Rock Stars of the frontier

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been going through quite a few changes lately, and it seems I’m starting a new life as a new person. As I’ve also mentioned before, the former person drank a lot of the Cultural Kool-Aide. It oozed out of my pores. I was driven by a need to acquire enough status to earn other people’s approval: people I knew and society at large. I felt the need to acquire enough money to earn respect from total strangers. I even craved admiration. Unfortunately for me, however, I fell flat on my face in both regards. Often.

And yet, I was supposed to be one of the Smart Ones. I got scholarships; I got degrees; I got awards; I got student loans. Somewhere along the way, self-sabotage, the status culture and a few other nasty things thrown into the mix and it all didn’t work out as planned. So now here I am, humbled little me: I have no status, no job and I’ve given up the dream of ever being able to brag about my professional exploits at cocktail parties. The fact that I don’t go to cocktail parties makes this a bit easier on me, though.

Which brings me to this one bit of irony I’m about to relate.

I’ve started living out a deeply held dream (so deep I kept it a secret to myself) to live life a different way. I started cooking even more, even though it was always a hobby. In an effort to be more frugal this Christmas, I decided to knit or sew all the presents for the extended family. The added bonus is it’s kept me out of the malls for the most part, and saved more than a few total strangers any of my sermons on how terrible shoppers behave (yes, more than a few Lexuses taking up wheel-chair accessible spaces this year).

However, I’ve gotten a bit behind, so whenever I take the train into the city, I knit during the commute. It’s about a forty-five minute ride, so I can get quite a bit done.  Invariably, this will attract the attention of one or more passengers: and I love attention. It’s like being a local rock star. Businessmen who are clearly “doing well,” professional women, semi-professional women, young people, urbanites. People are fascinated by this act of knitting.  Who knew? All those degrees and all I needed was a ball of worsted weight yarn and a pair of bamboo knitting needles.  Let me repeat: I love the attention, however puzzling it may be that some people give my knitting more admiration than nuclear fusion (Sheldon Cooper, eat your heart out).

And I have to say, on one level, it may be more deserved. Not for myself I mean, but for the art. I mean this very sincerely. Since I’ve started cooking, sewing and knitting – the first two with the aid of pretty sophisticated technology, I’ve found a newfound respect for the women of the past few centuries who settled and supported this country. They are the unsung heroines of our country. The men who fought the wars, the statesmen who established our government are noble heroes indeed, but they wouldn’t have gotten very far without food and clothes.

I’ve done a little reading on pre-industrial husbandry, and my own adventures in homemaking have taught me one important thing: thank the Good Lord for electricity and I am not being funny.  Electricity liberated women by allowing technologies that made keeping a home more efficient and less labor-intensive.

Cooking: before electricity, women used cast iron wood stoves. Now, according to one article I read, these cast iron wood stoves were themselves a huge boon in technology for women, especially on the frontier. But they were heated with wood. And you had no thermometers either (front what I understand). So, this was the deal to make scrambled eggs and/or biscuits: you had to fill the stove with wood, you had to light the fire. You had to do this early enough so the fire would burn down to embers. So, that’s maybe an hour before you can start cooking. You or someone had to get the eggs from the chickens and milk the cow. Maybe you already had some buttermilk around. If you didn’t have a water pump in the house, you had to go to the pump and get water. Then you got to cook. Then, you had to maintain that level of heat in the stove for the rest of the day, being careful not to let it get too hot or too cool just before meal time. So there’s adding wood, monitoring the stove, etc. And after each meal, you got to wash dishes. If you ran out of water, it was back to the pump for you my girl. My dishwasher was out of commission for a month and it was a pain. If you didn’t have a cast iron stove, you had to cook over an open hearth. Look that up; I have. It was definitely not quaint, fun or adventurous after about a week. Baking a cake so it got cooked all the way through, without getting burned had to have been an art form. Cooking a meal with no thermometers to tell you the heat of the stove, no timers meant you had to learn all of that. The artistry of that astounds me every time I think about it. Oh, yes, and you had to do all of this while taking care of children. I want to see Sarah Palin pull that off in full make-up with a fancy hairdo.

Sewing: I’ve inherited from my family my grandmother’s old foot-peddle trundle sewing machine. At one point it was converted to electricity, but I don’t use it. I use my nice machine with the decorative stitches and feed dogs and stitch selections. I get patterns; I have plenty of room. And yet, I still refuse to sew anything with sleeves. Let me tell you about me and sleeves. Ten years ago I tried to make a shirt and I spent a week on the sleeves. That shirt is sitting in my fabric cabinet to this day and still no sleeves. Anyone who can sew sleeves is a master crafts-person in my book. (And there are people who get paid pennies a day to do this for ten, twelve, sixteen hours a day.) Yet these women, with no electricity, no craft stores but just what they could get either at the local store or through Sears & Roebuck made clothes for their family. Yes, I know they could get premade clothes. I know there were seamstresses – who were themselves unsung artisans. I also know they had to make a good number of things as well, partly out of expedience and partly out of frugality.

And knitting. I love knitting. It’s pretty easy; you can knit while watching TV or sitting with the family if you don’t focus on the conversation too much – and that in itself is one of knitting’s saving graces. However, to knit anything takes a huge investment of time. If someone charges you anything less than fifty or sixty dollars for a hand knit-scarf, then they are giving it away. It takes about four days to a week of pretty much full-time knitting for me to get a five-foot long scarf. By full time I mean about six to eight hours of knitting a day.

So there you have it. The ultimate irony: I quit the whole status chasing thing (or so I tell myself, it’s like an addiction you always have to treat), and in my humble little pursuits I get treated like a budding little rock star. I love it. But knowing what I know now about all this, I’m wondering why there aren’t statues to the women who went out and kept this country going in food and clothing and procreation – the three things without which the human race cannot survive. They should have parks, cities and airports named after them.  They worked hard, and learned valuable, difficult skills that made it possible for men to go out and “conquer the world,” all without the rights to vote or hold property. For me, these women were the real rock stars.


2 thoughts on “Rock Stars of the frontier

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