Tuesday, April 22, 2014

An Appalachian Tale – Morning on the Farm

I am writing this as a 55 year old, and the farm was sold when I was 12, so I am not in possession of the details of acreage, price, etc. All I have are memories of a young girl, and bits and pieces gleaned from conversations throughout the years. We said hail and farewell to both of them the year I turned 28, and I beg the forgiveness and understanding of my relatives for any inaccuracies or inconsistencies in these remembrances.

MawMaw and PawPaw married young. They had 4 children, losing their firstborn as an infant. MawMaw was a farm-wife, multidimensional and adept at numerous tasks. PawPaw was a farmer who supplemented his income by various means throughout their life. At times he drove a produce truck, worked as a school custodian, and drove a school bus.

Early in the marriage they lived in a small wood frame house on the farm where he was raised. When their little family outgrew the little house, opportunity arose to purchase a farm of their own and they lived there for about 40 years.

For a young girl, having a farm on which to spend a summer week or two is akin to heaven. My older sister, my younger brother and me, we had opportunity to live the stories we read in school. Trees to climb, rocks to clamber upon, water to splash and fields to explore. There were dairy cows, mules, pigs, chickens, ducks and sheep. They had an apple orchard, a plum tree, blackberry canes and wild strawberries.

The garden was a cornucopia of fresh herbs and vegetables, I shall try to name all I remember eating. Disclaimer: My father and mother had an extensive garden at our home “in town” as well, so if it were not raised on the farm, it was at home. Everything listed I have eaten straight from the garden.

  • Tomatoes, yellow, red, cherry (we called them tommy-toes)
  • Cucumbers, pickling and larger ones as well
  • Bell peppers, green usually but there may have been red
  • Dill
  • Sage
  • Corn, sweet yellow and silver queen
  • Cabbage
  • Lettuce
  • Onions, scallions (though we called them green onions) and regular 'cooking' onions
  • Beets
  • Cauliflower
  • Yellow crook-neck squash
  • Zucchini
  • Pumpkin
  • Cushaw melon
  • Butternut squash
  • Peas, green ones that you shell and sugar snap
  • Beans – green, lima, october
  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Parsnips
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Eggplant

As you can see, we ate well. My mother and both grandmothers were prolific at home canning, and we had jams, jellies and preserves, relishes and pickled vegetables in addition to the usual canned tomatoes, beans and such.

So much to tell, so much to share. I have decided to focus on a typical early morning as I have reconstructed in my memory to attempt to share the joy and love, the sweat and tears, the day to day life my grandparents shared up on their mountainside farm. The beauty and grit of a life shared for over 50 years.

The day began early, long before the rooster would herald the rising of the sun. Roy made his way to the kitchen, where the old cast iron cook-stove was cold and silent. He used the lid lifter to set aside the two eyes, then the long rectangular section to access the fire box of the stove. He laid a fire as he had more mornings than he could count, using the supply of kindling kept in a pail behind the stove and adding a few sheets of crumpled up newspaper to catch the flame from the wooden kitchen match. Once the kindling had caught fire, he would lay on a few pieces of firewood, or lumps of coal, to get the stove heating up. If it were a chilly morning he would sit in a slat back chair by the stove as he pulled on and laced up his brogans. He wore a pair of bibbed overalls over his short sleeved work shirt and a t-shirt that is now called a “wife-beater”. In the front pockets of the overalls were his pipe, a tin of tobacco, and a box of matches. Examples of what an old cook stove looks like are shown below.

About the time he was dressed, Ethel came in the kitchen, having gotten dressed while he was starting the fire. She was wearing a simple cotton dress she had made from yardage that came in the form of feed-sacks, a bright cheery floral print in hues of blue with bright green leaves. Her apron covered most of the front of her dress, also made by her hand. She always trimmed the generous sized pockets with lace or rick-rack, and the apron strings were made long enough that she could tie them in front. It was easier to keep the apron secured as she went about her day. She was wearing a white slip under the dress, and her support hose were rolled at the knee rather than being attached to garters. Her footwear was an old pair of canvas shoes, slip-on because she disliked the aggravation of tying a pair of shoes. The rubber soles helped her keep sure footed when she was going about her housework.

