Or, How Little "Bud" Kelland Grew Up to Create Some of the Strongest Women in Literature
(Portland, Michigan - 1880-1990)
I do not know the year in which my father was brought to America, in a sailing vessel requiring six weeks for the voyage, but it was before the Civil War. The family settled in Michigan, which was then important in the textile industry, and for some years my father followed that trade — I believe until he met and married my mother, who, being a determined and ambitious woman, transplanted him to Portland, in Michigan, where she was the proprietor of a millinery shop, and made him a clerk in a general store.
Mother was one of the village's most up-and-coming businesswomen. It was her pride. To be a businesswoman was to her the most desirable thing in the world next to being a Christian, and particularly a Christian of the Congregational variety. I am not altogether sure that on week days business did not win over religion by a nose. She owned one of the two millinery shops, and had a workroom where she took girls as apprentices and taught them to trim hats. It was one of the local sights to see mother go to the store in the morning. She scudded. I can see her slenderness now, and her black hair and her eager black eyes as she went down the street, bent a little forward, as if she were trying to get ahead of herself in her eagerness to reach her place of business. The rear of her store, next door to the Weber Bank, overhung Grand River and was adjacent to the upper bridge.
My mother, as I remember her then, was a handsome young woman with jet-black hair and quick black eyes. She was the only person in Portland who was ever in a hurry. She never walked, she ran. I do not think I ever knew a more ambitious person or one so bent upon improving the state of her family morally and financially. She worked fiercely and was successful in her business of making and selling bonnets to the women of the vicinity. It was she who compelled the buying of a home; it was she who was constantly planning and prodding and rushing about in a fever of impatience to make things happen.
Because she was in her store six days a week and until midnight on Saturdays, this did not mean that she had no time to give to me, her only son. She also was a great reader, but while father and I read for the sheer joy of it, mother's intention was to improve the mind. She was the only one of us who read poetry, her preferences, quite naturally, were the epigrammatic bards rather than those who sought merely to express beauty. Her favorite poem was Pope's Essay on Man, which she quoted very frequently. She knew a great many quotations, most of which were in the nature of maxims, and she had a great detestation for Mr. H. Rider Haggard, whom father and I adored. Mr. Haggard savored of the dime novel, and she promptly burned certain of his books that came into the house.
Father's religion was all in mother's name. Mother's religion was narrow, with sharp corners and no concessions. Father's consisted in trying to sing the hymns louder than the man in the next pew and of saying, " Yes, mamma. Yes, mamma," whenever moral issues arose. Mother was vindictive against sin; father was willing to let sin alone as long as it let him alone. Grandma had a sort of secret hankering after the more enjoyable sins. With mother, everything that was not definitely a virtue was a vice, and she even looked dubiously at some of the virtues. With her, everything was black or white, and no funny business about it. She very definitely believed that God used a great deal of His time thinking about her and that He did her favors in appreciation of her rectitude. I doubt if father ever had any particular ideas about the identity of God except that He existed vaguely and was in favor of good and was against evil.
Father had roved the country until he landed some job in Lansing and married mother. She was then a clerk in a Lansing millinery shop, and ambitious beyond belief. For some reason never disclosed to me, they moved to Portland, where mother opened her millinery shop and father left the ranks of labor to become a clerk. But Mother was not content that he should remain a clerk, a position which satisfied him very well indeed. She transmuted him into a shoe merchant, exposing his stock in half of her millinery store. The venture was distinctly a failure. Next she made a fancy-goods merchant of him and he did pretty well because, I think, fancy goods were akin to millinery and mother could keep her active eye on the business. Father was not ambitious as the word generally is understood. He was not a man to strike out for himself, but rather one who could work faithfully and enthusiastically for an employer. He would have been happy all his life to have worked for a decent wage, in moderate comfort and without reaching out for wider fields of greater fortune. He was a good man, a kind man, an honest and industrious man, and one of the sweetest and gentlest human beings I ever have known.
