Now I've come to the last month in The Book of Stillmeadow. This has been a wonderful year of reading Gladys Taber, and I plan to do something of the same sort beginning next month. There will be more about my reading scheme in an upcoming post.
In my neck of the woods, October changes dramatically from the beginning to the end.
October 4 (used as blog header)
Gladys begins her October with "nut gathering." She mentions both butternuts and hickory nuts. Do people still do this? I don't know of any nuts that grow up here, and I've never known anyone who picked them (or picked them off the ground). Gladys makes it sound like such fun. She climbs a pasture hill and says,
It is still and peaceful up here, and the air has a dreaming quality. When we have wandered as far as we need, for the gunny sacks do get heavy very soon, we move to the biggest ledge of all, where there is a nice flat place to spread a picnic supper.If there's one thing I know about Gladys Taber is that she adores picnics.
The menu is an old one, for this nut gathering has all the aura of tradition with us. New-laid eggs, fried crisp at the edges and just firm in the golden centers. Slices of dark bread to lift them on. We have big ripe tomatoes laid on grape leaves, to eat in the hand with salt and pepper.
And this is all, for we can't carry much when the nut sacks are full. Usually we find windfall sweet apples near where we eat, and make dessert of them.This sounds utterly perfect to me.
Of fall chores she writes that "the real countrywoman wishes she were triplets in autumn. There is no limit to the amount of work".
That is so true around here. We are never finished before the snow comes and the ground freezes.
A great part of the October entry is taken up with the summer kitchen. Do you know what that is? I had never heard the term until we moved to this old farmhouse. Certainly the house in town where I grew up, and then lived as an adult for nine years, never had such a thing. There was a kitchen. Period.
When we came here, this is what we found:
I suppose if we'd had the money we might have transformed this space into something, but it would have taken a lot of work. There was an unsafe attic above, and it wasn't heated. The sink would have been a good place to wash off vegetables from the garden, but it was very shallow and the drainage wasn't good. It was essentially useless space, so in 1992 we had it pulled down. Now that opening in the second picture goes right out to the side yard.
But back to Gladys. She and Jill did wonders with their summer kitchen.
Many old houses have this large room behind the real kitchen, and many have woodsheds attached to the main kitchen. Almost anyone who has any kind of a back room, I think, would do well to remodel it into a real summer kitchen, for the advantages are countless.
Here, for instance, you may have the old black range, so comfortable, and so good for canning or baking. On cold fall days before the furnace is on, a quick fire in the range warms the downstairs nicely. Here, on boiling days, you may simmer the roast and keep the main kitchen cool for salad-making.
We have always used ours, but only after the main kitchen was made perfect did we decide the summer kitchen must be made equally efficient and labor-saving.
The room is large and runs up to the roof. We put windows all around and windows near the ceiling to let in more sun. The walls are covered with insulation board finished with clear waterproof varnish. They are a warm honey tone and will stand any amount of wear.
It was easy to put in a sink and hook up the washing machine by putting them on the same wall as the inner-kitchen fixtures.She goes on for several pages until this reader was about as envious as could be!
In each chapter, Gladys spends some of the time writing about her cats and dogs. I don't know why I haven't quoted more of these passages in the past year. They raised cocker spaniels. They had two cats. Gladys was a big animal lover.
Reading of bringing in the harvest and freezing it after years of time-consuming canning, I have the sense that Gladys' household was almost completely self-sufficient when it came to fruits and vegetables. So many of us long for that, but after many, many years of trying, I can say it is very hard work and takes a lot of time. But I hope it still appeals to young people. There is something wonderful about eating what you have grown yourself.
Gladys ends the October chapter in her familiar wise way.
There is a lovely stillness in a fall afternoon. Up in the pasture one can really "busy the heart with quietude." The stillness has the sadness of passing summer, and yet it has a breathless quality of life still to come before winter sets in. All the color that flames in the woods and runs along the horizon is so beautiful that it comforts and warms the sorrowful spirit. While the world continues to be troubled and the atom bomb is apparently the god of all things that are, I stubbornly refuse to despair. There is still love in the world, and kindness, and faith. So let us not abandon hope.As if that wasn't a wonderful enough ending, she goes on in an exceptional postscript. It is quite long and I won't quote all of it, but I want to give you the feeling that she gave me as I read it. She truly was a philosopher, as I believe I've mentioned before. She is again up on a hill. The passage reminds me a little of Emily in Our Town when she is dead and looks at all her living loved ones.
Sometimes I go away by myself, up the hill, far enough from Stillmeadow so that I only see the slope of the roof almost lambent with sunset. ... From the upper abandoned orchard the yard is partly visible, dotted comfortably with cockers and cats, and if the weather is right, Jill's bent shoulders appear at the end of the tomato vines. If there are guests, and there usually are, the sound of their voices comes dreamily from the open space where the lawn furniture is.
If Cicely is home there is music, too. ... Don is never visible to the naked eye, for he finds the best way to get through all the murder mysteries is to keep out of sight. Too many errands might turn up.
Dorothy and her new husband, Val, will be working on their car; just married, the excitement of being together pitches their voices high and sweet. ...
There it all is below me, this little world within a world, and I sit down on a warm grey ledge upholstered with feathery lichens and think about it in relation to the rest of the world.
The terrible suffering that man is undergoing all over the earth is like a tidal wave to overwhelm civilization. If we think of this, what can we find in the whole round turning earth to make life good?
The intolerance sickens the soul. Race against race, caste against caste - by what dreadful arrogance could I believe myself better than another woman because my skin is pale?
But here in the country, we may establish one small territory dedicated to love instead of hate, and possibly that is why we were born. And just possibly when all men have homes, hate will diminish all over the world.
For we are always pursuing happiness and security. We pursue them, not knowing what they are. Now and then, rarely, we find them, if only briefly. But for me, and for many women like me, and for many men, a small home in a green valley is security and the opportunity to make a happy life.
Looking down on Stillmeadow I see the years that have gone, and the mark of them is a good and kindly mark, for the trees have grown, and the lilacs are spreading graciously. When nature devastates the whole yard full of old and lovely apple trees, she begins new life the next season with young maples, and that year the mallows are as big as full moons.
The seasons change but new life is always coming, and in the country one never looks backward. As soon as the crops are harvested, we begin to plan next year's garden. When the rose has faded, there is pruning to do for another lovelier rose. Moments of sadness when the delicate amethyst and ivory lace of the lilacs die may shake the heart, but on the morrow we go out to the border and see the rosy red peony, like an English country maid in a lyric, spreading a full skirt.Gladys remembers the many things that have happened over the years, both the happy and sad. She says, "I remember my mother, who never walked across the lawn her, and is always here." She can talk about the general and the very most personal and we readers feel what she feels. We understand this woman, much like ourselves all these years later. If you haven't read her, I hope you will. And if you have, you know just what I mean. It has been a lovely year with Gladys, and I hope to continue my visits with her each year with a different book. She fills me with joy and hope and real comfort. I couldn't ask for more.