The Superhero of Our Family
'Behind every good man is a great woman,' the old cliché says. If that quote ever applied to anyone, it applied to my grandmother, Lucille Stith. The farm and our farming family simply could not have existed without her. It's hard to overstate her contributions to our family and to the farm; she was truly a superhero. She nurtured 11 children, cooked on an industrial scale and still managed to be warm and loving to us all.
I think about her often this time of year. Today (November 1) marks 22 years since her passing. I was 17 at the time, and likely no closer to any human being than I was to her. The house I grew up in was directly across the street from her house and I literally wore a path between the two in our yard!
Many of the things that make me the person I am today are a direct result of her influence. Sometimes those things seem a little eccentric and are not well understood by most farmers, even some of the ones in my own family!
My dad was more than a little perplexed a few years ago when there were two triangle shaped uncut strips in a hay field I mowed. He didn't understand--those patches were full of butterfly weed and milkweed. I had transplanted enough of those for grandma to know what a prize they were, especially to monarch butterflies. Begrudgingly, he let it slide.
Grandma had a love of plants and was genuinely great at growing them. Living as close as I did, I was often conscripted to help her with them. From the time I was big enough to operate a shovel, I was transplanting flowers, weeding flowerbeds and doing other yardwork with her. She taught me to identify a wide assortment of flowers and weeds.
In fact, I still remember the first time I asked her how to tell the difference between a flower and weed when all the plants were all young and small. "Pull it up", she said. "If it was easy to pull out, it was a flower!"
When my wife, Megan, and I were first married we moved into the old farmhouse and I sat about rehabilitating the flowerbeds. It had been eight years since grandma had been there and things were in rough shape, but many of the plants were still there. Over time I was able to get the flowers back in form. I took great satisfaction in returning her plants to their former beauty.
Megan and I eventually built our own house elsewhere on the farm. The hardest thing to leave were the flowers. I took starts from many of the plants to our new house and invited many others in the family to come and get starts for their own homes.
I no longer have flower gardens to the extent I did at the old house, as it's very time intensive. (especially at the same times of year when farming is also time intensive) It's still comforting to have some of her plants around to remind me of my time caring for those same flowers with her and later in memory of her.
Another piece of my personality that comes directly from Lucille is cooking. She was a fantastic cook. Granted, some of it likely was out of necessity, as she was tasked with feeding a small army daily! Biscuits from scratch and cornbread out of a hot iron skillet were nearly daily fixtures.
Every Halloween when my kids don their costumes and head out to visit friends, neighbors and relatives and collect candy I think about Lucille. Instead of candy, she made sweet rolls as big as your head from scratch with homemade icing for kids who stopped at her house. They were sweet, fluffy and wonderful and I have not seen their equal since. (If you're ever in Colorado, Denver Biscuit Company is the closest I've seen, but not the same!)
Our family still has most of her recipes, and MANY have tried to replicate her sweet rolls and many other dishes from her handwritten cards, but it's often impossible. "A recipe is just a jumping off point," she'd say. Over the years she'd added things, changed quantities or left things out. Many of those tweaks never made it to the cards.
I remember one occasion when my aunt Janet, who had been attempting with varying degrees of success to make one of Lucille's dishes, happened upon her making the dish later and noticed her adding cumin to the pot. "That's not in the recipe," Janet said. Grandma just shrugged.
Through careful observation (likely while being in the way) and trial and error I have been able to respectably replicate a few of her creations, like skillet cornbread. I have also developed her habit of scanning recipes and then veering off-course, sometimes wildly, to get where she wanted to go by tasting and seeing.
While I had many great farmer influences in my childhood that taught me countless lessons about farming, working, and life (which is generally the focus of this blog), I am grateful Lucille was there to expose me to some things that I may have missed out on otherwise.
She was a superhero to all in our family. As a parent myself now, I'm sure it wasn't as easy as she made it look. Eleven children equates to over eight years of being pregnant! And that's just to get them into this world--they still needed years of time, care and attention to make her children the productive adults they all became.
Still, of everyone in our family who was fortunate enough to have her in their lives, I feel that I was the luckiest. I came along at just the right time when she had one-on-one time to give me to show me the all things she liked so well.
I would be lying if I said I didn't still miss her, but enough time has passed that I can reflect on our time together with nothing but happy thoughts. She enriched my life and helped shape me into who I am today and I hope I also enriched her life through the time we spent together.
While I can't imagine many people being as special as she was, I'm sure some of you have a superhero in your family too. Treasure them while they're here, remember them fondly after they're gone and use their lessons to be a superhero to someone else someday.