Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Canning and other (not so much) pleasures

It is intriguing reading about one of the latest "crazes" - canning. The need for "home-y" connectivity and healthy eating resonates on a personal level. But, at the same time I am looking into the not-too-distant past and realizing just why we have so much more leisure time now. I grew up in a household where canning was routine. And it was not a gourmet experience. It was just one of those many chores women did as a matter of course - you know, housekeeping or homemaker - whichever you prefer. The old song about "Wash day, Monday," "Ironing, Tuesday," "Breadmaking, Wednesday," etc. was not a child's game of hopscotch or something - that was it - every day was assigned major chores. It was the only way to keep sanity to the never-ending list of work that was required to run a household.

"Putting up" food stuffs for use in the winter when produce was not available was ordinary work in most homes - not like it is now thanks to over-night shipping, refrigerated containers and multitudes of preservatives, etc. putting fresh veggies on every table year-around! Now we expect apples and oranges to be sized uniformly - that's not natural just as perfectly ripened and colored produce of all types is not truly natural. Our expectations would be a joke to my grandparents.

My sister, brother, cousins, and uncle (remember the boy who was hardly older than me) spent many summer days picking fruit and vegetables from trees, vines, stalks, and bushes; digging potatoes, and shucking corn, shelling peas, pulling strings from beans and stems from fruits. Then we helped wash, dry, and sterilize jars, bottles, and caps getting ready for the cooking process. (Another example of kids work that kept us from troublesome pursuits) But there were rewards, too. Stolen bites of crisp, juicy, fresh peas, plums, strawberries, raspberries, etc. etc. And licking the sugar-y residue from the jam and jellie pots and pans. There was a boy next door about the same age as me. He was shy and would kind of slink into our group once in a while because he wanted to do the things we did even when we were busy doing chores. But my uncle usually chased him off because he always wet his britches - poor guy - I'm sure being rejected did his misfortune no good.

In the Hawley house, the canned goods were stored on wood slat shelves in a dugout basement room. There was no lighting, no flooring. But I still loved pushing open the door into the cool, damp room, the fragrance of the musky dirt floor; wiping aside the cobwebs and choosing from the dusty jars a treat for the evening meal. Often there was a new litter of kittens or puppies sharing the space. That was the best - cuddling soft, sweet-smelling little critters; watching them as they changed from un-seeing fuzzy balls to playful, tumbling playmates.

Laundry was a particularly heavy job - no automatic washers and dryers - a step-up in those days was a wringer washer. The water still had to be changed if it got too dirty and the loads had to be dunked in rinse water, and then hand-fed through the wringer rolls to wrest as much water as possible from the heavy, wet globs of fabric. That made a minimum of three laborious steps before hanging the wet stuff out to dry. To minimize the number of times wash water had to be changed, we followed a routine (See? Routines/patterns made a difference.) of sorting and processing the laundry - whites first, then light-colored, dark-colors, and finally, grimy work clothes.

In the Pacific Northwest where much of each year the skies are wet and grey, wet laundry had to be draped over every available indoor surface for much of the time. On sunny days I helped my grandmother by handing her clothespins as she hung the wash on the outside lines. I remember the feel of wet, warm fabrics as they gently slapped my cheeks and the sort-of medicinal smell of Fels Naptha soap. And Boraxo. And the smell of tobacco on my grandmother's breath. And her throaty chuckle. And hard toast slathered in butter dunked in blistering, strong coffee which she and I shared so many times. Wooden clothespins were cut in one piece and shaped like a body with a head - perfect to transform into people that had to have wardrobes. That's how I began learning to sew. Spring-loaded clothespins made them obsolete. I mourned their passing.

Sometime in the late 40's Beach's Meats became Beach's Meats and Cold-Storage Lockers when equipment for freezing fresh produce became available for us common folk. My grandmother was ecstatic and one of the first to rent a locker. She still made a few jams but everything else went into little white boxes with identification of the contents written with blue ink. The locker was pretty big and Gramma was pretty small. That meant lots of the boxes ended up lost in the back of the locker where the ink ran into blue blotches. We dug out mysterious treasures every so often.

