Because they never owned a car and never learned to drive, someone made a special effort to bring Grandma and Grandpa – my father’s parents – to the celebration of my third birthday.
Generally, we traveled the thirty-five miles to their home for Sunday dinners or holiday celebrations. Why the routine was broken for this occasion I can’t say, but I cherish the snapshot: my only image of this improbable couple.
Born in Sweden, they traveled to America as strangers on the same ship in the early 1900s. After meeting and marrying in Minneapolis, they moved to Iowa, struggled through the Depression, raised six children, and delighted in their grand-children. Then, they were gone.
Loving but taciturn, Grandpa preferred time in his workshop to front porch socializing, although he welcomed the presence of grandchildren. His tools fascinated me. Along one edge of the work bench, chisels and awls marched in formation, arranged by height. Secured to a wall, saws, axes, and an adze gleamed in the faint light: rust-free and ready for work.
A small cubby held tacks, nails, and screws in assorted bottles and tins; close by the unlocked door, a cigar box contained a scattering of nickels and pennies, as well as cigarettes and matches.
In those days of penny candy, I imagined the contents of the cigar box to be a fortune. When I asked if the money was his, Grandpa smiled and said it had been left by friends who’d stopped by for a smoke. Only later did I realize the truth. Those ‘friends’ were strangers: men riding the rails; stopping off in hopes of finding a meal, a day’s work, or even a cigarette. With the nickels and pennies they left, they ensured a smoke for the next man off the rails.
Grandfather and father sharing a smoke in front of the workshop
While the men busied themselves with their tools, the women clustered on the front porch, stitching smiling radishes and dancing tomatoes across acres of cotton sacking that would be made into tea towels.
While they worked, I snapped beans, sorted thread, or wandered off to engage in a long-standing family ritual called Checking Out The Pantry. Long and narrow, lit by a single hanging bulb and lined with shelves that climbed higher than any child’s sight, that pantry was a marvel.
Jars of home-canned vegetables and fruits, jellies and jams, spiced crabapples, and a variety of pickles shimmered in the dim light. Saltines and gingersnaps nestled against cupcakes and rolls from the Omar man. Jewel Tea premiums — pie plates, pitchers, and baking dishes — shared shelf space with a footed cake plate with an aluminum cover and my favorite kitchen tool — a glass whipping bowl with a combination lid and beaters that I could lick after I finished whipping the cream.
As children, we knew Grandma’s rule: we were to look but not touch. We rarely snitched a cookie without asking, and we never dared pick up a figurine in the living room or rearrange the colored glass bottles in the kitchen window.
But life with Grandma entailed more than ‘just looking.’ In her mind, a child with time enough to stare into a pantry was a child with time to help: especially with cleaning.
Dish-washing, dusting, and sweeping didn’t qualify as cleaning; they were part of the daily routine. Serious house-cleaning took place according to some mysterious schedule that was impossible to predict. When the spirit moved her and she declared, “Time to Clean!” the process was a wonder to behold.
Spring and autumn meant window washing, rug-beating, curtain laundering, and porch-painting. With windows thrown open to the air, the fragrance of her work wafted through the neighborhood: lavender sachets for the drawers; Spic-N-Span for linoleum floors; lemon oil for furniture, and vinegar for glass.
In winter, a different kind of cleaning took place. Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Grandma set aside dusting and sweeping for a project terrifying in its scope.
While Grandpa fled to his workshop, Grandma went to work with a zeal that reminded my father of Sherman’s March to the Sea. She inventoried every closet, emptied and rearranged every drawer, looked under every bed, and sorted through every piece of paper and clothing in the house in search of the forgotten, the unused and the unnecessary.
“Karin Larsson at the Linen Cupboard” ~ Carl Larsson
By nature a saver, she also believed that if we hadn’t used it, looked at it, or remembered it in the past year, we didn’t need it. If we’d neglected a toy, someone else should play with it. Unused kitchen items were sent off to be newly useful in another home. Was there a knick-knack no one enjoyed? It might bring joy to someone else.
Granted, her definitions of ‘useful’ and ‘necessary’ were remarkably elastic. More William Morris than Marie Kondo, she lived by Morris’s dictum that a home should contain nothing not known to be useful, or believed to be beautiful.
Boxes of rarely viewed photographs, letters written during the wars, greeting cards from grandchildren, and postcards from friends in the old country always were saved. Worn towels, outgrown clothing, lace trim from worn bed linens and fabric scraps were saved to be transformed into quilts or rugs. The enormous roasting pan stayed. Wooden barrels stayed. Buttons and bias tape stayed.
But unclaimed dishes from a year’s worth of church dinners? Costumes for dolls that had been broken or given away? Unread magazines? Outgrown shoes or broken mirrors? Their fate was sealed.
In the end, whatever was tossed or given away, Grandma entered each New Year knowing precisely what her house contained, and precisely where to find it.
Looking back, I’m not surprised the family rolled its collective eyes when the annual battle with clutter began. But Grandma held to her ritual, and since I was available during Christmas vacation, she often pressed me into service.
