She hangs in my kitchen, this nameless woman who holds a chicken in her lap. She watches me as I move between stove and sink, and I return the favor. Over time, I’ve come to imagine I know a thing or two about her. The directness of her gaze tells me she isn’t afraid of being seen. She’s a busy lady – her apron tells me that, and her distinctly practical hair. She didn’t mean to be posing this morning, but someone came along and she cooperated, no doubt happy for a moment’s rest. Surprised by her inactivity and suddenly wary, the dog presses protectively against her, but they’ve spent his lifetime together and her hand is enough to calm his fears.
Around her portrait, bits and scraps of ephemera hint at the realities of her life. A letterhead from A.E. Want & Company, one of Ft. Worth’s premiere wholesale grocers at the turn of the last century, provides elegance to a simple invoice. The invoice is dated September 14, 1921, nine years after the company gained a certain noteriety by suing the Missouri, Kansas & Texas railroad over a carload of frostbitten Minnesota potatoes. The potatoes, valued at $155.87, were judged defective, and the railroad ordered to pay.
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 suggesting the quick, calculating mind of a business-like woman, are the music and lyrics to nearly-forgotten Sweet Betsy from Pike, a song 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 who created the monotype collage titled it “She Made Her Own Groceries”. Indeed, she did. Flour, sugar and salt may have made their way 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 would have come from animals both raised and hunted. As for eggs, her picture gives us a clue about that, too, and since I imagine her in the midwest, the abundance described by John Milton Hadley in 1855 still would have surrounded her.
The supply of wild fruits exceed that of any country I ever knew. Straw- rasp- goose- black berries grow plentifully. Plums — persimmons — crab apples — wild cherries and grapes also abound. There is an unlimited extent of hazel nut thickets — and hickory trees are found and walnut — besides most other mast-bearing timber — All which are apt as I’m told to be very productive. Hence, thee can have “nuts” to crack… Now, I have not been over the territory and can not tell from my own sight what the afect of it presents, but there is variety in everything I learn as everywhere else.
If Betsy’s life was hard, it was a life marked by freedom as well as hardship, a life constructed through choice as much as it was shaped by circumstance. Looking at her, I think of Mrs. Crooks, whose beautifully penned letters to my great-great-grandmother Annie are among my treasures. One, dated May 19, 1881, was written in Poplar Hill, Kansas and sent to Annie’s new home in Chariton, Iowa.
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. As for Chariton, the Lucas County town where Annie’s husband helped organize the 34th Iowa Infantry at the beginning of the Civil War and in which they settled 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 land that sustained them.
They weren’t perfect, these forebears of ours who made a country. They had their own share of strange ones and lazy ones, and for many families the liars, the cheats and the thieves became the stuff of legend. But they knew how to break a prairie and plant a crop, how to build shanties of sod and lay rails of steel. They mined the coal and laid the roads, built the schools and educated their children, birthed their babies and buried their dead and against all odds made it work by virtue of their resiliance and stubborn determination.
Were mistakes made? Of course. Were they always successful? Of course not. But even in the face of failure they loved their country and cherished their independence. Remembering grandparents and great-grandparents who fought and died to ensure their freedom, they lived out their days counting the cost of self-evident truths and and inalienable rights. They preserved and planted the seed of liberty with as much deliberation as they planted their corn and peas, and brought in its harvest with equal delight.
As surely as my kitchen companion Betsy made her own groceries, they made their own country, tending to the responsibilities and hard work of citizenship with diligence and care.
As I reflect on the founding of this nation and the responsibility we bear for its continuation, I find myself uneasy, sensing a change of focus, a societal shift, a seeming determination among governmental and bureaucratic sorts to institutionalize dependence at every turn.
Increasingly, we are told we cannot be trusted with our own lives – with our health, our children or our economic decisions. We are told we do not have the strength, the tenacity or the wisdom to weather the storms of life or 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 assured that only the self-appointed experts among us have the knowledge or skill to set the parameters of our lives, while those who never have met us increasingly demand that our youngest, our most frail and our aged have the conditions of their lives determined by governmental fiat rather than by the loving decisions of supportive families. When curiosity, conviction or the quest for a better life leads us to strike out in new directions, far too often our progress is impeded by barriers put in place by those convinced we have no right to chart our own course.
I suspect that, like those who preceded us, each of us has taken risks that ended in great reward and engaged in risky behavior that brought unhappy consequences. We have been wrong about individuals and supported bad policies, but we also have been right about people and causes and benefited greatly because of it. Some of us live financially comfortable lives while others constantly are scrounging for a few more dollars. Some of us have achieved our goals, while others continue to press on. But through it all and however imperfectly, we sense that growth and maturation is the point of life. The independence of adulthood is meant to replace the natural dependence of a child, and in the end, it is the willingness to accept both risk and responsibility that brings life’s greatest rewards, both to individuals and nations.
Today, questions abound. Are we willing to exchange the rewards of risk for the poor substitute of comfort? Will we choose passivity over active participation in our life and governance? Will we forego excellence in favor 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 a nation for us through their effort and their will?
Time will tell. But glancing at Betsy, serene and implacable on her wall, I see her asking the question too, in her own, inimitable way. Will we yield to the temptations of a pre-packaged life, or will we dare to make our own groceries?