Harriet Mae Briner Martin
May 16, 1893 Loysville, PA - May 23, 1987, Harrisburg, PA
What does an eighty-year-old woman talk about when asked to give a history of her life? I turned on the tape recorder. My maternal grandmother began at the beginning: “I was born … ” but after stating her birthplace and naming her siblings, she launched into a stream-of-consciousness recounting. I was fascinated by the level of detail she remembered from decades past.
Nana would veer off, sometimes mid-sentence, because she was reminded of an event that was tangentially related to someone or something she was talking about. She intermixed anecdotes, not only years apart—earlier and later but seemed incongruous to me—comical and tragic, that tumbled together to form her life. Regardless of the number of detours, Nana always returned to move her story forward.
I transcribed the audiotape word-for-word. Then I had to assemble bits with pieces that belonged together. I tried to maintain her experience of life by avoiding a rigid chronology, relying on major life events as an organizing structure. Neither did I edit many grammatical errors nor strip away her unique central Pennsylvania voice.
Here’s a part of Nana’s life story in her own words, as told to me, her adult granddaughter.
When Irvin and I were going together, he'd take me out every Sunday to his home. The whole gang of Martin’s was there, and we'd sing and play the piano. I could play the piano then too. He asked his father, "Would you mind if I married Harriet?”
He said, "No Irvin I wouldn't. I like her an awful lot. She's the type of woman if you want to talk sense, you talk sense, if you want to act the fool, tell stories, have a good time, she can be that way.” They used to say they liked me as much as they liked their own children.
I had just finished my training [to become a milliner]. Aunt Maggie wanted me to come home to Loysville, but I didn't want to because there was nothing to do up there, no dances, no nothing. Where we were in Harrisburg you could go to dances a couple times a week. It was only fifteen cents then. And Irvin was such a good dancer. When you are in love you don't think ahead, so instead of going back up home, we got married.
Of course I gave up my trade. When you got married in those days, you didn't think of working like girls do now. I was nineteen years old when I came to Harrisburg, and now I was twenty-one. You know how you are when you're young. I wanted to get married and he wanted to get married.
Oh, I guess the reason I did get married then was that Aunt Maggie had said that in December I had to come up home and stay until the next season started. I didn't want to do that because I guess I was in love.
We went up to the parsonage to get married on December 9, 1914.
I belonged to the Reformed Church up on McClay Street. We didn't have a wedding, we just went up there, and Irvin's sister, Annie, and her husband stood for us. Then we went out to their house [Irvin’s parents, Emma & Joseph Martin].
First I lived with his people for three months on Ellerslie Street. I couldn't have had a nicer mother- and father-in-law, don't matter who I would have married. Then Aunt Maggie bought me a house for a wedding present. It was two doors away from the Martins.
Grandma Briner [her paternal grandmother] had willed me enough money to furnish the house and I had beautiful furniture, all for a thousand dollars. We lived there eleven years. There were good times. Over Christmas I worked at Pomeroy's in the toy department.
After we first were married we belonged to the Reformed Church. Then Harry Mullner, my boss at Pomeroy's, said why don't we come to the Methodist Church at twenty-first and Derry Streets because we could walk and save bus fare. I talked it over with Irvin and we joined out there. He taught a class of boys and I taught a class of girls.
We had a big basement on Ellerslie Street, and we use to have them down, even the preacher was there. We used to play games. We would fill a big tub full of cold water and then blindfold them and tell them we would put them in the tub. They'd fight, they wouldn't want to sit down. But we'd just put them down in a tub of no water. We would have the best time.
Once we were sitting all in a ring and holding hands. Irvin was at one side and the preacher at the other. One of them would whisper something and then they would pass it to me by squeezing hands according to the alphabet. I would say the word and the kids wouldn't know how I would be able to say it. Oh, just good times.
Irvin built a candy store in the backyard. We sold candy wholesale. He would go out in his truck to sell.
A whole gang of us would get in the truck and go over between the bridges at the [Susquehanna] river to swim. We’d take ham and fried potatoes and things to eat with us, and we would have the best time.
Then in the summertime we would rent a ninety-foot tent and put stakes in the ground, tie rope around, and put mattresses in. One night we were sleeping, and in the middle of the night your mother got awake. Your aunt Doris wasn't born yet. It was pouring rain, and we had Marg in the back of the truck on blankets and quilts. We got awake because she was crying, but then she passed wind and went to sleep.
John got up and said, "I want a cup of coffee, I need pep in my motor," and the rest of us were joking and saying stuff like that. We used to have the best times.
Irvin and I wanted to get out of town. We found out about this house in Perdix [twelve miles northwest of Harrisburg] when we were up in Marysville one evening playing cards. Mr. Aldinger told us about the house.
There was an old lady and her daughter that had lived there before. The mother had died and the girl just moved out, took what she wanted and left the rest of the stuff there. The table was set, the dried coffee in the cup and peaches in a dish, dried up.
So we sold our home in Harrisburg on Ellerslie Street and bought it. Doris was, I think, about two years old and your mother was five when we moved.
We loved it up there, it was on a mountain.
The children would go up over the mountain to play.
We were crazy about it.
It was beautiful up there.
The children went to school in Marysville. Well, your mother started first. A man living handy to us used to take them down when he went to work. They didn't have school buses then.
We stayed up there five years and loved it. We had good times there.
Then Irvin got out of work.