Hers was a sort of Cinderella story; she even married one of the Grimm brothers. Like most true stories, it doesn’t involve glass slippers or a castle or prince, though there is a female villain and personal triumph. But I’m beginning at the wrong end.
Once upon a time there was a girl who lived on a farm in a very dry land. Life was not easy on the farm: when the family moved there, they had to break the land to prove their right to live there. The father was weak from tuberculosis, barely able to walk across a room. And a room was all they had when they moved to the farm: all seven children slept in the granary outside the house.
There was usually enough to get by on, but only just barely some years. When, as a child, the girl was playing near one of the pumps that brought up the water, she came too close and lost a part of her finger. Her parents did what they could for her, but she lived with half an index finger the rest of her life. Her hands grew rough and strong, her fingers thick from the hard work.
Her only escape, her only chance to be with other children her own age, was to go to school. She looked forward to it, even though their 8 mile ride was bitterly cold in the winter, the bus more like a covered wagon with its canvas sides. But one day her mother (there is no evil stepmother in this story, this woman doesn’t get that excuse) told her the work on the farm was more important than school.
“I’ll make you a deal,” she said, “if you give up on school for now, when your younger sister is old enough to help I’ll let you go back and she can take your place.” So my grandmother agreed.
But as time went on, she worked in the fields and milked the cows and scrubbed and cooked and did what was necessary to keep the farm working. Her sister continued to go to school and there was no hint of an exchange being made. Years went by and the mother never mentioned anything about their deal, or talked to the sister about her time of service. Finally my grandmother decided she’d had enough waiting.
So she left the farm and went to the city, where she found a way to do the same work but on her own terms. There, if she felt a family was treating her like a slave, she could leave. She worked for doctors and lawyers, living in their homes and by their standards, learning new ways to cook and handle a household.
She came back to visit her family from time to time, to go to the weddings of her old friends and sometimes a school dance. At one of these events she met a shy boy named Walter and found a new reason to come back to the country. After they married, my gradmother used all of the things she’d learned on her parents farm and in the homes she cared for in the city. But she always regretted that she never got to go back to school. She found books to read to learn on her own time, but her farm took most of her attention her entire life.
It wasn’t an easy life on her own farm: the lived through the Great Depression on very little and had to continue that way most years. She kept her contacts from her time in the city and found herself going back there to sell the fresh eggs and milk to the doctors and lawyers and others wealthy enough to pay for weekly delivery of fresh goods.
The seasons and the weather controlled most of their lives, but were never dependable. Spring was spent preparing the ground and planting and hoping. If the rain didn’t come in the summer, some years my grandmother had to move away for a time to the mountains, taking my mother and finding places where she could use her skills as a cook to make enough so they could keep the farm and survive. In the winter, living three miles from the nearest neighbor and fifteen miles from the nearest town meant the threat of complete isolation. They had to store enough to survive on their own, so the fall was spent gathering food from the garden or visiting other farms, even as far away as the mountains to find fruits and vegetables they could can and store.
They raised four children on that farm, and gave them the best opportunities the could. All of their children finished high school and had the chance to go to college if they wanted. When their own children were grown, they took in foster children for a while, then later grandchildren when if their children needed a place to stay for a while. They were good at taking care of people, my grandparents, looking out for their older neighbors as well as any young people. On holidays, my grandfather would drive to a nearby airbase to bring servicemen home for a family dinner, where they impressed my mother with their accents and strangely formal manners.
I don’t have any pictures of my grandparents life until after my mother left home. We tried, living in a city far away, to come back every summer so we could see what life on the farm was like, but that wasn’t always possible. I still remember the unique tastes and smells of the food and the animals: the fresh cottage cheese with its salty tang, the chewy, sticky sweetness of home-dried bananas, the feathers coating the chicken house and the kittens hiding in the cow barn.
I don’t remember spending much time with my grandparents, though we knew they were glad to see us. Mostly they let us run free wherever we wanted. We scavenged for toys in the closets, explored along the dry creek and found furniture in odd corners of the farm to build a playhouse in the back of an old grain truck. When I was thirteen my mother lost both of her parents, her father at Easter and my grandmother by Christmas. Living over a thousand miles away, there wasn’t much we were able to bring home from their farm, and most of their belongings were sold at auction. With few photos or keepsakes passed down, what I have left are the stories and her recipes.
They aren’t fancy recipes, and most of them require some interpretation. She cooked from memory, relying on recipes that used the same ingredients they always had close to hand. There was no such thing as a quick run to the grocery store, so the pantry is central to the way she cooked. Nothing was wasted, and the food was hearty and well balanced, always with plenty of fruits and vegetables and fresh dairy.
My mother’s been sure to pass these habits down: we can usually finish close to a gallon of milk a day in our house and she never bough packaged food, definitely not pop or overly sweetened or salty snacks. Here’s an example of a farm recipe – it’s in my mother’s handwriting, so I know it should have all the ingredients listed. As you can see, it’s been well used:
The title may be a bit of a misnomer. If we buy too much milk and some of it starts to go sour, that’s what my mother means by buttermilk. When it first begins to sour, we make this recipe. If it gets chunky, we make pancakes. If it goes beyond that, my mom considers herself a failure and throws it out with much self-recrimination. As I said, nothing was ever wasted on the farm.