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John Hilyard Family ca. 1909

Saturday, January 27, 2018

52.4: Invite to Dinner; Alys Dickey Hilyard

This post is part of a project called "52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks" created by Amy Johnson Crow.

The prompt for this week is "Invite to Dinner". Meet my grandmother, Alys Dickey Hilyard.
Alys Duane Dickey 1924
What inspired me to choose her for this particular prompt are stories my parents tell of huge dinners she made for her family. Before I describe the dinners she made, I'll tell you a little about her.

About a year ago, my genealogy partner-in-crime Deidre asked the family to post on Facebook little things they remembered about Alys, along with a picture representing that memory. She got some great responses.

Lots of our memories revolve around food. Alys and her husband Vaughn always had a big garden, and she preserved a lot of foods.  Her oldest granddaughter, Rita, recalled she always had a bag of dried apples in her pantry.
Apples from the orchard
Deidre, her great-granddaughter, attributes her love of peanut butter and honey sandwiches directly to Alys.
Still yummy today!

My own memories of her big pantry include a jar of chewable vitamin C which I pilfered from regularly, and weird-looking quart jars of what I was told was delicious beef.
Canned beef? Not sure about that!

Her daughter-in-law Ruth recalls being lucky enough to visit on the days Alys baked homemade bread, and usually eating the whole warm loaf while they were there.
Can you smell it?

Another granddaughter, Jill, remembers tomato gravy, still a favorite of mine. I think it is an old German recipe.
Tomato gravy in a cast iron skillet

Ruth remembers this: "About the tomato gravy. Usually when she cooked a meal she left the pans on the wood stove to stay warm and save on dirty dishes. They didn't have water in the house until they were pretty old. But when she did put the meal on the table, she served the gravy in a beautiful German bowl that I would never have used. I still have it sitting safely in my cupboard."
Beautiful bowl Alys served her tomato gravy in

Jill also has memories of the flower beds being filled with pretty flowers. And of the clunky black shoes Alys always wore.

Another great-granddaughter, Amanda, too young to remember Alys, could vaguely recall a "green house on a hill?" (It was actually blue, and sat atop Grease Gravy Hill.
Vaughn and Alys Hilyard, showing the house, flower beds, clunky shoes, and Dandy the dog
Rita remembered, "She wore a white gown and matching bonnet to bed...I'm sure she handmade them. They only had one heater and a fireplace in the living room so that big room always stayed warm but the bedrooms were freezing cold in the winter. She stored much of her canned stuff under the beds to keep them cold." Ruth noted the gown and bonnet were made of white feed sacks.

There was a small box of old toys, including a book called The Little Red Hen. After posting my memory of it, my dad let me have it.
Not my copy, but very similar

Deidre asked the older generation to describe her personality. I noted that as a grandmother, she was "business-like." Rita, who knew her much better, had this to say: "She was a hardworking woman but she was pretty much no-nonsense. Very petite, always wore a dress and most times an apron. She taught school and had beautiful handwriting. She wore hair nets...she drove a car...ate cottage cheese and saltine crackers...played the organ and sang...maybe where I got my love of music."

The organ she referred to was an old pump style. I had it for awhile, and then my cousin Jack took possession of it. Ruth also noted she played the flat-top guitar. Her grandson Steve, a talented guitar player, treasures her guitars now.  This one she purchased new from a Montgomery Ward catalog in 1922.
Alys' 1922 guitar
Once we primed the well, memories started flowing. Rita recalled, "She would make a skillet of cornbread to feed the chickens...she tied one end of a string to the momma hen's leg and the other end to a stick so she knew where she and the chicks were...she gathered eggs and used her apron as a basket."
Alys' glass nest eggs
Her grandson Craig shared this memory: "One time me and her were in her chicken coop and saw a snake with a bulge halfway down its body. Somehow she knew it had swallowed one of her glass nest eggs. She got her hoe, chopped the snake in half, popped out the egg, wiped it off on her apron, put it back in the nest, then chopped off the snake's head. I was amazed. She was so humane she would shoo a fly out the door rather than swat it. Seeing her brutally murder that poor snake seemed very out of character."

Craig shared another memory, and oddly enough when I asked his brother (independently) for a memory, he recalled the exact same story.  "Us boys and paw were sitting at her table eating. For some reason paw hit me on top of the head with a spoon. Mammy came up behind him and cracked him really hard with a big wooden spoon and asked, "How do YOU like it?" In Steve's version, Alys hit their dad on the bottom, with a plywood hot pad grandpa Vaughn had made.

Alys was in her 30s during most of the Great Depression. Rita: "She took all the little pieces of bars of soap and tied them up in a nylon stocking to use completely up...she didn't throw anything away if it had a purpose.  They would butcher a cow or hog in the fall and would can or freeze everything but the oink or moo. She made her own lye soap with the fat I think."

Ruth:  "She made little cakes for her dogs (dog bread) out of old grease and leftovers. She kept them by the back door. I loved them and pinched off a bite quite often. That's the only time she ever got after me. For eating her dog bread! She never let the dogs come in the house, but Dandy was scared to death when it stormed, so she let her come in and lay under the cookstove, and she never moved. Laid right there till the storm was over.  When she did the laundry they had to haul the water, heat the water, and she used a wringer washer. We have it so easy!" She says this is just what the washer looked like.

Imagine the work!
She also cooked on a wood cookstove. This type of stove takes a lot of finesse to bake in it; you have to be able to get the oven up to the right temperature, and maintain that temperature consistently over the time needed to bake the bread. This is the only picture I can find of her actual cookstove.
Great-grandkids of Alys in front of her cookstove, about 1988
So, back to what inspired this blog post in the first place.  Alys would frequently have her family over for Sunday dinner. If both her sons were there with their wives and children, that would be a dozen or so people.

Now on a holiday, that number might swell to 35 or 40 people. She would make a traditional holiday dinner in her big country kitchen. The family ate in shifts around the kitchen table. The men got to eat first, then the kids, and lastly the women.  Alys was cooking these dinners when she was in her 50s and 60s.

I had planned to focus on the meals my grandmother made, but this turned into a little character sketch of her, and I like it.  This petite powerhouse of a woman, a well-educated school teacher with no running water and a wood-powered stove and oven, was compassionate to frightened dogs and houseflies but unafraid to mete justice upon egg-stealing snakes, and cooked in cast iron but could serve in beautifully painted ceramic. 

If anyone deserves an invitation to dinner, it is Alys Dickey Hilyard. I'd want her to sit back and enjoy letting someone serve her. I could learn a lot from her.
Alys Dickey Hilyard 

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