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Wood Working: Rich or poor, servants were a must, and one mentored me on the path of English major

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Of late, we've been hooked on the new PBS production of "Upstairs, Downstairs," which takes up where the old show left off.

It's the late 1930s and the great house at Eaton Place has been taken over by new younger and richer tenants. After the place has been remodeled the house mistress goes to an employment agency to find hired help.

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Guess who's running the show?

None other than Jean Marsh, the creator of the old show in which she also played the parlor maid.

She's now running the employment agency that provides hired help for the wealthy. Try it you'll like it.

Watching the show and the training of parlor maids, I was reminded of a student I taught here at UWRF years ago.

She was an exchange student from Africa, studying journalism. She wrote a story that really floored me.

Her story asked the question: "How can it be that in a wealthy country like the U.S., in a wealthy town like River Falls, no one has servants? Not even the chancellor?"

She went on to explain that in her poor little country, everyone, no matter how poor they were, had servants

I hadn't thought much about that. Then I looked into my own past and remembered that, no matter how poor the Wood family was, we had servants until a generation ago.

We didn't call them servants, of course -- we called them hired girls. Our family history is rife with stories about our hired girls.

My grandmother was an immigrant's daughter. When she married my grandfather, he hired her a hired girl, Louise.

One day when Louise was washing dishes she called out, "Mrs. Wood. There's a tramp coming up the road. He has a long beard and is wearing a dogskin coat with the fur all worn off."

Grandma didn't bother to look out the window, just replied to Louise, "Oh, that's just my father." (Louise went on to marry grandma's brother Hilmer and inherited her dogskin clad father-in-law's considerable fortune.)

A generation later, my father and mother were working my mother's family farm, barely scraping by during the Great Depression. My father took ill.

My mother became pregnant with me and they needed a hired girl. So they hired a poor neighbor girl.

At noon dinner, my father noticed that Ingrid was dutifully buttering her bread on both sides of the slice.

He commented on the phenomenon and Ingrid replied, "I thought that was how rich folks ate bread and butter."

The family continued to hire girls, who usually got room and board, a bit of spending money and the opportunity to continue high school where their parents couldn't afford to send them.

One was Gladys, who really knew how to throw the bull.

When my mother complained she had to leave her prized refrigerator in Eau Claire because the farm we sharecropped had no electricity, Gladys looked on the brighter side.

"At our house (down the road), we have no electricity, but that doesn't bother us. Our basement is so cold Ma leaves a pound of butter on the top of the basement steps and we have to heat a butcher knife to cut it?"

Then there was Eleanor who my little sister called "Um."

When my mother went to a sanitarium, "Um" took over our household for "the time being."

She cooked, she cleaned, she read stories to us. She fed us Norwegian food like blood dumplings and lefse and sang to us when we were weepy.

A month or so later news came that my mother had died. "Um" stayed on until we moved off the farm. But she never quit writing me notes, sending me birthday cards. She was some hired girl.

Once we moved to town and my father remarried, we continued with the hired girls because my stepmother had herself been one when she was a high school student.

One was Berniece. She stayed on after graduation.

Berniece had a taste for Lydia Pinkham's. She nipped at a bottle under the sink all the month long, but she was good hearted and taught me to dance.

Finally came Lona, a crackerjack student who tried to keep us in line in our difficult teenage years. She failed at that, of course, but succeeded in helping me choose a career that would carry me through most of my adulthood.

In high school, I was a solid C-minus to D-plus student. But to impress her, I buckled down for a few hours and wrote a term paper on "Silas Marner," by George Eliot.

Lona made me type it over three times. I handed it in and received my only A in high school.

Lona suggested that perhaps an English major was in my future. I still love "Silas Marner."

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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