I'm Not Turning Into My Mother, I'm Turning Into My Grandmother

by Jill Ferguson

On Sunday, a little over a month after my 46th birthday, I stood in the rare Seattle sunshine next to my container garden and pulled radishes that hadn't quite formed into ruby bulbs, but whose greens were starting to go to seed. At first I thought I'd throw them in the compost bin that was mandated by my county for yard waste, but then I chided myself for being wasteful. I opened Google on my smartphone and typed in "radish greens recipes." And it hit me: I'm becoming my grandmother, but with a modern twist. (Oh the things she could have accomplished watching YouTube videos and having information about everything a few mouse clicks away.)   

Image via Darren C. Sawyer

Image via Darren C. Sawyer

G-ma, as we affectionately called her, was the oldest of 10 children of Serbian immigrant parents, and her childhood was during the Great Depression. She learned how to the use every little bit of everything and then to reuse it as many times as possible by necessity. These lessons were applied throughout her life... and she apparently passed them on to me during my childhood. 

I loved going to stay the night at her house as I grew up. I learned to sew on a treadle machine whose needle bobbed up and down in time with my foot moving the ornate cast iron pedal. While sitting on the brown, burnt orange, and cream colored floral living room sofa, I loosely grasped hook and yarn in my skinny fingers, as she instructed, and made loops, and then connected them in the beginnings of a crocheted afghan. When Mom would pick me up the next afternoon, she marveled at my patience. She hated sewing and crocheting, calling them "frustrating." More than once I heard her say they were unnecessary, since we could just buy clothes and blankets. (This may have been backlash against her frugal upbringing.) 

Gardening also brings back sense memories for me. I learned to cultivate plants in G-ma's backyard veggie garden that was bigger than either of the bedrooms in her house. From beginning of summer to end, I planted seeds in the dirt and watched them sprout, pulled the carrots from the soil by their feathery green tops, and picked and ate green beans from the vines (no need to wash them as everything was grown organically — though that wasn't a word used then — and her fertilizer was the composted fruit cores and vegetable tops and rinds from the cultivated pile outside the garden fence). Some of the food we'd eat fresh, but the excess would be canned or pickled and stored in the root cellar under the stairs. 

Read more: Container Gardening for When You Only Kind of Give a Shit

While I never took to canning, I have container gardens where I grow herbs and veggies to supplement what we buy at the store, and I compost, both by will and by law. I grow almost all of my vegetables from seed just like G-ma. But I use a combination of compost from our backyard pile and organic kelp-based fertilizer. My childhood affection of watching things grow is still very much alive. And I love to pull the carrots when they are still babies to add as a crunchy, sweet kick to salads; the smell of them fresh from the earth and the texture of their tops in my fingertips transports me every summer the 2000 miles across the U.S. to my grandmother's Pennsylvania acre.    

I do not have a ball of rubber bands or a bag full of twist ties in a kitchen drawer like G-ma did, nor do I have a bag full of bags that have been washed and rewashed for more years than my millennial stepchildren have lived. But I do take cloth bags to the store (and wash and reuse them regularly). 

I also find myself repairing and reusing things... sometimes to my mother's chagrin. When I visited my parents two years ago, I asked my father for his needle-nosed pliers as the metal tip holding my eye shadow brush had fallen off its wooden handle. My mother asked, "Why would you fix that? Just throw it away and get a new one. They're cheap." And she offered to drive me to the closest big box store. But I found myself a bit repulsed by the idea: Why throw away something that could be perfectly functional with a 10-second squeeze of the pliers? 

I was born in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, and I embraced the idea in childhood that part of my role in life is to be a steward of the earth. That means making choices about my consumption, and determining how much of anything I need. 

While I do not have a deep freezer full of questionable age and origin food relics, like my grandmother did, I've taken to heart her examples, and made the lessons my own. Maybe we don't really turn into our mothers... maybe we skip a generation.  


Jill L. Ferguson is an artist, the author of seven books, and the entrepreneur who founded Women's Wellness Weekends. Her hair isn't as big as it was when she was a teenaged ice and roller rink rat, but she still loves to skate.