Kate Flora: I was going to write today about authors sharing some of the best, and worst, writing advice they’ve ever gotten. But something about the impending snowstorm got me thinking about Maine winters of long ago and about the way that growing up in the country and on a farm has had a lingering influence on my life and how I think, especially about land and food.
For much of my adult life, I’ve lived in a suburban community where I can see the lights of my neighbor’s houses at night. That wasn’t the case growing up. We lived in an 1811 farmhouse on a hilltop overlooking Sennebec Pond, with fields stretching out like wings beside us and thick, green forest rising up a hill across the road. We couldn’t see a neighbor to the north, and a barn kept us from seeing lights from our nearest hilltop neighbor to the south. We could see lights in the houses across the pond, more in summer when people were at their camps. But they were distant lights.
For many years, our phone line was a party line. There was no internet, of course, and no computers. Mom wrote her articles and did her correspondence on a typewriter, using carbons to keep a record of her work. We had a creaky TV antenna on the roof, sometimes snowy reception, and for the first many years of television, the set was black and white. We had a record player, but not very many records. Down in the cellar, where my father used to grade and pack the eggs from our chickens, he had a radio that was always on.
We had one bathroom for a family of five, with a hole through the floor into the cellar that grew larger year by year until my mother rebelled and called a carpenter. The cellar was low ceilinged and damp, with stone wall foundations in the older parts of the house, a mixed dirt and cement floor, and housed not only the egg grading table, wire baskets full of eggs, and stacks of cardboard boxes full of eggs sorted and packed by size but a small area where all the canned goods were stored and a dirt-floored area where potatoes and onions hung in wire baskets for the winter.
Because it was a farm, we grew or raised most of our own food, and much of the rhythm of the year was tied to that. In summer, we would be sent to the garden to weed or pick. Long summer evenings were spent at the table, snapping beans, pitting cherries, shelling dried beans, or slicing cucumbers for pickles. When I see pictures of pristine kitchens—vast swaths of empty counters, shiny floors, neat desk tops, and no papers or signs of life—I contrast that with my childhood house. The double desk overflowed with bills and papers and boxes of seeds and gardening tools and balls of twine and sticks to label plants, and batteries and work gloves and miscellaneous items stored in green cardboard berry baskets or held together with clothespins. All that mixed with genealogical correspondence, research books for mom’s articles, and dad’s reference books.
The narrow counters were full of food in progress. Vegetables waiting to be prepped and cooked, loaves of bread rising or cooling, racks of cooling cookies or muffins. Boxes of eggs. Bags and boxes of flour, wheat germ, sugar, and other baking ingredients. Under the desk, potatoes and onions and in the fall, probably a basket of miscellaneous squash. On the floor in the shed, unripe tomatoes rescued before the frost. Piles of beets and carrots. The last cucumbers, summer squash, zucchini, peppers, and maybe eggplant. Cauliflower and broccoli. In a cabinet in the corner, stacks of freezer containers and lids and heavy-weight plastic freezer bags.
In the late fall, when the harvest had been processed and food production halted, we turned to the holiday season. With no money for gifts, our gifts from the farm were baked or gathered. We made dozens of batches of cookies to be packed in tins, harvested balsam and sewed little scented balsam pillows, and my father, who loved the land and its plants, wandered the woods collecting tiny mosses and partridge berries and made terrariums. Cookies and pillows and those little gardens would be mailed off to friends and relatives who would return the cookie tins during summer visits.
When the seed and plant catalogues—what I call “flower porn”—arrive, I am reminded of my father, with his degree in horticulture, poring over the catalogues and making lists of what he would grow each year, what was tried and true and what new varities might suit our Maine soil. By February, there would likely be the beginnings of peat pots and trays on the windowsills, as seedlings were started for spring planting.
And there was snow!!
And yes, we often walked home from school, though not barefoot, and it wasn’t all uphill. But it was a very different life.
Some lucky person who leaves a comment on this, or a fellow blogger’s post this week will win a copy of my mom’s second mystery, The Corpse in the Compost.
Excellent description of life even I remember…though not the hole in the floor. The root cellar of my grandparents 1740 farmhouse kept lots of food for the winter.
And flower or garden porn is the only way to describe those catalogs though at the time, it was more of the holiday ‘wish’ book.
Our holiday wish list was the Brentano’s book catalogue. Magical!
That title made me laugh! I remember walking to school in the winter. We lived close enough to school to be able to go home for lunch. My mother always had cookies, brownies, soup, bread baking and bubbling in the kitchen. My father came home for lunch, too. I don’t remember ever once getting a ride to school. Barefoot and uphill both ways!
My father always was home for lunch…since the chicken barns were right across the road, but we got school lunch. Who can forget that gray, gelatinous mystery meat?
Oh, the memories. Mine are from upstate New York on my great grandparents’ farm, now we live on 167 acres in the County. I wouldn’t trade country life and the values it teaches. As for school – we were only uphill one way, but girls weren’t allowed to wear trousers once in the classroom. Anyone else remember coat, hat, and legging sets? It could be a cold mile uphill or down!
Didn’t we have to wear snow pants under our dresses? We had these little hooded red wool jackets from a local mill and looked like something from a children’s storybook.
