Community and Family Elders

late july 2009 006Dear Reader:

I’ve been thinking about my grandparents lately.

My grandparents were farmers. They were other things–journalist, mechanic, painter, carpenter, photographer, County Commissioner, Mason, Granger–but they were farmers, too. My grandmother’s parents had a farm, sold vegetables. My grandfather worked one summer for her father, and that’s how they met and began dating. (I want to use the word “courting,” but it seems too precious and silly.) I recently read in one of my grandmother’s diaries that when he asked her to marry him, she made him wait for an answer. I wouldn’t have guessed that. I wouldn’t have guessed she kept a diary, either. She never mentioned them, and they only turned up after her death. They’d been hidden in her vast accumulation of stuff for, wow, over sixty years. She’d probably be mortified to know I read them. (Note to self: burn old diaries.)

Even though they moved on to other careers, my grandparents continued to cultivate an extensive vegetable and fruit garden on the floodplain of Temple Stream which ran beside their house. In the summer, my parents would load my sister and me and the dog into the car, and off we’d go to Farmington to pick Bampy’s strawberries in the front garden. The next month we’d scratch up our arms collecting the heavy, red globes of raspberries from the patch out back by the old shed. Come August, we’d drive up for a corn feed–eating ear after ear of fresh, sweet corn just picked and quickly boiled and slathered with butter. Corn has never tasted so good since.

In the fall, my grandmother put-up jar after jar of vegetables, some of which went to the Grange exhibit at the Farmington Fair. She did this canning in between stints at the typewriter–later, the computer–writing up that day’s news articles for the Lewiston Sun or the Frankling Journal newspapers. She made jellies and jams, too. My grandfather did the planting and hoeing and weeding.

Lettuce was big at their house. We’d eat it sprinkled with apple cider vinegar and sugar. Beet greens were boiled for a long time and served in bowls with butter, vinegar, salt and pepper. There were green beans and wax beans and broccoli sometimes. Cucumbers for eating and for pickling. In the fall, squash. One year, I remember them putting up a barrel of sauerkraut, but I don’t remember the sourish stuff being served much. When did they eat it? I wish they were still here so I could ask.

My grandparents lived through the Great Depression and knew how to make-do. Nothing was thrown away.

Nanny’s mother used to sell butter in town. My mother recently unearthed a wooden cheese-maker (with an ancient box of rennet included) in the varied and voluminous pile of Nanny’s “stuff.” My grandmother knew how to make homemade cottage cheese. One year when she was getting on in age, my mother and I went to her house and cleaned the kitchen. I turned up my nose at a carton of milk left out on the counter and dumped the lumpy, sour mess down the drain. Awhile later my grandmother asked, “Where is my cottage cheese?” She’d been starting the lacto-fermentation process in that milk carton. I felt bad about it. Now I feel irritated that I didn’t ask her to teach me what she knew about curdling milk into cheese.

I’m struck by the disconnect. Sometime between my great-grandparents’ time and my own, we lost the knowledge, the ability to produce things for ourselves. It’s been a gradual loss of knowledge, but if I had to put my finger on when everything shifted, I’d guess it was with the advent of the car and the discovery of oil. Tractors changed farming. Oil-derived fertilizer changed farming. Almost overnight, it seems, the small family farm no longer made sense.

My grandparents left the farm for jobs in town. My grandmother worked as a telephone operator. My grandfather got a job with the John Deere retailer. Even with three children to rear, my grandmother started and maintained a journalism career that spanned fifty years. My grandfather became a County Commissioner. They both were active in various fraternal organizations, rising in rank to the top posts. They were members of the Baptist church. They grew a garden. My grandfather did great carpentry work. My grandmother knitted and crocheted and tatted. But these activities were hobbies, not necessities. The world had moved on.

Their children, my mother and aunt and uncle grew up in the fifties. They grew up with big cars and black and white television. The big war was over, the space race was on, and the country enjoyed a wonderful period of plenty. Some craftmanship was still practiced, though. Take sewing, for example. My mother went to college to be a home-economics teacher. Growing up, I wore clothes she cut and sewed up for me. I loved the bag of scrap cloth and tried to make clothes for my Barbie dolls. She taught me to sew. She taught me to cook, too. My parents always had a garden, canned and froze vegetables, and picked berries for jams. There is nothing better than the June smell of strawberry jam boiling and bubbling in a large pot on the stove.

