A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Matt Hofferth about how, while the 19th century has a lot of coolness to offer, it didn’t have things like antibiotics and electricity. Soon afterwards, I realized that it was fitting that my last post on Lapidary Prose was on gratitude, since I am grateful for several things I take for granted.
I do not have to imagine the life of my grandmother or great-grandmother to appreciate the difference between the 19th and 21st centuries. My mother grew up in Appalachia, in circumstances that had not changed since the nineteenth century. She learned how to cook on a wood stove, splitting wood to replenish the woodpile, hauling water from the well.
My grandparents grew all their own food. They raised chickens and cows for eggs, milk, and meat. If they needed things they could not produce, my grandfather would barter his carpentry skills, or work to get the money for things beyond barter, such as postage stamps. My aunt taught my mother how to make dresses from flour sacks; the scraps were sewn into quilt tops. There were fireplaces for heat, and kerosene lamps for light to read and sew. Transportation was by mule; one of the funniest stories my mother ever told was of a first date conducted on mule back.
Although my mother did very well in school, graduating as valedictorian of her high school class, my grandparents did not believe that girls should go to college. At age fifteen, my mother was sent to Atlanta to get a job, sending money home to pay for her brothers’ college educations. Also, my grandparents expected that my mother, as the youngest daughter, would work as long as her brothers were in college, but would then return to take care of her parents for the rest of their lives. They were shocked and unhappy when she met my father and made other plans.
I am ashamed to admit that my teenage self was bored by her stories, uninterested in how her life had changed so thoroughly in her lifetime. When I was learning how to cook, it annoyed me that she could never just give me a number for the temperature, but always had to work her way through the vague description of warm, medium, or hot fire, only then settle on an approximate temperature. She insisted on calling plants by their botanical names, telling me the medicinal uses and folklore of each. I thought she was hopelessly out of touch, frozen in an earlier time that had nothing to teach me.
Now that I am older, and no longer as focussed on myself, I remember my mother’s childhood with admiration for her grit. At four years old, she was standing on an orange crate to cook dinner on a wood stove for her family. At four, I was daydreaming and writing stories in my head. I am grateful that I have water and fuel delivered into my home without my having to haul it there. I am grateful that I do not have to wring a chicken’s neck to cook my dinner of an evening, nor cut up flour sacks to make a dress. However, I am more grateful for my mother’s strength. Because my mother never went to college, she and my father made sure that their daughters never had any doubt they would go; it was an assumption made before I was born. My parents taught us to take care of each other as well as them, but never to the degree of sacrificing the youngest daughter, from which I, as the youngest daughter, have benefited. There are times when I feel sorry for myself as part of the “squeeze generation,” when I bemoan the independence of my frail and elderly parents, but it was that independence that fostered my own, and for that I am truly grateful.