West Middlesex, PA
Few things are harder to remember than a random series of words, numbers, or names. For example, try memorizing the following names, in order: Dave, Bruce, Geraldine, Kathryn, (Mabel) Edna, John Samuel, Martha, Luther, Norton, Harriett, Irene Elizabeth, Lillian, Margie, Walter, and Chuckie.
That might seem to be a random series, but it’s not. It is a list of the names of Priscilla (Phillips) Alford’s siblings, in order of birth date. The first, Dave, was born in 1919. Priscilla was born 1920, and the rest followed almost every year or two thereafter, with one break of six years after John was born in 1927. Chuckie, the last, was born in 1946.
If you have trouble memorizing all those names, don’t feel bad. It took Priscilla and two of her sisters, Kathryn (Kay) Jones and Edna Brown, a little while and a bit of discussion to get the list straight. In fact, when all was said and done, the list included seventeen names instead of sixteen. Somehow Priscilla’s son Kenny’s name got in there – but then, that’s understandable, since her two sons, Kenny and Bill Alford, are older than her youngest brothers, Walter and Chuckie.
Even the parents of the clan, David and Martha (Bruce) Phillips, got a little mixed up, too. Priscilla’s name is actually Martha Priscilla. But then they named their fifth daughter Martha, too.
“I got mad at Papa when he named my younger sister Martha,” Priscilla said, “so I never used that name.”
Why so many kids?
With such a large family, no one had to go looking far for someone to play with. They played all of the usual games: jacks, dominoes, jump rope, hopscotch, etc. Their father would play ball with them. And they made up their own entertainment, sometimes in the Shenango River which bordered their West Middlesex farm.
“My brothers made a boat,” Prisicilla said. “We all fell in one day, and my dad went down and cut up the boat. He told us to stay away from the river.”
“Uncle Pete from Salem used to come to visit,” Edna said. “We’d have a circle around the fire and he’d tell us ghost stories. We used to be afraid. I think I’m afraid to this day.”
But most of the time it was a lot more work than play.
“When our parents got married,” Priscilla said, “my dad was making big money in the mill and doing good. Then lots of kids started coming, and the mill went down. I remember Hoover when he came in. He was saying a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. We lived on a farm, so we always had a chicken in the pot, and we had a car, but we never had the clothes we wanted.”
“We had clothes,” Kay stressed, “but not the ones we wanted.”
The kids worked the farm, which had gardens and all kinds of fruit trees.
“We had a big copper kettle where we made apple butter and peach butter,” Kay said. “We made it by the quarts.
“Every labor day we had to pick peaches,” Priscilla said. “I used to hate that. Everyone else was having a good time and we were working. But we were country kids. We had it rough. We cut wood with an axe, carried water, worked in the garden, canned, and did the laundry.”
The sisters all remember a bull the family raised.
“They used to ride it,” Priscilla said. “My aunt won a prize from the Youngstown Vindicator for a picture she took of all of them on the bull. It was a pet to us. Dad killed it, but we wouldn’t eat the meat. My brothers Norton and Dave cried. Dad said he’ll never have any more pets.”
So many kids made the workload heavy, but they all helped each other with the chores. Priscilla didn’t mind washing the clothes, even though it meant scrubbing them on a washboard, but she didn’t like hanging them up. Kay didn’t mind hanging them up, but hated washing.
“Who wants all of that rub-a-dub-dub?” Kay said.
Later on the family had a battery-powered electric washing machine.
“I got my arm caught in the ringer one time,” Priscilla said. “My dad was working night turn and he was sleeping. I hollered and he jumped out of bed and shut the thing off. My arm was all red.”
The workload fell heavily on Priscilla. “When I was nine years old my dad taught me how to make bread and biscuits, and I worked from nine years old helping my mother with all the babies.”
After the birth of the sixth child, their mother had a nervous breakdown.
“She was hard to handle,” Priscilla said, “but my Dad wouldn’t put her in a home, said it was his job to take care of her. He never shunned any of his responsibility. He said we’ve got to cope with this. It was hard on us kids. We didn’t have the love a mother should give to her kids. Our dad gave us more love than she did. I had to step in and be the mother for the kids. My sister Martha didn’t know who was the mother. She thought I was.”
“Because you were the boss and gave the whoopings,” Edna said.
Their father provided the stability that their mother wasn’t able to give the family.
“Some woman wanted to take all the kids and separate us,” Priscilla said. “My father kept us together. He did a good job raising us.”
He passed on to them a solid set of values, stressing especially that they were never to take anything that didn’t belong to them.
“There was some junk outside a house, and we took it,” Kay said. “The woman said she didn’t want it, she didn’t care. But my dad made us take it back and apologize to the woman. The woman had already thrown it out, but it wasn’t ours, so we weren’t allowed to keep it.”
As if their house wasn’t full enough, it got even more crowded in 1941. It was actually their uncle’s house which had become available when he moved into Farrell.
“He had offered it first to Dad’s sister, Merle Robinson, before we moved in,” Priscilla said, “but she didn’t want it. Then one day after her husband died she asked my mom and dad, and they couldn’t turn her down.”
The problem was that eight of her eleven kids were still with her.
“They moved in with us,” Kay said. “I came home one night and I didn’t have a bed. Margaret and I went over to a neighbor’s and slept there. I was 18 and had graduated from high school. My cousin was dating a guy who got killed on a ride over at Idora Park. I went to his funeral in Meadville and I never went back home.”
“Some of us had to sleep on the kitchen floor,” Edna said.
In December, 1941, their father bought a farm in Neshannock Township, and moved his family there. In 1942, Priscilla married Bill Alford and moved to Pittsburgh. Gradually things improved for the whole family.
“Mother did better after I left,” Priscilla said. “She did some things before, but she got really good after I left because she had all the responsibility.”
In spite of the hardships – or maybe because of them – the Phillips children have lived productive, successful lives. Eight of the siblings are still alive: Priscilla, Kathryn, Edna, Norton, Lillian, Margie, Walter, and Chuckie.
Geraldine and Irene Elizabeth died as infants. Bruce was just 17 when he was killed in 1938 when a tractor he was driving tipped over. Johnny was 27 when he was killed in an accident while driving a truck for Benny Gibbs. Martha passed away in 1984, Harriet in 1996, Dave in 2003, and Luther in 2006.
Priscilla, Edna, and Kay give their father a lot of credit for their upbringing.
“He never had to go and get any of us out of jail,” Priscilla said. “He raised us right, kept us straight. He made sure we always got to church.”
They received a solid foundation in faith that was more spiritual than sectarian.
“We were raised in the Cedar Avenue Church of God,” Priscilla said. “When Kathryn went to Meadville she became a Methodist. Edna went to Philadelphia and became an Episcopalian. It doesn’t matter what religion you are. They all worship the same God.”
The Phillips sisters don’t necessarily remember their childhood as the good old days, but they have a healthy sense of humor when they talk about them – and when they try to remember such things as the names of all their siblings.
The one with the best memory seems to be 88-year-old Priscilla, the oldest surviving sibling.
“Whenever we can’t remember something,” Kay said, “we ask her.”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009