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“My Mother’s Hands: A biography of Ada Elizabeth Pillsbury Jenkins” 
by Florence Jenkins Muse
reviewed by Emily Pritchard Cary.

     Florence Muse’s homage to her mother, Ada Pillsbury Jenkins, recalls an era when family survival depended upon a mother’s faith in God and her ingenuity to make do with the gifts that nature provided.
Ada Pillsbury was born into a waterman’s family where limited finances and multiple hardships compelled her to master basic household crafts early in life. Deprived of formal education, she learned to clean, polish, cook, and sew so capably that she entered domestic service at the age of eleven. After she married Warren Jenkins and her own family began to arrive, her busy, worshipful hands taught them how to live by example.

     The shopping malls that today peddle prepared meals, ready made clothes, and electric appliances were unknown to the residents of Coles Point, Virginia during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Ada’s household could not have functioned without her constant labor and creativity to fulfill the family needs. Each accomplishment was the fruit of her hands.

     Her marriage began in a former chicken house made livable by her hands. The centerpiece was a lyre-backed chair purchased for fifty cents. Today that same chair fills the heart of her daughter Florence with the music of memories.

     Ada scrubbed the dirty clothes worn by her husband and ten children on a washboard in a tub of Oxygen soap and water hauled from a spring. Her hands raised baby chickens to provide eggs and Sunday dinners, planted vegetable and herb gardens, canned fruit and berries, dried apples, salted fish, made jelly, stored potatoes for the winter, and salvaged table scraps to feed the stock and pets. She made lard from the two hogs her husband slaughtered annually by boiling the fat in a kettle. Then she cured the hams and shoulders, pickled the feet, and made gelatin from the heads. 

     Once winter set in and the larders were full, she found time to treat her family with ice cream from fresh snow. But when icy winds brought sickness, her hands made mustard plasters, cold pills from quinine and flour, and herb tea with ginger, lemon, and honey. Because childhood illnesses know no season, Ada’s hands doctored throughout the year making milk and bread poultices for boils and bandages from old sheeting. She burned the tips of needles to kill germs before removing splinters and briars, and applied hot water bottles to earaches.
Ada’s sewing basket was both necessity and pleasure. When her hands were not mending, altering and making clothes for the family, they made bedding, crocheted old stockings into rugs, sewed canvas sails for her sons’ sailboats, designed necklaces from buttons, or stuffed pillows with fabric scraps. A master at recycling, she impressed upon her children the wisdom of “waste not, want not,” a philosophy that gains momentum among ecology-minded citizens.

     No matter the demands upon her day, Ada set aside time in early morning and late evening to read her Bible and gather strength for the day ahead. Once the Sunday dinner was on the stove, she walked to church armed with lesson plans for her Sunday School class.

     The moral and household lessons Ada Pillsbury Jenkins taught by word and deed have impacted upon her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. As Florence Muse observes, her mother’s life, like a pebble thrown into the pond behind the “Homeplace,” ripples outward and onward from one generation to another.

© 2004 Emily Pritchard Cary. All Rights Reserved. Contact Emily Cary at ecary@chesapeakestyle.com

 


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