Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Old Way

My great grandmother, Birdena (Healey) Flint, was born in 1901 near Wolcottville, Indiana, where she lived most of her life. She worked on a farm, raised her children, served as her church treasurer and taught in a one room school house. I never knew her husband, Truman, who died months before I was born. But she I was privileged to know. She died at the age of 106 just two years ago.

I remember visiting her home as a kid in the 1980s. Some of the things I saw just didn't fit into my thinking. Her ways were weird. Most of her front yard was taken up by an enormous garden (what a waste, I thought). She saved Ziploc bags, and even stored used Saran Wrap in her unused dishwasher. You couldn't eat from the boxes of cereal she had, because it had been in the cupboard for so long (probably left from the last person who had visited). And strangest to me, she would only use one square of toilet paper per "sitting." Somewhere along the line someone explained to me that a lot of her ways could be attributed to the fact that she lived through the Great Depression.

My thinking has wandered towards the depression lately. More accurately, I've been thinking about how we have framed the depression. I've wondered how people who knew life before the depression thought, especially those who hadn't migrated to the cities yet. I've wondered if, without the roaring 20s, the depression would have felt like much of a dip in rural America, where life had always been very hard. I've wondered if people who entered those years, having endured many other hardships, chalked it up as something to be expected. If we thought of our nation as bi-polar, could a depression be one swing, whose opposite is a manic episode? Will the past few years of indiscriminate waste be looked upon by our children as the Great Mania?

These are all wonderings, mere meanderings. They started with Wendell Berry, who started on me right before my Great Grandma's death. Berry has instilled in me a deep appreciation for the "old way." He has given a rudimentary understanding of the patterns and necessities of life that produced in my great grandmother, her ways.

The most recent novel I have read is called Andy Catlett: Early Travels. Others of Berry's novels (Memories of Old Jack, Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter) tell the whole life of one person who is a "member" of the life of Port William, Kentucky, and in so doing, tell the story of the changing of America through eyes of these lovable characters. In Andy Catlett: Early Travels, Berry takes a snapshot of one week in the life of a nine year old boy at the end of 1943. Andy is Berry's alter-ego throughout his fictional series.

Thoughout the week, he goes to visit his two sets of grandparents, and joins as much as he can in their way of life. The grandparents' way of life, is the way Berry refers to throughout his writing as the "Old Way." Andy is coming from Hargrave, where he lives with his parents; a world given to the new way. Narrating as an old man looking back on the change from the old way to the new, Andy says,
"That those two worlds were in mortal contention had never occurred to me. When in a few years one had entirely consumed the other, so that no place anywhere would ever again be satisfied to be what it was, I was surprised, and I am more surprised now by the rapidity of change than I was then. In only a few years the word of pavement, speed, and universal dissatisfaction had extended itself into nearly every place and nearly every mind, and the old world of the mule team and wagon was simply gone, leaving behind it a scatter of less and less intelligible relics."

More valuable to me than his social commentary, though, this book is full of descriptions of the old way. You can see and hear how everyday life was before electricity and cars. Not only in the patterns of doing, but in the patterns of thinking. And he paints it as beautiful, as I'm sure it was.

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