Added thoughts. You used to plat the Student Prince album all the time. Christmas in Killarney was one Dad played . Remember the snowstorm so big Dad had to ski down to the common to get milk? There was another big one on New Years Eve (winds like today) where snow coming across the lake and up the hill was packed so densely Benny Mitchell, coming back from the Fireman’s Brawl, got stuck and in a blackout, walked down to the lake, up the river and came to in his bed with no recollection of having done so. That maple on the rocky path up the hill across from the house still lives, amazingly.
Okay, so maybe it is a maple. But it was hollow sixty years ago. Pretty amazing, right?
Thanks, Kate, for this wonderful memory of of your family and farm life. That self-sufficiency in terms of raising and storing food would have come in handy recently!
I certainly learned how to bake bread. We have this big metal pail with a crank handle and a screw on the bottom to attach it to the table, and made all the bread for the week in that pail.
I didn’t grow up on a farm or in Maine. My entire picture of farm, or country, life was the TV show ‘Lassie.’ In spite of not knowing a single person who lived on a farm, that was my idea of how families lived. When I was 13 we moved ‘to the country.’ City friends assumed we’d be eaten by bears. What impressed me most about our new house (which was really only an unheated camp with a half bathroom and was half the size of our old apartment) was the screen door. I opened and closed it so many times it got on my mother’s nerves, but for me it meant I finally had a house like Timmy. And snow! Boy, did we get snow!
We did have a wonderful, Lassie-like dog in Mrs. Kitzel. My mom always said she knew we kids were safe if we had the dog with us, and if a stranger’s car drove in, the dog always got between us and the car.
I grew up in Flushing NY long before it became urban; my Mom told me about pushing my baby carriage down the road to show me the cows.
Whenever we drive from Thomaston up toward Union & beyond, I think about the orange mailbox as we top the hill near your house.
And the mailbox is still orange, I believe.
I had to walk to school every day but no snow – I lived a few miles outside of San Francisco. We did visit my grandparents when they retired to the county. They had fruit trees and grew veggies. We would watch the mama duck and ducklings jump off the pier into the water. Sometimes that last duckling needed an extra bark to get him off the pier to join the family. Good memories. No snow.
Great story! I can see those ducks. We once had three ducks, Hewey, Dewey, and Louie. A family of “summer people” got them for their kids…and then…what to do? So they came to us.
Love this. I am betting that your family was a happy one.
I was in that kitchen a few times when I was a pre-schooler. The thing that impressed me so much at the time was that your family routinely made your own bread (my mother didn’t), and you and your sister kneaded the dough by playing catch with it. I’ve always wanted to do that, but I’ve never had a proper accomplice.
What my mother did do like yours was to can countless jars of beans. And I was very much part of the process–to the point where I refuse to can anything as an adult!
You were an adorable little girl, Julia.
Oh, boy. Was that ever a step back in time. I grew up on the glacial ridges of Geauga County, Ohio. Although we tried year after year to grow veggies, it was always too little. Our sweet corn was eaten raw while standing in the patch. Short and curved, we called them hedgehogs. Beans did well, but tomatoes were iffy. One summer day we were sent out to weed and found all the tomato plants lying on their sides. Cut worms, my uncle said. Mum would buy baskets of produce from the auction in Middlefield to put up and store in the cold cellar. Many times our meals were soups or casseroles made from storage that had to be used immediately because it froze in a surprise subzero dip.
We all had snowsuits with hoods. Mittens and wool socks knitted and darned by our Nana. Wellington boots lined with bread bags and those wool socks to keep our feet warm. We road the school bus. An hour both ways. We had to descend 57 steps to the driveway, and often road our sleds down the hill to save ourselves the long walk to the road.
Thank you for the photos and your memories. Deep woods, creeks, bogs, frogs, cold swims, days outside, shoveling snow, sledding until you couldn’t feel your toes or fingers or face, evenings in front of a warm fire, nights playing games in the dark. It was a hard life, but we didn’t know it then. I wouldn’t change a thing.
I think it made us both more resilient and more connected to the land, the world, etc.
Great trip down memory lane. My earliest memories are from when we lived in the then-village of East Bridgewater (MA) in a 16-room colonial on a large plot of land bordered on one side by a cemetery, behind us by woods, and across the street woods and an apple orchid (which was part of our land). The paper girl delivered on horseback and the horse grazed on our front lawn while she had coffee with my mother (she made sure we were last on the route). My parents canned all the berries and other fruits. The brother of the original house owner was an horticulturalist and had planted every type of tree, bush, and plant that would grow in New England. We never suffered from lack of variety in that regard. It was such a beautiful place to live that I didn’t speak to my parents for 3 months after we moved to the city! Granted, I was only 7 at the time, but I was and always will be a country-gal at heart.
Great story. It is wonderful to live surrounded by trees and bushes and plants and have them actually involved in your life! We had a giant raspberry patch, a giant asparagus patch and a giant rhubarb bed, along with blueberry fields. I still have the blueberry field which now grows organic berries.
A different life, indeed! I was a child of the suburbs for most of my life and felt that living in the country would be more fun than the suburbs. When my two older children were 3 and 2, we moved to an urban area where we walked to the park to play and had asphalt and cement all around our second story apartment. Four years later we moved to the outskirts of suburbia. It was nearly a year before they could get used to the lack of light in the evening and their song was “Livin’ In The Country”. The memory of that time still makes me smile. Both now live in the suburbs, but one has a large lot with fruit trees and gardens in the summer, her faithful dogs accompanying her into the yard along with her daughter and son.