Thistles Cut, Ironing Done

19. THE PHELPS

One day in the years Howard and I and our children lived in South Texas the telephone rang. When I answered it I was startled to hear a woman's voice say, "This is Alice Phelps-Rider." She asked if she could come to call at our house. Although I felt I knew her through her association with my father's family I had only the slightest acquaintance with Miss Phelps. After a brief visit at our house she asked to have a picture made with me. Later she sent me a print.

Alice Phelps-Rider could identify me as Ed Schwandt's daughter. She knew where I belonged in the family. I had an identity growing out of the long years of living in the same community.

Her grandfather's farm lay next to Grandpa Schwandt's. Silas Phelps was a well-to-do Englishman. His daughter Edith married a Mr. Rider, but she kept the Phelps name as part of her married name. Her daughter Alice used the hyphenated name too. To avoid confusion with her sister, Alice, Edith called her little child, "Baby Alice". That title stayed with her. All the Schwandt family referred to her as Baby Alice even when she and they were old. As a small child Baby Alice lived in a home with only adults. Edith provided a playmate when she hired Edna Schwandt to spend time at the Phelps home. The two little girls were nearly the same age. Decades later when Baby Alice was growing old she was alone in her unusually large house in Markesan. She hired Edna, who was by then a widow, to be a part time companion to her. Edna went every afternoon to keep Alice company and to spend the night.

Alice received the best education that money could provide. She studied in private schools and developed a taste for music and literature. She even wrote poetry. I recall a time when I went with other girls to play the piano for a group of ladies meeting at her house. Alice's tall ample figure gave her presence when she presided over a group. It was just like the stories where a prominent woman in the community hopes to inflict culture on the townspeople.

After Silas Phelps retired to Markesan, my parents rented his farm. My mother often spoke of his continual surveillance of their work and productivity. He frequently came out to "check-up" even to count the number of chickens they had and how many eggs they were getting. He made sure that he got half of the eggs. He demanded that chickens be killed and dressed and taken to him whenever he chose. My parents had grown up in families where no one quibbled over a few eggs and they did things for themselves. They felt superior to folks who had to have things done for them. Silas would have been surprised if he had known their feelings.

Mrs. Phelps did give my mother a set of six side dishes that I still have. They are rectangular with a blue on white design in two patterns. When I was a child we used them frequently to serve vegetables, carrots, peas, yellow beans, or corn in butter and milk and salt and pepper. My children never developed a taste for vegetables fixed that way so that they have seldom been used.

My Dad and Mother bought a house in town in the last years of my father's life. The house set on a corner lot which adjoined Baby Alice's property. Her garage backed up to ours. Beyond it was a small park where geese paddled in a pond. Tall evergreen trees were a favorite place for mourning doves and other birds. It was a lovely spot. Occasionally Alice could be seen walking about the grounds of her house and the park, but she did not socialize casually with anyone. She did not engage in conversation over the backyard fence.

There are no living descendants of the Phelps family. Alice had no children, and neither did her two cousins, with whom she seldom associated. Their graves are arranged with those of Silas and his generation in a rectangle around a large white granite monument in the Chauncey Phelps Cemetery north of Markesan. The same cemetery I walked past on my way to school when I was a small child.

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Copyright 1991, 2004 by Zona S. Justiss. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, text and photos on this page are property of the author and may not be reproduced, posted, distributed, or used for any commercial purpose without prior permission.