Monday, September 17, 2012

Owing No One: Understanding Grandma...

Contributed by Chaya of Pantry Paratus for Rural Women Rock:  Preparedness Series Continued.  Thanks Chaya!  Wonderfully written. 

My grandmother grew up as poor as a church mouse.  She remembers the days of victory gardens and war rations.  She tells of wearing her shoes until the soles were gone. "My mom would cut cardboard and slide it down inside my shoes so I could wear them longer" .  If your feet happened to grow before the soles wore out, and it was summer, they simply cut the toe out of their shoes. "It was a BIG deal if we got new shoes".  My grandma commented on this series as we were preparing- not even knowing what Chaya would contribute.  My grandmother definitely had her two cents worth.  I wanted to give more time to this, perhaps soon. In a nut shell, she didn't know what all the fuss was over.  "We'd been through tough times before, and it made us better people."  She added, "But we knew how to do things to get by."  Something to think about ~ Kasse D.

Owing No One: Understanding Grandma

Paula’s home was the kind of home where picture distances were measured before hung; the floral arrangement was fresh from that morning’s stroll through the meadow. “Excuse our mess” she said while gesturing towards the coffee tables in the foyer, “my husband just scrubbed the carpets.” There was no mess to excuse.

Gracious with my three rambunctious children and calling them words like “adorable” and “well-behaved”—feeding them watermelon on a hot summer day with a lollipop as dessert-- I knew that I was with someone quite elegant in word and deed, someone who developed relationships deeply and with both intellect and actions of kindness. My children are begging to go back.

Paula was the home economics teacher in our small Montana town for over 30 years and she cites the number by months. Do not forget a single month past that 30 year mark. It matters; it matters to her and to the high schoolers who took her quilting class that final year.

She’ll tell you that the kids changed through those 30 years; she had the rare experience of being an intergenerational teacher. She knew the depth of each life sitting before her, because she taught the mama how to balance a checkbook, and the daddy was fascinated by the chemical reactions taking place in the baking process. She knows the history of each child—and she knows her own.

Her family members were late in the baby department. That means that this polished and beautiful woman across the table had a great grandfather that fought in the civil war, a father that fought in the Korean War, and an uncle with stories from WWII. It means that she knows her grandmother came straight from Germany and Grandpa was “Slav”, and that theirs was a love story that crossed religious lines not to be deterred by the Catholicism/Protestant dissentions. No one could make goulash or cottage cheese pie like Grandma—and she should know because she grew up three doors down. It was where her girl scout troop met once a week, and where she and her siblings hid when mom had work to be done. Mom always had work to be done. Married women with children did not commonly work in the fifties, but hers did. It meant a lot of work for the children—and a lot of time with grandma.

“Grandma raised and butchered her own chickens, grew her own food, rendered her own lard. She made her own cheese, even head cheese from the sow. Boy was she mad once when the butcher left the ears on, I remember.”

I asked, “But the fifties were different. The Great Depression was over. Was this just her mindset, or was it necessity to live this way?”

“It was both. It was a way of life, it was the way she cooked, and it was a fixed income. Grandpa was a coal miner and had nothing but a small pension. Grandma was not a fancy cook, but she was a…Good…..Cook.” Paula paused and ate a few grapes from a bowl between us; it was evident to me that she was reliving that cottage cheese pie or that other comforting flavor that resides in memory. Flavors are memories indeed.

Paula talked about how she learned to can and to sew. Part of my childhood was on a Depression-Era farm,” and she quickly added, “The Depression was over everywhere but there.” Her aunt and uncle had very little, but they had “horses and cows, geese, chickens, and pigs.” It was a very stoic place.”

I met with Paula because I wanted to understand. I wanted to know why these women continued these difficult tasks after the depression and the war was over…why not just go to the grocery store now that there was a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot?

“People were different then. You owed nobody and nobody owed you.”

The conversation weaved in and out between teaching lost skills to modern day children, memories of war and economic-collapse survivors. We contrasted manners and social skills of days gone by to the modern era, and we discussed self sufficiency.

“I taught these skills because they are important. What happens when the grocery store runs out? How do you feed your family then? They have maybe a day or three in reserve, you know. I also taught these skills because it was a sense of accomplishment. Even the boys would hold a can of peaches with pride or they would come and quilt in the middle of the school day. You can make all the money in the world, but if your home is unhappy, if you do not know how to manage your resources, you can never be happy. Ever.”  


  1. My grandmother was a child during the Depression and much of what Paula says echoed what I learned at my grandmother's knee. I agree with her when she says, "You can make all the money in the world, but if your home is unhappy, if you do not know how to manage your resources, you can never be happy. Ever.” So very true. And I find there is a great deal of satisfaction doing things the hard way; canning, pickling, etc. Wonderful post.

  2. I absolutely love this story. Not only did I grow up in a farm/ranch family, but they also hunted each winter to eat - not for sport. Add to that living in a small town whose collective population were World War II vets, and their morals and work ethic are something that are ingrained into my daily life. I now pass on - or am trying to - those same ideals to my daughter.

    Awesome post!

    ~ Michelle

  3. Thank you for reminding me what an exceptional childhood I had! My grandmother taught us all how to sew, can, cook, butcher chickens... Oh, the regrets I have now for distancing myself from that feisty, overbearing polish woman whom always spoke her mind! I'm grateful to not be alone in reviving the practical skills that meant life or death to so many for generations.

  4. Great post Chaya!
    Reminded me of sitting with MY Great Grandmother and listening to her stories, learning to crochet,cook etc. Wonderful memories for certain.
    Thanks Chaya....

  5. Really enjoyed this post Chaya! Our Grandmothers and Great-Grandmothers accomplished so much with so little ... it's so encouraging to know that we can do so again ... Grandma would be proud :-)

  6. This is fantastic. Paula lived as my elders did in Ireland, how my mother and her siblings grew up and the environment my children re growing in. My husband and I made the choice years ago to honor the lessons taught to us and live traditionally. The difference shows through our children and we are so very proud.