In Memory of My Grandmother And The Wallpaper She Loved

I guess you could say that wallpaper has always been a part of my life when you consider I have been a part of a family wallpaper business since I was 20 years old. The third generation now carries on a tradition that has served Lynchburg, Virginia and the surrounding areas for almost fifty years. Through the years I have seen wallpapers change in materials, techniques, styles, patterns and colors. I still find it exciting, after all, who could be bored with the array of patterns, colors and trends. I thought it might be interesting to share with you my earliest memories of wallpaper.
One of my childhood memories is of the bathroom in our home in Roanoke, Virginia. There were aqua tiles capped off with a black border and the walls were covered in wallpaper with pairs of swans and lilly pads floating around the room. I always liked that wallpaper, perhaps because it had two of my favorite things, birds and water.
Every summer I would look forward to spending a week with my grandmother, Ruby Myers, who lived in Radford, Virginia. To this day, the time I spent with my grandmother brings warm memories to mind. My grandmother was always a very active person, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, ironing, cooking, working in the yard and in the garden. After dinner we would play croquet or go fishing on the New River, where a cool breeze drifted around and helped to lift the heat of the day. Sometimes we would visit friends and relatives. Best of all, every night, before going to bed, Grandmother would give me the sweetest bowl of vanilla ice cream I have ever tasted, along with a drizzle of Hershey Chocolate Syrup and two vanilla wafers. To this day, just thinking about it makes me drool!
On one of my visits Grandmother announced that the next day we would be hanging new wallpaper in her bedroom. She went to the pantry and pulled out a box of wallpaper. With a great flurry, she opened a roll to reveal the pattern she had selected. It was sweet with flowers, birds and butterflies. She also had a small border to place around the ceiling of a Chinese Fret.
I awoke early the next morning to the smell of bacon frying and bubbling coffee. Grandmother’s everyday attire always consisted of a cotton print dress with a bib apron tied around her waist. Can you imagine my shock when I entered the kitchen to find her in a pair of bib overalls with the legs rolled up to her knees! As Grandmother poured me a glass of ice-cold milk she encouraged me to hurry up and eat so we could get busy. She wanted to get the wallpaper hung before the heat of the day filled the house.
I had no sooner taken the last bite of my toast when Grandmother whisk away my plate and glass, washed them and placed them on the drain board. She then wiped and dried the kitchen table since this was to become her pasting board. On the counter she had gathered all the supplies she would need to complete the task. No store-bought paste for my grandmother, no, she would mix together flour and water to make the paste she would need. She had a large, ancient pair of scissors, a paint brush, a hammer, a dangerous looking razor blade that I belive she had borrowed from my Grandaddy’s razor, various rags and towels, a collapsible ruler, a horsehair smoothing brush and a long string with a nail tied to one end and one of Grandaddy’s fishing weights to the other. Her ladder was so old and rickety it made me nervous. I could just imagine the thing collapsing into a heap with Grandmother on top.
One of my jobs was to stir the flour as she poured it into a bucket of water. When Grandmother was satisfied with the creamy consistency of the paste she turned her attention to gathering her tools. Being a curious child I couldn’t resist dipping my finger into the concoction for a taste. Needless to say, I’m sure you can imagine my expression as I rushed to the sink to wash my mouth out with water. Grandmother chuckled under her breath. I helped Grandmother push all the furniture to the center of the room and then we covered everything with sheets and quilts. To protect the floors we spread canvas cloths around the room. Now we were ready to begin.
The ladder moaned and swayed to and fro as Grandmother climbed to the top. Then she hammered the nail with the string attached, at the top of the wall, next to the ceiling. The fishing weight swung from side to side so she asked me to hold the string to stop it from swinging. Grandmother explained this would now become our plume line and she would use this as a guide to keep the wallpaper straight as she hung each strip. I placed the roll of wallpaper on the floor and gingerly pulled it up towards my grandmother’s waiting hands as she balanced herself on the rickety ladder. She then pulled the paper all the way to the ceiling and instructed me to take the scissors and cut the paper off next to the floor. As I followed her into the kitchen, Grandmother rolled the wallpaper backwards into a neat roll, then she placed it on the table and it unrolled hanging off both ends of the table. She adjusted the paper and began to spread the paste with the paint brush. When she reached the halfway point she folded the paper paste to paste and then proceeded to paste the rest of the paper and fold it paste to paste also. She said this would help as she hung the paper to keep from sticking to the wall until she was ready to smooth it down. This was to become our technique for cutting and pasting each piece as needed.
Being an excellent seamstress, Grandmother matched the pattern with precision as she worked her way around the room. She would smooth each piece with the horsehair brush, cut the paper neatly at the ceiling and then again at the baseboard. She then took a damp rag and wiped off any excess paste. Before I knew it, every wall was covered with birds , butterflies and flowers. We now had the challenge of putting up the border. Since Grandmother only had the one ladder and she definitely needed an extra pair of hands, she volunteered me to stand on top of various pieces of furniture while we worked our way around the room. I would hold the border in place until she would move the ladder and smooth down the border with a damp cloth. By late afternoon the room was finished. Grandmother and I beamed with pride.
Grandmother Myers lived to be 104. In the end it was her body that gave out but not her mind. Every time I would visit we would share stories from my childhood and talk about the time we became paper hangers. In honor of my grandmother I decided to feature some current wallpapers with birds, flowers or butterflies in the pattern. I’m sure they would put a smile on Grandmothers face.

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