Been here…what a relief


My family (the Thomases) in the good ol' days

I’ve become an avid follower of Sharon Astyk’s blog ( where she writes about peak oil, climate change, and adapting in place. Her words are inspiring and terrifying at the same time. I’ve been reading along these same lines for quite some time and can’t seem to stop myself from devouring ever more literature on these topics – bleak though it may be.

Obviously, we can’t (we meaning industrialized nations, especially the US) continue to consume resources at our current rate and, to be honest, we’re looking at some fairly dismal times ahead. I’m panicked to think that we’ll be pretty poor – poorer certainly than I have ever been in my lifetime. But not poorer, hopefully than my family in previous generations (see picture above).

My maternal grandmother pretty much went barefoot all summer and used to cringe when she’d talk about the chicken poo that would squish between her naked  toes. She hated chickens as a result. She grew up in a house without electricity or running water, and heated, I think, by a cookstove.

When I told her and my great aunt that I was interested in the way they used to do things – particularly canning – they both asked why in the world I’d want to do that? So much work. Work, I imagine, they happily gave up when food became cheaper and easy to come by at the local store.

My great grandmother and great grandfather, Bessie and Herb, were both great gardeners and knew the names of all kinds of plants. I like to think I inherited some of their skill in this area and am passing some of it on to my kids. We practice recognizing seedlings poking through the soil in our garden and talk about the plants we see in neighbor’s yards when we take walks. I’m no great gardener by any means, but I do raise nearly all of my own vegetables from seed and every year is a grand experiment. I’m getting better, for certain and am quickly learning that books are definitely helpful, but nothing beats experience.

From childhood visits, I remember family gathering in my aunt’s cool basement in Missouri to can produce. My grandparents, great grandparents, and a couple of great aunts and uncles kept a 1/2 acre garden at my grandma and grandpa’s “farm” and my aunt kept a smaller one in her back yard. I don’t remember the actual canning proceedings, just people gathering and the jars lined up on shelves in my aunt’s basement. The kids – all of the cousin – played pool. My memory is pretty fuzzy about all of this and only my great aunt, Mildred, would be able to confirm or deny the details. My grandma Mary Helen passed away this spring  – sadly without giving me too many details to go on. How I wish I had hours of taped interviews or transcripts now. 

I did ask my grandma how they gardened. Did they compost? Did they spray? She said they used chicken manure for fertilizer and one time her daddy used to much because he burned all of the plants in the garden. They didn’t compost that she remembers and when new chemicals and fertilizers came along, she thinks they used them here and there – like Miracle Grow, for example. She talked about growing sugar cane – something I didn’t realize could be done in Missouri or Kansas. She talked about when the Great Depression came, her family didn’t feel it much because they always had enough to eat. They had apple trees and a garden and chickens, at the very least. 

My mom talks about how when she and her brother and sister were little, they would get one pair of flip-flops (shoes) to wear in the summer and when those cheap shoes wore out, they went barefoot. They didn’t have money for extras, but they always had food. She said birthday parties weren’t about masses of toys and that she remembers giving a pack of nice panties (underpants) to close friends for their birthdays – something that was practical and useful.

My mom also remembers helping my great grandma do the wash once a week using a wringer washer and hanging it on the clothes line. It literally took all day. And sure, on top of that, there were three meals to fix from scratch.

Part of me is nostalgic about the “olden days, ” the lean times that I never even experienced. For a time, as a young adult, I really wanted a washboard so that I could wash my clothes in the bathtub. I’m sure, if I’d had a stash of bacon grease and knew where to get lye, I would have tried making my own soap as well. I had my great grandma’s recipe, afterall. But imagining and doing are two different animals. Now that I’m grown up and run my own household and realized how difficult it can be to get through a day- even with modern conveniences to help – I’m scared poopless about how I would do all of the daily stuff I do now without, for instance, relying on electricity or the grocery store. Still, if grandma did it, I can probably do it too, though probably not as skillfully and with a huge learning curve.


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