But in our family, neither of the two generations preceding mine kept chickens or goats or milk cows or horses. Some families did. We’d go to the Farmington fair every fall and watch the teams of horses pulling concrete blocks through the dirt. We’d watch some of the 4-H goat, pig, and cattle shows. Some kids my age were practicing their animal husbandry skills.

The knowledge hasn’t been lost. Not completely. Not here in Maine. Not yet.

Recently, my friend Sandy let me borrow a few FOXFIRE books she’d picked up at the library book sale. These books are compilations of articles written for a magazine of the same name founded in the 60’s, the brainchild of a teacher in Appalachia who was desperate for some way to engage his English students. They students interviewed community and family elders about the culture, traditional crafts, life skills, and stories from the region and then wrote them up into articles to be published in the magazine. Here is a link if you want to explore this further.

I was fascinated by the articles, the instructions (sometimes detailed, sometimes scarily vague) for making soap or medicine or wooden shingles for siding a house, but it got me thinking: who in MY community knows the old crafts and skills necessary for living in a lower-energy world, the world of my great-grandparents who worked a farm for their living? Crafting has enjoyed a bit of a revival. Enthusiasts practice spinning and knitting, pottery and cheese-making. There are herbalists with extensive gardens and woods-knowledge about the gathering and use of wild, medicinal plants. Kids still show livestock at the agricultural fairs. Their fathers still train teams of work horses to pull cement blocks. Some people use horses and oxen for farming and wood harvesting. Bee-keeping is gaining popularity. Chicken coops are popping up in suburban backyards. I’ve seen more garden boxes and raised beds rimming front lawns this summer. Some knowledge has been retained . . . but is it enough? What have we forgotten? What have we forgotten we’ve forgotten?

We might want to consider surveying the community and our individual families to discover who knows what. One individual cannot master every craft and skill necessary for survival, let alone comfort, in a world with less energy than the one we enjoy now, but if enough individuals make a point of learning one or two basic skills, communities will have a knowledge base from which to draw. Skills should be taught to our children, as well, so their generation will be equipped for the whatever future they find themselves in. Perhaps every community should engage in FOXFIRE-like projects, recording the lore and knowledge of the elders who are still with us. In the end, knowing how to milk a cow by hand or how to dig a well without power equipment may be more important that how to run a computer system or an espresso machine.

In conclusion, I’ll share a couple of poems inspired by my grandparents, Stanton and Barbara Yeaton of Farmington, Maine. One I read at my grandmother’s funeral a couple years ago. The other I read at a Grange meeting when my grandparents were both alive. They were an inspiration then, and the memories of them inspire me still.
peas 002

INTO GRANDFATHER’S GARDEN

Should I leave the white house–
green shuttered windows filtering the sun–
and the solidity of old, solid farmhouses?
Should I cross the sandy drive
on tender feet,
painted toes dusted and losing gloss?
Should I feel the grassy wetness,
morning lawn,
sloping downward
toward
my grandfather’s garden?

There the silly, white moths
dip and float and duck
among the pea-blossoms.
They tumble through tendrils,
soft green leaves,
the pretty blossoms
that could be moths if they would fly.

There the earth is dry
and crumbly and my foot sinks
as if it, too, wishes to be planted.
Oh, such order!
Each row straight, and spreading
checked by heel and hoe.
Small peas then tall peas;
shiney, leafy beans
then squash; squat hills of potatoes;
spikes of onions; feathers of carrots;
feet!

I’ll plant them deep in earth,
toes cool in underdirt warming
swiftly to ankles
and me–aboveground.
I’ll let the worms kiss my skin
and converse with white moths
flirting with my hair.
The rain will wash
my fingers
outspread like leaves and the sun
will nourish me.

