This is very difficult for me to write, and I’ve been putting it off for the last two weeks. But I think it’s only right to honor the women that inspired my love of homesteading (for lack of a better all-encompassing term) by writing about her here.
My Great Grandmother, Ruby Katherine, passed away on Valentine’s Day evening at 91 years old. Ironically, the very day that her heart took it’s last beat was the first day we heard our baby’s heartbeat for the very first time. I am seeing life and death in a whole new way these days. The poignancy of this coincidence does not escape me.
I am struggling through my own lack of involvement in these last years of her life – it’s been years since I visited, and I hadn’t called or written in a shamefully long time. As we humans so tragically think too much of the time, I always thought there would be more time to reconnect. There never is. I will never be able to read her old-fashioned cursive scprit on flowered stationary again. I will never be able to ask her which varieties of tomatoes she grew or reminisce with her about morel hunting in the woods behind the sawmill. I will never again sit on the floor in the hall of her farmhouse, digging through the treasure trove of colored yarns she kept in the built-in cabinet there.
But I can honor her now by committing to this record all of the wonderful things she taught me. All of my fondest memories of childhood involve time spent with her on the farm. Those moments, more than any others of my youth, made me into the woman I am today.
She taught me how to crochet. With a colored aluminum hook and a ball of yarn, rocking back and forth on a summer afternoon in the porch swing. I was very little, somewhere under five years old, and I couldn’t master the two handed crochet technique. So I’d make the loop and work it over the hook in two seperate motions. I eventually figured out how to do it the “proper” way, but Great Grandma never told me I was doing it wrong. If I could chain one over and over again, I was crocheting. She made beautiful afghans and granny square pillows. I have a green and yellow afghan that she made when I was born, and a pink and white pillow that was given to me when I was older; I think I was in college. I will treasure them both. She was also an accomplished quilter, and I am fortunate to own a quilt – that she hand stitched. She never owned a sewing machine.
Morels, oh how I love morels – thanks to Great Grandma. In the late springtime, we’d go hunting for morel mushrooms in the forest up back of the house, around my Great Grandfather’s one-man sawmill. You had to go slow and have a keen eye on the ground. It would be chilly in the late spring air, so she’d be wearing a heavy shawl or her coat over her dress (she was always a conservative, old-fashioned woman and never wore pants or dresses shorter than calf length) and a head scarf covering her hair, which she always wore pulled back into a bun. She often took along a walking stick on these jaunts, which was useful in scraping away the dropped leaves and sawdust when we found a morel or two. Typically we found them around the base of trees, and usually if you could spot one, you’d see dozens more nearby. The morels seemed to thrive in the soil behind the sawmill, rich with rotting sawdust. We always found a trove of them there. We’d cut them just beneath the soil line, and put them into the metal pail I always loved to carry around (that we used to gather eggs from the hen house with) and carry them back to the kitchen. She taught me to wash them well to get rid of the dirt and any bugs that might have hitched a ride. Then we’d bread them very simply with eggs and flour and lightly fry them in butter. Morels have always been my favorite mushroom.
We made freshly churned butter with a gallon jar hand churn. My Great Grandparents kept some Guernsey and Jersey dairy cows, and we’d hand milk them in the barn into pails. Some of that milk we’d turn into butter. Once the cream rose, it would go into the gallon glass jar, with the paddle churn fitted onto the top. My sister and I would turn after turn until at last, the cream started to seperate into sandy grains of butter. That was an exciting moment, and gave us a second wind to keep churning. Finally there’d be a big lump of butter in the churn, and then we’d open it up and seperate the butter from the buttermilk. Great Grandma would wash the butter until the water ran clear, then salt it. And then we’d get to spread a dollop of fresh butter onto a slice of white bread (she was never an enthusiastic baker, so there was always a loaf of white Wonder bread on the counter). There are few better flavors than fresh butter from pastured Guerneys and Jerseys in the height of the summer.
For lunches and dinners, my sister and I would get sent up to the big garden on the hill to gather fresh produce. We’d gather baskets of green beans, giant red tomatoes and pull up big onions – often pulling so hard we’d sit down hard on our behinds, surprised at ourselves. She grew old-fashioned string beans, which are nearly impossible to find anymore. We’d all sit around on the porch swing with a big bowl in the middle and string millions of beans – snapping off the end and pulling the string off down the length of the beans. She’d put up dozens and dozens of quart jars of beans, tomatoes, peaches, and good things from the garden every summer. She was the one that taught me that simmering a jar of green beans with a little bit of bacon was a great way to serve green beans.
We’d run table scraps and trimmings from prepping veggies out to the chickens. We’d gather eggs from the henhouse into that little tin bucket I loved so much. She’d scold us if we ran through the chicken yard, because frightened chickens won’t lay. We’d take walks through the back pasture and gather wildflowers for the table – bachelor’s buttons, shasta daisies, columbine, Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susans. She always keep spoons on the table in a milk glass vase. She had a china cabinet full of beautiful dishes, but used pink rose-printed melamine for every day. Evenings after church we’d have icecream in plastic bowls, all of us sitting around the formica kitchen table. Those nights, the bare yellow lightbulb on the porch was left on until everyone had come and gone in for the night. She let her hair down and washed her feet, and then knelt by her bed every evening for prayer. When the whole family was in the house, we had family prayer, each of us taking a knee on the living room floor. There was a blessing before every meal. She grew Christmas cactuses on a plant stand in the kitchen and African violets in the living room. Her house was full of family photographs and houseplants. The basement was a treasure trove – two Hoosier cabinets, a wringer washing machine, a chest freezer full of good things to eat. And the rows of rows of jewel-colored canning jars.
There are so many things. So many details, so many moments. I will try to commit them all to the permanent record of my mind – I want all of those things to stay woven into the fabric of who I am, and I think that they will. I will tell these stories to my child, and try to teach my child these same exact things in the way she taught me. And I think that’s a pretty good way of remembering a great woman, and the life that she lived.