Channeling My Grandmother

By , September 3, 2010

Lately I have been thinking a lot about my grandmother, Sarah Mae Eggleston Harris, who was one of my heroines. She knew so much about growing food, fishing, cooking, canning, sewing, loving and living a good life.

Grandma grew up in a busy house full of siblings, cousins, parents and grandparents numbering up to thirteen people. She was born in 1915 and always knew how to save and scrimp to make ends meet. She moved to a one-room log cabin in rural Washington State with her husband and my infant father at age 19. Grandma told me stories about their closest neighbors, local Native Americans, who taught her about living in the woods. Later they lived in a larger log house where my dad, uncle, aunt and their cousin were raised. It was a step up, but was still a long way from town, with no phone or electricity. Life was always hard for them, but self-sufficiency isn’t easy.

My Dad, Richard Lee Harris, wrote an account of Grandma canning five or six hundred quarts of garden produce for the winter in the book Tough Guys Don’t Give Up. They had an orchard of about 30 fruit trees and a large garden. They butchered their own meat and kept some in a freezer locker in town, but since that used rationed gasoline, they also canned meat. This took hours on the wood burning stove to process. A family story tells about when Grandma and Grandpa stayed up all night to can the venison a neighbor had shot in the field out of season so the kids wouldn’t know what they were doing. Dad and his siblings came downstairs and asked “why are you cooking that baby cow in the middle of the night?” Grandma answered “Daddy has to go to work early in the morning so he is helping Mommy…” My favorite part of Dad’s account is this quote from Grandma talking about her mother, “Canning was—and still is—lots of work, but I enjoy it.… Perhaps my mother said best long ago. ‘Look how pretty it is! We are saving part of this summer’s day for next winter’ I feel that way too.” And so do I Grandma.

When I was six or seven Grandma and I were making a cake together. She was stirring the batter by hand with a wooden spoon and I commented on how she could stir it so fast and so long. She laughed and said she had many years of practice. She showed me how she used her wringer washing machine, kneaded bread dough and taught me how to use her treadle sewing machine. My grandparents then lived in a house in town with electricity and plumbing, but they retained many of their simpler ways. I was impressed.

These thoughts have resurfaced often lately as I live my retro life here in a log cabin. I don’t call it scrimping, now the word is frugal. But I live a lot like Grandma did. I bake my own bread, use a James washer (a people powered washing machine), can produce we grow or glean, and now I sew on a treadle sewing machine too. This summer so far I have canned pie cherry jam, cherry pie filling, applesauce, apple juice, rhubarb sauce, blueberry jam, blueberry pie filling, salmon, strawberry jam. They are mostly in pints, and I am nowhere near 100 jars yet, but this winter when we open the jars I will remember the summer days saved up in them. Thank you Grandma.

One Response to “Channeling My Grandmother”

  1. Beth says:

    Michelle, wonderful! Evokes memories of Zeiger grandparents. I remember one season, when Grandma and Grandpa were making ice pickles – Grandpa’s favorite. By this time, Grandma’s faculties, as they used to say, were slipping. She asked Grandpa several times if he’d added the salt and he said yes every time. At some point, Grandpa wasn’t in the kitchen and Grandma added the salt again. Yikes!

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