I enter our small kitchen and come upon you, my partner of twenty some odd years, sleeves rolled up, pushing apple pulp deeper into the Foley food mill. You've chopped Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples together and boiled them. I watch and think, "Leave it to you to find a good use for mushy Red Delicious apples!"
Applesauce glops into a large bowl as you turn the mill's handle, squishing the fragrant apple mixture against the hand machine's sieved bottom. Your work stops me from proceeding with the laying of plates on the table. Your concentrated effort brings back envelopes fat with memories.
Hand tools have kept the backbone in our relationship. At times I am amazed that we have a computer in our house. Grater, rolling pin, grinder, maul and ax, we've hefted them all. Our earned calluses connect us to our mothers and fathers and beyond, to their mothers and fathers. The honest sweat is as holy water sprinkled on soil, nourishing the inner hollows, feeding our pride and love of self.
Another afternoon. We lived then at the foot of the Cascade Mountains, braving wind and rain to walk with our daughter to the small town's library. We walked the sidewalks, crossing over the huge cottonwood knuckle roots that erupted the concrete surface.
There wasn't much cash in our pockets in those days of our daughter's growing. We did have the ingenuity inherent in the joining of our Engineering and English majors, and as our daughter thrived, so did we. We learned the ways of making do.
We walked right by the food bank's door and discovered instead that elbow grease applied to a Corona hand grinder would turn out flour for bread or cracked wheat for a pilaf. Hard brown wheat berries streaming into the hand grinder's bowl. Their cascading a fragrance sweet: the promise of fresh steaming loaves just pulled from the oven, butter softening on the sideboard. Even now the memory of lifting a cup of wheat and pouring it into the grinder's hopper stops me from pushing a button and losing another hour to a television drama.
I swung the grinder's handle again and again, picking up rhythm. The cracked berries mounded in the bottom of the pan. I placed the course meal back into the grinder hopper and again turned the handle, my arms tensing, relaxing, tensing, as the meal flowed out finer. Almost fine enough to use for yeast bread. Certainly a nice texture for biscuits and pancakes. Just a few cups of flour and very soon the family would have had a fine foundation for another supper. I'm sure that, as I worked, I heard my partner either making a wooden contraption for my daughter to puzzle out or his voice reading aloud and her young voice questioning.
There was something gratifying in the use of hand tools. The lack of a motor's whine left room inside for meditation, prayer and peace.
After the Cascade foothill days, my husband and I would move, in that restless waltz known to folks poverty-gripped. Where could we be free?
We decided to give North Idaho a go. We settled in a run-down cabin, quickly learning how to keep the damper open just enough to please our cantankerous cook stove. Deer would snort in the twilight as we walked the path to the outhouse, and owls hooted on the way to the river slough. We'd pour cold stream water from a pail into an aluminum pan, and as the water heated on the cook stove, stir oatmeal and comb our daughter's hair.
After our morning meal, we would step out into the yard, searching the nearby stands of trees for firewood. Tamarack and spruce, cedar and a little vine maple. Together we would carry the crosscut saw and begin.
If the tree had been felled the night before, we would now begin slicing 2-foot sections from the fallen tree. If not, we would take an ax to the tree and make slices in the trunk, creating a wedge higher on one side so that the tree would fall where we directed it to. Every so often I would call out to our large orange cat, "Watch out! Get out of there, Tiger!" At least once he left me sitting in a heap, my face white from having helplessly watched him streak under the falling tree, his tail fanning beneath the swaying limbs.
When the cool morning air warmed, the mosquitoes attempted hits on our flanneled arms and we talked, joked, sometimes listened to All In The Family on the radio. Our way of cutting the timber left entire housefuls with which to tease each other, space to cannon fire at each other, and the grace to love our failings and our strengths. ("That board is a good foot and a half too short and now I'll have to spend an hour making it fit right!")
As I sawed, the saw tines would sometimes catch in the rough wood. I would know first hand that I had not matched my stride and strength to my partner who sat on the other side. Many under-the-skin lessons were learned in those two North Idaho years. I discovered again and again the realness and the heart needed if we were to continue walking together down our path for another fifty years.
Autumn has been a favorite season for much of my adult life. It is then that we've snugged our home tight, caulking and shoring up the drafts, inventorying our food against the storm bitten day when driving is impossible. By then, I've covered the summer sales and found intriguing paperback novels. We'll read together as the wind gathers strength outside our walls.
Each autumn we go scouting in our car to pick the Tidymans, the Gravensteins, sometimes Italian plums from their resting places beneath elderly, moss-limbed trees, hungry bees and wasps our companions. We ask humbly of tree owners if they would mind sharing these windfalls. Once boxed or bagged and taken to our house, the fruit is either sliced and placed on cooky sheets to dry in the oven or juiced in the steamer or chunked and tossed into a large pan on the stove.
Our daughter is gone now, living in a University dormitory. I watch my husband grind the fruit into applesauce after the apple slices have bubbled and burbled into a golden mass. I watch the globs fall into the bowl and sigh: Contentment. Peace and good smells. Each bite of this food will bring back our love in a tangible way that has been earned from working side by side, hand in hand.
We're middle-aged, seasoned as cinnamon sprinkled in the cooling applesauce. We no longer physically need to work so hard to bring in food to feed our bodies, yet we still have the grinder and the mill stored prominently in the kitchen and the ax hanging on our shed wall. In the spring, I will hoe the soil rather than rototill with a gas-driven engine. Each rock removed from the ground will be a token; present to past and past to present.© 2006 Lenore Plassman
About the Author:
Farming, within the context of the circle of life, is in my blood; both my parents have farmer stock in them. I met my husband while attending the University of Washington, and 29 years later, continue to wield a hoe and shovel with him. Our central Washington third of an acre boasts a solar electric panel, a dragon, greenhouse, a goddess, many trees, and even a heather bush. My writing has been published by Western Washington University, the Washington State Department of Ecology, and The Beltane Papers, among other small presses. I continue to seek the spiritual through working our small holding and am glad for the support of other such travellers.
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