My great-grandmother, Gladys Mitchell, spent the vast majority of her life living on a farm in the rolling meadows of eastern Franklin County, Virginia, spitting distance from what is now Smith Mountain Lake. Granny was a superb quilter, a capable farm wife, an unfailingly kind and generous person and the kind of rare culinary talent that causes people to turn to tears and poetry when recounting her deceptively simple dishes* decades after the last Sunday dinner.
She had little formal education, having left school early, sometime before marrying my great-grandfather when they were both teenagers in the teenaged years of the 20th century. They spent the first part of their married life in a mining town in West Virginia. My great-grandfather dug for coal and played minor league baseball and Granny raised an ever increasing number of my great-uncles and aunts. A mine collapse left my grandfather with a broken back and little alternative but a return to the family farm, where they could grow a little tobacco and raise maybe just enough to feed a family.
Granny may have had odd notions and strange ideas before settling down in the deep country. Or she may have picked them up from family, from neighbors, from the other farm women at church down the hill or from some tenant farmer hired on to help with the harvest during the worst years of the Depression. For real, though, odd notions and strange ideas. Superstitions and myths and whatever washbasin alchemy was going down in the old kitchen house.
Consider Granny’s recipe for wart removal, as recollected to me recently.
- Collect a small pebble from the yard.
- Rub wart with pebble until you draw blood.
- Wipe blood on pebble.
- Place pebble in small box, tied with ribbon.
- Walk to end of road.
- Throw box containing pebble over shoulder.
- Do not look back as you return to your house.
- Your wart will disappear, as it will have been passed on to whomever (whatever?) picks up the box.
Obviously, I have never (and will never) tried this. My own medical concerns (warts and all) were seen to by my grandmother and mother, women, respectively, a generation or two off the farm, full-time residents of the modern world in which afflictions large and small were more likely to be solved by a trip to CVS instead of supernatural intervention.
Still, I like to imagine some archaeologist, years hence, uncovering a repository of small pebbles in decaying boxes tied with old ribbon alongside the rural highway near the old farm. Maybe she’d come down with a mammoth case of Plantar Warts while riddling out the purpose of the boxed stones. I don’t really believe that and neither do you, but if we did, we might be able figure out the secret to Granny’s caramel cake. It’s probably just a question of oven temperature and sugar proportions. But maybe, just possibly, it’s pixies.
*I come from a family of great cooks and we have a stack of her recipes and not one of us can replicate the Greats. Granny passed away in 1990. Twenty-five years later we’re still arguing over ingredients and techniques.