I could not have been more than six or seven when my mother tried a species of moral experiment upon me. The outcome filled me with a rather ghastly humiliation for days afterward, but it added to my store of knowledge about pretending. Another boy, by the name of Verity, came over to spend the evening. Just before bedtime mother came in with a plate on which were two pieces of maple sugar. One was a gigantic piece, the other quite an ordinary-sized morsel. Mother left the plate and went out, leaving me with the problem. Young Verity and I stared at the pieces and maneuvered, each trying to force the other into making the first selection. But the size of that enormous chunk of maple sugar was too much for me. I knew that Verity was my guest, I had been lectured about generosity, I was fully aware of the right and wrong of the situation, but I failed to measure up to it. I took the big piece.
Mother was ashamed of me. She told me so. I was ashamed of myself. It was a major catastrophe, and I was very uneasy about its possible consequences on my eventual salvation. I thought about it for days. Grandmother told me privately she didn't blame me a mite, which was a comfort. It would have been more of a comfort, however, if I had not known that morally grandmother was much less competent than mother, and occupied a much lower ethical plane.
Mother had rather a trying time with our morals — not that any of us were in the least evil, but she was determined we should not be. My father didn't bother much about wickedness if it did not bother him. But mother was always on its trail in battle array.
My mother, who was a strict Presbyterian, disapproved of my Grandmother Budington heartily, but nevertheless depended upon her to run our household, because mother was a business woman who ran very successfully the town's millinery store.
Grandmother Budington was a pagan. Grandma had a very simple belief in God, and, I think, an idea that He was a very nice person, much maligned as to His austerity and severity. if the world were made up exclusively of such pagans as she, there would be an eternity of peace and comfort and kindly friendship.
Pagan and Presbyterian had one thing in common, which was Pagan and Presbyterian had one thing in common, which was the love of beer, and they would send me down to the park casino with a large tin pail which I would have filled at the bar and bring back to them in their hiding place.
My Grandmother Budington brought me up because mother was so occupied with her business that she had little time for domestic affairs. So it was I learned more from her than from all the schools I ever attended. Her life's span extended from the days when the Indians were still important to the venturesome settlers to the 1890's when Portland, Mich., had become a settled and prosperous community.
She lived upstairs in two rooms, one of which was bedroom, the other a sort of parlor and museum. On the walls hung an oleograph of Beatrice Cenci, and two others of little girls, one of whom was Wide Awake and the other Fast Asleep. Also the chief art treasure was a hand-painted picture of the Jackson, Michigan, Fire Company fighting a blaze. All of the brave firemen wore helmets with tall red fronts, except one man in long white whiskers, and he wore a helmet with a tall white panel in front. This was Grandpa Budington. In a corner was a whatnot and on this was a bottle of water from the River Jordan and a bit of polished wood from the Mount of Olives, and numerous daguerreotypes of former husbands and surviving children; in hard black cases with brass hooks to keep them shut. And there was a conch shell that you could put to your ear and hear the ocean roaring. These rooms were Grandma Budington's refuge, and no one dared to enter them without her express permission.
Grandma Budington was, in my opinion, the most beautiful old lady who ever lived. In her twinkling white hair there was not one strand that was not purest silver.
Grandmother had come to Michigan from Albany, N.Y. in a covered wagon when she was a little girl. She had been a true pioneer. She was distinctly the pioneer type, strong, fearless, with a ready sense of humor and a homely philosophy. Grandma had tremendous self-respect and pride in her appearance and her antecedents.
I was the apple of her eye and it would safe to say that she devoted herself entirely to me and my concerns as I was growing up.
My grandmother Budington was tolerant; to say the least. Grandmother had been married a number of times and knew a great deal about life and liked it. Some people were good, some people were bad, and that was that. You took them as they came and made the best of them.
She worshiped her last husband, who seems to have been a gentle old fellow with a noble white beard who preferred hunting and fishing to hard labor. He was the fourth that I know of.
But reverence for his memory did not prevent her from considering seriously the acquiring of a fifth in the person of a Mr. Hitchcock who owned the local planing mill. He also had whiskers and was gentle. But my mother and my aunts put a stop to any such indecency as that. Grandma was unable to perceive either indecency or inexpediency in acquiring a planing mill and a husband, but she shrugged her ample shoulders and let it pass. She was then about fifty, a beautiful woman, happy and in perfect health, but the times decreed that a woman of that age was old and must be content to retire from life, wear caps, knit and think about the past.
Grandma had a tremendous love of life and interest in living. She worshiped me.
