Through Any Given Door

1.11 Boucher Street, Chico

In 1915 the Chatfields left Los Molinos and moved to the up-and-coming agricultural town of Chico, buying a fairly new two-story corner residence in the Chapmantown district, a working class neighborhood near the Diamond Match Factory. In those days most people rented; few owned their own homes. With only two upstairs bedrooms–the boys sharing one, the girls the other–the house was small for such a large family but the older boys were on their own by this time. Downstairs, Nellie created a tiny sleeping space for herself in an alcove under the stairway, keeping the small, downstairs bedroom for company. Grandpa slept in the shed.

During the First World War, Nellie supplemented what little income the family had by raising caged guinea pigs in her overgrown yard and selling them to the U.S. Army; they used the shy creatures for running in the trenches to detect mustard gas, like caged canaries are used for detecting gas in the coal mines. After the war, she and her younger children gathered the fallen black walnuts from her numerous trees, spending the walnut season husking and shelling. Their fingers cracked and stained from the black outer shells, they packed the freshly cleaned nuts in pint and quart glass canning jars and sold them along side the road, making a goodly sum.

Verda, Grandma Nellie, Nella Mae; in front: Ina, Noreen (Babe)

Sitting down to a meal with her ten children at the table, Grandma proudly noted that the Chatfield name would never die out, her having six fine sons. As it turned out, five of the boys never had children, and Howard, the only son who did, had all girls. With six of Nellies’s children and Howard’s five daughters (his oldest was five years younger than Babe) in the Chico school system, a local teacher looked over her spectacles while reading the roster at the beginning of the new school year and inquired in disbelief, “Is there no end to you Chatfields?”

In her tiny alcove, Nellie hung a curtain for privacy, shielding her twin bed with a small dresser at its foot. Everyone was forbidden to go near her space. Under the bed she kept hidden a large, flat, coat-box with her burial clothes folded neatly inside: a gray shroud, a slip, a pair of white cotton underpants, a girdle, a new pair of shoes, and silk stockings. Grandma always thought she’d die young. Her children were aware of the box and respected their mother’s privacy. When Mom and her kids came to Chico, Mom, to keep them in line, threatened that if they didn’t behave she’d make them look at Grandma’s shroud. On one of Mom’s visits, Nellie opened the funeral box and finding the stockings rotted, sent Mom to the store to replace them. Roy, still living at home with his mother when she passed away years later, had to replace them again.

The family bathed in the kitchen. The large, round, aluminum washtub hanging on the porch was filled with water from the kitchen pump handle and heated on the wood stove, then transferred a pot at a time to the tub. The older girls shared the bathwater, and then the small children, as many as could fit in the tub, bathed together. After their baths, the grey water was bailed out the back door into the garden. My grandmother washed her hair with rainwater collected in a barrel on the porch, with a wooden lid placed over  it after a storm. She scolded her grandkids when they floated paper boats in it. It was soft water, unlike the hard well water. When she was younger, her dark hair was beautiful and went nearly to her waist. She wore it in a tight bun, only letting her hair down at night to brush it.

Nellie Chatfield lived in this three-bedroom shingle and clapboard house for nearly forty years, raising her children, holding firm reign, and breathing her final breath in this house.

to be continued …

© 2017. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

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  1. Did Nellie ever exhibit a softer side? Maybe she couldn’t with all of her responsibilities. Do you ever feel sorry for her or do you think she accepted her life as it was with no regret?

    • These were all the stories told to me, and not one had Nellie with any sort of tenderness. I don’t remember her; it’s possible I never met her. I have pictures and letters of hers with her sisters so I know she was close to them, and she was a reader. What other joys she had, I would have to make up. I think she was filled with regret and resentment, which has been passed down through every woman in our line. Nellie’s mother, Emily Hoy, lost her father when she was 5, then her mother just after she turned 12. She was sent to a Catholic boarding school in West Virginia during the Civil war as there was no place for her to go. When she told her brothers she wanted to become a nun they yanked her out. Soon after , at 18, she married, then shortly after had the marriage annulled as she’d caught him with another woman. She was also pregnant. Mind you, this is in 1870. Emily then married Finley Chamberlin, a railroad man, and after six children left him while one of them were still on the younger side. Emily’s daughter Nellie (my grandmother) left Charles with nine kids, my mother left my dad (except forgot to take the children), and my sister and I left our husbands; Claudia had five small ones, and I was pregnant and had a two-year-old in hand. My other two sisters stayed with their husbands, but for the most part weren’t happy about it. Writing this, it all sounds so dreadful… goodness. Resentment and regret flow like rivers through the women, drink and gambling run like whiskey through the men. Mix those together and it gives one a lot to write about. And a lot of karmic energy to resolve. Perhaps these stories will heal some of this ancestral angst.

  2. Jim Chatfield says:

    As always Cathy, I fully enjoy the stories about your family. You have a wonderful way of telling each memory and it makes one feel that they are right there with you.

  3. More fascinating images and tales for our collective archives! Ironic about the end of the line for the Chatfield name! (at least that branch). Same thing in my family… dad had all girls… no more Dickeys!

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