A day in the life of Helen Murphy Weber…

Without the electronics of this modern day, I know my Great Great Grandmother’s life was consumed to the upmost of her abilities in keeping a tidy and organized home on the eastern frontier of California; where the tulle reeds rose out of the rivers, and the fertile lands of the San Joaquin Valley surrounded her family as she raised three children, Charles II, Julia and Tom, all the while she kept after Captain Weber, reminding him of various events and business to attend to. I know from oral history that her interests were vast, as she was well versed in the Classics, having learned as a child to read and write by candlelight to her parents, Martin Murphy Sr. and Mary Foley Murphy in Frampton, Quebec. She continued her studies which also consisted of how to run a household back in the days of oil lamps, cooking on a cast iron stove using wood as the heating element, and she learned how to farm wheat and corn in soil that was difficult due to soil erosion. She kept cows, harnessed the horses and the mules, which eventually came to good use when the family left Quebec in 1842, bound for more fertile lands where they first settled in Irish Grove, near Counsel Bluffs in Missouri.

It was in Missouri at the age of twenty-two, unfortunately, that she lost her mother to malaria, and so they began their journey that year in 1844, across the continent to California. Her continued love for the poets and essayists of the Romantic period (1820-1860) must have been her salve to turn to after the loss of her mother. Her extensive love for books continued through her lifetime, as Captain Weber acquired volumes to amuse his pretty wife, whose dark brown eyes, silky dark hair framed her angelic face, (which was described by some as white as an angel’s wings). These books provide the evidence of an enriched life, and from the memory of what I saw on the shelves at the Ranch on West Lane in Stockton, complete with her signature on inside the front covers of several well known authors: Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Keats, William Cullen Bryant, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, just to name a few. I can only surmise that she was captivated in heart by these works, and her soul was nourished by these writers words who echoed her own thoughts during a particularly tough time in the settlement of early California and the pursuant growth of Stockton during the gold rush and beyond. She also was fervently religious, a devout Catholic, who maintained a love for her prayer books that she consulted daily. She kept small holy cards, and cutouts of animals, figures, and feathers, as well as pressed plants to mark certain passages, verses that gave her solace, and some were of rejoicing nature. I saw one small bible published in French, and some of these were small palm size books that were published in English, which confirm that she was an avid conversant in mastering many languages, including English and Spanish.

Another most interesting fact is that Helen Weber was an accomplished writer of poetry in her own right. She wrote quips here and there, some describing places she had been, and others were romantic passages of love to Charles, and to her children. Sometimes these little quips of her thoughts were made into exquisite Valentine cards that were pin-pricked and punched-out designs to each of her children. (I did an exhibit of these at the Museum just a few years back).

And, so while we are on the run to the grocery store to buy our produce, meats and condiments, I always thought that there was only one flavor of catsup! In Mrs. Weber’s time there was a plethora of catsup recipes. In a small pamphlet, published by Dr. J. C. Ayer & Co, (sans date) is an excellent, well-cherished booklet that specifies on page one, the difference between canning and preserving. “Preserving means that cooking of fruits in an equal weight of sugar and long enough for the fruit to keep without being air-tight, while canning may be done with little or no sugar and with just enough cooking to thoroughly heat the fruit but the air must be excluded.” The entire booklet is devoted quips of remedies using Sarsaparilla cures for general debility, and also there are several varieties of cold catsup, currant catsup, grape catsup, tomato catsup, and walnut catsup. There is also a description of how to can or preserve fruits, berries, pickles, chutney, pickled melons, and finally a paragraph on how to seal the bottles with wax.

Evenings, if not attending events and socials, as evidenced from oral history, I discovered in a cache of notes, that was handed to me by my mother Moira Holden, of certain memorabilia, consisting of miniature cross-stitch scenes and geometric designs, tiny tatting floweret’s, crocheted doilies, sleeves, handkerchiefs, neck pieces, and quilting squares, a marvelous collection, all of which I am sure were created in the old adobe on Weber’s Point, and later in the living room of Aunt Julia’s house, (which was moved to Helen’s Oaks, on West Lane, and then subsequently to Mickey’s Grove).

At days end, before folding up and heading off to sleep, I can honestly say that her life was well-lived, well-attended, and she possessed a very rich caveat of knowledge that is lost to us today, as we no longer know how to create tatted doilies, and lace sleeves and neckpieces. Yes, some of us do ‘put-up’ preserves and some are quite talented at cooking, thanks to modern technology, but –how many of us can say they have cooked on a wood-burning stove? I learned how to cook on one in a barn that I was living in when I moved to New York in 1989. It is tricky to keep the heat going, (especially when the hand-chopped logs are cold due to the outside temperature), put things off to the side to stay warm, and then the most important thing to remember was to put wood into the stove before bed, so the fire won’t go out, and of course that was the heat that I had to keep warm in a drafty old two hundred year old sheep barn, (but that is another story). I can honestly say she was the epitome of a well-loved lady who kept a home and family together while the most amazing history of Stockton and California unfolded at her feet as she lived her life honestly and genuinely within one of the most powerful pioneer families of the old west.

Copyright 2010 Helen W. Holden-Gladsky

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About holdenswhimsicals.com

Writing little snipits on notecards, doing little watercolors were always things I would do to stay in touch with friends and family. Today those little snipits are woven into the stories and they have also become the illustrations in my children's books: Elephoot, Elephoot Returns and Penelope - The Tea Mouse. I am currently working on my next book.
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