She, too, was a great reader, though she read very painfully, moving her lips and spelling out each word as she went along. She owned one book which she read and reread all the years I knew her. As soon as she finished it, she would start it again. It was a paper-backed novel entitled Her Dark Marriage Morn. She wrote only with great difficulty, chewing her tongue as she formed the letters.
Her great preoccupation was knitting. For hours she would sit, her fingers fairly bristling with steel needles which continued to click even after she closed her eyes in an afternoon nap. I was twelve years old before I wore a stocking that did not come from her hands.
Twenty-four hours a day she had a pot of tea steeping on the woodstove, and to the great scandal of my mother, she smoked cigars for a time because some dubious medical man had told her tobacco was good for "stomach trouble."
In Portland we did not make calls, except on rare occasions; we went visiting. Grandma was a confirmed visitor and receiver of visits. She would put on her black basque with the strips of jet trimming, equip herself with needles and yarn, and fare forth with me in tow to spend the day with some old lady, preferably a widow who was a good cook. The start was made in midmorning, and the visit lasted until it was time to go home and get supper. The old ladies knitted and rocked.
Invariably, if it was vacation time, she took me visiting with her, and the first of many calamities which have littered my life occurred when we went to visit a friend of hers who was not in such affluent circumstances as ourselves. One mark of this affluence was the inevitable appearance of pie on the table for dinner and supper.
On this dreadful day I finished my meal, wiped my mouth, pushed back my chair and said, "I'm ready for my pie."
There was no pie, and I remember my bitter humiliation. It seemed to me I had done a cruel thing for which there could be no forgiveness. I had, in effect, twitted our hostess with her poverty, because there could be but one reason for not having pie on the table, and that was that one could not afford it. This was my introduction to acute embarrassment. I have since encountered it all too many times.
When grandma was not knitting she was piecing quilts in one of the time-honored patterns, and then up would go the quilting frames in the dining room, and in would come certain old-lady neighbors to quilt and drink tea and gossip while I pretended the space under the quilt was a cave or a tent or the den of some ferocious beast.
She also sewed rags for rag carpets, and I have wound these into balls — so many yards of brightly colored fabrics that it seems to me they would reach around the world.
But her main business was having the best time she could contrive in our simple surroundings, and I find some happiness in believing that she succeeded.
One Christmas when I was about six or seven, I was given a book called Stories of the Bible. It was, in fact, a complete Bible, chapter by chapter, put into language that a child might understand. It became one of my favorite books, not because of its religious significance, but because it was such good reading, with so many excellent stories and heroes in it. I read it over and over until my knowledge of the Scriptures was, and continues to be, considerable. I used to read this aloud to grandmother, who liked it as much as I did.
There was a boy who lived a block or so away, a much smaller boy than I, but a very belligerent young person. His main avocation was being, as we expressed it, "after" me. When you were after another boy you made for him every time you saw him and chased him home. I went about in fear of young Cappy Allen, a state of affairs of which he was well aware, and every time I would poke my nose out of my yard he would chase me back into it. One day I was fleeing for the front gate when I saw grandmother standing there blocking the way.
Grandmother Budington in pungent sentences, the gist of which was that I would never amount to anything if I went around letting myself be "put on." "You turn right around and lick that boy," she said, "or I'm goin' to take the hide off'n you."
Between facing grandma in such a mood and being demolished by Cappy, there was only one choice. I turned in a panic and rushed at my pursuer. To my astonishment, I found myself presently sitting astride his chest in victory, but not knowing exactly what to do about it. I looked up at grandmother, who said nonchalantly, "Let him up." And then to Cappy, "He could 'a' licked you any time he wanted to."
That was a notable lesson. I perceived vaguely, as Cappy went off in tears, that he had been mostly sound and fury. He had been pretending to be a ferocious little boy, but was neither ferocious nor efficient. He was an exploded myth. It occurred to me that I could pretend the same way and save myself a great deal of trouble and build an enviable reputation as a dangerous citizen. The point seemed to be that the boy who pretended first was the one who chased the other home.
It remains distinct in my mind that I was still afraid of other boys and very much afraid to fight, but that I assumed a pretty cocky air, went around bragging how I had licked Cappy, and that my father was teaching me how to fight, and that my uncle had been a Mississippi River steamboat man who could thrash any given number of men with one hand. It was my first practical experiment with pretending, and the results were most satisfactory.