We spent hours working together: shoving and carrying, lifting and rearranging. The labor could be tedious, and there were times when I became frustrated by hours spent working rather than playing, but when we were done I felt a bit lighter myself, as though all that excess, all those unnecessary accretions, had been a burden pressing down on my own young life.
And that, I suspect, was her point. In the end, the unnecessary and the unwanted turn out to be burdens, and it’s always best to enter the New Year with as few burdens as possible.
With the beginning of each new year, memories of my grandmother and her routine never fail to surface. For years those memories have caused me to do my own cleaning of closets and drawers: looking things over, sorting them out, making decisions with a certain sense of urgency, as though Grandma herself might step through the door, ready to judge my efforts.
Each year, with so much sorting and dispersing already behind me, household clutter is less of an issue, but the ritual endures. As I work, I occasionally ponder a new possibility: what would happen if we approached life itself as Grandma approached her house? What if her lessons about dealing with the unnecessary, the useless, and the unwanted have broader application?
Like most people, I have a lifetime of preconceptions accumulated in the corners of my mind. There are a few prejudices that could stand a good sorting, not to mention a few irrationalities. Tendrils of laziness could stand to be pruned, and small grudges that litter my life like crumbs on a carpet would sweep up easily enough once I began. If a light film of anger dims the world’s light, only a little effort might wipe it away: only a bit of will, and a little energy.
Standing at the end of one year and looking toward another through my grandmother’s eyes, I already feel lighter. It’s good to clean house.
Comments always are welcome.
120 thoughts on “Grandma’s New Year’s Toss”
Happy New Year! Great post!
Thanks, so much. Here’s to a better year for us all: happy and healthy.
That was beautifully done, Linda. All the best for you in the new year. I’m sure you are already way more organized than I could ever hope to be.
I appreciate those kind words, Anneli. As for being organized, it’s true that I am, more or less, in my home. This coming year I need to apply Grandma’s wisdom to my photo files and blog archives. That could take the bulk of the year.
A beautiful tribute, beautifully written! Thank you for sharing.
Good memories are meant to be cherished, and shared. I’m glad you enjoyed this bit of remembrance. Thank you.
Loved reading these childhood recollections. Descriptive, instructive, and satisfying conclusion.. perfect New Year read! Best wishes for 2023.
Calendars and clocks are a part of my life, but not annoyingly so. Time’s stream flows on, uninterrupted, while we stop occasionally to ponder what it’s brought into our lives. Remembering the past is a way of recommiting to the sort of future we’d like to have; there’s no better time to do that than the ‘new’ year. I hope it’s the best ever for you and Nigel!
This is a wonderful tribute to your grandmother. We learn so much from helping others – willingly or not! I am sorting through my own home very gradually indeed; a painful / poignant process that makes me realise how much we actually burden ourselves with ‘stuff’. This post encourages me to continue!
The ‘de-cluttering’ process began in earnest for me after I moved to Texas and discovered the realities of hurricane evacuation. Deciding what to pile into the car and what to leave behind can’t be done in an afternoon: at least, not well. As for work, my father certainly was shaped by his parents, and in turn shaped me. Some of my best memories of time spent with my dad involve working together, and it never was drudgery.
The birthday picture of you and your grandparents is precious! Wonderful memories growing up and your grandmother was a wise and industrious woman! I like how you connected cleaning house to cleaning up the mind as we enter the new year. Leaving inspired…thanks Linda.
Happy new year!
My grandmother was a wise woman: well-equipped to guide a child through those formative years. She had a spine like steel, too. There are one or two stories about her I’ve not yet told. Perhaps this coming year will be the time. Happy new year to you and your family. I hope it’s a healthy one, and filled with great new adventures.
Grandmothers are special people and I’m so glad that you had an awesome one to look up to and learn from. Yes, maybe this coming new year will be the year to write more about her!
Happy new year to you too and wishing you the best!
I know this — both of my grandparents would have taken great delight in your kids. Here’s to a good year for them, too.
Aww thank you…that’s so sweet. I’ll convey the new year message to them.
The animated story of two assiduous people from whom we are reminded of a precious bygone day. Their earnest routines are preserved ( like the fruit and veggies in the tall pantry) by a most observant grandchild who was blessed with a talented pen and an incredible memory.
Happy New Year Linda.
The circumstances of life change, but values need not. An appreciation of work, the pleasures of neighborliness, and a willingness to accept responsibility for decisions still add value to life. As for my grandparents and parents, I still prefer their wisdom to much of the advice being offered today. As Annie Dillard puts it in The Writing Life,” slightly paraphrased here: we should be careful of what we learn, for that will be what we know.
That’s a fascinating read. I certainly think your Grandma had the right idea in decluttering and getting rid of things unused and not needed. We occasionally do this on a smaller scale, but usually end up disagreeing on whether an item should be saved or not.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that disagreements arise over what should be kept and what let go. I sometimes disagree with myself in the course of the process. That said, I’ve very rarely regretted a decision to move something along. It happens, but I’ve never made the effort to retrieve or replace something I let go.
That tends to be how I feel, too. Once it’s gone I rarely miss it – or, indeed, remember it.