Roy made his way to the barn to do the morning milking while Ethel set about preparing breakfast. She put ground coffee in the basket of the percolator, filled it with water and set it on the stove to brew. An iron skillet was set on the stove as well, soon to hold either bacon or ham and sausage. She turned to the Hoosier cabinet to begin making biscuits after she had set the biscuit pan on the table, ready to receive the light pillows of dough she would produce.

(At this point I will attempt to describe in detail the making of the biscuits. I stood at her elbow, being in her way, so many times as she did this. She made biscuits every single day, sometimes twice.)

There was a flour bin built into the cabinet, with a sifter attached. She held the bowl in one hand as she sifted the flour into the bowl. The flour (I think) was self-rising. About 8 cups of flour went in, and then she added a generous tablespoon of baking powder to the flour and lightly mixed it in with her fingers. Using a serving spoon, she measured out 2 heaps of solid Crisco shortening onto the flour and began to work it into the flour with her fingers. Once she had done this for a bit, she began to add fresh buttermilk, ice cold from the refrigerator, stirring it into the flour in with a steady and practiced motion. When all of the flour was wet, and the dough was formed (wet but not sloppy is the best way to describe the consistency) it was turned out onto a floured dough board. She would turn and pat the dough, forming it into a flat disc before using the heavy wooden rolling pin to quickly roll it out about ½ inch thick. The biscuit cutter was an old evaporated milk can that the bottom had been cut off of to make a sharp edge. The top of the can was left intact, and the two triangular holes that had been made with a can opener to pour the milk would emit little bursts of flour dust with each swift cut of dough. She worked in a circular pattern, leaving little geometric shapes of dough between each round. After placing the cut biscuits on the waiting pan, she gathered the scraps, cut another set of biscuits and used the second set of scarps to make one last biscuit, called the hoecake. I always wanted that one, because it was bigger, and uneven in texture, I always thought it tasted the best. I would also nab little bits of raw dough and eat them. She tried to convince me the raw dough would make my belly swell and burst but I never believed her. The pan of biscuits (probably at least 30) was covered with a towel and left to rest while she waited for the oven to be the right temperature to bake the biscuits. When I bake biscuits now, I like 425-450 f to get a good color and crust, so I guess this was about the temperature she was waiting for. I think there was a thermometer on the oven door but I am not sure.

She made the gravy in the skillet the sausage and bacon had been frying in, using the grease from the meat for the roux. I did not know the term roux when I was young, I just knew you took out the meat, sprinkled in enough flour to soak up all the grease, added a dash of salt and a good shake of pepper, stirred it around so it would not burn or taste raw, added crumbled sausage, and stirred in milk so it would not lump. When all the milk was added and you had the consistency you wanted, you let it bubble slow, stirring it occasionally, while the biscuits baked.

Right about the same time the biscuits and gravy were ready, the coffee has finished perking. Roy came in, washed up at the sink, and Ethel cooked the eggs, fresh eggs from the hens they raised. They had a successful though modestly sized egg business, and actually sold fresh eggs, milk, buttermilk, and butter to a regular client base 'in town'.

I know this sounds like a lot of food, but before their children were grown there were 5 mouths to feed, and sometimes more because they had fostered less advantaged young men in their teens several times. Once the grandchildren came along, my mother's two oldest sons lived on the farm full-time, and they had very healthy appetites. Farm chores build healthy bodies, and healthy appetites. By the time breakfast was consumed, the cows (upward of 6 or 8 I believe) had been milked by hand, the cows had been fed, as had the mules and/or horses.

Hogs and chickens and other feeding was done after breakfast, but the milking was done at a regular time, and the milk was brought to the spring house for Ethel to process. Many chores, hard work, all day. Every day chores, no weekends or holidays. Seasonal variations, but irregardless of weather or season the daily responsibilities were ever present.

