In the basement of my parent’s 1920’s house is a back room that was always used as a root cellar. Wooden shelves lined the walls and it had a musty, metallic, damp smell like a rusty coffee can full of dirt. My mother kept the shelves full of glass jars that she put up every year of peaches, cherries, pickles, sour kraut, salmon, tomatoes, tomato soup, wax beans, and other assorted vegetables from the garden. A single naked bulb hung from the ceiling and 60 watts would illuminate the room and colorful jars like sunlight through stained glass. I cannot even count the number of times Mom found me down there as a small child in the middle of one of my adventures, spoon in hand, eating cherries straight out of the jar their dark sweet syrup running down my chin to stain my shirt.
Mom would simply shake her head and shoo me back upstairs. As good natured as she usually was, I still think I feared her wrath even more than that of my dad and his menacing leather belt.
Mom grew up the youngest of 4 children on a rattle trap farm. Her dad was a hard worker but lived the life of a sharecropper, never owning his own land. He put in crops, raised livestock, raised his children, and still found time to teach his daughter how to hunt, fish, and trap. By the time she was a teenager, Mom was running her own coon hounds across Carver County and cashing in on the good prices for pelts. She was also an impressive cook, seamstress, and farm hand. When I was a child it seemed like there was nothing she couldn’t do.
Mom made sure she taught me everything she could think of that I would need to survive out in the world from sewing to canning. She knew that there were grocery stores but argued “what if” something happened. You need to know how to do things just in case. So she would put on her calico apron and fire up the black enamel canner on the stove bringing water to a boil. One by one she would drop fat tomatoes from her garden only to scoop them out a minute later and drop them in ice water for easier peeling. She repeated this process and all of the other steps canning involved while polka music played in the background on KCHK radio station out of Hutchinson.
When I was really little I had the grandest job in the world during canning season (or so I thought.) Mom would shred large heads of cabbage on a medieval looking kraut cutter into a 10 gallon Red Wing crock, sprinkle it with salt and sugar, then place a stoneware platter weighted down with a rock on top of it all. Every day a cheesecloth was lifted from the crock, the rock and plate removed so that I could take the old wooden kraut stomper and go to work on stomping down the cabbage to get the juices to release. The pungent smell of fermentation would burn my nostrils but I stomped away. Then with a sharp “Schon gut” (very good), Mom would replace plate, rock, and cloth and the kraut would wait another day.
Another favorite event for me as a child was bread day. Mom would haul out her big aluminum bread bowl that had a matching lid and all the ingredients she would need to make her famous German potato bread. My job was to put a boiled potato through the potato ricer and smash it into the warm water and yeast mixture. The riced potato would form a fluffy island in the middle of the foaming yeast water and I would poke at it with Mom’s slotted spoon that was used just for baking. Mom would add the final ingredients then get to work on kneading the dough into a soft silky mass. A quick brush of the dough with butter and she would drape a freshly laundered flour sack over the bowl. Soon the dough took on a life of its own. Rising and growing until the lid of the bowl slid to the side and Mom knew it was ready. She would knead the dough again and then form loaves into dented bread pans that I had brushed with Crisco.
There is no greater smell on this earth than that of bread baking in your mother’s kitchen. Mom would pull massive loaves out of the oven, brush the tops with butter and put them on racks to cool. My treat was the “kinder” or end piece smeared with butter and Mom’s homemade strawberry freezer jam that tasted of summer on the coldest of days.
Mom’s quilts were another thing that kept the chill out in winter. She would set up her rickety quilting rack in our large living room and attach her latest masterpiece for the process of quilting. I would sit under the stretched quilts for hours watching the flash of the needle in Mom’s hand move quickly with stitches so perfect that no machine was necessary. I played with scraps of material and clumsily sewed clothes for my teddy bears, puppets, and misshapen potholders. When the quilt was done, Mom would give if one sharp shake and spread it out gloriously on the floor for all to see. What once was mere strips of cloth had been magically transformed into intricate patterns that looked like the workings of an engineer’s mind and not just the simple art of a farmer’s daughter.
So many memories are ignited in my mind at the slightest of things. The smell of bread baking, the flavor of fresh kraut, the sound of canning jars sealing with a pop, the feel of a sun bleached quilt on my skin when I am sick. All of these things and so many more have the power to transport me back in time to my mom’s classroom of life. The lessons she taught me were far more valuable than anything I learned in college. She taught me about survival, of making due, of turning ordinary things into works of art that can be handed down and cherished for years to come; much like the memories that she handed down to me. The older I get, the more I embrace the simple life Mom held so dear and all of the hard work that it entails. Every year I put up glass jars of fruits and vegetables to use the year round and to share with others. Perhaps that is the most important thing mom taught me. No matter how little you may have there is always something you can share with others. Whether it be food, love, lessons, or just the silent company of someone who cares.