Every Island home had at least one or two fruit trees of some kind and lots of households boasted gardens. What one family did not have could be traded with a neighbor or friend so food variety was shared. My grandfather true to his Swedish farm roots, cultivated a huge garden and nurtured apple, cherry, plum, crab apple, pear, and peach trees. This was before the wide-spread use of pesticides so it meant fighting off Mama Nature's bounty hunters was a constant campaign. One of the most common was the dreaded "tent caterpillars." Grampa, like most all his peers, set up the battle front armed with long poles, their ends mummy-wrapped with rags, dipped in gasoline, and set ablaze. Off he marched, fedora set low, to torch the nasty beasties. In the paper, warnings abounded about the dangers of the fiery war. Instead, hang a light bulb in the tree dangling over a pan of water. The light would attract the crawlies which would then fall in the water and drown. There was no mention of the danger of stringing multiple electric extension cords from house to tree. Needless to say, the garden soldiers stuck to their own ways and we got used to the smell of burning gasoline and caterpillar fur every spring. Besides there was no end to the thrill of watching the writhing of the evil beasts and disappearance of their webby houses.

Grampa built a woodshed with one side outfitted as his tool shack. There were jars filled with nails, screws, nuts and bolts; axes, saws, shovels, picks, hanging from the walls. Sawhorses and tall stools stood by the long workbench. Odors of various cans of liquids; gasoline, oils, turpentine, lacquers, paints, greases, and the like; permeated the air along with sawdust and tall stacks of firewood. (Do you think it might have been a fire hazard? Never occurred to us.) I loved being in there with him; especially after he fastened chunks of wood to the pedals of the stone grinding wheel so I could reach them. That was a tricycle-looking contraption Grampa put together from various parts including a triangular, metal tractor seat with holes in it. I think those were for ventilation. I sat on the seat stretching my legs to turn the pedals which spun the stone wheel which ground and sharpened the ax head. I learned how to hold a little ax at just the right angle for sharpening. I loved pedaling as fast as I could, listening to the whine and whir of the wheel against the metal of the ax head.

The wood shed was a hub of important chores. Every fall, Grampa chopped enough wood to fill the shed. Gramma cooked on a kitchen wood stove which she kept in full use even after an electric one was installed next to the wood stove sometime in the 1950's. Hot water came from a wood-fired tank and the fireplace warmed the living room all winter. A small, round oil furnace (more specifically it was a "heater") sat in the dining room. All it was good for was keeping Grampa's poker game comfortable, a cozy sitting spot for Gramma, and a pajama warmer for us kids. First a bath in the only bathroom, upstairs, race down to jump into flannel pj's that lay getting cozy on the heater, and speed back upstairs to flannel-sheeted beds. That was the way to spend cold winter nights in a house with no central heating.

But back to the woodshed. Even firewood had its specific pattern. Stacking wood in the shed began with building a bookend-like tower; four pieces one way, next layer, four pieces in the other direction, and continue til almost as high as Grampa. One of those arrangements at each end of the woodpile kept the wood from crashing all over. Another task for us kids was to deliver wood from the shed, down the dirt drive to the house. There was method there, too. A couple of wood pieces across outstretched arms, the next pieces laid in the opposite direction - as many layers to the chin as each kid could balance. Two across and up was my best until I graduated to three - I celebrated. My uncle was bigger and could have carried a lot more but he didn't like gettng scratched up by the splintery wood. I secretly practiced so I could beat him.

I wrote a poem for Grampa:

"He Always Said Goodday"
doffed his hat my way
and out he went. In his later
years, he always, to his destinations, walked.
Earlier, the chugging of the motor,
Model T style,
was his signal leaving -
he'd be gone for a while.
I remember pulling weeds,
Following his careful instructions
He showed us all how to
stack firewood, how to carry
the most we could,
Felt the heat of summer's day
in the coziness of his
woodshed, where I loved to play all day.
Split cedar, crankcase oil, earthy
musky smells of floor of dirt,
bare plank walls -
all co-mingled - one perfume
all around me
A Shawl of warmth, security, familiarity.
He showed me how to climb upon
and balance the great stone
ax grinder - sharpener of tools -
Even though my toes barely reached
the pedals - I raced around
the world - the whining, grinding sound -
heralding my start and return.
Later, I typed his prolific letters,
to Presidents, Senators,
anyone he thought should
do their jobs better.
Me and my Grandma, together,
we hid in the bathroom
We couldn't stand - our final memory
His vital self tucked into a shroud.
His booming voice, others feared
I ran to him - jumped, bumped
and galloped - just to spend time -
My Grandpa.

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