Thursday, June 04, 2009

Pass It On

I chatted with my mother this evening, when I picked up the Kiddo from her house. (She had taken him on a 30 mile bike ride today. He wasn't tired out.) I told her what I had written, and my point of view on how I was raised: that when young the home arts were emphasized and when I was older I was encouraged to go to college, get a degree, and be able to support myself.

When I was young, I wanted to live like that forever. I have wonderful memories of juicing tomatoes out on the picnic table, getting them ready for canning. I thought cutting the corn off the ears was the coolest thing ever, watching the sheets of kernels fold away from the cob. And it tasted amazing in February. I used to love to look at the rows and rows of jars neatly lined up on the shelves in the pantry down in the basement - every one of them packed by us, grown by us. Dad would sometimes let me drink some of the tomato juice with him (that, and the butterscotch candies on the mantle were his, and were untouchable without invitation) and I learned to love fresh (or jarred) tomato juice with a bit of salt and pepper. (V8 tastes so fake to me)

We lived in a farm house, but didn't keep the farm. We rented the house from the owner, who lived elsewhere. So the fields around us were farmed, sometimes wheat, sometimes corn, occasionally soybeans (this was before they were such a big crop), and the barns stood big and white around the property. It was a lot of yard, and dad mowed it.

We had two gardens - one behind the house next to the field, and one across the driveway perpendicular to the road. They were HUGE, and covered far more square footage that the house and garage combined. We grew potatoes, tomatoes, corn, beans, and all kinds of good stuff. We had a Concord grape vine that make awesome grape juice (I didn't like to eat the skins, so I would peel them with my teeth and eat the sweet insides). I certainly can't forget walking long rows of potatoes with a jar of gasoline in my hand, picking off the potato bugs and dropping them into the jar. I hated killing them, but they were killing our food - the food we were going to eat until next year. Later in the season, Dad would walk along the row with a pitchfork and turn over each plant, and my sister and I would scramble to dig in the soil to find each and every potato and put it into the bushel basket, making sure that we didn't put any in the bushel basket that had been cut by the pitchfork.

We would pick raspberries in the summer, strawberries from the U-pick farm, more grapes from Grandpa's house, pull long straight carrots from the soil, and eat from this bounty all year. (Somehow, the cherry tree that I so loved to climb never seemed to yield much fruit...)

And then, of course, there was The Deer. (It's still a bit of family legend) The Deer ran across the road in front of the car (full of kids) driven by Mom's cousin, it jumped the ditch, hit the fence, and broke it's neck. we drove home, Dad called the DNR, and they gave him permission to kill it and keep the meat, if he wanted. He did, and split the meat with the cousin who was driving. That's when I learned how butchering works, and the different cuts of meat, as I assisted by sorting the cuts into the yellow buckets on the floor while Dad did the cutting up, in the basement. (I don't remember how he carried that thing down those steep stairs!) And it was my job to pick the hairs off as I sorted.

All this, and more, was "normal" to me. And it still stands as my example of how to live sustainably and self-sufficiently. And it's what I still am striving to return to.

From my mom's point of view, this was how she was raised. She loved it, staying home with us kids, gardening, sewing our clothes (I didn't mention that part, did I? She sewed most of our clothes for us) For her, this was the way to raise kids. She learned how from her mother(who learned from her mother, and so on, I'm sure, though the centuries, since that's how that kind of information usually gets passed on.)

Mom was very good at...being a Mom. She taught me to sew, to bake, to can, to garden. She showed me how parenting can be a relaxing, wonderful, happy occupation. We would play with cousins, roam the yard, try to peek in the barns that were always locked, and generally explore the outdoors around us. It was this example of motherhood and raising children that instilled in me the desire to be a mother myself.

I hear stories about and from women who never learned these things from their mothers. Some of them actually refused when asked, and told their daughters "no." They didn't want their daughters to grow up to be housewives.

And that's where I think Women's Lib went wrong...instead of offering the business world as an option, an alternative to being a housewife and mother, the business world became the only choice for many women, simply because they never learned the home arts from their mothers.

