies like these. We went to the Pevely Dairy Fountain, a fountain lit by colored lights, for ice cream cones. There were trips to Shaw’s Garden and the Jewel Box and visits to the Jefferson Memorial and the Art Museum with runs down Art Hill. Later when we were older we went to the Symphony with Granny. In the summer she organized nights at the Muni Opera, and on the 4th of July, there were fireworks at the Country Club.

When I was seven Granny and Baupau rented a house in the South of France for the summer. Granny, Baupau, my mother, sisters, baby brother, Bill, and I crossed the Atlantic in the George Washington, a converted troop carrier that sailed from New York to Le Harvre. Before we left we saw the sights of New York, including the Empire State Building, and Granny took us to dinner at the Pierre Hotel. The house in the South of France was at Les Isambres in the Maritime Alps near St. Maxime. The beach belonged to a hotel called La Residence. I spent my days on the beach learning to do the breast stroke and snorkeling. There was a raft that I was able to swim to by the end of the summer. At night you could see the golden path of the moon on the sea. We had a French au pair Francoise Malegre who came back to live with us at Westminster Place. Granny took Jennie and me to visit Italy. We visited Genoa and Venice, where we stayed at the Danieli and a waiter taught me how to eat spaghetti. On the way back from the South of France, we visited Paris staying at the Continental or the George V, and from there took a train and train ferry to England. I remember seeing the trunks of the Duchess of Windsor in the train station in Paris and being told that she was not allowed in England. In England we visited the English cousins. I remember supper after high tea at the Cookes and a deer on the kitchen table at Cousin Bobby and Dellie Petre’s that was being cut up for venison.

In the fall we took trips with Granny to the Ozarks to see the leaves change color. We had picnics with her at a log cabin at Vouziers in the middle of the woods. There were trips to apple orchards in Illinois – to get across the Mississippi river, we took a car ferry. We visited Nauvoo, Illinois to see the caves in which blue cheese was made and learned about the massacre there of Joseph Smith, the leader of the Mormons.

We took an automobile tour with Granny of what had been the Western Confederacy. We saw the Polk mansions in Tennessee. We visited Atlanta and saw the Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta. We saw Vicksburg, beautiful azalea gardens, and the ante bellum mansions of Natchez, Mississippi.

I remember when Baupau died. I was 10. It was the only time I met Baupau’s brothers. Granny served them sherry in the drawing room. I wanted her to come live with us.

The next summer Granny took all of us, the Withers, the Gatches, and the Skinners with her to Europe. We had a Pullman sleeping car to ourselves on the train trip from St. Louis to Montreal. I remember swinging from upper birth to upper birth. In Montreal, we boarded the Ascania, a Cunard liner that took us to Liverpool. The passage was 8 or 9 days. There were dances, horse races, and a costume party. I remember Aunt Alicia winning a prize for her Carmen Miranda hat. There were Royal Canadian air force officers on the ship who played great ping pong. When we arrived in England, Granny rented a red bus with a driver in which we toured England and Scotland. We stopped to visit Ampleforth where Anthony and Christopher Cooke showed us around and we met Frs. Columba, Timothy, and Luke, the monks who started the St. Louis Priory. At Oxford, Charlie Petre had us up to his rooms for Orange Squash. From England we went to France via Holland. In France, Granny rented a house at St. Palais Sur Mer on the Atlantic Ocean, near Bordeaux, where we swam and played tennis. We had meals outside in the garden. There was an open air market in the town. We had wonderful picnics on the rocks on Sundays. Aunt Alicia sang songs like A Man Without A Woman and Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me. We took expeditions in a large black Citroen Granny had rented to Angouleme, Sainte, and La Rochelle. We visited Paris and saw its sights before returning home.

Granny gave us a rich and wonderful childhood.

Granny was interested in ideas and books and loved classical music. She was interested in the debate over Existentialism in the 1950’s. She was a devout Catholic but quite worldly at the same time. She used to quote de La Rochefoucauld, “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.” She used to tell me that the intemperance of my language vitiated the force of my argument. When her sight weakened she read books and newspapers in big print.

She was interested in each of her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She believed in building them up where they were weak. She sent money for a swing set for Kate and Sophie when they were little. They loved the swing set. Kate would unwind on it when she got back from school. I can still see in my mind’s eye the shadow Kate made against the shed in our backyard as she swung.

Granny had a strong and independent spirit. I remember as a little boy after part of the farm had been taken for a school that a contractor working on the driveway said something to Granny as she drove up the driveway that upset her. She drove back and made a figure eight with her car in the new asphalt. I had run down to watch out for her and saw it.

She was interested in providing for future generations. I remember trips we took in Missouri looking at farms to replace Taille de Noyer and the purchase of MooneAthy. She arranged to have it put in trust for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She encouraged us to plant trees there to be harvested by future generations.


Thanks to Tersh for putting together this very special recollection of “Old Granny”.


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