Among the old family photographs in the vintage suitcase was a letter from my grandmother, Alice Steckley Sider, who lived in Ontario, Canada, to her sister Ella in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I never knew my grandmother, from whom I got my middle name, because she passed away during a flu epidemic in 1920, just three days after giving birth to her fifth child who died the same day she was born. My dad was only eight years old when his mother died. The letter is dated February 18, 1919, a little more than a year before she died on February 29, 1920, exactly two months shy of her 32nd birthday.
When my father left home in 1930 and came to Pennsylvania, he lived in Carlisle in the home of another of his mother’s sisters who was married to Ella’s husband’s brother. He worked on the Lehman farm until he began attending Messiah Academy to finish high school. I remember my great Aunt Ella. Because Carlisle is not far from where we lived in Grantham and because of my father’s connection to the Lehmans from those years of working on their farm, we visited periodically. And today, one of my dearest friends is Aunt Ella’s granddaughter and my second cousin, Wanda Lehman Heise.
Also in the suitcase was a photo of my grandmother and Ella. It’s one of very few I have seen of Alice. She was the fourth of 14 children; Ella was the third oldest, born in 1887, and Alice was born the next year in 1888. They had two older brothers and two more brothers immediately after them, so they likely were close as the first girls in the family and because they were only about a year apart. Perhaps that explains the photograph of just the two of them.
I have no idea how this particular letter ended up in my parents’ possession. Perhaps Aunt Ella gave it to my dad on one of his visits, knowing that he would value something tangible from the mother he lost when he was so young. For me it is a small window into the life of someone I obviously never knew but wish I had. Like her husband and my grandfather in his letters in later years to my father, Alice writes a lot about special evangelistic meetings at church and about her desire to be faithful to the message being preached by various ministers well-known throughout the Brethren in Christ Church at the time. Maddeningly for me almost 100 years later, she doesn’t write much about family life, although my dad is singled out for his scholastic achievements, which doesn’t surprise me because he always did well academically. I just wish she had said more!
Here’s the letter, slightly annotated [in bracketed italics] and edited to make it easier to read. Originally, it was one long paragraph. I retained most of the non-standard grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
Marshville, Ont., Feb. 18th, 1919
Dear Sister Ella,
Your kind letter came to hand a couple of weeks ago, also read a letter from Mary [next younger sister, born in 1892, also living in Carlisle] last Monday so thot I would answer your letter now, and then I will write to Mary later perhaps when the meetings are over as it is hard to get at writing while the revival is on.
Well, our Bible Con[ference] is now in the past, but not forgotten. We surely had a refreshing time from the presence of the Lord. He gave us such beautiful weather and good roads for the three days and we had a lot of visitors. There was a lot up from Bertie [another Brethren in Christ Church some miles away] every day. A number of them came up with their cars, and they would go back and forth, some of them every day. Bro. Shoals came home and Bro. Ed Engle with him. My, he is a lively little man and full of the Holy Spirit and fire, and Bro. J. N. Hoover was here too. He had been holding meetings at Pelham for two weeks or more previous to the Bible Con, so he consented to stay and take in the Conference. Tommy Doner couldn’t be here to talk on his subject so they got J. N. Hoover to take his place. We had a glorious time together. It was time well spent and we felt richly paid for all our trouble. The altar was full of seekers on Monday night before the Bible Con. I wasn’t there but I thot something must have happened because Jesse [her husband, my grandfather] didn’t get home till 12 o’clock. Father and Mother came home with him. Jesse went to Fenwick on Monday P.M. after them. They brot Rhoda and Mary Brillinger [cousins] along with them.
Tuesday was our day to take lunch to the church, so I was glad to have Mother here to help me on Tuesday morning. They had it divided into three parts. There was 27 families to provide lunch for the Con. so that made 9 families for each day. Each family was to take 45 sandwiches either salmon meat or cheese and 35 cookies, 1 large loaf cake, 4 pies and 1 qt of pickles, but a number of us took more sandwiches than that. We was afraid there wold ‘t [wouldn’t] be enough. We had company every evening for supper and every night over night. I didn’t go nights while the Con was going on, as it was too much for the children to be there all day and at night too. My if we could only remember all the good things we heard. I guess there will be an account of it in the Visitor [Brethren in Christ periodical] after while. The Spirit of the Lord is working among the people. I think there has been seekers at the altar every night except two nights since last Monday. Bro. Shoals and Bro. Engle left again last evening for Ohio and Bro. J. N. Hoover left last Friday night on the midnight train from Welland for Merrill, Mich.
We had quite a snowfall yesterday and last night but hardly enough for good sleighing. It is thawing [or snowing, word is not clear] again today.
[shifting abruptly from the snowstorm back to the revival meetings] A number of the members have been digging thro[ugh] and got into the liberty but there are still a number who are all bound up and have no testimony. My prayer is that every one of them may get to realize their condition and plunge into the fountain and be made whole. I’m so glad that I ever went thro[ugh] with God until the fire fell on my soul. [This language about plunging into the fountain and fire falling on one’s soul was typical of the revivalist/holiness movements of the time.] It is so precious to know that we are right with God and that we are just filling the place he would have us fill.
I hope you are having good meetings in Carlisle. Norman Wingers were up to the Con. on Thursday. You know she was Margaret Shoffner, one of the orphanage girls. My, they have a fat baby. They call him Murray, and she is getting so stout herself. Well it is nice that you can leave your baby with Grandma when you go away. It isn’t so tiresome for you. My baby is so afraid of everybody [probably a reference to her youngest child Elmer, about 14 months old at the time). If any stranger takes him he will just cry as hard as he can. I wish he wasn’t so afraid. Lewis [my dad, her oldest child, who was then seven years old] likes going to school. He is learning fast. The teacher talks about putting him in the 1st book. You know they have different books than they had when we went to school. They have the Primer first and then the 1st book comes next. He can read pretty good already.
Next time you write, let me know what the Roseoline [some kind of medication, ointment?] cost you – that is the charges and all – and I will send you the money. It was nice for you and Abram’s [Lehman, Mary’s husband] to take in the Philadelphia L. F. [can’t read the initials for sure and don’t know what she’s referring to]. I suppose Mary enjoyed it. Well I must close and get to work.
Lovingly your sister Alice and family