Health, age, and the approaching adulthood of the two grandsons all played a role in the selling of the farm, and when I was 12 that wonderful part of my youth went away. I am so grateful to have been able to experience firsthand those moments, and I have many memories yet to share of that farm on the side of the mountain at Bluestone. But those will wait for later days.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Life As It Is This Day

Today I went into town and performed a task I had not had the ability to perform for almost four years. I picked up a paycheck, and went to the bank.
That is right, I now have a job. I am working part time hours at a local convenience store. I am so happy, so grateful. Now begins a slow, steep climb to solvency once again. It is hard to express the myriad emotions that have been whirling through my mind over the past week.
On Tuesday March 18 I stopped for gas (I could afford about 3 gallons) and there was a sign in the window, Hiring Cashier Apply Inside. I filled out an application and had an interview on the spot. On Thursday I received a phone call about the job, and went to work last Friday. Oh, how my feet and back protested. The last time I worked a job at which I was required to be on my feet all day was WalMart and I left there in July 2006.
I am so grateful.
I have learned many hard lessons over this extended period of unemployment, been shown mercy and generosity, and judged and criticized as well. I have had to ask for help, and have a long road ahead to get out of the financial hole I am in at this time. 
More than anything I pray that I have been able to absorb the lessons and will be able to be more compassionate, more frugal, more forgiving and understanding of my fellow humans.
I am fully intending to continue my writing, and desire to continue to cultivate a readership of this blog and my Facebook presence as well.
I splurged a bit today - I bought a pizza for our evening meal.
There is more I want to share, I am weighing the manner in which to do so. I have the second part of Adventures in Goat Farming to write yet, and after that I am considering putting some of my struggles to paper in the form of more Appalachian Tale stories.
Blessed day to all!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Attitude of Gratitude

In the mid- to late 1980's I lived in south Florida, on the east coast, my mailing address was Fort Pierce though I actually lived outside of a small community known as White City. The house I lived in had been a bachelors officers quarters during WWII. After the war, the quarters were sold to members of the community. This particular house was moved to a site that sat at the center of an acre of an old orange grove. I had neighbors on either side, the neighbors to the east is a tale for another day. Still working on that one, it is a hard story to bring to paper. Today I shall share a story about the people on the west side.
Bill and Sheila. Quirky couple. Husband and wife driving team for a local produce trucking firm, mainly oranges and tomatoes. Around 1987 tough times hit the trucking industry, and the driver pay took a real hard hit. Brokers started coming up with runs and hauls that were more suited to single drivers than teams and Sheila opted to stay home for a while and try to find a regular job. Bill was out for weeks on end, at times stuck waiting for a trip to take him further from home and wife. Money was very tight for them, and she would share with me from time to time how discouraging her life had become, having been unsuccessful in finding employment.

I was working a regular job, and my first husband was as well. We were not wealthy, but we were not in want. I knew that Sheila was in need of supplies, and double purchased on my weekly grocery trip. When I went to Winn Dixie, I bought in twos, for each item I placed in the cart for us, I placed the same item for her. Bread, eggs, coffee, milk, butter, vegetables, proteins, paper supplies, cleaning items, everything.

When I arrived home, I sorted the items and traipsed through the back yard over to her trailer. I knocked on the door, handed her the bags, and said, "Thought you might need a few things."

This gesture was well received, at first ... until the next week or so later when she told me that if I felt the need to make her a pet charity again to not buy "x" brand that she preferred "y" and that she would really rather me give her cash.

I was 28 years old, and her reaction crushed me. I had not intended to be perceived as taking her on as a pet charity. She was my neighbor, a friend. She had a need and I had a means to fulfill at least a part of it.

Why, you may be wondering, is Ellen telling us about something that happened almost 30 years ago?

Over the past 3+ years, I have been in a position of having less than I was accustomed to in the past. Friends, family, and strangers have stood in the gap for us time and time again. Food, supplies, money, gifts large and small have been graciously extended, and very gratefully received.

Not everyone eats the same brand of vegetables, shops at the same stores, uses the same brand of toilet paper or drinks the same beverages. I have had no problem whatsoever trying new and different brands and items, I have been challenged to discover new means and methods of meal preparation, and I am not complaining. Because people cared enough to share.

I made a comment to someone yesterday about having an attitude of gratitude, and this is what came to mind. Sheila's reaction was hurtful to me, and I had trouble letting that hurt go for a long time. I do not always know what to say when people extend grace to me, I fumble for words and get all flushed and bothered. I am an emotional person, and often get teary eyed and choked up. I do not want to be overly effusive, nor do I want to give the impression that in some way I feel entitled.

