She hangs in my kitchen, this woman with no name who holds a chicken in her lap. She watches me at my stove and sink, and I return the favor. Over time, I’ve come to know a thing or two about her. The directness of her gaze suggests she isn’t afraid of being seen. The dog, more wary, presses against her protectively but they’ve been together for his lifetime, and her hand is enough to calm his fears. She’s a busy lady – her apron tells you that, and her distinctly un-done hair. She didn’t mean to be posing this morning, but someone came along and she cooperated, perhaps happy to have a moment’s rest.
In the original artwork, a monotype collage created by Debbie Little-Wilson, she’s surrounded by bits and pieces of her life. Above her is a letterhead from A.E. Want & Company, at the turn of the last century one of Ft. Worth’s premiere wholesale grocers. The invoice is dated 1921, nine years after the company gained a certain noteriety by suing the Missouri, Kansas & Texas railroad over a carload of frostbitten Minnesota potatoes, total value $155.87.
At her feet is a decorated business card announcing Mr. A.D. Perry, a “reliable seedsman” from Syracuse, New York. And in the background, covered with penciled notations that suggest the quick, calculating mind of a business-like woman, are the music and lyrics to nearly-forgotten Sweet Betsy from Pike, a song somehow still able to convey all the humor, grit and tenacity of American pioneer women across the decades.
I call my kitchen companion Betsy, because of the song. The artist titled her piece,”She made her own groceries“, and indeed she did. Flour, sugar and salt might have come to her through Mr. Want’s wholesale company, but vegetables and fruits came from the seeds she ordered from Mr. Perry, received in trade or saved from her own crop. Milk and meat came from animals both raised and hunted and as for eggs? Her picture gives us a clue about that, too.
No doubt her life was hard, but it was a life of freedom as well as hardship, a life constructed by choice as well as circumstance. Looking at her, I think of Mrs. Crooks, whose beautifully penned letter to my great-great-grandmother Annie is one of my treasures. Dated May 19, 1881, it was written in Poplar Hill, Kansas, and sent to Annie’s new home in Chariton, Iowa:
I often think of you and wonder how you are getting along. Today I was looking over my diary and saw that we camped this day one year ago a mile from a town by the name of Melissa (Texas). We did not see the town as it was on the B Road between Plano and Van Austine…
How did you spend the longest winter? Did you wish for the sunny south? It was colder here than ever known before and more snow. I tell you it kept us busy to keep up fires with the kind of fuel we had, the poorest of woods and coal – did try burning corn but found it pretty expensive… ‘Tis a mercy not many campers come this way, for they would starve if they depended on the wood to cook their bread and bacon. There is not a stick for miles and miles… I did not like the country at all when I first came because it was so barren of trees, but I am getting used to it and like it better since the grass has come up so beautiful and green, and so many wild flowers…
Crops are usually good and vegetables of all kinds in abundance. We have had lettuce, onions and radishes from the garden and soon will have peas. There will not be much fruit this year, the severity of the weather killed the peaches (and)…the apple orchards are not many in bearing yet.
Elmer is farming…300 acres in wheat, 75 in corn, about 5 in potatoes, early corn and vegetables…. How are you and Mr. Crowley? Does he sigh for Texas when the cold north winds blow and the snow and ice is plentiful? Is it hard to wean him from the land of sunshine and flowers?…
Elmer sends his best wishes to you all and we both hold you in grateful remembrance for your kindness to us while on our way to Kansas.
Today, Poplar Hill has disappeared. The post office where Mrs. Crooks’ letter almost certainly was mailed closed in 1889. On the other hand, Meslissa, Texas is growing. It has a Chamber of Commerce, a website and a thriving business community befitting one of the earliest commercial crossroads in Texas. As for Chariton, the Lucas County town where Annie’s husband helped organize the 34th Iowa Regiment at the beginning of the Civil War and to which he took her to settle after their post-war years in Texas and Missouri, it remains home today for David and Annie, their children and grandchildren, their great-grandchildren and more, resting in the heart of the same land that sustained them for nearly 150 years.
They weren’t perfect, these forebears of ours. They had their share of strange ones and lazy ones, and for their families the lyin’, cheatin’ and thievin’ ones have become the stuff of rumor or legend. But they knew how to make their own groceries, and a good bit more. They knew how to break the prairie and bury their infants, to build shanties of sod and lay rails of steel. They mined the coal and built the schools and, little by little, they made it all work with their strength and resilient determination.
Above all else, they loved their country and cherished their independence. Only another century earlier their own grandparents and great-grandparents had fought and died to ensure their freedom, and they lived out their days counting the cost. Annie and David, Mrs. Crooks and Elmer and all of their children, neighbors and friends were more than comfortable speaking of self-evident truths and inalienable rights. They spent their lives planting the seed of liberty with as much care as they planted their corn and peas and brought in its harvest just as carefully. Just as my treasured kitchen companion made her own groceries, they made their own country, handing on the responsibility and hard work of citizenship from one generation to the next with attentiveness and care.
Each July 4 we are called to reflect on the founding of this nation and the responsibility we bear for its continuation. This Independence Day I am uneasy, sensing a change of focus, a societal shift, a seeming determination among governmental and bureaucratic sorts to institutionalize dependence at every turn.
In a variety of ways we are being told we cannot be trusted with our own lives: with our health, our children or our economic decisions. We are told that we do not have the strength, tenacity or wisdom to weather the storms of life, or to deal with its catastrophes.
We are assumed to be too frail to accept the realities of life, too ignorant or uneducated to understand them. We are told that only the specialists among us have the knowledge or skill to care for our own, that our youngest, most frail or aged must have the conditions of their lives determined by governmental fiat rather than by the loving decisions of supportive families.
If curiosity, conviction or the quest for a better life causes us to strike out in new directions, far too often our progress is impeded by barriers placed by those who appear convinced we have no right to chart our own course, that we cannot think for ourselves, or that we are incapable of confronting the vicissitudes of life.
Like those who preceded us, I suspect each of us has struggled in one way or another as we’ve journeyed toward greater independence. We have taken risks that ended in great reward and engaged in risky behavior that brought unhappy consequences. We have been wrong about people, and supported bad policies, but we have been right about people as well and benefited greatly because of it. Some of us have lived financially comfortable lives and some constantly are scrounging for a few more dollars. But through it all and however imperfectly, we have sensed that growth and maturation is the point of life, that the independence of adulthood is meant to replace the natural dependence of a child, and that, in the end, it is the acceptance of risk rather than the avoidance of risk that holds a country together.
On this Independence Day, it seems as though it is the value of independence itself which has come into question. As we move beyond our traditional celebrations and into the year ahead, how much risk will we dare? Will we choose passivity over active participation in our life and governance? Will we eschew excellence for the poor substitute of mediocrity? Will we fall victim to those who play on false or unreasonable fears, or will we be courageous? Will we allow ourselves to be made dependent, or will we look for strength to those who understood the power of self-determination, who had a vision of true independence and who preserved our country for us with their blood, their sweat and their tears?
Time will tell. But as I glance at Betsy, still serene on her wall, I see that she is asking the question, too, in her own, inimitable way: Will we yield to the temptations of a pre-packaged life, or will we choose to make our own groceries?