Taking Root

It’s that time of year when Mother Nature shows us the way to slow down, let go, and join her in deep rest. It’s also that time of year when most folks ignore Mother Nature’s wisdom, and speed up even more. Scampering to and fro, they hurry from here to get there. And as soon as they are there, they rush off to another there. Here and there. Hurry, hurry, hurry.  Hurrrrry. 

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I don’t buy into it. The rush of the holiday season, I mean. I don’t buy into the constant buying, trying to find the perfect gift. We all know what the perfect gift is for all of us: Time. Time to slow down, let go, and rest. Which is exactly what I plan to do now that I’ve met all my writing deadlines for the year. I love writing. I love getting paid to write. (This still blows my mind! I get paid to write words. Pinch me.) But writing is work. It is hard work. I stress over deadlines, and I still struggle with perfectionism. Writing can bring me to tears. But I love and enjoy my work.

I especially enjoy writing memoir pieces and personal essays. I think stories are medicine for weary souls and a dis-eased culture. Not just the sweet, fluffy, every-little-thing-gonna-be-alright stories, though we need those, too. All the stories. The hard to speak stories. The stories that keep us awake at night. The stories that have flawed characters that are also genuinely beautiful human beings. Those that tell the truth of what it means to move through a lifetime–the good, the bad, the ugly. The stories of trying our best and most of the time succeeding, but also falling short a good bit of the time, too. Parents, children, humans. All.

Below is an essay I wrote for O. Henry magazine (http://www.ohenrymag.com/o-henry-ending-35/)  in November. It’s about my parents putting up food for the lean winter months. But it’s also about so much more. It’s about sacrifice, taking things for granted, and growing. Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy it.

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Taking Root: The richness of autumn’s bounty finds a home in a humble root cellar 

Each year when the leaves turn yellow, orange, and brown then float down to ever-growing piles and the comforting scent of woodstove smoke fills the air, I’m reminded of the stark beauty of this darkening season. It’s not quite winter, and yet Mother Nature’s crisp breath chills my neck each time her wind lifts my scarf. Gardeners can smell the acrid miasma of frost-burnt plants as the land enters its longest season of rest. These sensory experiences transport me back through the years to a place where winter arrived early and by November the land was already blanketed in a layer of snow. Summer long gone, no more running barefoot through the dewy lawn taking coffee to Daddy as he worked in our big vegetable garden. No more homegrown tomatoes eaten straight from the vine. But summer’s harvest was always carried into the following seasons through canning, drying, and preserving.

Growing up we had a two-room cinderblock building dubbed the Washroom that stood an arm’s length from our white clapboard house. Dad kept his tools in the Washroom’s larger room where he tinkered, built, and repaired all sorts of things. A small plastic 3-D image of Christ’s head hung on the heavy wooden door; his pale blue eyes followed me as I followed Dad around the room. The temperature dropped as you stepped down from the concrete floor of the main room into the smaller room—the root cellar. There were no windows. You had to reach up and fumble in the dark to find the light chain that hung from the ceiling. The floor was hard-packed earth, and wooden shelves covered three of the walls.

Countless jars full of fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors adorned the shelves: fruit preserves, tomato sauce, peppers, corn, beets, blackberries, applesauce and apple butter, jellies, and homemade wine. One jar both fascinated and repulsed me: pickled pig’s feet. Where did this oddity come from? We didn’t have pigs, so I can only guess it was a gift. People often shared what they had preserved with their neighbors. To the right of the cellar door there was a bin that resembled an animal stall where potatoes lay completely buried in a mix of sawdust and dirt. Onions rested nearby in a separate slot. Braids of garlic dangled from the rafters. In winter, when money was tight for a man who worked on highway construction, the root cellar was a necessity.

 As a child, I didn’t appreciate this food grown and preserved literally by the sweat of my parents’ brows. But as an adult who hasn’t the time, talent, or space to preserve my own food I understand the work involved. I tried canning tomatoes once as a young bride. It ended in disaster. My husband came home to find a blood-red ceiling and splattered countertops that looked like a scene from a horror movie. Every jar of tomatoes had burst open. I didn’t understand temperature and capacity were important aspects of canning. Preserving is an art form and takes practice. Afterward, Mom wanted to teach me, but I got caught up in life and caring for my own little family. I assumed there would be plenty of time to learn from her in the future.

