I woke up early this morning, 6am on the winter solstice. In my flannel pajamas and slippers, I started the coffee, then went downstairs to stoke the coals in the fireplace. Mike was still asleep. The dog was outside chasing rabbits and it was too early to open the chicken coop, so I curled up on the couch, coffee in hand, and stared at the flames, content to do nothing except simply be.
I thought of my grandmother. Like her, I have always been an early riser. For most of my childhood, she lived in an old farmhouse in the country, a comforting place where the old, original, one-room stone house still had a rustic air to it despite additions and updates over the years. Green carpeting from the ‘70s covered what I imagine had once been a wooden floor. Wood paneling lined the interior stone walls. At some point, central heating had been installed, but there never was any air conditioning and no shower (just an old tub) in the single bathroom. Her gas came from a big propane tank in the backyard which, as kids, my cousins and I climbed and rode like a big, silver horse. The garage for that old house was wood, and looked more like an old barn (I wonder now if it hadn’t once been a loafing shed for animals) than a place to park cars. Under the house a big, creepy cellar stored bikes for the grandkids. Every summer, we darted in and out of that cellar as fast as possible to grab a bike before some eight-legged critter (or worse) could find us and eat us alive. Now, I realize that that cellar was an honest-to-god cold cellar. Huge, with a mossy stone entrance and wooden double doors, it provided enough space to easily store the food required to feed a family for the winter. Time and weather had taken little toll on that cellar. It will outlive my grandmother, and likely me as well. I sometimes daydream about revisiting it, looking at it with my homesteading eye and figure out just where to build the shelving to keep jars of fruit, tomatoes, and dried meat…
Some of my earliest memories are of stumbling, sleepy-eyed, down the wooden steps from the second story bedroom on summer mornings and, rather than going to the kitchen, heading immediately out the back door, where my grandma would be sitting on the porch swing, drinking a cup of black coffee and just sitting. Being. She would greet me with, “Morning, Sunshine!” and scoot over so I could curl up next to her on the swing and rock. We’d stay this way until the rest of the cousins stumbled downstairs and the swing ran out of room, so we’d go make some breakfast instead.
It has been a bit of a mystery where my fascination with homesteading and self-sufficiency came from. Mike’s as well. We were both raised in cities, in suburban families who never so much as had a vegetable garden, much less considered canning and storing their own food. But if I had to look back at my own past, my best guess is that it began with this little farmhouse and that back porch swing. After my mother died when I was very young, I spent nearly every weekend of my childhood out in the country with my grandmother and my aunt and uncle who lived just up the road. While they were, and continue to be, modern enough folks who work day jobs and shop at grocery stores, they were also the only taste of non-city life that I had. In the fall, my aunt and uncle made apple butter in a big, copper kettle in their driveway. Everyone pitched in, peeling and slicing apples.The kitchen was sticky, and someone always had to be on kettle-duty, stirring the pot with a large wooden paddle so the apple butter wouldn’t burn. They cut firewood out of the woods behind and stacked it to compliment the use of the central heat in the winter.They let us kids roam the woods as we wanted, the only two rules being “not during hunting season” and “stay where you can see the house.” We came home with ticks, chiggers, and poison ivy, minor irritations that didn’t put a dent in the joy of traipsing through the woods or playing in the creek. At least not for me. As we grew older, I was the one often trying to convince my cousins to head outside, but found the idea harder and harder to sell as we aged and interests like boys and make-up and gossip took over. Eventually, when I was sixteen, my grandmother retired and moved to a smaller, more manageable house in a nearby town. I never recovered from the loss of that little stone house. I still think about it regularly.
But now I have my own farmhouse. Not as old, not as quaint, not as remote as my grandmother’s, but beautiful and enough all the same. We built a cold room instead of a cold cellar (though that’s still on my list) and we use it for food instead of bikes. Like grandma’s house we still don’t have A/C, a rarity in these modern times, and like grandma, we stack firewood to compliment our central heat in the winter. And just as the summer mornings of my childhood, we tend to abandon the front door of the house for the back, where we can pull out a chair on the patio, enjoy the view, and just sit. Be. Black cup of coffee in hand.
Grandma has gotten old in these last few years. Alzheimer’s is taking its slow, inexorable, ravage of her brain and her frame, always tiny, is frail and wobbly. As I watch the march of time, the slow shift in generations, I sometimes wonder just how hardwired a person’s history can be in their DNA. On both sides of my family, I come from rural folks, farmers just a couple of generations back, extended family who still farms, though in the modern, commodity-crop kind of way. Is this tradition somehow written into the very fiber of my being? Am I genetically predisposed to being in the heat, cold, wind, and sun rather than a comfortable house? Is there some hereditary factor that makes me find it more entertaining to sit outside and sip a beer while watching a spider spin its evening web than to watch any TV show? Or is it simply that we each have a place and a purpose in the world, and I’m one of the lucky few who has found mine?
In the end, I suppose, it doesn’t matter. I’ll toss another log on the fire, pour another cup of coffee and start my day. The shortest day of the year can still be productive. There’s still a freezer full of fruit to be turned to jam, a pile of old coffee bags to sew into totes, and the chicken coop really should be cleaned.
And after all of that, well…
There’s a whole lot of just sitting and being to be done.