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.