I am humbled by my parents’ sacrifice. Dad spent weeknights after work, and all day on weekends, in the garden during growing season. The intense summer sun turned his Italian skin into brown leather. Mom spent day after day in an un-air-conditioned kitchen, standing over a Hotpoint stove while the sweltering steam from canning pots fogged up the windows. Because they had four small mouths to feed and not a whole lot of money with which to do it, they worked together. And though many meals were modest—brown beans and biscuits made with water instead of cream; potato-onion soup; chopped bologna instead of meatballs in tomato sauce; or garlic and dandelion greens salad—there was always something out in the root cellar that Mom could turn into a good meal.

 Sometimes these memories arise and take me by surprise. In a way they make me feel fortunate to have grown up in a home that often knew lean times, yet never knew lack. And although West Virginia winters were bitter cold outside, inside we were warm. The stove glowed as Mom prepared something from those old Mason jars filled with homemade love from the root cellar. ~Cheryl Capaldo Traylor

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Our family root cellar is that little cinderblock building behind the house I grew up in. Isn’t it funny how childhood homes seemed so much larger than they really are? 

I wish every one of you peace, joy, and deep rest this holiday season. Whatever holidays you celebrate, may they all be happy, merry, and bright. And full of stories to tell each other. See you next year.

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37 thoughts on “Taking Root

  1. I loved this story Cheryl! My first decade as a wife and mother were spent in a similar way and memories of hot summer nights sweating in my little kitchen over a big preserving pan of bubbling something or other and then finally when it was dark at about 11 pm tearing off my sweaty clothes and running down the back garden to jump into the kids pool and cool down, relax and let it all go………. I loved standing and looking at the shelves all neatly lined with rows of colourful foodstuffs. It’s an art that has pretty much died away now I think. Such a shame!

    I’m not posting to my blog at all currently, so here I am wishing you an enjoyable holiday season with many wonderful days of simple pleasures and time to dream. And of course the best of years for 2020 (which insists on sounding terribly futuristic to my ears – but here it comes!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cheryl, Many thanks for this walk down memory lane. You described so well my grand-parents root cellar and store room, which was connected to their southern Ohio farmhouse by what we called ‘the breezeway,’ where I would sit with my grandmother in the summertime and snap green beans in preparation for canning. Wishing for you all the time in the world this holiday season, Diana mcC.

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  3. Love all of this! I remember starting with jellies and jams as a teen. Had to water down the apricot jam. As a bride we canned a lot when in Illinois. My first solo batch of green beans went bad and we found out by stinking. Fortunately that’s the only hazard. We depended on these things and when we moved to NC we brought lots of canned green beans and tomatoes. I miss having the canned goodies, but it’s not the same. We tried gardening in Wilmington, but not much luck, but squirrels were fed so there’s that. Haha

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  4. Such a beautifully written post, Cheryl! I’ve only put up a few vegetables in my lifetime, but I remember the work involved. Good parents do what they need to do for their children.

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  5. Cheryl, what a lovely piece on your parents’ root cellar – and congratulations on its being published in O.Henry’s. You took me right back into your childhood where people worked hard for what they had and how they provided for their kids in a way that’s unfamiliar to a lot of people. I’m also with you on the hurrying … and the writing … and the reading. Here’s to peace for us all. Jeanne

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a heartwarming story, Cheryl, of simpler yet hardworking times. Isn’t is something how lean times can spur creativity and a feeling of abundance? When others tell me they love my soup, I know it’s because it’s filled with love and caring…just as your Mom did when canning all those long hours in the kitchen, or your Dad working in the garden. How wonderful you are writing professionally and doing what you love. May your success continue, dear friend. Warmest wishes to you and your loved ones for a relaxed holiday season, and bright and beautiful new year.

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  7. What wonderful images, Cheryl, and a great article. I’m useless at preserving and never was tempted to try, but I love the tastes! I also love the fact that there was a designated cool room for storage of these products squirreled away for winter. We don’t have them over here at all, but an old fashioned ‘larder’ is fairly close. Wishing you a very happy christmas and some relaxing writing time just for you.XX

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What a beautiful essay Cheryl. I love the way you describe the season and then the scene you build of the way your parents worked to make sure you were always well-fed. I’m with you on trying to use this season in the way it’s meant, for rest and slowing down! Wishing you a happy and peaceful holiday.

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  9. Cheryl, I finally figured out how to comment here. Ironic that I had to slow down a bit myself to do it. Like you, I deliberately decided to go slower this December. I didn’t brave the holiday crowds (although I shopped online) & felt better for it. Now I’ve turned in a manuscript & instead of straight away beginning another book, I am taking time to learn how to better to connect with people like you. Xo

    Liked by 1 person

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