Lovely post, Linda–your descriptions are so warm and vivid. Wishing you the best year ahead and look forward to more of your wonderful writing.
Well, hello! You must be back from your trip. I hope everything went well. As you probably know, there were a few little glitches in our transportation system recently. I do hope your garden didn’t suffer too much from the recent freeze. I suspect your native plants will show some resilience, as they have in the past.
Nope, still in Vienna about to see what they do for New Year’s! As for the garden, I’m pretty sure some of my non- natives won’t have survived. The natives will be fine.
Have fun! We’ll keep any further frosts and freezes away for you!
What a wonderful word quilt about your grandparents. Have you published this before or some version of it? I remember the cigar box of coins and the end of the year inventory—both of which are fascinating details.
Yes, I did publish a version of this a few years ago. Some serious editing tightened it up, and I thought it was worth putting out again. It also was worth making a run through my spam files this morning. I discovered three comments from you there. I’ve approved them now, and will get by later this morning to reply to them. I have no idea why that would have happened, unless you’re using a new device. Sometimes that will throw someone in to spam. Anyway: all fixed. Happy New Year!
“word quilt” – what a perfect description!
Isn’t that terrific? I like the way it connects my grandmother’s quilting and what I do here.
The Chinese consider it good luck to start the new year with a clean house, but if you take a bath on New Year’s day, that will wash all your good luck away!. Your grandma had the right idea. We accumulate too much stuff, stuff that could be thrown out, recycled, donated, repurposed.
If taking a bath on New Year’s Day washes away our good luck, we’d better be careful while eating those black-eyed peas! As for too much stuff, you may remember what I went through while trying to disperse my yarn-obsessed mother’s stash after her death. I still think about that from time to time. Whatever name you put on the ‘hang on to stuff’ contiunuum, my mother and my grandmother were at opposite ends of that one.
They are, indeed. It would be fun to have Grandma and Grandpa back for a few days, just to ask the questions that have arisen over the years, but since the memories will have to do now, I’m glad they’re good ones.
Another place, another time. No longer here, but not gone away.
But also this place, and this time. One thing I’ve learned as I’ve aged is that I have far more control over the shape of my world than some would have me believe. I don’t always choose wisely, but I do have a good bit of choice. At least to a degree, I can live as my grandparents lived, and for that I’m immensely grateful.
I think your grandmother and my wife would get along famously if they met.
If nothing else, they could compare quilt patterns. Grandma was quite the quilter; she and her friends turned them out on a regular basis. Given that they hand quilted, the amount of work they did was amazing to me even as a child.
I have a beautiful hand stitched quilt from my grandmother.
Like you, I have one made by my grandmother. They’re treasures, for sure. Since mine’s a true patchwork quilt, I can look at it and still find bits of family clothing: one of my sundresses, or my mother’s skirt. Such fun!
I think everyone should write down memories of their grandparents and bygone times. My grandfather wrote several essays about his grandparents and memories from his life.
That kind of record is so important. I have a hand-written history of my mother’s side of the family that was put together by a favorite great aunt who lived in Louisiana. I need to get that transcribed before it literally fades away; she tended to write in pencil.
What a gift your Grandma was in your life! Thanks for sharing her wisdom with us. I was turning over every nook and cranny in my “house” when I got to the second to last paragraph. I must admit cringing at “pruning the tendrils of laziness” – too close to home, but it’s always good to turn over a new leaf with the new year. What a joy to read your vivid rumination of your childhood on the threshold of a new year. May it be a wonderful beginning!
In truth, every day’s an opportunity to turn over a new leaf. When a new year rolls around, it’s tempting to set out fantastic goals, but smaller changes every day can bring better results. That said, Grandma was good at goals small and large; it was just that her end-of-year shenanigans were so dramatic everyone took notice!
Here’s to a good new beginning for us all!
How well you conjure up the “terror” of Grandma’s cleaning: “While Grandpa fled to his workshop, Grandma went to work with a zeal that reminded my father of Sherman’s March to the Sea.”
There’s no question that comparison was apt. Grandma could bake a mean cookie, but she was, as people use to say, a ‘tough cookie’ herself. You probably remember how she kept me from knowing my favorite aunt had spent some time in the slammer for embezzlement. One of the best still-untold Grandma stories involves her taking on the Klan: something else I didn’t know until my dad told me about it in the early ’80s. Maybe this will be the year I finally get that one published.
I definitely like your grandmother! I wish I had the time and energy to go through my house once a year like that. We did some remodeling a couple of years ago, which forced us to go through the basement as well as our closets, and we threw out an incredible amount of stuff!
Ah, shoot. I just went through my spam files and found you there! That’s why I always go through those files. In between all the bots, there are real people!
I used to move on a regular basis — about every three years — and that pretty much kept me up to date. Then, I settled a bit, and the rest is history: and clutter. Remodeling would do the same thing, that’s for sure. The trick is to do what Grandma did: make the decluttering part of a routine, rather than an enforced necessity.
Such a beautiful revision – and an even more perfect telling.
So much is familiar to me with my old family and relatives – they all had so much in common. The sorting and discarding/passing on the things not used over the last year.
