Sometimes it takes a lifetime to figure out who we really are. But there are clues along the way…
Grandpa died the year I was eight. He was a wiry old man without an ounce of fat, beady eyes that meant business, and hands with missing and weathered fingers. My dad often said, “He was the strongest man in Lake County; he could pitch hay faster than any other two men put together.” Two years before he died, Grandpa finally won the “Corn King” award at the county fair for the longest and fattest ears of corn.
I don’t remember much about Grandpa, except that he constantly smoked cigars, wasn’t afraid to yell when he felt like it (which was often), and had a spirited side if you were lucky enough to be there when it showed up.
One day when I was six, the rain kept me inside - bored to tears. Grandpa grabbed the wooden handles of my skipping rope and wildly twirled the rope around and around his head, hopping like an aged kangaroo wearing shabby slippers. The dishes on the sideboard rattled, the vase on the mantle toppled over, and Granny flew into the living room, wiping her hands on her apron all the way.
“Jay Pearce, what in the world do you think you’re DOING in here?”
He stopped jumping, took a long draw on his cigar and pointed it in her direction with one eyebrow raised: “Margaret, leave us alone. This has absolutely nothing to do with you.” Then he resumed jumping with a boyish glint in his eye. It was one of those spirited moments, for sure.
I saw Grandpa a couple of times before he died while he lay still as a stone in the back bedroom of the farmhouse. His white hair fell down over his forehead; his face seemed ashen and his eyelids pinkish, sort of like you might expect of an albino. Oxygen tanks surrounded him - the sentries that guarded his final hours. When he finally passed away, the funeral service was held in the Range Line Church right down the road. He’d donated the land to the congregation some years before as the site of their new church building.
Granny died ten years later, when I was a freshman in college. The news came during Christmas vacation while I was home from school for the holidays.
Granny lived the hard but rewarding life of a farm wife before there was electricity, running water, and automobiles or tractors. When my dad was a boy, he helped prepare the fields with a horse-drawn plow; Granny went to town for groceries in a horse-drawn buggy. My sister Ann, eleven years older than I, used to sneak down the hallway and watch Granny read from her German Bible and kneel beside her bed at night. Now I look back and understand where she found her strength.
Granny began every new day at 4:30 a.m. While Grandpa was busy doing chores and caring for the animals, she cooked up the biggest breakfasts you could imagine. At 7:00 a.m. they sat down to steak (cut from a carcass hanging in the attic), fried potatoes, and fresh homemade fruit pie. Sometimes she substituted flapjacks or waffles for the pie – tall stacks drenched with home-churned butter and real maple syrup. On other days she made buttermilk biscuits and topped them with extra-spicy apple butter.
Granny was known for her cooking talents, which seemed to flow generously from what she called, “a knack.” She rarely used a recipe. Her angel food cakes towered above others at family reunions. Soft molasses cookies or date drops filled her two cookies jars: one in the kitchen and one in the dining room. Thanksgiving dinner featured her oyster-stuffed turkey, yeast rolls, and pumpkin pie.
When Granny died that December of my eighteenth year, the funeral was conducted in the same Range Line Church with dinner in the basement afterwards. I remember how Granny’s older sister, Aunt Jen, spoke to me from her heart – right there over her untouched plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
“You’re the spittin’ image of your grandmother, honey…ya look just like her. She was a tom-boy, riding that bicycle all over the neighborhood. Got in trouble more ‘n once for lettin’ her pantaloons show! But she was always devoted to family and friends, and poured herself into Jay’s farm. You’re a lucky gal…to be so much like her.” This blessing would linger for the rest of my life.
Meanwhile, a storm raged outside the church. Within only a couple of hours, a blizzard dumped 6” of snow. High winds piled it in giant heaps along the country roads. While local funeral guests scurried home, we were obviously stuck.
Fortunately, a neighbor befriended us. “Why don’t you come to our house and spend the night?” she asked. “Bob and I have plenty of room. Please, be our guests.”
This was my first real taste of country hospitality when a Good Samaritan’s hand was extended in a moment of intense need. We accepted the invitation.
That night, I felt a little bit like a princess sleeping in a tower. My room turned out to be an attic full of boxes, crates, and a spare cot. A dark and narrow, steep staircase led from the farm kitchen to the attic room. As I snuggled underneath a feather comforter, the wind howled and shook the double-hung window, its weights clanging and clattering on ropes behind the trim like wind chimes.
In the morning, I woke to the smell of bacon and coffee, and the stillness that follows a storm. Sunlight streamed through the window, magnified by reflective snow. I climbed out of bed, dressed in the clothes I’d worn to the funeral, and tiptoed down the stairs to sit on the landing just behind the doorway.
Bob and Susan were talking with my parents and two older sisters.
“Margaret and Jay were like family to us. They showed up when we needed help with calving. They stored our apples in their root cellar, and shared chicken feed when we ran out. Margaret was even here,” Susan paused to gain composure, “when our baby, Ward, was born. Ward died the next day.”
Pans clattered; my dad cleared his throat during the obvious lull in conversation. I entered the kitchen to find a table laden with enormous platters full of fresh bacon, scrambled eggs, and steaming cornmeal pancakes.
Fortunately the plows had been busy and the roads were clear, so we could head home after breakfast. Susan hugged me as we left and whispered, “Your grandparents were fine farmers – fine people. Don’t ever let go of that legacy, honey. It should make you proud.”
I returned to school after Christmas vacation, different somehow. My heritage seemed clearly defined by grandparents who worked hard, loved the land, and made a difference in the lives of others. I could not yet know I’d inherited Granny’s “knack”, or that I would eventually own a bakery/deli/lunchroom and meet the needs of many people in my community.
Granny would be pleased to know this: I’ve embraced her legacy. Now it’s time for my girls to have their turn.