A Time to Make Our Own Groceries

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?

 

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14 thoughts on “A Time to Make Our Own Groceries

  1. Wonderful Fourth of July morning read.

    I do not know what the answer is to your last question but I do know that America will always survive because enough of her people are strong and committed to the values that our forefathers espoused. They buy the prepackaged life when convenient but will respond with grittiness, courage, and valor when our freedoms are threatened.

    As for me, I have been making my groceries since the day I was born, seeking, finding answers, braving turbulent seas to reach new horizons, supportive when merited, fierce red ant fighter when necessary. I am only a grain of sand among millions of grains of sand in this country who choose to continue to make our own groceries.

    AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL, LET FREEDOM FOREVER RING!

    Maria,

    Like so many who arrived here by choice or necessity rather than birth, your perspective is colored by your experiences of another, quite different world. It’s a valuable perspective – people like you need to keep reminding people like me not to take for granted the gifts we’ve received.

    One thing is sure – at heart, this is a day for the “small people” of this country. Small may mean hidden, like your grain of sand, but it doesn’t mean unimportant. Small people can have large dreams, and be capable of large commitment. We’ve done it before as a nation, and we can do it again.

    Linda

  2. Your headline threw me for a moment. Since you live relatively close to New Orleans I thought you might have been referring to their phrase for going food shopping – it’s “making groceries.”

    OldSalt,

    No kidding! I’ve spent a good bit of time in Louisiana now but almost none in New Orleans, so you’ve told me something new. I like it. I’ve never thought how many expressions use that construction – “making whopee”, “making nice”, “making love”, “making water”… There surely are more to add to the list. Isn’t language fun?

    Linda

  3. Beautiful and thought-provoking. I love the letter to your great-great-grandmother, evidence of another art we are losing to technology. But the sheet music behind your “Betsy” reminds me less of a practiced businesswoman than of a dedicated musician. Even through the difficulty of making her own groceries, she found time for whimsy–for art. That is an important lesson, too.

    Thinking about today, I read Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.” He heard the music in the efforts of everyday folk to make their lives, just as you have. Thank you. Happy Fourth, Linda!

    ds,

    And a happy Independence Day to you! While you were reading Whitman, I was reading Sandburg, another poet who held the “small people” of the world in extraordinarily high regard. “The People, Yes” is one of the greatest paeans to this country ever written – I wonder if anyone memorizes it any more, as we did.

    As for frontier arts, pioneer arts – they flourished, and were the happy grace notes surrounding those often-hard lives. Cross-stitched aprons, embroidered tea towels, quilts – they brought color and beauty even while serving their utilitarian purpose. Even as late as the 50s, no one in my family bought a kitchen towel. Flour sacks did quite nicely, or purchased muslin for “fancy” sets – and the women chatted and stitched away the time. I have one of my grandmother’s unused sets, and they’ll stay unused, you can be sure!

    As for music – I have my great-great-grandfather David’s fife. I’d like to think it was carried through the Civil War, though it probably wasn’t. But it surely brought pleasure to those around him – maybe even in that camp on the Texas prairie.

    Just delightful to see you – I hope you have wonderful fireworks in your future tonight!

    Linda

  4. Cal ~ Short for “Came Along” ~ was my border collie for many years. I loved him and he me as far as I can tell. Couple of burps when the neighbour shot Cal and I came home to find him bleeding under his truck/my truck – a trail of blood showing where he had made his way home. He survived that.

    I guess the picture above looks a lot like Cal and me. (Though I happen to be male I can glare with the best)

    Ken,

    Thank goodness Cal survived that little experience! I’ve never paid much attention to dogs, but several people have identified this one as a border collie. It’s interesting – and makes perfect sense – that a “working dog” would be part of the picture.

    I have a half-dozen photos of real relatives who have “that look”. A couple of them really have that look! Every time I look at them, the phrase that comes to mind is “Don’t Tread on Me”. As far as I know none of the family arrived in the country early enough for the Revolutionary War, but a few of them look like they happily would have flown the Gadsden Flag if they’d been around.

    Linda

  5. Oh Linda. I hope you could write a little bit more simple for my little 15 year old brain to understand. I am not American but I feel the same sentiment for my country. Philippines is my place of birth, it is where I shall build my own family, it is where I will die. No matter how dirty or how poor or how inadequate this small country feels to me, it is home.

    Mom feels the same sentiment too. She currently works in Chicago and keeps telling me to pray and ask God for a miracle that she may be “home” with us. But I think, everywhere is home to a mother as long as she is with her family.

