An extended family isn’t something we see much of in our culture anymore. Farming families are the only ones who come to mind, who still live on the same land as a family unit.
I grew up in an extended family, on a homestead in rural Minnesota. Childhood was a continual wealth of lessons in simple living, gardening, self sufficiency, home-making and finding ways to live well on a modest income. With my maternal grandmother living just a few yards “up the hill”, I benefited from the shared knowledge she had garnered from her mother and grandmother.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being presented with a wonderful gift. The gift of knowledge, experience, love and a deep connection to my ancestors that I only came to understand as I grew older.
My grandmother moved onto our place when I was 2 years old. The folks moved an old house from another piece of land they owned, and plunked it down on a little foundation they made on their home site. The house was about 15 yards from ours, had 2 rooms downstairs, 1 room upstairs, and no running water. Gramma lived like that for about 30 years. She carried water from our place up to hers, kept her house spotless and stayed busy by making herself an important part of our family.
I never asked, but I think Gramma paid for having the house moved. Otherwise, the house and the land were free to her. In return, Gramma helped out with canning, cleaning, gardening, babysitting, baking, cooking, sewing and anything else she was capable of doing.
My mom had her mother right at hand for advice, help and company, which I know my mom appreciated, since she wasn’t used to living out in the country and maintaining acreage with wild animals and such. Gramma had been raised on a farm, so she was able to handle more “country” type problems and pass her knowledge along to us.
Whatever we did, Gramma was a part of it. I can remember many summers of all us working on the garden. Mom and I usually planted the garden and then Gramma would be out there with her hoe, cutting down the weeds as they would come up. By mid summer, Gramma would come to the house with her always-present apron filled with vegetables she had picked from the garden. We would form an assembly line of Gramma and I cleaning the preparing the veggies and mom working at the stove, pickling them. We had a huge variety of delicious pickles and relishes that would accent every meal we had during the long, cold winters!
Gramma was also a good playmate and would help keep me entertained when I wasn’t feeling well. I was sick a lot as a little kid and even ended up living with Gramma for a few weeks one time. Our house was cold and damp, while Gramma’s was warm and dry. Her special “Gramma healing” made me better in no time!
Baking was another thing I loved to do as a child. Mom and I would bake some cookies or a cake and I would run up to Gramma’s to share it with her. Pies were mom and Gramma’s specialty. Those two could really bake pies. If I remember right, Lemon Meringue was their favorite.
During the winter, mom and Gramma would let me help with the quilting. They would always sew a bunch of patchwork quilt tops to take to the church for the sewing bees, then the church would ship the quilts to the needy. I not only learned to sew, but I also learned from their example that you can make things with your hands that can benefit others. We never had much money, but we could always make something to give to someone else. That was a very important lesson for me.
(My first attempt at photography)
Everything I learned as I was growing up, had a little touch of my Gramma in it. Every step I took towards adulthood, she was there to watch and encourage me onward.
The bond between the “3 of us girls”, was very deep and very strong. Even though I couldn’t express the feeling as a child, I know now that it was a feeling of belonging and a sense of who I am that they extended to me throughout my life. I learned skills that I will always have, but I also know where those skills came from and why they made so much sense to the generations that came before me. Through them, I am connected to who I am and where I came from and that is the greatest gift of all.