One of my (random) hobbies is reading old homekeeping manuals and cookbooks. They started appearing in about the 1830s, and are still being produced today. These books offer an amazing peek into the lives of women of the age, in what they assume you know, and in what they presume to teach. By reading through a cookbook from a different era, one can read between the lines and infer so much about the life they led - does the cookbook have recipes calling for exotic spices? Powdered sugar? sugar? honey? How about eggs, milk, butter? Does it have recipes for making butter? Some even remind you to wash the cow's teats prior to milking, using a blue cotton washcloth, not a white one (intended for kitchen use only). You've really got a gem on your hands if it tells you how to make the washcloth!

By following these books through the decades, you can actually see the transition away from knowledge passed on from mother to daughter, and to young women in need of education in the home arts. As the decades progress, the information becomes more and more basic, more fundamental and less "icing on the cake", until finally you reach a modern cookbook or homemaking book, and we are taught how to make a bed and hang clothes on a (plastic, machine-made) hanger. Reading between the lines (and in a few other references on history and the industrail revolution), we see that the need for this information comes about because young women are no longer staying home and learning this from their mothers; at about age 16, many young women left home to live in dormitories and work in factories until they got married. Then they would set up households with their new husbands, and take up homekeeping, some as late as their mid-twenties.

Fast forward a hundred years, and mothers are refusing to teach their daughters how to keep a home. And hence we need a book to tell us how to make a bed and handwash dishes. (Not me, personally, Mom - you gave me lots and lots of practice at those!)

What was your experience? Did your mother teach you how to keep a house? Garden? Sew? Or did she refuse? I'm finding the comments from Tuesday's post to be fascinating and engaging...I hope we can continue to converse on this.


NeedleTart said...

I had six aunts who grew up in the depression or earlier. They passed me around and taught me all the hand arts (embroidery, knitting, tatting, dress-making, upholstery, making curtains etc.) My Mom loved to make home made jellies and so forth (of course she was a "late child" and her Mom was born in 1880 or so). When I had my own home I was lucky enough to marry a man who earned enough to let me be a Mom first and a teacher later. I made all the boys' clothes until they were in Junior High, and made most of the food we ate (and eat) from scratch. I still bake bread every week. Younger Son is dating a girl who's Dad reconstructs antique buildings. Something must have rubbed off.

Julie said...

My mother was one of the few women who managed to 'have it all' as the woman's lib movement falsely told us we could - she managed a career and a house and kids, though she did go the route of not working when we were small, then going part time when we first started back to school, and on to full time when we were older. I also think she ran on four hours' sleep a night. So I grew up with the idea I really could do anything I wanted, an idea I carry to this day; just the other night I told my husband that I feel, these days, women have more choices than men in terms of what to do with their lives. It took him some thought, but he eventually agreed, too. (His mother did the same thing with her career that my mother did.)

I was taught all the home-making skills, either by my mother or two grandmothers who were both very much alive, well, and going at full blast when I was a child. Cooking (including how to clean a chicken from scratch - meaning a live chicken), baking, sewing, embroidery, crochet (no one knew how to knit and I had to pick that up later), 'proper' cleaning, ironing, laundry by hand and machine, you name it. Then my dad stepped in and I learned to patch drywall, change a bad light switch, do basic auto maintenance, cut down a tree, pull a stump, garden, mow a lawn. These were considered survival skills and my brother was taught all of them too, including the cooking, crochet, and embroidery. My brother was better at crochet. That always annoyed me. (My husband was raised the same way and I've thanked my mother-in-law more than once for teaching him domestic skills. The first time I thanked her, she cried.)