    Going back to my confusion, what is a prepackaged life? Is that (oops, this will sound dumb) Obama’s healthcare ? It’s the only package I can think of. Or is that freedom and all it’s conveniences and comfort? Forgive me for I don’t understand!

    Anyways, Happy Fourth Linda!

    Much love from me! <33

    Lex,

    You may feel confused, but you’re the one who’s asked the most important question of all! I’m glad you did, because it’s caused me to think a bit more about “pre-packaged lives”.

    When I wrote that, I was thinking of several things.

    First is the simple distinction between “pre-packaged” meals and the meals that Betsy would have prepared “from scratch”. Sometimes I do use microwave dinners like Lean Cuisine. They’re quick and convenient, but they aren’t as nourishing and they certainly don’t taste as good as what I make myself. When I use fresh ingredients and make the effort to spend time in the kitchen, not only am I avoiding chemicals and additives, I can be creative. And the food is more appealing. Think of the difference between freshly-dug potatoes, cooked and mashed with a dollop of real butter on top. Even plain, they’re a world away from “instant mashed potatoes” from a box.

    Now, let’s think about life. When I was your age, it was expected that I would do one of three things with my life: I could get married, be a teacher, or be a nurse. There were women who did other things, like work in factories or as secretaries, there were farm wives and women in the military, but still – it was expected that a “nice” girl from a “good” family would do one of those “acceptable” things. It was a life equivalent of Lean Cuisine. There were choices, but we had to chose from options someone else had put before us. It was like a pre-packaged life.

    Things are different for many women today, of course. But the same issue keeps popping up. Another simple example is television. The figures vary a bit according to the survey, but in 2009 average Americans watched 4-5 hours of television each day. Let’s assume those figures are high, and say it’s 3 hours a day. It’s still “pre-packaged” entertainment. A viewer can choose which channel to watch, which program or movie, and many people do try to make good, informed choices. But still, they are choosing from options given to them by someone else.

    The same thing can happen with opinions. It’s very easy to go through life believing what we’ve been told by someone else, rather than examining the evidence and coming to our own conclusions. Questioning what parents, teachers, politicians or friends tell us is true isn’t always comfortable, but forming our own opinions rather than accepting what we’re handed without a thought is an important part of becoming independent.

    I hope this helps. Don’t ever feel bad for asking questions, or think not understanding is a bad thing. We all have a lot of learning to do when it comes to issues like this!

    Linda

  6. While your post is, as always, ingenious in its metaphor and congruence of thought from beginning to end, I’m moved by Lex’s comment and her question to you. I’ve appreciated your answer too… this is so gratifying.

    You have posted a thoughtful notion that I just might have taken for granted, thinking that I’ve understood you. And I think I do. But it takes Lex’s question thrown at us to make me think through it some more. What is a pre-packaged life? And why is it less desirable than creating your own?

    Thanks Linda… it’s posts like this that make blogging meaningful and gratifying. Come to think of it, you’ve just shown us one way to make our groceries in this all important cyberspace.

    Arti,

    You know my convictions about blogging, especially that the original post and the comments appended to it form a whole. Beyond that, the interaction between writer and reader are at least as important as the original post. I think often of E.M. Forster’s wonderful question: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” I have my own goals as far as my writing goes, but one of my blogging goals is to provide a place where we can “see” what one another has to say, and so learn from one another.

    Obviously, this takes us directly to your beloved realm of “slow blogging”. I’ve said before that I spend as much time thinking as writing when I’m working on a post, and the same is true of responding to comment. I’ll often read comments in the morning and spend the day thinking about them. From my perspective, if someone is going to honor me with a response, they deserve an appropriate reply – thoughtful, humorous, confrontational or supportive, depending on the context.

    That all sounds so serious and heavy, but it’s really fun. Every day I enjoy the process more, and I’m glad for readers like you who make it especially fun.

    Linda

  7. It’s interesting how the economic changes, the rapid collapse of what seemed so solid and unending, has made people look at things differently.

    You just don’t feel that steady, that sure, anymore. Something is telling you very loudly to have a back-up plan – and making your own groceries is right at the top of that emergency list!

    Bit late I know, but happy 4th of July, Linda!

    Jeannine,

    Economic changes, yes, and changes in the political and social environment as well. I’m not ready to run in circles, waving my hands and screaming, “The sky is falling!”. But some of the change that’s taking place is so fundamental and so seemingly opposed to the values I was raised with, I find myself…. pondering.

