Friday, March 4, 2011

Lena Rhue of Apartment B

Grandma Schroeder’s house has always been a duplex—well, ever since it stopped being a church building, anyway. The original idea, when my grandparents got married, was that the downstairs apartment was going to be where Grandma’s mom and dad spent their golden years. But since it was the Great Depression, my great-grandparents chose to occupy a bedroom on the second floor, allowing the family to rent out the first-floor apartment for extra income.

Back in those days, renters would stay for several years before moving on to whatever was next; also, because they lived under the same roof as their landlords, they became friends. Grandma was extroverted and good-natured. Most of the renters visited with Grandma and Grandpa on summer evenings in the backyard.

The renter I remember most was “Miss Rhue,” who was elderly when I was a little kid. I don’t know when she moved in, but she must have passed away in the 1970s.

She was friendly and inquisitive. You could say she was “sweet.” It seems she always had a candy dish with lemon drops in it. I remember it being on a corner table in the dining room. As a kid, I didn’t visit her very often (I grew up with the idea that the tenants downstairs were not to be harassed by children)—but when I did visit her, she was gracious and pleased to have company. And she was generous with the lemon drops. Maybe I remember her as talkative because I was always quietly sucking on candy when I was with her.

She wasn’t tall, and she kept her little-old-lady white hair in a bun. I recall she wore reading glasses. And she had what was described to me as a “harelip”—a thankfully obsolete term for a cleft lip or palate. It had been repaired, but the surgical techniques of the early twentieth century weren’t as perfected as they are now. I distinctly recall her unique voice, kind of airy, which I suppose resulted from the irregularities in her palate. It reminded me of Sterling Holloway’s. (To a child of the seventies, any voice like Winnie the Pooh’s would have seemed comforting, eh?)

I suppose her deformity might be one reason she had not married. (Though, of course, there are lots of other reasons not to become married, or officially married, as well.) But more than anything, I suspect her lack of a husband resulted from the plain fact that in her life, she had other things to do.

My dad says she was a sociologist, and, of course, for a woman of her vintage to have earned a college degree is fairly remarkable. But in addition to the bachelor of science degree she earned in 1919 at the University of Illinois, she went on to receive a master’s—we think at Chicago. She had intellect, and curiosity; she was darned smart; she had had a profession.

Like other women who left no progeny, it’s difficult to find information on her. Her older brother, Perry, never married, and he left no heirs as well, so except perhaps for cousins and their descendants, there don’t seem to be any family left.

Perry, by the way, born in 1896, was a veteran of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in France; part of a machine-gun battalion, he’d been wounded in action. Like her, he got his bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois.

Perry and Lena were the children of Jessie William and Sidney Elizabeth (or Elizabeth S.?) (Cochonour) Rhue and grew up in the Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, area.

Somehow or other, her path seems to have led from commerce and agricultural interests to social welfare work, because her professional position in this state was with the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, whose papers from 1908 to 1971 are housed at the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection in Columbia. I guess I can see how, during the Great Depression, agricultural work could easily have turned into social work.

Maybe I’ll have to go visit those records someday. I wonder how Lena got to Missouri? My dad says she played an important role during the foundational years of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, that she did great work on behalf of orphans, destitute folks, and others in need.

Dad recalls how Lena came to leave this house; she had gotten quite elderly, and she started seeing things that weren’t there, and talking to people only she could see. One day, Dad said, she had her front door open to let air through the screen door (which by itself is no big deal), and he knocked lightly to get her attention and then opened the screen door a little in order to hand in her newspaper, which had been lying outside. At this, she suddenly exclaimed that a small dog had just rushed into her apartment as he opened the door! A dog only she could see. It wasn’t long after this that some of her trusted friends found alternative living arrangements for her, and she never returned to good old Elm Street.

I understand she was buried, near her brother, in the Champaign area.

Sometimes I wonder why I think of her so much. Partly, it’s the “if these walls could talk” syndrome. She lived under this same roof for many years, and everyone who lives in an old house wonders about the lives of their predecessors. But partly, too, I see in her a kindred path.

I, too, am the mother and grandmother to no one, and my papers and photos will, after my death, be tossed out. On any lists where I am included, mine will be a name that no one looks for. Who will remember me when I’m gone—even if just for a bowl of lemon drops, or a silly bean salad recipe? Well, maybe someone.

Do unto others.

So when’s the last time you had three-bean salad? I found this recipe in my Grandma’s collection. I have to say, this is a mild salad—not bitey with vinegar—and the flavors of the beans come through nicely. I suggest interpreting the last “ingredient” as 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. black pepper. The “cans” are the usual 16-ounce size. And if, like me, you don’t “do” dried onion flakes, try a little minced shallot or onion.

Lena Rhue’s Bean Salad

1 can each of green, wax, and red kidney beans, drained.
1/2 green pepper cut fine
onion flakes
2/3 cup vinegar
1/3 cup salad oil
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt and pepper

Mix and let stand over nite stir occasionally.

Lena Rhue
May 1964


BonnieChasteen said...

Sweet story, Julie. I remember "old maid" acquaintances from my childhood and muse about their lives. I wish one of them had shared a recipe with me.

Julianna Schroeder said...

My grandma's recipe collection (which is, in part, stored in old cigar boxes) is a real trove; I'm convinced that such collections offer valuable clues about a lady's personality. Friendships, social circles, and (literally) tastes are all revealed. And the recipes that are the smudgiest, you know, are the ones that are the best.

Turns out I have a little more to say about Miss Rhue: Next post.

Thanks for commenting, Bonnie.