“The business of procuring the necessities of life has been shifted from the wood lot, the garden, the kitchen and the family to the factory and the large-scale enterprise. In our case, we moved our center back to the land.”
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When I was perhaps 9 or 10 years old my grandmother spent two weeks with me, my cousin/best friend, and my two brothers in my family’s cabin in Big Bear, California. I have no idea how this came about because Grandma almost never left home. As I recall, it was originally supposed to be for a week but we were all enjoying it and extended the time.
It was summertime, my favorite time in the mountains. Our cabin was not far from a little park and the park was a couple of blocks from a little general store. Most days we would all walk to the park to play, then to the store and finally back to the cabin.
My dad had built the cabin. It had a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom downstairs. There was also a large, open loft area. Grandma had one bedroom, my cousin, Sue and I shared the other, and the boys slept upstairs. It was a comfortable place but pretty simple. There was no telephone and no television. It was on a small lot shaded by pine trees.
My family often spent weekends there. My dad insisted on the “no telephone” thing because as a business owner who spent hours every day on the phone, this was his respite. Occasionally we’d bring a little portable black and white television but without cable there wasn’t much to watch.
If this sounds like a terribly boring place for four kids to spend a couple of weeks you’d be mistaken. We kids were the ones who begged to stay longer. Sue and I had brought our baby dolls and played happily by the hour. I don’t much recall what the boys did but they probably played outdoors much of the time. I don’t remember any fussing but then, Grandma had a way of making it clear she wouldn’t put up with such nonsense.
I spent a lot of time sitting on the back stoop with a handful of nuts crooning to the backyard squirrels. Toward the end of our visit my patience was rewarded when a squirrel came up to me, placed his wee little paws on my outstretched fingertips and took a nut from my hand.
Yes, those were simpler times in many ways but they didn’t compare to the stories Grandma told us about her childhood. I would curl up next to her and listen attentively as she described a childhood in rural Oklahoma which not only didn’t include telephones and televisions like we were without for a couple of weeks, but also was devoid of indoor plumbing and so much that we took for granted.
I have vivid memories of Grandma describing her mother’s Home Comfort stove. From the way she described it, I think it must have been similar to this one:
She told us about a compartment on the side which they would fill with water carried indoors, one bucketful at a time. As the the stove was being used the water would heat up and they used that for washing dishes and bathing.
Throughout my childhood Grandma would occasionally tell us about her early life and I always enjoyed these tales. In her later years I began asking questions and begging to her to tell me more. Sometimes she would say, “Oh, honey, you don’t want to hear all that old stuff, do you?” But she seemed pleased when I assured her I did.
While Grandma seemed to enjoy talking about those earlier times, she didn’t romanticize her experiences. In fact, she would have been the first to tell you that she was grateful for modern conveniences. She honestly didn’t understand why people might choose to do without them. I once asked her how people coped during hot Oklahoma summers with no air conditioning. Her reply? “It made me sick to my stomach.” She was very happy to have central air conditioning in her home. And despite the fact she still called it an icebox, she was appreciative of modern refrigerators.
Yet, there was still a hint of what my kids called “olden times” at Grandma’s house. For instance, she preferred to wash dishes by hand. I remember when my dad and his siblings went together to buy her a dishwasher. I’m sure she thanked them for it but she then continued to wash dishes by hand after every meal. The portable machine did provide additional workspace in her tiny kitchen, though.
In later years she used a clothes dryer, largely because her knees were bad and it was difficult for her to go up and down the steps into the backyard. But during my childhood living next door, most of her laundry was hung on a clothesline. Her bath towels were a little scratchy but the fragrance of line dried sheets on the guest bed I often slept in will forever be etched in my olfactory memories.
We lived in the California desert where anything one planted had to be watered every day without fail. This is probably why Grandma didn’t grow a vegetable garden. She focused instead on growing roses, pansies, Bird of Paradise, and my favorite – lilacs. I’m sure I get my love of flowers from her. Even though she didn’t grow food herself, every year we’d drive to some farm stands and buy flats of strawberries which she’d “put up” for the winter. I don’t remember her doing any canning but she froze a lot of produce purchased in bulk from farm stands.
Grandma taught me how to make grape jelly, how to iron (my mom doesn’t iron – she ranks permanent press right up there with sliced bread), and even set out to teach me how to do embroidery one winter but for some reason we didn’t get much past a basic stitch or two and French knots.
As I look back on these experiences I realize that even though Grandma was not a homesteader-type, she still passed on an appreciation for certain old fashioned skills. I also grew up watching The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie which no doubt fueled my interests even further.
I’m lucky to live in a time period where I can choose to bake bread from scratch because it’s healthier and tastes better, not because it’s my only option. I can grow tomatoes because one of summer’s greatest pleasures is the taste of a just-picked, vine-ripened tomato still warm from the sun, and not because we would go hungry without a vegetable garden. I can hang sheets on the line because they smell fabulous and put towels in the dryer so they will be soft. I can raise chickens for fresh eggs and because they are funny creatures which I enjoy, but don’t have to wring any necks in order to have a chicken dinner.
No, I’m not a “real” homesteader. Being totally self-sufficient is an admirable goal which many are working toward these days but it’s not my goal. I suppose I’m like Grandma in many ways. I adore air conditioning during our hot Oklahoma summers. I’m glad we have running water, indoor plumbing, automatic washer and dryer, and a stove which doesn’t require chopping wood. And, sorry Grandma, but I like my dishwasher, too.
Still, there are elements of a previous era which do appeal to me. That’s why I’m trying to get back into the habit of baking our bread. That’s why I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of seed catalogs and seriously considering raising chickens again. I may even dig out my embroidery hoop and see how much I recall – or find a good YouTube video.
There’s a certain pride that comes from working with one’s hands to provide for one’s home and family. A sense of accomplishment that can’t be duplicated in a grocery store. I’ve done some of these things in the past and I’m ready to do them again. I’m a homebody anyway so I might as well make good use of my time here on “Apple Tree Farm”.
I have a rather extensive collection of resources on this whole “back to basics” thing:
If you’d like to start your own “back to basics” library, or add to what you’ve got, be sure to check out this bundle of resources:
This post was originally published January 22, 2016. Updated and republished January 16, 2017, and again on January 17, 2018.