It’s likely that many of us have a sense of guilt for not
knowing more about the lives of people in our past. I know that
Dad’s father was born two days after his parents landed in
New York on their way to a farming community in St. Charles
County. Dad was 4 years old when his mother died at the time of
his brother’s birth. Four half-sisters took care of the boys
through the eighth grade; they worked on the farm after that.
I have names and dates of births, marriages and deaths of a few
of his other relatives, but we know little about their lives.
On Mother’s side we have a bit more information but
little about the everyday lives of early ancestors. The facts are
available somewhere, and I feel guilty for not taking time to
search out the details. Advanced age is a time to get acquainted
with the people who "made" us, and it’s the time
for us to pass along the life stories we recall about our
parents, their parents and our own families. Someone would like
to know how to regulate the heat on a wood cooking stove or how
to trim the wicks on a coal oil lamp. Family statistics are
important for genealogists, for legal records and other purposes,
but when we want to know about our predecessors’ everyday
lives it’s the little things that count. Young people ask,
"How were you punished when you were bad?" A school boy
asked, "What did your school have for hot
lunches?" Their questions call up memories, both happy
When a young woman recently asked, "What plants would I
pick for a mess of wild greens?" I recalled a wonderful
Sunday afternoon in 1937. Chub went to the dairy to help Dad
while Mom and I went to pick wild greens. As we walked around she
said, "Dandelion, mustard and pepper grass are bitter
because they’re already blooming." We found lamb’s
quarter, mouse ear, carpenter’s square, dock and wild
lettuce in the grass between the garden and the fence. We cut
each plant at ground level or below, shook off the root dirt and
tossed the cleaner part into Mom’s big 4-gallon aluminum
kettle. "It takes a lot of greens to make a nice mess for
four people," she said. Two hired men ate with them.
I knew how she’d prepare them: Cooking makes fresh plants
wilt. She’d stir in some cooked, home-cured bacon after the
greens were cooked tender and slice hard-boiled eggs over the
greens in the serving dish. The men would add a few drops of
vinegar from the cruet that always sat on the dining table.
Mom was a town girl who fell in love with a farmer who
worshipped her. Her parents thought she’d be lonely in the
country, but she loved being outside gardening, raising chickens
or going along when Dad went to the woods or to help another
farmer with his work. She was not yet 50 years old and had
learned from friends which wild plants were edible; they passed
that information from generation to generation.
We walked along fence rows outside the chicken yard and down
by the pond and filled the kettle with greens and memories,
totally unaware that this would be our last outing together.
Tuesday morning Dad called to say, "Nancy’s on the
way to Boone County Hospital." I was there before the
ambulance arrived. Two surgeons agreed: "peritonitis"
not treatable in 1937. She died on Friday.
Wild greens bring sad memories and happy ones.