What Grandma Taught Me

Updated: Sep 3

It is indeed true that “It Takes a Village” to raise a child, and I’m living proof. I spent every summer, all summer, with my maternal grandparents on a remote piece of hardscrabble land deep in the Black Hills of South Dakota. These visits were necessary because my mother’s health was precarious, and nine months of a willful, opinionated little girl was all she could tolerate in any given calendar year.


For my part, I relished the change of scenery, the simplicity of a lifestyle that was for all intents and purposes a 19th century model, complete with no running water or electricity, and an outhouse on the side of the hill.


Chores were strictly divided by gender. Grandma’s workweek was well-ordered, with chores which she religiously followed per the nursery rhyme:


Monday - washday

Tuesday - ironing

Wednesday - mending

Thursday - market

Friday - baking

Saturday - cleaning

Sunday - church


Her garden was enormous (and commanded far more work than I ever thought was absolutely necessary to sustain life) and we had other intermittent chores such as berry-picking, collecting kindling, and - at the very end of the summer, when it was the hottest - canning the fruits of our labor on a hot wood-stove!


Washday was especially onerous because the water not only had to be lugged the length of a football field from the well and then boiled on the cookstove before we could begin washing in the tub and washboard (gratefully replaced with an ancient wringer washer after we finally got electricity). Still we never wasted an ounce of that precious water, and at the end of every Monday’s labors we drained the final rinse water onto the linoleum floor and took a mop to it! But our work wasn’t done with the washing of the floor; the wash had to be hung outside on the clotheslines behind the cabin. Also behind the cabin was the outhouse and a hillside. If you think hanging laundry on a steep hillside is easy - YOU try it sometime!


Next came ironing day. After the clothes dried, all items were sprinkled with water and tightly rolled & packed into laundry baskets. We had two irons literally forged from cast iron that we rotated from the top of the cookstove where they absorbed heat. Nothing escaped those irons, including handkerchiefs and underwear.


Leisure activity was considered to be sitting on the tiny porch in the hot sun with needlework. For Grandma there was never an idle minute, but the menfolk were allowed to sit in rockers after dinner (which was the noon meal) to digest and read. I loved to watch Grandpa because he put his bookmark (a piece of torn newspaper) between his lips, and immediately fell asleep, while the bookmark whistled through his snores. We kids thought this was endlessly entertaining!


For his part Grandpa planted and tended his own large potato patch, chopped wood for the stove, carried water, made a year’s supply of lye soap, cleaned the outhouse, built auxiliary buildings like a new, grander root cellar and eventually built a rock home (by hand) for their retirement. Oh, I forgot gathering and hauling the rocks to build the root cellar and the house!

There were always things to do and - especially in the early years - I tagged along with Grandma every minute of the day. Along with lessons in housekeeping and cooking (neither of which took particularly well) she also taught me family lore, and just plain good advice. (I always wondered where she learned how to keep house, because I knew that her parents had divorced when she was just a little girl and she had been raised by what she always called “the sisters” at a Catholic boarding school.) The fact that she had retained any familial ties at all was somewhat of a miracle under the circumstances, but then, she was the most traditional person I ever knew.


One thing that has always stuck with me was her incredible work ethic, especially since I knew she suffered from arthritis and other aches and pains associated with hard work and aging. She often said to me, “when you start to hurt, the last thing you should do is sit down”.


This, of course, is exactly what her own mother did several years later when she inevitably ended up under Grandma’s care. Grannie just sat down, and never got up again. For years! For some reason as a teenager it became my job to keep Grannie out of Grandma’s hair. Apparently I was pretty good at it because I would get her to talk about her own family’s westward migration down the Ohio River on a raft during pioneer times, and her later adventures when she ran away from home as a teenager and landed in the Black Hills. She apparently had many other - more unsavory - adventures which I was never quite able to get her to ‘fess up to, much to my disappointment.


Grandma had no such stories. She was the veritable Rock of Gibraltar in my life - one which was sorely needed, and appreciated the older I got. I can only hope that I have influenced my own grandchildren just a fraction of what she did for me.


As I said, it takes a village.


Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings.  Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.


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