I am not really sure where the balance lies in this matter. What is a proper attitude of gratitude? I suppose the answer would have to be the attitude that is the most real and authentic for you. I am humbled and grateful for every can of peas, every bag of pasta, every roll of toilet paper, every tea bag, every tangible expression of love and concern that has come our way. I look forward to the day that I can be the one who gives once again, and if the next recipient of my sharing is another "Sheila", I will do my darnedest to not take such offense.

Who knows? My response to some of our angels may not have been well perceived or received.

That is all.

The Knob

The Knob
I have a tale to share here
Of a stalwart mountain woman
Who lived with her man nigh on forty years
In a ramshackle clapboard house
Chicken coops, a ramshackle barn
A straggly vegetable patch
Hogwire fencing on gray cedar posts
Front door painted haint blue
Rickety steps with no handrail
Lace curtains blow in the breeze
Clothesline strung from house to shed
An old coon dog and a stray tomcat
Now she was known to be moody
Some days barely spoke a word
He was called a mean 'un around these parts
And got liquored up more often than not
The house sat halfway up a hill
Of the sort you see hereabouts
A hill so steep and daunting
Only goats and sheep would climb it
Through time and season
Pathways will wear at random
As the livestock traipse to and fro
Amidst stones and briars and clover beds
At the top of the hill was a flat top rock
That stood about two feet tall
A perfect place to sit a spell
And take the scenery in
Now this woman was one rather deep
And would brood for days at her plight
Barren of child and bound to her man
Almost drove her insane
From time to time she would go out
And stand in her yard
Staring hard and long towards that rock
Jaw clenched tight in apron and dress
Off up that hill she would start
Slow at first planting her feet firm
Always looking ahead
Then faster still in a steep straight climb
No zigzag paths for her trail were taken
She was a woman on a mission
If one were close enough to see her face
Tear streaked dirt tracks would be there
And trembling lower lip
What put her in such a state might vary
Depending on the day or time
But oh she knew with no doubt at all
Exactly what her day would bring
So off she strode slow at first
Then faster as she went
The last few yards would be at a trot
Until she reached that flat top rock
Then there she would sit in the healing sun
Her face turned to the sky
And bit by bit her rage and pain
Would drift away to the clouds
It is said were it not for the knob
At the top of that hill so steep
Her rage would have grown so hard and hot
No man could have stood in her way
Her life was hard
Her pleasures few
I am sure glad she had the knob
~Ellen Apple 03/20/2014
~Mary Brown, Photographer

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fighting Sea Monsters-A poem

Fighting Sea Monsters
The sky awash in roiling grey clouds
Rumbles of thunder vibrate the leaves
Electricity crackles in the air
As lightening dances along the ground
We are transported
The porch is now a storm tossed ocean
The swing a pirate ship at full sail
Look ahead!
Man the wheel!
Leviathans are on the move
They threaten the lives of all aboard
Ready the cannon
Harpoons at hand
Brought to bay we have
No recourse but fight
Each to their task
Hesitate? Never 
Yet the adventure ends
Life pulls us back
With the lure of snacks
Peanut Butter sandwiches with Grape Jelly
Cherry Kool-Aid
Chocolate Chip cookies
Oh to be
Ten years old again
On a stormy Summer afternoon
When the porch was an ocean
The Swing was a ship
And the street light poles
Were the only monsters we knew
~Ellen Apple 03/18/2014

Monday, March 17, 2014

Adventures in Goat Farming - Part 1

My first husband was 25 years my senior, and had 2 adult children when we first met. He became a grandfather within a year of our meeting, and for about 15 years I was a stepmother and step grandmother. When we divorced, just prior to his death, (long story) the granddaughters were 11 and 15. We moved from Florida to North Carolina in 1989 and set up residence on property that had been in his family (maternal side) for almost 100 years.

