Excerpt from Nettles and Roses: A Mother Remembered. (Elocution hand positions pictured.)
Before church service each Sabbath, the head elder, Brother Lane, gave announcements, and one Sabbath he announced that the church had a piano to give away. Before heading home, Mama told Brother Lane that she wanted the piano for her children. He didn’t immediately reply. Instead, he crossed his arms and said, “I’ll have to speak with the church board.”
The following Sabbath, Mama asked Brother Lane about the piano.
“Well,” he replied, “it was the consensus of the board to give it to the Martin family.”
“Why?” Mama questioned. “I know I was the first to ask.”
Brother Lane cleared his throat before explaining, “Well, the board knows that your family has a hard time financially, and paying for piano lessons would be a burden. Remember, your children’s tuition is sponsor-paid. The board felt the Martins would be able to make better use of it.”
Mama straightened her shoulders, lifted her head, and replied, “I understand.”
As she turned to walk away, Sister Swan stopped her. Sister Swan liked Mama. She liked how Mama contributed to the Bible study sessions before the church service each Sabbath. Mrs. Swan was also a member of the board.
“Ruth,” Sister Swan said, “I’m sorry the board didn’t give you the piano.”
Mama looked at her and quietly nodded. “I wanted it for the children.” “I understand,” Sister Swan replied. “I would like to make an offer. I will give your children free elocution lessons if you bring them to my house.”
Sister Swan was an elocutionist. People who wanted to improve their public speaking ability, theatre students, and individuals with speech impediments went to her for instruction.
“It’s not the same as piano lessons, I know, but it will help develop speaking skills and poise,” Sister Swan encouraged.
“That’s wonderfully kind of you,” Mama replied. “When should I bring them to your home?”
And so it was that three children wearing faded clothes and scuffed shoes found themselves sitting on carved mahogany chairs in an elegant living room.
Sister Swan was tall and slender. She smiled occasionally but was quite serious.
“Children,” she addressed Steve, Ted, and me, “do you know why you are here?”
Steve and Ted were quiet, but I said, “Because we didn’t get the church piano.”
“That’s partly true,” she said. “But there is another reason.”
“To teach us to speak properly,” Steve answered.
“Properly. Good word. And you’re right.” Sister Swan nodded. “You will be coming to my home five times,” she continued. “And I’m going to give you something that you will be able to keep forever. I will give you the ability to speak with poise and confidence. Let’s get started.
“I want each of you to stand, one at a time, and tell me your name and where you live. I also want you to tell me something that you enjoy doing. And when you are talking to me, I want you to look in my eyes,” she said and then added, “Take time to think about what you are going to say.”
Steve spoke first, “I’m Steve Towne.”
“Let me stop you there,” Mrs. Swan said. “I want you to say, ‘I am Steve Towne.’ Do not use a contraction. Be very precise. Start again.”
And so, my brothers’ and my elocution lessons began. Before leaving our first lesson, we were each given a short poem or Bible text to memorize and prepare to recite the following week. Because I had a sh lisp problem, I was given a tongue twister that contained the sh sound:
Sally sells seashells by the seashore
She sells seashells on the seashore.
The seashells she sells are seashore shells,
Of that I am sure.
“Ruth,” Mrs. Swan said to Mama, “you can help them at home. Your enunciation is excellent, and you have a beautiful accent.”
“Oh, I will,” Mama agreed. “And as for my accent, I think it’s a blend of Swedish and English. My grandmother spoke Swedish often when I was growing up.”
The following week, when it came time for me to recite, Sister Swan directed, “Now when you recite your piece, before you begin, I want you to stand quietly for several seconds, make certain that your breathing is steady, look at your audience, not just at one person, and when you say seashore, I want you to sweep your hand outward as though you are showing your audience the seashore.” When explaining this, Sister Swan demonstrated by gracefully sweeping her hand outward and gently turning her palm up.
I remember standing, walking shyly to the center of the room, and looking down before turning to look at my brothers, Mama, and Sister Swan.
Sister Swan immediately stood and walked to me while saying, “Hold your head high. Keep your chin level with the floor. Straighten your back.” She cupped my chin in her hand and pressed gently against my back. “Now, return to your seat and start over.”
I did as she as she directed and then began to recite, “Shally shells shesells by the shesore.” I stopped with a look of horror on my face. “I did it right at home,” I lamented. “Didn’t I, Mama?”
“I’m certain you did,” Sister Swan consoled. “And you can do it here. Just take your time. One line at a time. Think about the words. Pause to swallow. You have too much saliva in your mouth.”
Several years after Sister Swan’s articulation lessons, my fourth-grade teacher gave me a poem to memorize and recite for the Thanksgiving program. The poem, When the Frost is on the Pumpkin, by James Witcomb Riley, was filled with colloquial expressions and was lengthy, twenty-four lines.
When I handed Mama a copy of the poem, she said, “Apparently Mr. Hindel believes you can do it. So do I, but when you recite it, you’re going to use proper English, not slang phrases. We aren’t hillbillies and I don’t want you sounding like one.”
Riley used words like punkin’ instead of pumpkin, cluckin’ instead of clucking, a-feelin’ instead of feeling, risin’instead of rising, feller instead of fellow. Mama scratched over the colloquially spelled words and rewrote them properly.
When Mr. Hindel asked me to recite the poem to check my memorization progress, hecommented, “You aren’t reciting it the way the author wrote it.”
“I know,” I replied. “Mama said that we aren’t hillbillies, and she doesn’t want me sounding like one.”
At first Mr. Hindel just looked at me. Then he said, “Okay.”
The evening of my recitation, Mama sat in the front row with Papa. “If you forget a line, I’ll prompt you,” she promised. Then she added, “Don’t rush. Pause between sentences. Look at the audience, not just at Papa and me. Remember what Sister Swan taught you.”
I remember reciting the entire poem with confidence and precise enunciation.
When the frost is on the pumpkin and the fodder is in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the
strutting turkey cock,
And the clacking of the guineas, and the clucking
of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
Oh, then is the time a fellow is feeling at his best . . ..
I finished reciting the poem without making an error. I remember Mama nodding her head in cadence to the rhyme and smiling. Sister Swan gifted my brothers and me a desire and ability to speak with poise and confidence. But she didn’t do it alone—Mama reinforced Mrs. Swan’s lessons.