The mention William Morris added some smiles – I think I need to revisit his writing again.
Thanks for the lovely time.
I’m always intrigued by your own family tales. Despite early years in different cultures, the similarities are there. Clearly, they’re more generational than geographical. The stories I hear from today’s grandmothers about the absolute inability of their grandkids to cope with the real world make me ever more grateful for the upbringing I had.
I love hearing these memories from your childhood! How close to the railroad tracks did they live? My wife’s grandparents (grandmother especially) also had a soft spot in her heart for those hobo’s…they live not to far from the tracks in Hastings NE.
How close were the tracks? Not far. There was a one-lane gravel-and-dirt alley that ran behind the workshop in the second photo. Beyond that was a ditch, and beyond that the tracks. So — maybe a hundred feet? They were local tracks, used by trains hauling coal from the mines to transfer points somewhere down the road. My guess is that a lot of the guys who stopped by had been down at the mines, looking for work. Grandpa had been a coal miner in Sweden before coming to Iowa and becoming a miner again, so he would have had some sympathy for the drifters.
There is so much of your grandmother’s philosophy, and your adapted version, to love, relate to and hopefully learn from. I must admit that my favourite image here is of your “…favorite kitchen tool — a glass whipping bowl with a combination lid and beaters…” – I’d love to see (and use!) one! Happy new year!
I wondered if I could find a photo of ‘my’ bowl online, and I came close. Mine wasn’t as tall as this one, and the beaters had a red handle, but the basic idea’s the same. In the photo, notice the butter paddle just to the left of the beater bowl. I have my grandmother’s, and it’s hanging on my kitchen wall right now.
Nice! Happy New Year!
A lovely post, Linda. An inventory of all that forms our consciousness is a great thing. To lighten our challenges with a sound cleaning and airing sound so good. Happy New Year to you.
If I had to pick one thing about spring cleaning that I loved, it was the open windows, and the fresh breeze blowing through the house. I suppose down here it would be autumn cleaning, when those wonderful October breezy, low humidity days show up. Throwing open our personal windows to catch a bit of breeze always is a good thing; if we’ve created a bit of space to sit back and enjoy it, that’s all to the better.
I love the idea of throwing open a personal window. Can be done anytime.
Your recollections always bring back memories from my childhood. Thank you for this gift. I especially love how you move from masterful prose to poetry here: “There are a few prejudices that could stand a good sorting, not to mention a few irrationalities. Tendrils of laziness could stand to be pruned, and small grudges that litter my life like crumbs on a carpet would sweep up easily enough once I began. If a light film of anger dims the world’s light, only a little effort might wipe it away: only a bit of will, and a little energy.” Happy New Year!
I’m sure there are times when you’re more than usually pleased with your drawings; in this case, I especially like that paragraph you quoted. When something works, I think it’s fine to celebrate it. We can’t be creative all the time, but now and then it happens — and it’s great fun when it does.
lol…yes, it is great fun!
Oh my goodness, I so enjoyed your memories here. They reminded me I have some similar ones too. Those pantry shelves full to the top with canned goods just one of them. And oh yes, Jewel Tea! Thank you for sharing this lovely post with us and that priceless photo.
My mother preferred Jewel Tea’s “Autumn Leaf” pattern, but my grandmother’s range set and pitchers were Univeral Cambridge: the “Bittersweet” pattern. I still have the range set and use it regularly. It’s a lovely reminder of the native bittersweet that was so pretty in the fall, as well as a reminder of my grandparents’ kitchen.
My mother also like Jewel Tea’s Autumn Leaf and I have two pieces of it.
Wonderful memories which are veritable tributes. That is a lovely picture to have – and especially of you
There’s quite a story lurking behind the dishes in that photo, too. They were given as a premium when my dad bought my mom’s engagement and wedding rings. They went from being the good china, to everyday china, to a few miscellaneous pieces that stayed mostly in the cupboard. One day, I decided to try to put together a full set again, and I managed it. I still have the dishes, and use them almost daily. The story’s less about those dishes than the fact that they started me on a china collecting journey. Another story for another time!
A fascinating story
This is a fine tribute to your grandparents, especially your grandmother. These days I clean like her, “when the spirit moves.” Happy New Year.
The spirit has moved me to begin a serious cleaning up of my computer files and photo archives. However: that’s a long term project that I’ll start tomorrow, and finish by next New Year’s Day. A happy and healthy new year to you and yours, whatever projects you take on!
You paint wonderful pictures with your words, Linda!
Thank you, Sheila. I can’t paint with a brush, that’s for sure, so I try and make do here. Thanks so much for your visits, and happy new year!
Good post again.
I remember sleeping over at my grandparents’ place and the smell of turpentine and seeing jars of paintbrushes suspended in it. My granddad was an artist and well known during his life. He had a large family to support. The old house is still in the same place. I slept upstairs and while looking at the wallpaper lifted a piece away from the wall. I would have been about 4 years old, 1944 and it was during the war. Strange how those memories hang about.
Happy New Year.