The once large farm had through the years been divided through inheritance and was at that time reduced to about 17 acres of mostly pine trees, rocks and gullies. He had an aunt that lived in South Carolina who actually owned the house and had rented it to us for a very reasonable amount. While most of the land was not usable, there was a sizable yard, a few derelict out buildings, an area that had been fenced off previously with hog wire when his family had kept hogs and chickens and milk cows,  and a beautiful spot to have a good size vegetable garden.
One excellent benefit to living in his hometown was the opportunity he had to rebuild relationships within his family, and to get to know his grandchildren. My stepson and his wife and daughters lived about 90 minutes away and visited often.
One February, I think it was probably about 1991, Eric and his family showed up early one Sunday morning with a gift for Moe. A female (nanny) goat. I know that this was Eric's was of indulging the girls desire for livestock without having to be responsible for the livestock, and it was brilliant. We named her Sally and were quite pleased to put her in the lot and laugh at her antics. Two weeks later, the reason for her low cost to Eric were evident - she was pregnant. As happenstance and whimsy would have it, Sally delivered her kid early one Sunday morning and Eric and the family arrived soon after, with the girls running to the barn to see the goats as soon as they arrived.
Many humorous things occurred connected to the goats, so I am just going to hit on a few of the highlights. We started out with Sally, then acquired Jenny and Arnie (male, or billy, goat - BIG mistake - goats breed like rabbits so to speak). At one point we had almost 20 African pygmy goats. Now that is important, because they are small, and not the breed usually kept for milk, which I believe are Nubian or Milch goats. At any rate any milk produced by the females went into the bellies of the seemingly endless supply of baby goats. We did not milk our goats, or slaughter them for food.
Goats will eat anything:
  • The labels off of cans (though not the can itself - that is a myth)

  • Privet hedges

  • Tree bark in a circle around the tree, killing it. Especially fruit and nut trees, though pines and cedar seem to be safer from the vociferous appetites.

  • Particle or OSB board, fiber board, any type of wood used for shelter walls and roof sheeting

  • Tobacco, including but not limited to cigarettes, cigarette butts and cigars

  • Newspapers, cardboard, magazines, the mail out of the mailbox if the door is not closed

  • Wreaths on doors, plastic-grapevine-live it doesn't matter the material, and they eat the ribbons, bows and embellishments as well

  • If you wear nail polish they will try to eat your fingertips

  • Their absolute favorite thing to eat is sweet feed from the feed store, so if you buy it you have to keep it locked up and well hidden and secured

Goats apparently really are social creatures, and do best when they are around other goats or animals. The first few weeks we had only the one goat, Sally. Goats are also very adept at escaping any type of enclosure devised by man and she was constantly leaving her ample lot to explore our mostly rural neighborhood. There was a pasture at the end of our road where show horses were often grazing and we had to retrieve her from there several times. Things got marginally better after we obtained our second adult female, Jenny, but then they came to an understanding that they could both escape and head in opposite directions. I was not working at the time, and was awakened one morning by a call from a local pastor's wife. Our goats were in the church cemetery eating the floral tributes off the gravesites. I placed an urgent call to my husband at work, got semi-decently dressed and headed across the road to the scene of the crime.

Well. Sally and Jenny saw me coming, and the pastor's wife was waving a towel around saying "Shoo!" and they bolted in no time flat. The pastor had been to a prayer breakfast and drove up in his vintage VW bus (I swear I am not embellishing on any of this) and joined the chase. So there we were, the preacher in a three piece suit, his wife in a housecoat waving a towel, and me wearing ratty sweats and a t-shirt, chasing a goat down the middle of a two lane road. Meanwhile, my husband arrived, went to the barn, retrieved a coffee can with a few handfuls of sweet feed thrown in, and lured first one then the other back to their lot.

I shall pause at this point, and share further adventures and the sad tale of how our goat farming came to an end later, but I promise-the goats were not killed, they were just re-homed!

Monday Musing

A stream of my consciousness

My mind dwelt in the past yesterday
Now yesterday is the past
One of the oddities of life,
It never stays still but is indeed
That perpetual motion machine
We heard about in schooldays

I found an interesting consistency
In the impermanence of life
As my recent past visited my past distant
Concerning playmates and friends
Regarding personality and traits

We all want to be correct as we go about
Our day to day life
The SAT scores and academic accolades
Having left a standard we use to measure
Ourselves and others for decades
For lifetimes

I read a book once where the author
His life knowledge was from
I believe this was true

Having contemplated ruminated and meditated
My conclusion is as follows
As long as we try put adults into
The same molds they fit as 15 year olds
We will continue to be dismayed
And hopefully amazed ?
When they just will not stay in stasis

~Ellen Apple
17 March