    It’s especially interesting to talk about it all with mom, who lived through the depression, knew privation and learned how to keep a family together while still a young girl. I learned more from her and from my dad than I realized, and I’m glad for it. What’s really fun is talking with her about public figures. She’s seen so many shysters, flim-flam artists and self-promoters come and go she has an unerring ability to size people up. Too bad I didn’t listen to her more when I was younger ;-)

    Thanks for the July 4th, greeting, too. I just realized I don’t know – do you have a special national holiday? Surely you do, but I’ve never heard of one.

    Linda

  8. God gave us the sun and the moon and everything he created in those six days and Jesus Christ saved us from our sins. The world we live in is pre-packaged and that could be the best deal ever along with freedom.

    You pointed out very interesting points Linda. I could especially relate to the “pre-packaged opinion”. I am prejudiced in so many things that I don’t even know if my opinion is mine or influenced! Though there’s one subject where my opinion will never change and that is Christ and everything about him is real. Forget science.

    You make our brains work, Linda, I can feel the gear working! You’re as good as solving puzzles and crosswords.

    Lex,

    But again, it’s the freedom that’s so important. We have the freedom to accept or reject God’s gifts, no? Let’s play “let’s pretend” for a minute. If I were to send you some Liberty fabric, when does it become a gift? When I buy it? When I send it? When it arrives at your house or when you open it? Sometimes we forget that gifts can be actions as well as things!

    As for opinions ~ it’s not bad to be influenced by others. I’m not even sure it would be possible. It’s enough to try to be aware, and pay attention to who’s influencing us.

    I have just one, teensy disagreement with you – I’d never want to forget science! Science is how we understand the gifts of creation – and believe me, in the middle of hurricane season, I want my really smart meteorologists, just like I want to know those really, REALLY smart geologists and engineers and operators and oceanographers are huddled around our oil spill. Their knowledge, dedication and understanding are gifts, too!

    Linda

  9. Just the other day, my wife and I toured the restored home of a 19th-Century shipbuilder. We have always enjoyed the experience of seeing, first-hand, how people once lived, and have probably visited a couple of dozen sites (including Washington’s Mt Vernon farm, FDR’s estate in New York, Mark Twain’s residence in Hartford, the mansions in Newport, and many less extravagant homes).

    I always walk away from those peeks into the past and wonder, “What is it that we do with all of our time now?” Just collecting enough water to keep the household running was a major effort. Food had to be grown, harvested, and stored. They made candles and soap and clothing. They sheared their own sheep and spun the wool into yarn. They split wood and cared for their livestock. And on and on. Yet somehow, they found the time to write letters! And those letters were unhurried and attentive to detail — they who would have had every excuse to abbreviate (“How r u?”) instead made the effort to express themselves, and to show genuine interest in their letters’ recipients.

    I wonder, after reading your post, if the people from centuries past would have accepted the pre-packaged life, given the chance. Maybe we’re all naturally lazy, and would always choose to slide downhill rather than climb up. We just have the options, and they didn’t. I don’t know. As you said so eloquently, independence requires hard work and risk. But if you take away the need for that work and that risk, will people still make the effort? More precisely, if you sedate the people enough that the urgency is lost, what will they do?

    bronxboy,

    Isn’t that our most common lament? “If only I had more time…!” I used to carry on a good natured argument with a blog friend on the issue. I liked to tell her, “You have all the time there is. The only question is: what are you going to do with it?”

    It always comes back to priorities. It was necessary for our ancestors to labor long and hard simply to supply the basics of life. And yet, there was time for family, for friends, for the little grace notes of life because they made time for those things.

    But there’s something else I often think about. They were a society of producers, while we have become a society of consumers. They were necessarily active, while we have grown passive. I know it’s easy to paint with a broad brush, but still… there’s a qualitative difference between making a lovely soap and buying a bar of Ivory, just as there’s a difference between vegging out in front of the tv three hours every night or sitting down to read or write.

    In short, I think people not only will make the effort, I think they do make the effort. Most of the time, we don’t know about them because they’re too busy for self-promotion! But they’re out there – homeschooling, caring for parents, building their ship in the backyard, writing the great American novel in the company of their goats. It’s like a secret society within our society – held together by the traditional firm handshake.

    Linda

  10. By the way, is that you on the right, feeding the chickens?

    Charles,

    Actually, that’s my mother, with her younger sister, Maxine. Mom is about five in that picture. As children we could have been twins. My photos at that age look exactly like hers. They’re at her grandmother’s house. I may have mentioned above that mom was 16 when her own mother died, and she raised her sisters from that point.

