from the Farm
Bertha's Biscuit Basket
Glenfield was the kind of town where people took care of each other in a quiet, New England sort of way, which respected individual pride and Yankee independence. When a need presented itself, there was always someone there to meet it; few had to ask for help and rarely was a "thank you" expected. Without much notice, a widow's house would be banked for winter, an out-of-work man would be offered odd jobs on several farms, full canning jars would show up in an empty pantry, and neighbors found reasons to check in on a friend when things didn't seem quite right. In general, everyone gave when they could and received when they had to; and in so doing, the Glenfield residents sensed that the scales were balanced, or at least they would be on the final day.
And so it was, that my mother gave attention to maintaining a biscuit basket that never had to go begging for a flaky buttermilk biscuit or warm blueberry muffin.
When I was a child, our nearest neighbor was John Marshall, a widower, whose farm was no more than a quarter mile down the road, or closer, if you cut through the orchard and across the pasture. He had grown up back when the town, itself, was still in short pants, and a boy was expected to be a man as soon as he could find his way into the barn and back out again. He knew farming, hard work and his place among the other men of Glenfield; anything else was unfamiliar, uncomfortable and awkward. After his wife's death, John became brusque and reclusive. He stopped attending church, rarely went into town, never spoke to women, and had no patience for children. By my own determination, he was an ornery old cuss with few, if any, redeeming qualities.
When Mr. Marshall became too old to farm, my father took over his land, haying the sloping fields and planting potatoes where the ground was level. Despite his retirement, John put in a full day's work at our farm, following my father and puttering around the barn, "just to keep the smell of farming on his clothes." Unlike any other person who ever came to our home, he never entered the house or sat at our table to share a meal. After all, the kitchen was my mother's domain, and that made it no place for a man like him. But, despite his stubbornness and quirky ways, my mother respected our neighbor, saw his need, and refused to let him go hungry on her watch. Helping him wouldn't be easy - he would see to that - but when she set her mind to something, Mother always found a way of accomplishing her mission.
Between the main kitchen and the summer kitchen was a narrow hall, which opened onto the side and back porches. It looked and felt more like a shed or a barn than part of the house, so John considered it "an area where a man could stand without treading into a woman's territory." On a shelf, by the back door, sat an old basket -- not strong enough to take to the garden and never nice enough to take to town. Each morning, after breakfast, Mother would wrap the leftover biscuits and muffins in a towel and take them out to the basket. Father, and any of the workers, were welcomed to the basket's contents, but it was my mother's intention to always have something in the basket when Mr. Marshall shuffled onto the porch and through the screen door for his breakfast or lunch. She would frequently put out a jar from the pantry or a serving of baked beans or leftovers in a tin pail for him to take home. In all my growing up years, the basket was never empty.
From the day that our neighbor's need prompted my mother to set out a biscuit basket, until the day Mr. Marshall passed, he never once had to ask for food or even say, "thank you." Mother never expected either, and I don't think it crossed her mind that things should be different. Caring for a neighbor was her Christian duty, as well as a privilege and a blessing in its purest form. “Being able to do it,” was reward enough for her.
That is just the way it was in Glenfield. There was a comfort and a peace in knowing that the scales were likely tipping in favor of kindness. And no one really needed any more than that.
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Farms, Inc., 2008
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