(This non-fiction essay appears in the Spring 2010 Issue of New Southerner magazine)
I DREAM OF MY PAST
I didn’t grow up in the country, but I also didn’t grow up in a big city. My cozy hometown of Harrodsburg is basically a tourist town—the oldest settlement in Kentucky. My first memories are of the home we lived in on the outskirts of town, the last house in a row of 15 or so that faced the major highway running through our county. Highway 127 has its roots in several states, and it is still the easiest route to take when visiting our historic town.
My father is the son of a farmer, the baby in a brood of eight, although there were actually two babies because daddy has a twin sister; in total, five girls and three boys. I can remember my grandparents' farm down in Bohon, a tiny subsection of Mercer County, as the hub of activity for family get-togethers. Our family raised tobacco on this farm. I don’t remember much about it, although I have memories of hanging out in the tobacco fields during the summer and the stripping room in the winter.
The barns were one of my favorite attractions on the farm because there were so many things to see. There was hay to make nice cozy beds for catching a cat nap. There were stalls, doors and windows and all kinds of gadgets and gizmos. But I think the real appeal was being able to climb up into the rafters. Inching up into the hayloft by way of a rickety ladder, then shimming up a support post by notching bare toes in wooden knots, I would walk across the rafters with arms stretched wide, pretending to be an acrobat on a high wire. You can bet, I got my fair share of spankings and scoldings because of my antics in the barn, but at the time it was worth it to feel as one with the farm.
Granny was like most country farmwives. She kept a huge garden and canned and preserved food all during the growing season. Although I loved all the outbuildings on the farm, the root cellar was one place I was a little afraid of. Not only was it dark down under the ground, but the cold, musty air gave me an uncomfortable feeling and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. There was a light hanging from the ceiling, and you had to be all the way to the bottom of the steps to be able to pull the cotton string.
Bathed in the light of a single, bare light bulb, the fruits of Granny’s labor lay before you. Jar after glistening jar of green beans, corn, tomatoes and tomato juice, hominy, dill pickles, beet pickles and bread and butter pickles—all sat waiting for winter consumption. There were jellies, jams and preserves from blackberries, raspberries and gooseberries. Potatoes were gently layered in shallow wooden crates and covered with old newspaper for a long winter’s nap. Apples and pears were wrapped in butcher paper, which would turn their skins translucent and super sweet by mid-winter. Onion and garlic braids would hang from hooks, as well as herbs like sage, thyme and dill. Every nook and cranny of Granny’s root cellar would be stocked with essentials for the family to eat throughout the coming cold months.
The smoke house was another outbuilding on the farm I enjoyed. I don’t remember my grandparents curing meats in the smoke house—it was empty in the spring and early summer—but the lingering smell of the season's ham and bacon gave no doubt to what this building was used for.
The outbuildings on the farm were props for my overly active imagination. One of my greatest daydreams was of being a horse owner, and my grandparents' farm made the perfect backdrop for this fantasy. In my head, I had a stable full of pretty, prancing ponies, most of them emulating horses from my favorite television series, Fury. I thought Fury was the best horse in the world, and I wanted one just like him. While Granny’s flowerbeds were my horse corrals, the smoke house was my stable and the front yard was my race course.
I raced around the farm holding tightly to Fury’s reins and digging my knees into his pretend sides to make him gallop faster. In actuality I was astride a well-worn tobacco stick, clutching the top for the reins and trailing the bottom behind me. Round and round the house we would go, circling the huge oak tree in the front yard, flying past the persimmon tree and galloping along the peony ridge. Occasionally, I would tie a jump rope to my stick to use as reins or bridle, but this was not a necessity for my eager muse to work.
Oftentimes, I pretended to be crippled and would use two tobacco sticks to hobble around from one area of the farm to another. I liked to think I was famous for being an excellent horseback rider, even though I couldn’t walk without crutches. I have no idea where this fantasy came from, but on my grandparents' farm, no daydreams were off limits. I was always swooping in and saving the day at the last minute. I was the answer to everyone’s prayers—at least in my imagination.
Back before there was recycling, my grandparents burned all their garbage. Paper boxes, milk cartons, tin cans and all other kitchen waste that couldn’t be composted was put in the barrel and set on fire. I used to enjoy standing beside Granny or Granddaddy as they poked the embers in an old rusty barrel. I have a fear of fire now, but as I child I enjoyed watching the hungry flames devouring all the goodies with nothing else on its mind but total consumption.
Kitchen and garden waste was recycled in a compost heap near the garden. Granny kept an old galvanized bucket on her kitchen cabinet, and every vegetable peel, fruit seed, egg shell, coffee ground or leftover food scrap–with the exception of meat–was placed in the bucket and eventually emptied into the compost heap. Granny’s vegetables and flowers always grew huge and beautiful, and I think it was partly due to the fact that she tended her plants well and smothered them in compost.
Granddaddy loved to hunt and fish, and he kept the farm deep-freeze full of tasty meats. There were also hogs to slaughter in the fall for crispy bacon and tangy sausage. Chickens were an occasional meat treat, but most of the laying hens were just used for egg production.
How have we come so far from the family farm? Sadly, many children today think all their food comes from a grocery store. They don’t know vegetables grow in the dirt, chickens lay eggs and cows produce milk. Even a half century ago, most families were self-sufficient like my grandparents. Where did it all go wrong?
I long for the slower days of my past, the sparkling memories of my childhood. I want to recapture the life my grandparents knew so well, to provide for my family with the fruits of my labor. I crave a simpler pace, a slower time, when work was appreciated and dreams were nurtured. I dream of my past.
Bobbi Dawn Rightmyer is a lifelong resident of historic Harrodsburg, Kentucky, where she lives with her husband and three grown daughters. She has been writing since the age of 11 and has been published in various publications since 1996.
Editor's Note: This essay was a finalist in the 2009 New Southerner Literary Contest.