It’s interesting that your artistic ability continued a family tradition. I’ve read that abilities can skip a generation; were your parents artistic, too? I didn’t know until I’d been varnishing boats for years that my mother grew up helping her father at his work: varnishing the woodwork in elegant homes. She never had a bit of interest in the work herself, and was astonished when I ended up doing it.
As for sleep overs at the grandparents, your memory evoked one of my own. I well remember being put down for an afternoon nap at these grandparents’ home: the metal bedframe, the open window, and the breeze stirring the delicate white curtains. Funny, how some memories are like snapshots in time.
Wonderful post, Linda, most inspiring!
I’m glad you found it so, Eliza. I suspect my grandparents would be amazed to find themselves a subject for writing, but I hope they’d be pleased, too.
I loved this! It’s a wonderful trip down memory lane, permeated with love, with a ton of wisdom thrown in and an important lesson at the end. I’m with your grandmother: if you don’t enjoy it or don’t need it, get rid of it. And why not apply that same philosophy toward our own habits and thoughts? We could all stand a good housecleaning… Happy New Year!
I remember two aphorisms from my childhood. One probably is more widespread than I’ve realized, but I do remember hearing it at my grandparents’ house: ‘So soon old, so late smart.’ One of the things I’ve become aware of in the past decade or so is that age does bring a certain perspective. It may not be wisdom, but sometimes it comes close.
The other one I remember is a Swedish proverb that Grandma quoted from time to time: “Who does not want to work in the heat, will have to starve in the cold.” Every August, when I’m cursing the heat on some boat deck, I remember that, and laugh.
That’s a very good proverb!
Linda, I enjoyed this whole story and the 2nd-to-last paragraph I think I’ll print out and tack on the refrigerator. Happy New Year and thank you for all the great writing in 2022.
Now, that’s fun. I don’t think I’ve been displayed on a refrigerator since Mom stopped putting up my grade-school ‘art work.’ It’s fun writing when there are good readers like you. The way I figure it, one good reader’s worth at least a hundred ‘likes,’ and often more. You’re the proof of my theory! Happy New Year — I’m looking forward to more of your quirky sense of humor.
Happy New Year, Linda!
How wonderful that you have such vivid memories of your grandparents! I loved the description of the cold storage. We have one even now, although it pales in comparison with those I recall as a child. New Year’s cleaning is of a piece with being prepared, I think… something our elders seemed to embrace with wisdom.
There’s no doubt that organization and preparation go together. If I added up all the time I’ve spent in my life searching for that ‘something’ that I know I stashed ‘somewhere,’ I’d have enough time to do something fairly substantial! If you add in the time disorganized me has spend looking for a certain photo that I know I have, it would be almost embarassing. That’s why one of this year’s projects is applying Grandma’s wisdom to computer files and photo archives!
Best to you in this VERY worthwhile project!
Thanks! We’ll see how it’s going in a month or two!
Super post and what a grandmother…she sounds quite amazing
She was an amazing woman. I didn’t fully appreciate that when I was younger, and especially when she still was alive, but that seems to be the way of life. The old saying, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’ certainly applies in her case.
It’s usually the way.
Leaving aside my own happy memories of my grandma’s pantry, I think I’ll clean out a closet or two, though likely not with the zeal of your grandma or William Tecumseh Sherman. And wipe away a few darkening attitudes, unfocused activities, and replace them with brightness and intention. Happy New Year, Linda!
“Brightness and intention” are two terrific words. Some of my friends have changed from making resolutions for the new year to choosing a word to guide them. That’s always seemed just a little silly to me — if you focus on one word, think of how many others you’d ignore — but if I were to do such a word-choose, I’d bend the rules a bit and take on “brightness and intention.” It’s a phrase that could be as useful in photography as in life.
Thanks for the phrase — and happy new year!
Oh, the memories of Mom’s pantry. Houses in Colorado had full basements, and the walled-off area under the 6″ thick concrete porch was our “root cellar”. Lit by one light bulb (and woe betide anyone who left the light on), as you say, and with a dirt floor, it was always cool and fresh and silent down there. The meat grinder, giant canning pots, a sand bed for keeping garden carrots through the winter, stacked jars of canned vegetables, the precious few jars of canned peaches (the peaches individually picked down in Rocky Ford, so ripe Dad said the imprints of your fingertips stayed in the fruit’s flesh). Thanks for these wonderful memories.
I can see your root cellar perfectly well. My grandparents’ looked like a tiny backyard ‘mountain’ to me as a child; it was a combination storm cellar and root cellar, with the same single bulb and dirt floor, but built rather like a cave. I used to climb it, and have one photo of me standing proudly atop its height.
Isn’t it amazing how vivid some of these memories can be? They seem to stay with us as surely as those fingerprints on your peaches: imprints of the past that stilll can be discerned in the present. That said, I was completely intrigued by your carrots’ sand bed. I don’t remember anything like that, even though the meat grinder and canning pots are perfectly familiar. I do remember true ice houses, though, with winter’s block ice kept in straw for the sake of summer ice boxes!
Apparently, in super-dry Colorado, the carrots needed the sand covering to slow their dehydration. By March, they were pretty rubbery, but they still provided fresh powerful flavor in stew and soups.
