Mom grew up on a working farm and literally was raised in a barn while the family house was being built. The house was set way back off the road and was surrounded on three sides by fields and by woodlands on the other. There were always various crops in rotation on the land. Grandpa raised tobacco while he was alive, and the farm had an allotment right up until a few years ago. Grandpa died when I was very young, but to this day the smell of pipe tobacco conjures up the feel of his worn denim overalls and a glimpse of his tired face in my mind. Mom remembers picking cotton in the fields, so she really knows what a “cotton pickin’ pain” that was. Even now, she still manages to glean some sweet potatoes from her fields after the farmer who rents them out has done his harvest. She claims they are the best sweet potatoes she’s ever eaten; I don’t doubt it.
The house lot itself had plenty of room for little “town” kids like us to play. There were packhouses and smokehouses and triple-decker barns to play in, though we weren’t supposed to play in the barn bays that housed the farm equipment. Back in one of the sheds, there were old gnarly corncobs in bins, years-old leftovers of the corn that was grown to feed the farm hogs, back when my mother still lived there. While I was little, there was a coop and penned-in area that was the home to real-live chickens. (To this day, I still can’t quite manage to wrap my head around the image of what farm-fresh eggs really look like.) There was a genuine, usable outhouse on the farm that both bemused and befuddled us. The outhouse and “behind the barn” were never options I wanted to utilize when the indoor facility was otherwise occupied. My brothers and I played “treasure hunt” under the huge oak trees that were near the house and carport, and ran around their roots collecting the acorns and pecans that fell out of the huge, old trees. Where we didn’t want to help at home, on the farm it was an adventure to help Grandma hang laundry on the line out near the weathered cypress tree. Some of our best memories from those visits were of being taken up on the big green John Deere tractors for drives down the lane or through the fields. Sometimes we even got to drive the tractors ourselves, though it was more that we got to hold the steering wheel and pretended to drive while the grandparent holding us did all the work.
Life was slower at the farm because there were fewer distractions. Grandma had a television, but it was an old black and white with only aerial reception. The two or three channels she did get were fuzzy, so it wasn’t on much. She didn’t really listen to the radio, but usually had music tapes that she listened to while she quilted or read. While people did call her on the phone, folks usually came by the farm to “sit a spell” with Miss Ollie and visit a bit. We’d all sit in the front room, rocking in the old chairs, listening to the elders chat or cackle with laughter, especially when all the female relatives got together. The large black wood stove would pump out heat, and the snaps and crackles of the logs would make everything very cozy. In true farm fashion, Grandma would stack and split the wood for the stove herself. Until about a decade before she passed, that woman could still outwork three generations of her extended family and had no problem making you feel guilty when she felt you were slacking off.
As my brothers and I got older and the weather got colder, there wasn’t much to do outside. We were too mature to play “treasure hunt” and the chickens had either been sold off or eaten. A walk around the block wasn’t always feasible, as it would literally mean a walk around acres and acres of fields. A walk through the woods might scare up a bobcat or two, so that was out, as none of us were really rifle-qualified at the time. With no television and only so many places to visit, my poor Grandmother was often at a loss what to do with us. I am sure this very independent woman valued her quiet routine and as much as she loved us, she needed something for us to do to keep us out of her way. Grandma was very, very thrifty, having grown up in a large farm family, having lived through the Depression, and being on a fixed income. She kept everything, and I mean everything!
Which bring us to a particular holiday memory at the farm, when my family learned the real price of pecans. Those games she had us play as children, where we collected the nuts from the yard? It was part of Grandma’s battle strategy, you see. Even though the War Between the States was long over, she was waging a Civil War of her own with the local squirrels. She fought those “nasty little buggers” for every pecan that fell out of her tree. She then saved them for special occasions—like when her daughter, son-in-law, and teen aged grandchildren came to visit her and she needed to keep them busy!
One holiday visit, after all the bird and biscuits, we were all sitting around digesting. Mom was probably cleaning up the kitchen, and my father must have especially been missing football. I don’t remember what I was doing, but I remember that Grandma suddenly disappeared into the back of the house. Finally, she reemerged with bushels upon bushels of pecans that she had been waiting to shell and shuck. Like the matriarch of the family that she was, she got us all organized in short order, and made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that it was pecan-shelling time. I can still see my father and youngest brother at the kitchen table using hammers and files and other medieval forms of technology to crack open the shells of those nuts. Mom, Grandma, and I sat way over in the living room using forks, knives, and picks to extract the meat from the shells.
The pecan-plucking party went on for days, even involving unsuspecting cousins when they came a-calling. Dust and debris coated our hands, and shards under our fingernails left us bleeding all over the fruits of our labors. (Once you’ve had a pecan shell shoved into the quick of your nails, you don’t complain about small slivers ever again.) Many a choice word was muttered under my easy-going father’s breath when his hammer came down at the wrong angle. Cries of “incoming” preceded a pecan projectile about to be embedded in the pine panel walls. After about the second or third day of shucking pecans and dodging missiles, we all started cracking up when nuts went flying across the house. Even years later, on subsequent visits South, bits of pecan shells were found under furniture and in random corners – bringing smiles to our faces.
Grandma has been gone for a while now, and the lot with the farmhouse and all the barns and trees has been sold. Mom guards the remaining stash of the farm-harvested pecans with a ferocity that is understood by all the family members that were there that fateful vacation. We don’t argue with her, because we know why those pecans are so treasured.
The moral(s) of this story?
May you and your family have a very Happy Thanksgiving.
I’m off for a few days to visit some of the nuts on my family tree and will return with more tales for Auntie Nettie’s Attic.