Aunt Ella Sommers was an example of the real meaning of the word spinster. Many years ago an unmarried woman made herself useful in any household by spinning - a work that was probably never ending. So the word "spinster" came to mean an unmarried woman. As she visited in the homes of her sisters or brothers Aunt Ella made herself useful in dozens of ways.
The sixth child and third daughter in a family of four sons and four daughters, Aunt Ella was a pretty woman. Her dark eyes were warm and friendly and her neatly shaped nose was a contrast to the bent ones of most of her siblings. The tailored clothes she wore set off her five-foot seven inches very well. I used to study her and wonder why she had not married. I decided it must have been her choice.
Sheldon and I looked forward to the summer when she often came to spend several weeks with us. Perhaps it was because she was so eager and willing to work that my mother's attitude toward us was a little more lenient. We were happy too when my father went with the horse and buggy to pick her in Fairwater for the weekend. We badgered her to read to us or tell us stories. When morning came we crawled into bed with her to demand more stories before we let her get up.
As young children, Sheldon and I visited in Grandma Sommers' home near Marquette, Wisconsin for weeks at a time. Aunt Ella was at home for the summer vacation from her teaching job. Since she worked with first through third grade children she knew activities we would like. I expect she appreciated our warm feelings for her and she liked seeing us grow and develop. No doubt much of my interest in books and reading came from the association with her. Years later she continued her pleasure in seeing children read and learn by giving books to my young children - books inscribed "to Joel and James from Aunt Ella," are still here for our grandchildren to use.
During the summer visits at Grandma's her youngest son Fritz, drove the family to Sunday evening services at the Methodist Church in Kingston, a few miles from their farm. Sheldon and I sat, one on each side of Grandma, while Aunt Ella played the organ for the hymns. Sometimes I leaned against Grandma and fell asleep. I awoke to the singing of "I Need Thee Every Hour," a frequent choice for a closing song. Every time I sing it now, I am taken back to those moments of my childhood. I marvel at the truth of the words, that I do need God every hour.
When Uncle Fritz brought his bride to live with Grandma, Aunt Ella left home to live with her youngest sister, Ida and her husband, Frank Wilsie. The Wilsies lived on a farm near Brandon, Wisconsin, which in those days seemed a long way from Marquette. In her teen years, after a few months training at Berlin Normal School, Aunt Ella started teaching. She began in a one-room rural school with all eight grades. Her career lasted fifty-two years. Occasionally she was required to attend summer courses at Oshkosh State Teachers College. I listened as she expressed her misgivings about finding a place to stay in Oshkosh (there were no dormitories) and her fears that she might not be able to study well enough.
About half her years of teaching were spent with first, second, and third grade children in Fairwater, Wisconsin. She taught there so many years that eventually she was teaching the children of those who had once been her pupils. We listened to her sympathetic accounts of their successes and failures. She had room and board with Mr. and Mrs. Abercrombie. She was accepted by their circle of friends and even invited to play bridge with them. Their parties rotated from one home to another. She was able to be part of the group and took her turn at being hostess. She looked forward to these social occasions.
Change came and Aunt Ella began teaching children in the first three grades in Burnett, Wisconsin. She missed the ties she had built with families and friends in Fairwater so that it was not an easy adjustment. Burnett seemed far from home. She could not drive a car. She could not expect the Wilsies to pick her up every weekend, it would be too much of a burden for them. Teaching in Burnett was anti-climatic after the years in Fairwater.
Sometimes she rode to teacher's meetings or other special events with another woman faculty member. Aunt Ella found room for worry with that arrangement too. The lady had never learned to back her car with confidence. We were amused when Aunt Ella recounted their experiences of looking for parking places where backing would not be necessary. There were even times when they recruited a passer-by to back the car for them. None of it was amusing to the two timid, serious-minded women.
The last few years of her career were again spent in teaching in rural schools near Brandon. She wanted so much to be nearer home that she looked for vacancies in the area. One lady she boarded with, tried hard to give Ella an adequate breakfast, which invariably included a boiled egg. Aunt Ella liked nearly any food, but facing that egg each day became a kind of nightmare. It was cracked in the boiling and had not been washed beforehand. With her early training, washing the egg was imperative.
During her summertime visits with us Aunt Ella worked diligently at many jobs that were always a part of a farm household. Early each morning we could hear her pumping water. (Our well near the house had only a hand pump.) It was necessary to pump two pails before taking the third one into the house for drinking. The extra water was poured on the flowers or young, newly planted trees. While she was with us chickens and ducks always had full water troughs. In spite of her belief that everything should have plenty of water she worried about wells going dry and the depletion of the water table across the country. When I hear news reports these days of the lowering water table, I want to tell them, "You should have listened to Aunt Ella, a long time ago."
Aunt Ella could not keep herself from the hard work of hoeing and weeding the garden. She liked all vegetables. Whenever I see the first small beets from the garden I can hear her tell me again how good they would be cooked and seasoned with butter. She liked the beet greens too. Along with the gardening she helped clean and prepare the vegetables and fruits for table use and for canning. I liked working with her because she talked to me. She revealed feelings about her family.
She told of groups of young people that gathered around the organ in her childhood home to sing while my Grandmother played. She told how attractive my mother was and of her friends. She said, "You will never be as good-looking as she was." From her younger years she recollected how her own mother wept as she rubbed clothes on a washboard on a hot day prior to the birth of her eighth child. The picture of the momentary sadness was impressed on her mind. (The new child was a beautiful baby boy who was loved by the whole family.)
Then there was the time when she was ten years old, a neighbor hired her to help take care of their new baby. In reality she had to do washing and cleaning and seldom had any time to hold or play with the baby. Perhaps these experiences influenced what Aunt Ella did with her life.
Aunt Ella could cook but she spoke only of her failures. She also claimed no skill at sewing, but she was an expert at crocheting, knitting and piecing quilts. The long red scarves Sheldon and I wore tied over our heads in coldest weather were knitted by Aunt Ella. At the end of a long day of gardening or cleaning, she bathed, and put on a clean dress to rest. She instantly reached for "crochet work." Dozens of pillowcases I have used had a fine lace edge which she made in those in-between moments when she was "resting." One crib-size flower garden quilt she made for my children is now being used by my grandchildren. When I was only seven or eight years old she taught me to embroider and to handle a crochet needle for simple crochet.I doubt Aunt Ella consciously thought about being happy or unhappy. But she took the burdens of others in her family more seriously than they did. I often thought that she suffered more than the one who was ill.
Over and over I listened to her description of the little cottage she wanted to have for herself someday, but she did not make any effort to make that dream come true. She could not decide to be really independent. She was timid about any kind of business deal. She could not make a break from family. She continued to live with Ida and Frank and later lived with her oldest sister, Anna and her husband Harry Sims in the small village of Brandon.
In 1931 her brother, Frank Sommers, died of cancer. The entire family was appalled at his terrible suffering. Aunt Ella never forgot the horror of it and speculated as to the causes of the disease. When she retired after all those years of teaching she had only two or three years before she died in 1960. She said nothing to anyone when she discovered the symptoms of cancer until it was in advanced stages. Even in her last stay in the hospital she still liked to be part of the early morning. She told the nurse, "Please, open the drapes so that I can see the day come."
Her interest in children was still evident too. Hospital rules did not allow young children to go to her room. She asked to be taken to the lobby in a wheel chair so that she could see our five boys and little girl. She spoke to each of them and said, "they have such sweet faces."
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.