Mom told us a harrowing ice house story. In the late 20’s, she was about 5, not yet in school. She remembers the excitement when the ice-cutting crew came to their Connecticut farm to cut the deep pond ice for their ice-house. The crew had to be very careful handling the long saw blade, and the huge blocks tended to tip slightly as the men walked across them, sending a thin skin of water over the surface and making a treacherously slippery surface. The first block was lifted out and onto the wagon, no problem. But that left room for the other blocks to tip more precipitously, and a man slipped and fell into the icy cold water. By they time they got him out and half-carried him into Grandma’s farmhouse kitchen, he was shaking uncontrollably. Mom remembered being shocked at his gray face, and the urgency with which Grandma stripped him of his wet clothes in front of the big wood burning stove, then wrapped him in a warm wool blanket. It was the first time Mom had seen a naked man, and when she told me this story in her 90’s, her eyes still widened at the memory.
Annual house cleaning. What an appropriate concept as we step into a new year.
Excellent essay. I usually have my coffee black but today it was sweetened by the memories you coaxed into my consciousness.
The description of your Grandma’s pantry brought up a recollection that startled me by its clarity. My Dad’s parents had a large farm in northwest Florida. In Grandma’s kitchen was a pot-bellied stove and “The Pantry”. In the bottom right-hand side of the stove was a small door behind which leftover biscuits were kept for the day. On the third shelf of the pantry at the far left could be found a couple of jars of pear preserves. Biscuit. Preserves. My life of crime began and ended at age seven. Until I was caught, there was some delicious larceny committed. Once caught, punishment was immediate and severe. The pantry was safe from my further intrusion forever.
As for applying the house cleaning theory to my personal life, well, the most difficult part of any arduous task is beginning. Pruning those “tendrils of laziness” may take longer than planned. Much longer.
I can’t imagine anyone not being tempted if biscuits and preserves were available. Still, there comes a time when all of us have to learn to say, “Get thee behind me, Biscuit!” My grandmother’s stove didn’t have such a biscuit keeper, but it did have a pot always on the back burner that made the best coffee in the world: Swedish egg coffee as clear as your Florida waters, without a hint of bitterness.
Personally, I couldn’t resist chocolate chips. My mother’s efforts to keep them out of my reach by sticking opened bags in the tiny cabinet above the refrigerator only stirred my inner Edmund Hillary. It didn’t take long for me to realize that dragging a kitchen chair to the counter, then adding a stepstool to the counter, would make the top of the refrigerator accessible. It only worked if a babysitter was in the house, though.
The thing about those tendrils of laziness is that, like actual vines, they tend to overtake anything in their path. I don’t know how it is for you, but I’ve found they can strangle every list, schedule, and good intention they come across!
“… tendrils of laziness is that, like actual vines, they tend to overtake anything in their path.”
And that is why I was so clever over 50 years ago and made a contract with an expert gardener. Her pruning skills are legend.
I laughed at that one. The first image that came to mind wasn’t a daisy. It was a pair of raised eyebrows over a coffee cup, responding to the suggestion that it might be too [hot, cold, dry, early, late] to head out into nature.
Happy New Year, Linda — out with the old and in with the new, huh? Nobody was better at that than our previous generations (or maybe I’m wrong — some were savers and kept everything, where today’s generations seem to think this is a throw-away society!) At any rate, I enjoyed your tale.
I think the inclination to save all or toss all still exists; those folks are at opposite ends of the “what to do with stuff” spectrum. It makes sense in a way. Both approaches are ways of avoiding difficult decisions about what to keep and what to toss. I’ve heard stories galore from my friends who spend entire days going through stuff, but end up frustrated because they can’t decide what to do with any of it.
Get rid of the spices that create drudgery, crankiness, and depression. Especially toss out revenge, regret, and unforgiveness. They don’t deserve shelf-life.
We’re on the same wave length here, Oneta. Age sure does beget wisdom. One of my professors, who often used literature to drive home a point, had a special fondness for Moby Dick I still remember his description of Captain Ahab as a man with “an infinite grudge against the universe.” If I look closely, I can spot a few Ahabs even today.
My late husband described to me in detail the pantry at his grandmother’s house, which evidently fascinated him as a boy, with its shelves upon shelves of home-canned jars of fruit and jams and pickles and I don’t remember what all he remembered to me. He must have done a lot of “checking out the pantry” in his youth.
Your grandmother’s week-long purge puts images into my mind that I think will serve me well at this season of my life. I’m ready to start my own purge, and I will feel lucky if it only takes me one year. If by next December 26 I only have a week’s worth of unnecessaries to rid myself of, I will know a kind of freedom that I haven’t felt in about twenty years. Thank you for this encouraging story, and for sharing your grandmother with us.
Your husband’s remembrances brought to mind my own father. Every time we went to my grandparents’ home, his first act always was to check out the pantry. Then, he’d walk over to the refrigerator, open the door, and stand there. Having been taught that standing in front of an open refrigerator was a ‘no-no,’ I once asked what he was doing. “Just looking,” he said. In later years, my mother told me his habit went back at least to high school. They lived two houses apart, and one of Dad’s sisters was Mom’s best friend, so Mom spent plenty of time in that household, and could watch the goings-on.
