A History of the Burns Family
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Ebba's Memoir  

 

Author's Note

When she was 87 Ebba was interviewed by her great-nephew Daniel Vaughan. In response, she wrote many handwritten pages. Below is a sample of her clearest handwriting, which is why a typed transcript of his responses is included below.

 

Describe your early home.

I was born in a two-room cottage in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and lived there for over a year. My mother and father made this into a lovely place. Unfortunately, I was too young to appreciate the sheer beauty of my surroundings, but I was always aware of the love and warmth that surrounded me.  Behind the cottage was an old gnarled apple tree, and from my earliest days, my mother, after I had been bathed and dressed, would put me in a laundry basket and place me under the tree.  There, according to her, I would gurgle and croon as I tried to catch the sunbeams or moving leaf shadows.  There was a tall hedge of lilacs all around the cottage, and under the apple tree, there were lily of the valley, wild violets, and daffodils.  At the end of the yard was a thicket of wild crabapple, and it seemed to me that I was steeped in these fragrances and that they have lasted all this time.  I still love the fragrances of May.

Then we moved to a town nearby (I remember very little of this).  Then when I was about two or three, we moved back to Cuyahoga Falls into the ten-room house occupied by my grandparents Lorenzo Dow and Mary Rebecca Burns.  We lived with them until Bob was a toddler, when my family bought a house and garden about three blocks from Grandpa and Grandma’s house on Newberry Street.  This was a modest home, but warm with love and affections.  My father had a wonderful garden and chickens, and flowers, fruit, and vegetables were dispensed to all the neighbors.  It seemed to me that he was always working on the house to make it better.


Describe your family.

I was blessed with a very loving family.  My mother and father, so I am told, met for the first time at an April Fool’s costume dance.  Mother was dressed like “Topsy” with blackface and little pigtails, and Father as “Mrs. Katzenjammer.” I guess it was love at first sight, because my father pursued his “Ada” relentlessly until they were married the following month.  A handsome couple.  I was born one year later, May 9, 1905 in the little two-room cottage, and my brother Don two years later on November 17, 1907.  The next brother arrived, David, arrived on October 27th, when I was ten years old, and the last child Robert Milton, when I was 16 years old.  My mother was quite ill after the birth of this baby, and I took over quite seriously a mother’s role.  In addition to this nuclear family group, there were “significant others”: Grandfather Lorenzo Burns and Grandmother Mary Burns, as well as great-grandmother Maggie Haugh, who raised my grandfather when his father was killed in the Civil War at the Battle of Wilderness and the family was divided and adopted by other families.

How did other people judge your family?

My mother was a faithful churchwoman and superintendent of the primary Sunday school.  She saw that we were properly dressed and in our places with “sunshiny faces” each Sunday morning.  We did not indulge in grace at table after we went to live with my grandparents, but we never failed to say our prayers before getting into bed at night.  I don’t remember any quarrels or harsh words between my parents, although I think my mother would have liked my father to attend Sunday service rather than go fishing.  I believe the family was respected and well-liked by people.


How did the World Wars affect you?

World War I seemed far away.  I was a nine year old when it began, but I felt a wrenching foreboding.  My father was not directly involved.  He had a hearing loss and a large family dependent upon him, so there was no question of his going across the sea to fight.  For us, our war efforts were confined to rationing of food, knitting sweaters, mufflers, caps, and socks for the soldiers, and rolling bandages.  We felt very self-righteous in our white aprons and caps with red crosses on them.  The younger children dug deep trenches in the field across the street and played at fighting.  Near the armistice, my father and mother and Don and I became very ill with the “flu.” My father had hiccups which resounded throughout the house, and I thought he was dying. My grandmother took care of all of us, and I remember, when it was established that we would all live, the doctor asked if we would like something to eat.  I said, “Yes, a sausage, please.”

World War II was a terrible shock.  Both Don and Robert were called to service.  Bob was a junior in college and had dreams of becoming a doctor.  Don was married and had a little girl named Penny [note:  he was discharged in 1943, and Penny was born in 1945]. This was a black time for all of us.  Don was finally honorably discharged because of an asthmatic condition, but Bob was sent overseas and was involved in the Battle of the Bulge.  He was awarded a bronze and silver star for heroic rescue operations under fire.

The other wars, particularly the Korean and Vietnam wars, seemed remote and completely unnecessary.  None of our family was involved and we all drew a sigh of relief when they were over.


What were the Depression years like for you and your family?

From 1905 to the present, I have experienced several so-called depressions.  As a family, we took most of them in stride.  I never remember being really hungry.  Food, in times of short supply, was shared and enjoyed.  Actually, the “lean years,” it seemed to me, brought the family closer together, and we shared with those less fortunate.  We really were quite unaware there was a depression.  Then came the great depression of the ‘30s.  My father, who had put all his savings back into the company he worked for as treasurer, lost his job and the money he had set aside for retirement.  The family assets consisted of a poor farm, bought as a “good fishing place,” a run-down barn and farmhouse, our little house in Cuyahoga Falls and nothing else.  The liabilities were two children in college, an aged grandfather and grandmother, and two other children, one just out of high school [note: Dave did attend high school the first year they were at the farm], one in grammar school.  This [the crash] was in 1929. 

