Pittsburgh & Greenville, PA
It was a hard-knock life
Have you ever felt bad because someone forgot your birthday? Literally everyone forgot Elizabeth McClelland’s birthday. She never knew what day – or even what year – she was born. Her parents weren’t around to tell her, and no one has ever been able to find a record of her birth.
When Liz was a little girl, she was told that her mother, Bertha (Turzai) Kitchen, was dead. Her father, Stephen Kitchen, took off before she was six, leaving Liz and her younger brother Aaron to be cared for by an aunt.
Liz has a few bad memories of her aunt, and some good ones of her grandmother – particularly the prayer hour she held every evening with the kids. Liz also remembers something else:
“I delivered milk to everybody’s doorstep with a wagon,” she said. “My little brother pushed and I pulled. I scrubbed chairs and floors. I was just a kid, but I had to work hard – and I loved it.”
Those seeds planted in earliest childhood – faith in God and love of hard work – are the two things that enabled Liz to survive unimaginable hardships. Liz’s aunt got tired of taking care of her and her brother, so she put them into the very unfriendly Home for the Friendless, an orphanage in Pittsburgh.
“We had to go to bed early, and we were never allowed to go out to get water,” she said. “If we were thirsty we had to sneak and get water out of the toilet tank. We counted the floor boards so we wouldn’t step on those that squeaked. If you wet or messed the beds, they tied it on your face. If you talked at the table while you were eating, they taped your mouth shut and you had to shove the food in sideways.”
In the summertime, the girls stayed at the Anna Laughlin Home for Girls in Ebensburg, PA.
“The summer home was wonderful, ” Liz said. “We had some freedom. There was a big grassy lawn. But we were still terrified of the caretakers, and we had to work hard. We carried buckets and buckets of stones to make the driveway. And we all had to make gardens. The girls stole stuff out of mine because theirs wouldn’t grow worth a darn, but mine did. They didn’t weed theirs, but I weeded mine with a little fork. I loved to work hard.”
Liz found out that she had a baby sister named Helen living in the orphanage. She also had an older brother Stephen and sister Mary who were never in the orphanage.
“Nobody had told me that I had a little sister. And that my mother wasn’t dead. She had been put into a mental institution right after Helen was born.”
One caretaker gave Liz needles, thread, and material. She taught herself to sew well enough to make things for others – even fancy lingerie for the teachers – all without patterns.
When Liz was about 14, one of her friends was beaten so terribly that she lost some teeth and one eye. The girl was brave enough to show the orphanage’s Board what had been done to her.
“They fired the head caretaker that day,” Liz said, “and the social worker’s secretary took me out of the orphanage.”
She lived about a year with the secretary and her husband. There she learned that life outside the orphanage could be cruel, too. The secretary’s husband raped her.
“I had no place to go. My aunt said I couldn’t stay with them unless I got a paying job. So I lived in the streets three days and three nights. All I owned was the clothes I was wearing.”
She was “rescued” by a twenty-two year old man named Michael “Mick” Suich.
“He took me to his home, and I slept in his car for maybe two nights. I was about fifteen, but Mick got a judge to marry us. I had to say I was 21. The judge knew I wasn’t. He said, ‘My, these 21 year old girls are getting younger all the time.’”
Her marriage dumped Liz out of the frying pan into the fire.
“Mick drank,” Liz said, “and when he was drunk, he beat me. Sometimes with a poker. He broke my jaw. Sometimes he punched me without any reason. I stayed with him because he gave me a home. When he wasn’t drunk, he was a good man. I didn’t have any clothes, and he hocked his guns to buy me some. He let my brother and sister come live with us, and his sister and her five children.”
After her sister-in-law moved in, Liz’s life got at least a little better. She would hide Liz whenever Mick got drunk.
Liz told her husband that if he ever bothered her children – Michael, Laverna, and Richard – she would kill him.
“He always treated them nice,” she said. “He treated everyone nice – except me.”
In 1951, Mick lost his job as a welder at Independent Bridge Company. Liz was so sick from fear and depression she couldn’t walk. A doctor told Mick if he didn’t move out into the country and change his ways, he wouldn’t have a wife.
They moved to a farm near Greenville, and Liz’s life improved. Mick stopped drinking and got a job at Werner’s. And Liz found salvation through faith and hard work.
She strongly believes that God has been with her all her life. Right after moving to Greenville, she joined Hillside Presbyterian Church, where she served as a deacon and Adult Sunday School superintendent. She is still an active member.
Liz continued to get satisfaction from hard work, using skills she had learned in the orphanage.
“God gave me a gift – the ability to sew. I made men’s suits, and all my kids’ clothes. I loved making beautiful things like wedding gowns. I made more than 100 quilts and gave them all away.”
Love came to her from a surprising source.
“I got my love from the animals. I had a hundred roosters and raised turkeys. I raised 525 pheasants for the game commission. I raised calves and had two cows. I milked them and made butter. I was known as the Duck Lady because I raised ducks. And oh, how I loved the little pigs.”
Liz was surrounded by family. “I had my kids with me and they had friends. And my sister-in-law and her kids lived with us. I cooked for everyone, made home-made noodles, baked bread and cookies.”
She set up a house trailer on the farm for her brother Stephen, who needed nursing care, and took care of him for more than 25 years.
In 1993, Mick Suich died. He and Liz had been married sixty years.
“When he died, I had this tremendous feeling of relief flow over me. I’m free, I thought. Now I don’t have to answer to anybody.”
But the greatest joy of her life was still to come. At church, she met Wayne McClelland, founder of Oakes & McClelland. His wife had died after they had been married 50 years.
“I never thought I’d get married again,” Liz said. “That fear was still in me. But Wayne said he was going to marry me, and he wouldn’t give up. He is so kind and easy going. We got married on September 9, 1999. I’m finally blessed to have a good man.”
Wayne shares Liz’s love of hard work. At 85, he still goes to work at Oakes and McClelland every day. Although Liz can barely see, she bakes as many as 50 dozen cookies a week and sends them to the store with Wayne . Two days a week she goes in to clean the store inside and outside. They both are active in the Rotary Club, and they travel every chance they get.
By the way, they celebrate Liz’s birthday every year. Shortly after she and her first husband moved from Pittsburgh to Greenville, she learned that her father was living near Mercer. She found him, and he said he thought her birthday was March 17.
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But it’s as good as any other day to celebrate the birth of a truly great lady.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007