One of the things I’ve learned in recent years is that past ‘downsizings’ make future ones easier. Many of the things I let go of fade from memory as quickly as the location of my car keys. I was totally perplexed this year when I couldn’t find a trio of purchased Christmas tree ornaments that I’d picked up on impulse. Eventually, the mystery was solved when I visited a friend, saw them hanging from her tree, and remembered: I’d given them to her as a gift two years ago. I’d never missed them.
That story matches my experience: The memory that fades first is not of the thing itself, but of my passing it on, out of my possession. I’m glad you reminded me of my plan to keep a record of at least some of these transfers, so that a few months from now I don’t waste hours hunting in every drawer and cupboard.
First of all, this goes on my list of all-time favorite Linda posts, for two reasons — your marvelous writing, weaving a story and wrapping it so beautifully at the end, as well as for the personal memories it evokes. I spent a lot of time with my dad’s parents. Grandpa was retired then and I never really knew what he did while I was there, besides work on the farm, read the paper, tinker with the car and watch television in the evening. But I spent a lot of time with Grandma, mostly in the garden and baking. They had the same set-up as your photo. A root cellar with a huge cistern under the house — a scary place to go alone, but fascinating with grandma, as we’d carry down freshly canned jars of vegetables and pickles to go on the high, cool shelves. I don’t remember her cleaning, though and certainly not having me join in. Maybe she should have. In fact, I don’t remember ever being asked to clean — just pick up. I remain very good at picking up. Very bad at cleaning!
I am going to be slowly beginning a five-year plan of major downsizing and it will be hard. I find it all beautiful, useful or sentimental. Knowing I will be delivering many boxes to charity, giving away things with meaning, tossing much,maybe selling a bit grabs at me — both physically and emotionally. Which is why it’s a five year plan. I will think of your grandmother as I do this. And smile.
Your proposed five year plan gave me a smile. I had a friend who truly was a hoarder, and when she decided the time had come to do something about it, she was just overwhelmed. Finally, she took a quite different path. Each day, she used tape or string to mark off a square, nine feet in area, and then she dealt with whatever was inside the lines. Once she got into the habit, it worked pretty well for her.
I don’t think I could make a five year plan work. The end goal would seem so far away I probably would let it just slide — exactly like I have my “plan” to learn how to use photoshop or lightroom. I have some books, and YouTube is full of videos, but the best-laid plans and all of that…
Of course, gaining knowledge is different from letting go of memories — or “stuff.” The decisions are the hardest part of the process.
What a wonderful read. I love this new version.xxx
Thanks, Dina! And here’s an extra-special little treat for you, given your rehab work. When I saw this video of a rescue beaver, I couldn’t stop laughing. Instinct is an amazing thing!
Delightful read, I enjoyed immensely.
My wife has wanted a pantry for some time now and reading about your grandma’s pantry has inspired me to get my butt in gear and get the room built for her.
So next harvest we have a place to store all our fresh goodies for the long winter haul, oh and the cleaning, that is always a work in progress I tend to keep things rather then donate or throw out you never know when you will need it. Lol But after this story I will put more effort into it.
Thank you for the inspiring story.
I’m glad you enjoyed my little bit of family history. Pantries are such cozy places, and comforting, too. It’s nice to see all that tomato sauce and applesauce lined up when winter’s coming on.
Speaking of saving things, one thing I’ve kept over the years is a collection of Liberian ‘country money’ or Kissi money. When I lived there, traditional blacksmiths still were working in the villages, and it’s possible some Kissi pennies still were being made. When I saw that you’ve done some blacksmithing, I thought you might be interested in seeing them.
Thank you so much for sharing the article on the Kissi money. I have been a hobby blacksmith for about ten years now but fell in love with the craft as a kid. I love learning new things from around the world. Thank you for sharing.
What a wonderful read… brings back a lot of memories. I chuckled that grandpa “fled to his workshop”, I remember the same of the men in my family. They always knew how to escape when the women got busy with something.
I do not remember my grandmothers getting rid of anything. I wonder if growing up in the Depression years had a lot to do with it. My mom was good to sort and toss or give away. Living in a small two bedroom home with five kids and a pack-rat husband, I’m sure she had no choice but to constantly purge! She liked a “fresh coat of pain” in most of the rooms of the house every couple of years.
My grandmother was older than the Depression years; one of the most formative experiences of her life was coming to this country by ship around 1900, with almost no luggage and very few sentimental possessions. She lived with very little, and was ‘on the move’ for a good while even after making it to the U.S. — I can’t imagine that didn’t continue to influence her. On the other hand, the end-of-year rituals of discharging debts, cleaning house, and generally settling the last year’s business before the “ringing of the bells” was part of Swedish culture, so there’s that.
My mother was at the other end of the spectrum. She wasn’t a hoarder, but she sure didn’t want to turn loose of anything that “might be useful” in the future. Of course, anything “might” be useful, so all of that stuff can pile up pretty quickly.