The family tried many things to keep going, but the farm was not very productive.  They sold chickens and eggs in Akron, Ohio, and set up a roadside stand to sell farm produce, but people had no money.  You could scarcely give away the melons.  Meanwhile, both my brother Don and I were finishing college.  I was awarded a scholarship to go to Columbia University in New York City, but decided forthwith to return it and get to work.  For two years, beginning in 1930, I worked at the hospital at Western Reserve University (Lakeside) for room and board and managed to find odd jobs (china painting was one of them), so I could squirrel away money for the family. Then the bank – a savings and loan where I had my money – failed and I lost it all.  The last check I had sent home was not cashed by the bank for lack of funds.

Shortly thereafter, my mother, father, and my brothers David and Robert, set out in an old truck outfitted for camping on the road, and went as far west as they could go: Seattle.  Seattle was in even worse shape than the towns in the Midwest, but the family stuck together and with the help of my brothers and the little bit of money Don and I were able to send, were able to establish a business.


What did most people think about the environment when you were young?

I’m afraid most people took the environment very much for granted when I was growing up.  On our weekend excursions in the canoe or walks in the woods, my parents carefully pointed out the need for human beings to care for animals and birds and plants.  I remember one time, when we were on the banks of the river, I began picking the May apples, hepatica, and arbutus for our May baskets, when my father reminded me of the fragility of these plants, which once picked would not flower again.  We saw the gradual dying of the chestnut trees from a disease of blight and sorrowed at the dying.  There was an especially beautiful place my father took me to see when he was seining for minnows on Sperry’s Brook – a fairy place with a miniature waterfall and mossy flower-spangled banks – and I asked if we could in some way insure that it would forever be undisturbed.  He made no rash promises but did say there was hope that people in the future would learn to cherish and protect such places.  He showed me how to collect fresh water clams and even now I have two little fresh water pearls he found for me.

In those days, most people were very callous about the environment.  In the early days, the river that ran through our town was pure and clean, so clean that water could be dipped from it and boiled for drinking when we were on camping trips.  But gradually the paper mills and steel mills at the mouth of the river became so choked with chemicals and tailings that the river literally caught fire.  I’m sure this was in part due to ignorance but also in larger part to greed.


Was there a lot of racism when you were young?

As I was growing up, I was quite unaware of racism.  I was born and spent my first years in Cuyahoga Falls, where my playmates and schoolmates were all pretty much like me.  There were in the whole town only two people of another ethnic group – Ling Kee, who owned and operated the Chinese laundry, and Unca George, a black man and custodian at one of the churches.  I was curious about them and their way of life, but I don’t remember any slurs or discussion about them.  Ling Kee washed, starched, and ironed my father’s stiff collars, which I often went with my father to pick up.

What was an important decision you had to make in your life?

A decision in which we were all involved was where we would go to school and what career we would choose.  Although we were by today’s standards what you would call poor, there was never any question about going to college.  Each family member worked to help the others make college a possibility.  My parents, I know, made great sacrifices, especially during the depression, to see that we were able to finish college.


Did you like sports when you were a kid?

I loved sports and still do.  When I was a child I did not participate in group sports, but we camped out in a tent every summer and went on canoe trips on the river.  Later, in college, I played field hockey and basketball and soccer, and learned how to play tennis and golf.  I had early learned to hike and swim and ice skate, and I became increasingly skilled in these.  I liked all these sports, especially those that were engaged in the out of doors.  My father and brothers loved fishing, and I often wished I could do this, but for some reason this was regarded as a strictly male activity, and so it was not until after I had finished preparation for my career that I got “into” fishing.


Describe some special memories of childhood.

Christmases was always special times and I have fond memories of all of them.  I remember the smell of snow-wet newspaper as we looked at the pictures of Christmas toys.  I remember the sled rides, and the walks in the woods looking for the special Christmas tree of Eastern hemlock, and the bonfires on the frozen banks of the skating pond, and of the one secret Christmas surprise that my father always provided.  I remember the Christmas dinner with all the cousins and Aunt May and Uncle Clyde, and Al, the pharmacist, who always brought a big box of chocolates.  I remember “climbing the golden stairway” to bed on Christmas Eve and all the mysterious noises going on downstairs.  I remember waking in the cold dawn and being hustled downstairs to dress behind the glowing “Round Oak,” and the agony of suspense until everyone was ready and had eaten their breakfast.  Then on to the stockings – each with an orange and a small home-made gift in the toe, and striped candies and other gifts to the top.  What wonderful memories these are.

I remember penny ice-cream cones and the trips to the store with grandma.  At Mr. Roethig’s I was given a wiener.  At Hall’s grocery store, I got a bag of striped candy when grandma paid her bill.  I remember the milkman, Mr. Graham, with his fat horse.  In winter there were always bells on the harness, and he allowed us to hang onto the back of the milk wagon and be pulled on our sleds.  I remember “Daddy” Brown, who looked to me like a retired sea captain.  He always carried pink and white peppermint drops which he doled out liberally to all the children.

I remember [neighbor] Hazel Murray, with her big booming laughter, which was shared with everyone until she lost her baby, and then she laughed no more.

These are the flotsam and jetsam of Long Ago and Far Away.