In autumn, then, I’ll have grown
to outrageous perfection.
What a specimen I’ll make
at country fairs!
If only I would leave
the house and cross the drive
and slip my feet into the earth–
into Grandfather’s garden.
–1990

THE PASSING DOWN OF A RECIPE

Standing in the kitchen
watching, stirring, testing
my gradmother glows in her knowledge
of life’s important things:
marriage & children & gardens & news;
the program for tonight’s Grange meeting
& how to make mint-apple jelly.

There on the windowsill, the wee jars gleam
ignited delicate green by the sun.
And there Nanny stands in an apron–
passing down a recipe.
She learned it from her mother,
how to boil the peels, the cores,
nothing to be wasted,
sweetened with sugar and mint.
“Recipes are family things,” she says.

She dips a silver spoon
into the smallest of the jars.
“You taste it,” she says.
She lifts it to my mouth.
“It’s good,” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “Of course it is.”
–1989

And there is this poem I wrote after my grandfather’s death.

IN MEMORIUM

A poem about cycles–
how we age
into our parents, then
our grandparents. They are gone,
or going now
a little at a time,
breath by breath
as we are.
And we begin to wonder why
the first wrinkle,
hair without color,
pre-arthritic throb in the joints,
death?
Why death
when there is spring-moist earth
to plant with bright dahlias
and pole-beans?
When there are freshly-cut boards
to plane and smooth
and fit together in sharp angles?
When people love you?
But if there were no death, no harvest,
no dropping of the brown petals
to nourish the spent soil,
there would be no life
in the beginning.
It might nice
never to have pedalled these cycles,
to have enjoyed some other awareness . . .
but then again
to have lived
to have LIVED!
–1992

7 responses to “Community and Family Elders

  1. Shell- I loved this blog entry on so many levels. Thanks for sharing about Marilyn’s families farming tradition. (Mariah’s grandparents ran a dairy farm in Avon, which is still operational along the Sandy river.) The art of husbandry and farming is a precious gift. Those folks eeked out a living in a state which the soil is rocky and acidic, it is extremely difficult to make a go of it… farmers are inspirational. Grand Parents are inspirational too! There generation has grit, can do attitude, a sense of fairness, patriotism, and a personal sweetness too! Thanks for sharing a few poems too! I remember what a gifted and diverse writer you are! Well it was a pleasure to read.

  2. I loved this blog. It reminds me of many fond memories as well. I also loved your poems, especially the last one!

  3. Shelley,
    I love reading your blogs. This one especially made me retrace some special memories of my past. My dad was a manager of the local A&P and my mom was a wonderful homemaker and a lab tech and the local H.P. Hood plant. Even though they had full time jobs, they carried on the tradition of gardening and canning and freezing vegetables, jams, pickles, etc. I find it amazing that all the things that I ate as a child do not seem to be as flavorfull as I remember. I too, carried on the tradition of gardening, canning, freezing and jellie making when my children were very small but seem to have given up on those traditions. SO SAD! 😦 I have tried many crafts but never got very good at any one thing. Would you and any of your friends be interested in forming a group to bring back some of the old beautiful crafts? I would like to. Let me know what you think. Please keep on writing.
    Thank you,
    Anita

    • Hi Anita: One thing I’ve thought about is rejoining the Grange. I think there is an active Grange in Porter. Grange is an organization dedicated to supporting agriculture and craftmanship.

  4. Shelley:
    It was such a pleasure to read this blog entry. I view myself almost lucky to have found the house that I live in right now. It might make a long commute with my husband, but I have many diverse neighbors to help me with things. Alvin, my next door neighbor is in his 80’s and is such a wealth of information when it comes to not only the history of my house and neighborhood, but also one of our main bonding threads, gardening. While my husband mows his lawn, I sit and drink a beer with him learning all I possible can about how to do things a little better in my garden. The information that I get sitting outside drinking a beer is invaluable. It is so easy to pass a neighbor on the street without a thought of what they know. It is only when you start to converse that you learn quickly that we all have something that we can give. It only takes a conversation out of our busy life. Let’s just hope that in this ever increasingly rushed society that there are people to continue to take a moment and learn from someone.

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