My maternal grandmother didn’t stop from chores to tell stories. I followed her to the chicken coop, to the garden, to the kitchen, to the well pump and the barn; watched her heat water, mow grass, wash clothes, separate cream, knead bread, and pluck chickens. She was always showing me, her city grand-daughter, how to do something and why.
The hens frightened me. They could suddenly fluff and flap their wings and charge at a little girl sent to gather eggs. “Those hens won’t hurt you.” Terrified, I’d stick my hand under the irritable hens, grab some eggs, back slowly out of the coop, and run to the house.
In my California home, peas came from a Del Monte can. At Grandma J’s place, peas hung from staked vines in long rows. Grandma J expected me to pick them. With only half a bowl picked, I’d say. “I’m through. This is enough.” Grandma J would dip some water for me from the white enameled bucket beside the sink, walk me back to the garden, and pick with me. Wouldn’t it be easier to pick now in the morning than later in the afternoon heat? And, Didn’t I love her creamed peas?
At noon during the wheat harvest, Grandma J fed a ravenous crowd made up of neighbors and relatives. From cellar shelves came jellies, cherries, pickles, corn, peas, beans, beets, and tomatoes; from storage barrels and baskets came potatoes and onions. Her fried chicken was the result of a bloody and efficient drama: headless chickens running around the yard and odoriferous plucking on the side porch. Chicken parts dusted with flour crackled in hot lard in iron skillets atop a stove heated with corn cobs. The savory chicken disappeared as fast as Grandma could fork it onto platters.
After the blessing, with everyone seated, Grandma J disappeared into the hot kitchen to convey platters of chicken, loaves of home made bread, pitchers of fresh milk, bowls of cream peas, whipped potatoes, and cream corn, and plates of cherry pie slices. Her face glistened with perspiration. Her women helpers stirred, ladled, poured, carried, and cleared; they then ate after the men returned to the fields, their conversations spilling useful family gossip.
From the well came cool drinking water; from a cistern, bath water. We shared a common dipper without fears of germs. At night Grandma J heated bath water on the stove, then poured steaming pots of water into the tub. Alternating first turns, my brothers and I shared common bath water. After my parents bathed in another round of steaming cistern water, my grandparents bathed.
Cats were not allowed in the house, but when my family visited, someone broke the rule and brought newborn kittens with their momma in a box to my grandparents’ bedroom. “Don’t touch those kittens. They’re too young and might die,” admonished Grandma J. Listening for Grandma’s footsteps, I’d sit beside her treadle sewing machine and stroke a soft kitten with one finger.
During one winter interlude around a wood stove while skeining yarn, Grandma J told me she’d come to Kansas as a small child in a covered wagon and had lived in a sod house with a dirt floor. Snakes sometimes wriggled out of the sod walls. She vividly recalled when her father had killed a poisonous snake. I imagined her in a homemade feed sack dress, her eyes wide with fear and her father attacking the snake with a hoe.
On her bedroom dresser was a metallic silver blue music box with a lid. The box wasn’t actually a box since it was round like an upside down bowl. When I twisted the top of the “box”, it played “Fleur de Lis”. A young man who had lived with the family and hired himself out for food and shelter during the Great Depression had given the music box to Grandma J when he left the farm. She treasured his gift and only allowed me to play it once a day. “If you play it too much, you will wear it out,” she’d say.
When my mother died in 1955, Grandma J flew out to California from Nebraska and stayed three weeks. She cooked, she cleaned, she drove us around. I asked, “How do you do it? You lost your husband, your son-in-law, your daughter-in-law, and now your daughter.” Her answer: “You have to keep on, no matter what.” I wanted her to hug me and comfort me, but she wanted to leave a living impression.
When I was sixteen, Grandma J allowed me behind the wheel of her new Ford sedan to practice driving on dusty country roads. When I was in college, she took the train to visit me in Oregon. She slept in my roommate’s bed and ate with us in the common dining room. She attended classes with me and did needle work while I studied.
No philosopher, she wrote me every month about practical activities — caring for my cousins, going shopping, attending a quilting party, making meals for a sick friend, and visiting relatives — until age and memory loss overtook her. Every grandchild has a story of her taking them out to eat or to a miniature golf course, about reunions and picnics, and about her straight forward, no nonsense approach with a carful of kids.
When she retired from farming and caring for her widowed son’s children, she moved to town and became a postmistress. Independent and intelligent with numbers, she had effectively managed the family farm with her son’s help after my grandfather died in 1954.
In 1984 she died when I was 32. She finished her last years in assisted living unable to recall her children’s names when they visited. Born in 1894, she had lived nearly 90 years through homesteading, Prohibition, the Great Depression, WWI and II, the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. She had witnessed the transformation of the telephone, electricity, and television; experienced the transition from horses to tractors, and trains to jets; benefitted from antibiotics, painless surgery, and vaccinations.
After her death her daughters laid out on a table many of her personal possessions, from which each family member in a hierarchal rotation could choose two things. The music box, tarnished from oxidation, sat unnoticeably among items of obvious value. I chose the music box, which now sits on my dresser. I play it once a year on my mother’s birthday.
The family had set aside for me an oil painting of the farmstead that I’d done as a mother’s day gift for Grandma J when I was 22. The painting now hangs in my study, the view reminding me of new mow hay, naps on the sleeping porch, the windmill’s ticking, cows bawling, bread baking, and softball games played on the front lawn.
These objects, the music box and the painting, remind me of the invaluable intangibles my mother’s mother left me: perseverance, responsibility, forbearance, devotion, and faith. I learned from her how love was work, that life was a long journey, and fulfillment came as we worked together. Being gentle but firm with people does work. Gossip can be harmful or helpful, depending on how we use information. Helping others is the best gift. Viking double ovens and All Clad pots and pans are not essentials for a delicious meal and a satisfying life.
And — to keep on going, no matter what.