Blue Ridge Country - September/October 2017 - 15
MILL CREEK STORIES
Putting up food was Grandma's thing. I was naïve
and thought it was because Grandma enjoyed canning. Now I realize it was no hobby but a necessity,
otherwise there would be little food on the table
during the winter months. My grandparents bought
only five things at the store: flour, sugar, salt, pepper
and a mild cheddar called "rat cheese" that came in
big waxed wheels cut to order. The rat cheese was
Grandpa's indulgence, going on the biscuit egg sandwiches he had for breakfast every morning before
the sun lit the sky.
Grandma's busiest time of the year was late summer and fall, harvest time, her time to do everything possible to get them through the winter with
full bellies. Grandma put up, pickled, jammed, jellied, dried, cured or churned everything. Butter was
churned and wrapped in wax paper. Hams, sausages
and bacon hung in the smoke house after a week of
sending hogs to be with Jesus. The fruits of the peach
trees and wild blackberry brambles became jars of
jam that shone like jewels. Apples, onions, carrots,
sweet and Irish potatoes all had their own sections
dug out in the cool earth of the cellar's floor. The
cellar walls were lined with shelves for storing all the
jars of garden bounty.
I was a clumsy child, so I was forbidden to enter
the kitchen while boiling water, glass jars and pressure cookers were stacked everywhere. I got porch
duty. A gigantic mixing bowl was put in my lap, and
a bushel of string beans would be set down next to
me. My instructions were: "Start stringing, and holler when you're done."
I'd be out there alone, stringing beans out of what
seemed to be a magical basket that kept refilling itself. Sisyphus string beans, I tell you. No matter how
much I tried to focus, I didn't make much of a dent
in the mountain of beans. That's OK. Eventually,
Grandma would get too hot in the tiny kitchen and
take a break with me on the porch while my mother
would continue the production line inside.
Grandma would start stringing beans with me,
and I'd find myself trying to match her pace, and
lo and behold, the tide turned on the beans. Along
with stringing, we'd talk about things we both loved,
books and grammar. Grandma attended the Virginia
State Teachers' College in Farmville which is now
Grandma was a college girl who married an honest, kind, hardworking man, who happened to be
illiterate. He went to work as a young boy to help
his family instead of attending school. Whether the
choice was his or his parents, it was his circumstance.
Every paycheck he got, he brought to her to validate
the amount and payee information as correct. He
Porches are perfect
for watching the world
and reading, two of my
said his time for learning was past, and he rebuked
all Grandma's offers to teach him to read and write.
Wouldn't hear of it. Every time she mentioned it, his
answer would be, "That boat has sailed, Gracie."
Teaching was Grandma's true avocation, and she
became animated in conversations about dangling
participles and gerunds. Most of what I remember
about grammar was learned on that porch, not in an
official class room. It wasn't rote memorization of
rules; she made it into a living thing. She was so enthusiastic about teaching that you couldn't help but
get swept up. Syntax became real. Sentences became
important. String beans got strung.
Grandma would get us another bushel of beans
and we'd launch into our favorite books. Grandma
loved Edgar Allan Poe's poetry and claimed him as
a Virginian, even though he was born in Boston.
He had spent time in Richmond and that was good
enough. She loved how much emotion and imagery
he could pack into an abbreviated work. She respected his brevity. She'd proclaim, "Poe is no Dickens,
and that's a good thing."
Another bushel of beans strung while I talked
about my love of Nancy Drew and Grandma encouraged me to check out an author I did not know, Agatha Christie. Beans flew into the bowl. Ideas flew
between us. Time on the porch with Grandma became my very own literary salon.
No matter how blistering hot the day, no matter
how huge the heap of beans to be strung or peaches to be peeled, the time I spent with my Grandma
on her porch slogging through canning duties were
some of the best moments in my life. I know, I know,
I just said time spent on chores were some of my best
memories and that does not sound like me at all, but
it is true.
September/October 2017 15