My mother came late to her role as a farm wife. She was in her forties when we moved to the farm, and having grown up in hotels (her father was a hotel manager), she didn’t even learn to cook until she was thirty.
When she and my father first married, they hired a WWII veteran, George, to take care of the lawn. He did that, but my mother also found out that he could cook. He couldn’t read, so Mother bought Joy of Cooking and read the recipes out loud to George. Then, she watched how he did things.
Ten years later we moved to the farm, and by then my mother was a great cook. She also took to gardening early on, growing beans, lettuce, and tomatoes at first. She had a fenced garden spot at our new home on the farm, and she added sweet corn, squash, chives, tarragon, and eventually potatoes.
She froze the extra veggies for the winter, and we made applesauce from the orchard. We had beef cattle, sheep, and hogs, so we raised our own meat supply. A tenant farmer took care of the animals, and a horse trainer worked the horses. My father commuted to his office and work as a building contractor.
But things happen. In the 1950s in Pennsylvania, the legislature saw fit to charge mortgage points and make it retroactive. My father had several homes under construction, and the new law wiped him out. We sold our new house, moved to the 1860s tenant house on the property, and became full-time farmers. The steel mills were closing; times were tough. I was young and I never realized how hard it must have been for my mother to sell her dream house.
She jumped into farm-wife mode. My parents bought chickens for eggs and a cow for milk. The chickens had the run of the barn across the road, and they would all lay in one hidden nest until we discovered the egg cache. Then they would find a new spot.
We took turns milking the cow. The first was a gentle Jersey. The second was a Guernsey cross who found it great fun to swish her tail through the milk and into your eyes or step in the bucket. I learned a lot of colorful language when my brother ignored my suggestion to tie her tail. Mother purchased a home pasteurizer, and we discovered the wonders of home-raised milk. She made butter with a hand churn. My dad loved the buttermilk. Her next experiment was cheese. Sometimes it turned out like cottage cheese, and other times it was more like cream cheese. With some onion soup mix and Worcestershire Sauce, it became a yummy dip.
She cooked our home-grown wheat for hot cereal. We picked wild black raspberries and blackberries from the roadside and made jam. Mother made barley duc from a friend’s currants and strawberry jam from strawberries grown by a neighbor. We composted or fed our scraps to the hogs. Eating seasonally from the garden, from the neighbors, and from the freezer was a way of life. And it was all naturally grown.
A neighbor started growing “organic food.” We wondered what that meant, since we didn’t use any chemicals anyway. We decided it meant he wasn’t going to wash the vegetables, because that was the only way it could be more natural than what we were doing.
One day I came home from school and found Mother and a friend making candles from tallow. The tallow stunk, so she had added some cheap perfume. The house smelled like a perfume factory. She had melted crayons to color the candles, but the wax wouldn’t mix and the kitchen was covered with stinky, streaked, would-be candles.
She took to sewing in the winter. My sister wanted a Barbie doll. I’ll never forget the way our old blacksmith blushed when he walked in the kitchen and saw a naked Barbie on the ironing board. The makings of Barbie clothes were pinned and ready to sew. When I was going to spend a week with my friend in the city, Mother converted a tablecloth into a bathrobe and used the napkins for pockets. I wasn’t supposed to tell the source of my colorful robe, but my friend’s family was impressed.
Mother didn’t bake, except for occasional cookies or birthday cake from a mix. But she thought I should learn, so she had a friend come teach me to make a pie crust and homemade bread. I couldn’t wait to make my first apple pie. The apples were small and faulty, so I didn’t really cut up enough for my father’s favorite pie. He took one bite and asked if there was any filling.
I garden, pick blackberries, put up food, and sometimes I even sew, but I’ve never been half the farm wife my mother was. My husband spent too long on a dairy farm to ever want a milk cow, and we never did more than talk about getting chickens. Hard to imagine that the girl who grew up in hotel rooms would be my inspiration for living off the land.
Photo by Fotolia/Cherries