    Linda

  11. “held together by the traditional firm handshake”

    The Gulf Between Us – A Death Down South, Denial Up North

    Ken,

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read. It reminds me again of a favorite – and so true – quotation from the naturalist John Muir: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

    LInda

  12. They made them stalwart in Betsy’s time. We’ve softened up a bit since then. I sometimes think that the struggles our country is going through now will take us back to a time when credit couldn’t buy something you couldn’t afford and didn’t need anyway. Perhaps the up side of what’s happening now is that we’ll return to some of the values of previous generations.

    I agree that they were not perfect, nor were the times in which they lived, but there’s no denying that there was a sense of cooperation among families and communities. They helped each other during difficult times. My 97-year-old friend once told me it was because they had to survive. Having too much breeds apathy and complacency.

    I hate to be all doom and gloom, but things are undeniably bad. Good can come from it though. I believe that, but we’ll have to pull together and those in D.C. (both sides) are showing no sings of behaving like adults anytime soon. What ever happened to leadership or statesmanship? Sigh.
    Bella

    Bella,

    Leadership? Statesmanship? Whatever happened to truth-telling, dependability, promise-keeping and a person’s word as their bond? We seem to have come to a time when quite truly the sole “business of politics is politics”, re-election is the primary focus and buying votes with projects, programs, hard cash and access is the name of the favorite game. Double sigh.

    And sometimes I wonder about the chicken-and-eggish nature of dependency on the government. Some say that the government must step up to meet needs not otherwise met. But there is another perspective – that the increasing insistence of government that it should hand out ever-increasing largesse also is increasing dependency on government, breaking down those cooperative ties that used to bind our parents and grandparents’ communities.

    I love your use of the word “stalwart”. I haven’t heard that word in ages – no doubt another sign of the times! I suspect all of us are going to learn a bit more about what it means to be stalwart before the pendulum takes another swing. :-)

    Linda

  13. I can’t think of a more fitting post for independence day than these wonderful words you’ve written. I bear the same sense of uneasiness you feel, and I hadn’t been quite able to define it until you did it so well for me.

    I think in addition to being more self-reliant we need to be more self responsible, and our governement needs to help that happen, rather than intruding in our lives in ever more unnecessary ways.

    Becca,

    Self-reliance and responsibility go together, and they can be hard lessons to learn. It’s a fact that when I started varnishing, learning to run a business was far harder than learning to varnish. Part of the reason was because there was no one to tell me what to do – how to schedule, when to show up, how long to work, what to charge, etc. After a lifetime of 9-5, it was an adjustment!

    As for the government helping us in our journey toward independence – I don’t see that happening. In far too many ways government prefers that we be dependent – preferably on government. Even the notion of entitlements needs to be examined. Of course, I was influenced in my younger years by grandparents who would say, “If someone tells you you’re entitled to something, they’re enticing you.” That’s a pretty strong opinion, but it’s worth thinking about.

    Linda

  14. Linda,

    Amazing what comes forth with much study and reflection — how long have you and Betsy shared a kitchen?

    Your line about breaking open the fields to bury a dead child took me back to my mother’s mother — who buried three young infants, the oldest, I think was around a year old at death. As Granny and Granddad buried their young, they broke open the fields to plant life. My grandfather grew the best watermelon and tomatoes.

    I didn’t know then how lucky I was to have lived with such grounded grandparents. But I do now. And in these matters of the heart, it’s never too late.

    Janell

    Janelle,

    You know, I can’t quite remember when Betsy came to live with me. I ran into the artist at the Kerrville Arts & Crafts fair and purchased the piece there – it must have been 10 years ago. I think it was a year before I had it framed. But I loved her from the beginning – there was no way I was leaving that fair without her! It’s taken me all this time to figure out the appeal, or at least to be able to write about it.

    Grounded. That’s the word. Living in a real world, that pushes back. I’ve often said I think it would be terrific if every lawyer and doctor, every politican, academic, teacher, preacher – all of them – would spend one year out of every five doing manual labor. Farming. Factory work. Coal mining. Commerical fishing. Construction work. Whatever. The point wouldn’t be punishment, but opportunity – giving them a chance to see what happens when the consequences of decisions are right in front of you, and when sometimes you’re at the mercy of forces you can’t control.

    Your Granny and Granddad had a more realistic view of the world that those who seem to be running it today – I’m sure of it.

    Linda

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