When I was a child, we had a neighbor named Johnson. Les, I suppose short for Lester, was his first name, but he was Johnson to us. Johnson had been a WWII gunner, and had the damaged hearing to prove it. I don’t have very many memories of him, unfortunately. One thing I remember was his greeting- when he’d come to visit, he’d announce, “Salutations, and all such rot!” Another thing I remember was him showing me the one and only mistake he’d made when helping my parents re-do my bedroom- one crooked nail behind the door, that I knew was just between us.
At some point, he helped my mom make shelves in our basement. That basement was by no means ‘finished’, but it didn’t have dirt floors either. At the bottom of the stairs was the laundry and a big sink, the furnace, a toilet under the stairs and some shelves at the back with paint and things, and a HUGE butcher block in the center. (That’s a tale for another time.) Through a doorway to the right, however, was storage. We had two freezers, a chest and an upright, and 3 walls of deep, deep shelves.
They held everything. All manner of kitchen equipment like the huge roasting pans, everything you could need that wasn’t regular enough to be upstairs. “It’s on the shelves” was a familiar direction for lots of things we were looking for.
These shelves also held canned goods (and canning equipment.) I remember the collapsible, chain-link basket that held the jars while they were in the boiling water. And I remember the canned string beans, and peaches. I also remember the mess and scent of canning tomatoes, but curiously not the tomato jars themselves.
When I think of what inspires me to garden, to grow food and medicine, to spend time and energy on things that really are quite easily picked up on my way home each night, I just keep seeing these shelves. I see the lifestyle that demanded storing things like pressure canners and big grey dish tubs and who knows what else (I just had a memory flash of a spiral cut French fry maker!). I see the planning and preparation and foresight and decisions that went into the ‘simplicity’ of putting up your own food, of living 20 minutes from a grocery store, of having a driveway that needed an actual tractor (an old International that only my dad could use) to plow it. I see the relationship my parents had with an old guy who lived in a cabin and walked through our woods in the dark of night to get home, who treated my sister and I like granddaughters and would talk late into the night telling stories about a time long past (I think my mom still has the cassette tapes from recording those stories.) I think about my mom learning to garden and can from her mother, and my dad butchering deer on that basement with tubs of meat on EVERY available surface- no laundry that day! One of the only recipes I have in my dad’s handwriting is his brine he’d use before smoking some of that deer in the smokehouse he built himself.
It’s something I took for granted as a child, because that’s how it was. But that life provides a satisfaction that not everyone will feel from that kind of work, and it’s a satisfaction that I am chasing. Eventually I will land in a home that is permanent and can hold the symbols of this life. I love the idea of living in a tiny house, but only if it’s got a full basement, and maybe a second floor over the garage. Where else could I put deep shelves?