Hear, hear. I like your grandmother’s approach to life, to decluttering. I grew up hearing the mantra “waste not, want not” and living with parents who saved things “just in case.” It wasn’t hoarding as we know it but it also wasn’t the most balanced way to live either. I suppose we all find our own ways to deal with stuff depending on the eras in which we grew up.
Also “smiling radishes and dancing tomatoes” would make a wonderful name of a blog or a memoir. Just think of the stories one could tell under that name!
I’m sure you’re right that life circumstances affect our approach to “stuff.” My mother’s experience during her youth made her into a ‘keeper’ for exactly the reason you mentioned: you never know when something ‘might’ be useful. That’s true, of course — but I can’t remember the last time I needed something around the house that I didn’t have. That doesn’t apply to tools, though: whether kitchen or woodworking. I may need a certain tool only once a year, but if I need it, I need it.
Grandma’s tea towel patterns were pure delight. She not only created fun veggies, she made a whole set with her favorite recipes embroidered on them. I still make biscuits using her ‘tea towel recipe.’
Well, being a curmudgeon entitles me to say that maybe things were just a little better back in the old days when cupboards and family projects were the rule of the day. I remember pantries like your picture but in the homes of others. We did not can or put up food for the future but many of the neighbors I visited did. We moved a lot as my father was a traveling salesman and his territories would change so having annual routines wasn’t in our structure. And I like the thought of a matriarch, kindly of course, overseeing the family’s well being.
My grandfather was like yours, preferring to spend his time in the workshop. I guess I developed my fondness for tools and woodworking in those days spending time with him at the summer cabin in the Adirondacks watching him fashion thing from both wood and metal. His outbuilding seemed so large back then but upon visiting it (owned by someone else at that point) many years later it was actually quite small as was the three room cabin we all shared.
As ever, you put together a most enjoyable story of a piece of your history and that of our country as well.
When it comes to modernity, I’m rather like my grandmother: ready to hold on to the good parts of the past’s legacy (especially practical skills and the importance of a broad education) while accepting what I find useful in our modern age (computers, for example) and rejecting what seems burdensome or tiresome (social media). As much as people ridicule the 1950s these days, tossing entire decades out is an odd version of baby-and-bathwater.
It’s interesting to note that all of the canning, drying, and preserving that went on in those days wasn’t done by ‘preppers’ in our modern sense. Iowa winters were harsh, and there weren’t fresh veggies and fruits flown in by air from Peru. My grandmother in the summer kitchen was living out the truth of a Swedish proverb I often heard: “Who does not want to work in the heat, will have to starve in the cold.”
I grinned at your comment about the size of your grandfather’s outbuilding. I vividly remember stopping by the house I grew up in when we went back for my mother’s funeral in 2011. My first thought was, “It’s so small!” I remember it as a much, much larger home: but of course I was smaller, then.
Of course there are advantages and disadvantages to the progress humans experience. While I think most folks do realize where their food comes from others don’t and probably don’t care either. I think food was much more appreciated when we had to make or grow our own. The same for medicine. The healthcare industry has left the house calling family physician in the dust and for the most part our health is much improved as a result but the personal touch that is such a large part of healing is pretty much gone.
I still remember our family doctor making house calls when I was a kid. We didn’t call on him often, but when he came, I always got a lollipop. He’d come out in the middle of the night, too. A 3 a.m. visit that ended with me going to the hospital with significant pneumonia might have saved my life. Telemedicine’s fine, I suppose, but not in circumstances like that.
I had doctor house calls for bronchitis and my brother for pneumonia also. I don’t think either of our cases was as dire as yours but not having to leave the house while significantly ill was a benefit of a home visit. When I had what turned out to be West Nile Encephalitis I called my primary care doc on Friday but he couldn’t see me until the following Tuesday. Fortunately I went to a MedExpress and although that doc didn’t know what was wrong he recognized it as serious and sent me to the hospital ER. I ended up with a fever of 104 over the weekend which required two ice baths and had I waited for Tuesday would no longer have needed a doctor. Like I said, some things were better in the good old days.
Oh how I loved this! I loved the story of your grandparents coming over on the same boat and how they married and started a new life and family. Sounds very much like my husband’s grandparents story. And the New Year’s Toss! I think I need to adopt that tradition. However seeing how I tend to be a little bit of a collector like my dad was, the toss could take up an entire year! I am glad you have that one treasured photo with your grandparents. I am very lucky to have many, many pictures on my Dad’s side. Not very many younger pictures of my Mom and her family though.
I’ve often admired the photos you post, Sheryl: not just the quality, which is wonderful, but also that enviable quantity! We weren’t much of a photo-taking family. My parents apparently couldn’t stop taking photos of me, but I wish they’d focused the camera on some of the other relatives!
I didn’t realize until this year that it was a Swedish tradition that this sort of cleaning, along with paying off debts and such, should be done before the New Year. Apparently some of the Scottish customs are related; they do back millenia, to the times when the Saxons were roaming that entire area. If we dig deeply enough, it’s amazing how many cultures are connected.