My mother, Mary Alice, was a latter-day suffragette. A rumored Communist Party member in the thirties (or, at the very least, a bang-up Socialist), she was always fighting the system, and for good reason. Her chosen profession as a school psychologist put her up against a bureaucracy that was rigged for men and run by semiprofessionals of a lower order—hidebound, territorial, and well fanged, much like a group of particularly savage baboons in western Uganda, where we visited in 1967. In an academic setting, this savagery took its toll behind closed doors and over years, not minutes.
But my mother was also a weekend farmer. Summers were a rich stew of creosote, pig manure, raw cow’s milk, fly-stuffed barns, and the happy scents of molasses cookies, wood smoke, and yeast—with a strong undercurrent of wet dog. Fence posts needed pounding; barbed wire had to be stretched; hay had to be cut, tedded, raked, and baled; and pigs and Angus had to be chased up the road and back into fenced pasture. We sold our own Green River brand of pork and beef that, when mixed together, made our signature burgers. As for the garden, the theory was survival of the fittest. A full quarter acre was planted every spring with no intention of further support (that is, watering or weeding). There were always sufficient survivors to fill the root cellar and provide bitter
and fresh greens, tomatoes, and herbs throughout the season.
One of my favorite memories is August sweet corn. We grew our own (we still do), and it was nothing out of the ordinary to eat half a dozen ears when the corn first came in. Over time my mother had to find new ways of using the abundant crop, and my favorite was her recipe for Creamed Fresh Summer Corn. This was not a heavy, cream-laden dish— being mostly about the sweet, fresh corn instead—and it usually constituted an entire supper with only a loaf of anadama bread from our town’s resident baker, Marie Briggs, on the side. I can still see Mary Alice, the socialist intellectual, standing in front of our small log cabin stove preparing this dish, my sister Kate and I having milked and cut the kernels from the cobs.
In later years Mary Alice found solace in good topsoil, a .22 pistol to keep the bears out of the birdfeeder, and an English shepherd named Dolly. My last memory of her was a Sunday good-bye. She often waved us off after dinner, standing high above on her second-floor porch, her eyes moist. Unfortunately her grandkids didn’t notice. Their grandmother was beyond their known world, like the candy-cottage witch from Hansel and Gretel. In later years they would remember a woman ahead of her time, who put local above global and dug deep into the ground for nourishment.
When she died I inherited her ancient birch-and-gut snowshoes—there is nothing better in deep snow. They are a reminder to me that Mary Alice was fond of gearing up to challenge the elements or whatever else stood in her way. She knew the secret of life was in taking that first step.
Her legacy is the garden and the cornfield, this is still our family’s hallowed ground. We plant every year with the expectation of those first sweet ears, which are quickly boiled or creamed. Good food always makes good memories.