When I started writing about my maternal grandmother, whose journey spanned the 20th Century, I was looking at her life through the lens of her cooking. I did not know then that the stories about her delicious food would come to reveal a woman of ingenuity and creativity, resilience and fortitude. For me, she was just my “Gramma” with soft, veiny hands, smelling like rosewater, whose kitchen was always fragrant with something in the oven.
Ingenuity and resilience, substance and courage ~ these are the qualities embodied by an entire generation of women – many of them our grandmothers – who held family and home together during some of the worst financial times and social injustices of our modern world, and who passed on this pluck to our mothers.
I am referring to the farm women of the Canadian prairies and the Midwestern United States, who bridged the history of settlers of the late 1800s to the burgeoning modernity of the mid to late1900s. Some were born on these lands, many others migrated with family or a new spouse from eastern cities or European countries to claim a piece of the Earth they could call their own. The dream was beautiful but the reality was challenging and hard.
The Work of Her Hands: A Prairie Woman’s Life in Remembrances and Recipes reflects upon my grandmother’s experiences and a way of living off the land that we, in the 21st Century, can barely imagine now ~ things like waking at dawn, not to take a morning run before work, but to begin the arduous work of tilling soil, feeding livestock, of milking cows and gathering eggs for breakfast. Each day of the week had specific chores, starting at sunrise and often ending by lantern late at night, all of which contributed to the survival of the family – survival, as in food on the table, clothes on their backs, and safety and warmth in an often crowded, small abode.
During the years of the Great Depression (1930s), to help provide for the family, many farmwomen raised poultry or collected eggs to sell to town folks. My grandmother raised turkeys for sale around Thanksgiving, and every week of the year she made butter to trade at the general store in town for food supplies she could not produce herself.
“Yes, well … you know I take maybe sixteen, seventeen pounds of my butter and a crate of eggs to Radville every week and then they give me credit at the store. That’s how I buy things like honey and peanut butter, cocoa and baking powder, things I need to cook with … yes, and I always get some fruit … maybe some peaches … and in the winter I get those nice, little, Christmas oranges … and some bologna for the kids’ sandwiches,” my grandmother recalled.
As I travelled the country a few years ago, sharing my grandmother’s stories, people began to share with me a renewed – or new – appreciation for the way these women navigated their lives. Those I met began to recall the women in their lives – aunts, mothers, grandmothers, friends – who exemplified an indomitable spirit and enduring dignity, just as I felt my grandmother had.
When I remember her life, her struggles, her courage, her fortitude, it makes me want to be better, a stronger woman, more resourceful and resilient. Her admirable qualities have lived on in my mother, and I want them to live on in me, too.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month during March, I invite you to share stories of women of substance and courage in your life in the comment section below or on my Facebook page.
Appreciate and rejoice in these women’s lives! Remember with reverence those who have passed on. Honor and thank those who are still with you.
May their intrepid history repeat itself in us.