For example, a son may be the “spittin’ image” of his father (For those of you who have the misfortune to be unhickified, “spittin’ image” means “he looks just like his daddy.”). A granddaughter stirs cake batter exactly like her grandmother—she uses her hands just like her grandma.
Sometimes, indicators of ancestry are invisible. Knowledge is an example of an indicator that is handed down.
In the past week, I came upon what I first thought a unique example of an indicator. After I took time to consider it, it really isn’t all that unique. But it got me mullin' and ponderin'.
In a conversation about food with my mother, I asked whether or not she liked mushrooms.
“Well, I wouldn’t know. Never had ‘em. “
What, what, what?! My mother never tasted a mushroom? How could this be?
“Huh? What? You’ve never eaten a mushroom? Fresh or canned?”
“No. Momma and ‘em used to go out the road somewhere and pick ‘em. They’d bring a bunch back and fry ‘em up in butter. They said you had to be careful, because some of them are poison and I was afraid they might get the wrong ones so I never ate any.”
My grandmother Nana, as we called her, and my Granddaddy married in 1927. They raised eight children—three boys and five girls—on their farm in West Virginia. In 1944, Granddaddy landed a job at DuPont in Charleston, West Virginia. In those days, a daily commute from their hamlet to Charleston was simply impossible, so that left Nana at home with eight children ranging in age from 16 to two. No wonder the eldest opted out of parenthood—she had had enough helping Nana raise the other seven!
While mullin' over the fact that Nana knew how to SAFELY harvest wild mushrooms (in addition to running a farm and keeping eight children in line), I had an epiphany. Someone taught her. Someone who had been taught.
Wild mushroom harvesting, at one time, was a viable, seasonal source of nourishment for many a mountain family. Then, in the 1930’s the government got involved, and created a mushroom variety that could be commercially produced.i Suddenly, even before WWI, you could get mushrooms in a can.ii Like many things, convenience won out and the ability to harvest mushrooms went by the wayside. Why would you want to go out and pick ‘em when you could go to the Piggly Wiggly and buy ‘em—year-round?!
So I pondered, who taught Nana to harvest wild mushrooms? More than likely, it was her mother, Rosa. Who, in turn was probably taught by her mother, Mary; who was probably taught by her mother, Octava.
I’ve yet to discover who Octava’s mother was. I have documentation indicating that Octava was born in about 1819. Now, almost 200 years later, what she knew has disappeared. The aunts and uncles who learned under Nana’s tutelage all either moved to cities and discovered the convenience of commercially produced mushrooms or began to purchase commercially produced mushrooms locally. Hence the art of the mushroom harvest was lost to our family.
Whoever taught Octava to harvest a morel mushroom passed down an ability that flourished for over 130 years. Think about that, it is much like quilting or canning, an almost lost skill and indicator of ancestry that, for a time, was vitally important.
It makes me wonder what my children may say about “Momma and ‘em” in 65 years or so. Whatever it is, I hope it is something that is useful to them and so unique to our family that it might last 130 years. Or more.
i Keith930, “The Mushroom Pickers: Yes, There’s a Story Here,” Kos Media LLC, Daily Kos, 20 April 2012 (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/04/20/1085082/-The-Mushroom-Pickers-Yes-There-s-a-Story-Here# : accessed 6 August 2014), para. 10.
ii Samuel E. Flammini, “The Evolution of the Mushroom Industry in Kennett Square,” 17 June 1999 (http://courses.wcupa.edu/jones/his480/reports/mushroom.htm : accessed 6 August 2014), para. 17-20.