I fully intend to teach my daughter all these skills, and a few more I've picked up. My husband already has her in the garage helping rebuild an engine he's working on. When we move we're already planning major home renovation and we'll put her to work and teach her wiring, plumbing (the hubby) drywall, tiling, and carpentry (me). If she wants to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and hire someone to do ALL this, fine. But she'll have the knowledge to do it. At the least, that way she'll know how to talk to her housekeeper, gardener, and handyman. More likely she'll lead the same life I and her grandmothers before her led; a rewarding juggling act of career and home, where you can't REALLY have it all, but with some good choices and some sensible decisions, you can have a lot of it.

Sara said...

My mom had 8 children. We were raised in the country. She personally didn't sew, but she crocheted. Her cooking wasn't that great, but she taught us to read a cookbook. Butchering animals was typical. A deer hanging or skinning a squirrel or rabbit was typical life in backwoods Texas. I knew how to clean early on and taking care of babies was second nature by the time I was 8.

Today, I sew, crochet, knit, cook. We butcher our own meat, from the field to the freezer we (the entire family) processes 2 deer a year and it feeds 6 families for the year. Grandma and Grandpa put in a garden and over the years we've taken to helping with that garden as well as starting our own garden. We've put in "flower bed" gardens at our home and the kids love the process. My daughter and son will learn the home skills. I'm also raising a teenager and she has stated that she is not interested in learning anything from me. Teenage rebellion is awesome. Hopefully, some skills will get through to her via osmosis.

Love your blogs and this is a wonderful subject to have a discussion on. I like to see all the kindred spirits speak up and share their voices.

Alwen said...

I grew up during the recession in the 1970s. My mom canned everything, including meats. My dad hunted and fished and cleaned what he brought home on a table layered with newspaper. He taught me that you don't go killing what you don't intend to eat.

We didn't have a garden because we lived in the ranger's residence of a Boy Scout camp, and it was just too shady. My parents opened buildings on weekends and during the summer. But my mom went to every local U-pick farm in the area. Peaches, apples, beans, corn, tomatoes, you name it. My grandparents had rhubarb and red raspberries. Black raspberries grew wild along the railroad tracks & my mom made jam.

My mom did different things for money: sewed for people, including a gown for a beauty pageant, and made wedding cakes.

On the other hand, she was a great one for saying, "Let me do it, I don't have time to show you" and "I'll just do it, it'll be faster." Unfortunately you can't learn to cook and sew from someone else doing it faster. I taught myself to sew, although I still feel like a fabric butcher next to my mom. And my cooking skills are to laugh!

Anonymous said...

I sometimes pop in to see what your up to. I am always glad I do. You are so amazing to me!

Compared to most of my contemporaries, I am a Betty Crocker. Of course, next to all of you wonderfully talented people who have already commented, I have a lot to learn.

My mom was like Alwens mom. It was faster and easier to do it herself and as I look back I wonder if she thought teaching me was a burden. I watched my grandmother and my mother can various foods, jams, tomatos, green beans, etc... I watched my mother sew, and I watched my mother cook. I learned a lot from watching and I still will cook most meals from scratch. I just aquired a sewing machine from Freecycle and I plan on mending some clothing and making curtains. I can't wait!

Thanks for your wonderful insights and knowledge. It reminds me that my children will be adults running their own households soon. I will slow down and help prepare them better. I just hope they let me teach them. My daughter is on the verge of teenagedom and it's difficult to get her to hang up the towel after she showers let alone teach her anything else! :)

Give me a call soon, Erika. I moved so email me and I will let you know all the new info.

Melanie Ingison

BunButton said...

Self sufficiency is making a come back in popularity. I personally was always interested. I made a point of learning to cook from my grandmothers by staying with them for a few days in my holidays as a teenager and asking them to show me how to e.g. cook roast chicken with all the trimings. Simple, sure, but not done much today due to the time it takes.

I always helped my father and grandfather in the garden too. A great way to learn. I can relate to your story of picking up potatoes. I now live in Hong Kong without the luxury of a garden but try to grow a few things in pots on my little balcony.

Sewing is something my mother taught me when I was small. I am now picking it up again as a hobby in my spare time. My next project is to make a blouse - hopefully I haven't bitten off more than I can chew!