People in rural areas are resourceful, especially mothers with more mouths to feed than money. My mother Lillian was just such a woman.
My family lived off the land. No, we weren’t naturalists or hippies…we were Vermonters. In the fall, my mother harvested her garden and every bit was canned, frozen or dried, from cucumbers to zucchini squash. The strong, pungent smell of pickling spice permeated every corner of the house, even at 6AM. Now that’s a wake-up call. When the freezer was full and all the canning finished, the army of jars would be marched down cellar and lined up on the shelves my father built, awaiting the chance to combat hunger over the long winter months ahead. But it didn't stop there.
Every spring, my mother spent hours outside, long knife in hand, uprooting dandelion plants. Nowadays, people would probably think she was out to rid her lawn of a menace, but in truth, she was harvesting fresh vegetables. The tub would be full of dandelion greens soaking in water to get the dirt out before they were rinsed again and boiled. A batch would be on the supper table that night, to be eaten with a splash of vinegar, while the rest would be put up for later in the year. My mother would scour the lawn every day until the yellow blossoms appeared and the plants became bitter.
We ate boiled milkweed leaves and fiddle heads. We picked wild berries. She made crab apple jelly, chokecherry jam and even made jelly out of apple peels. Nothing went to waste. The only family excursion I can remember as a child was fishing. Mud worms could be dug for free; kids didn’t need licenses, and there was a chance we’d catch some food. Sign my mother up.
Her flower gardens meant as much to my mother as the vegetable garden. She spent hours tending them. Lack of money ensured none of my mother’s flowers came from a nursery. But she was resourceful, remember? Plants were either dug up alongside the road, near old cellar holes or obtained in a trade with a neighbor. There are still lilac bushes and various flowers on the front lawn acquired from these trades, some planted close to 50 years ago. Though her flowers cost nothing, it didn't detract from their beauty. People often stopped to take pictures of the vast and wild beauty of lilacs, tiger lilies, honeysuckle, blue flags and wild roses.
My mother raised 7 kids, so we know she worked, just not outside of the home. Despite that, she figured out a way to make an income. She was resourceful, after all. She took in other people’s laundry. She'd wash it in a wringer-style washing machine and hang it on the clothesline to dry. Later, she'd haul it in and iron it--all of it. Clothes, sheets, pillow cases, an occasional tablecloth--you name it. It took hours. In the winter, the ironing board would be set up in the living room and in the summer on the front porch. The smell of a hot steam iron and spray starch heralded these marathon pressing sessions. When done, all the pieces were laid in the basket or box it arrived in, with a hand written price list on top. It was never more than a few dollars, no matter how big the pile.
She loved to iron. I hated to iron. For years, I hung clothes up as I took them out of the dryer. That’s changed. I now iron clothes. I still hate to iron, and I’m no good at it. I burn my fingers or end up with more creases than when I started, but I don’t care. I’m comforted by the enveloping scent of hot steam and Niagara spray starch in the familiar green and yellow can. It soothes the ache of missing my resourceful mother.
Happy Mother’s Day, Ma.