Place: Nuyaka, OK – a very small community in Okmulgee County
Time: Mid-1930s. Dustbowl years. OK had been Indian Territory until 1907 when it achieved statehood.
She wasn’t really my grandma. But she’s one of the first adults outside my core family who I knew loved me.
You see, I was one of those “unexpected blessings” that sometimes come to parents later in life. I was born in 1933 when my dad was nearing forty and my mom was 32. Their only other child, my sister Lucille, was 13 when I arrived. I was “Baby Sister.”
Let me hasten to say that although I might have been unexpected, I was not unwanted. Even though times were hard – terribly hard in Oklahoma’s dustbowl – they welcomed me with open arms and hearts. I was their pride and joy as far back as I can remember.
Grandma Foster attended a small church that my dad was leading. I’m not sure the rest of the congregation appreciated her, but I certainly did. In Oklahoma at that time, being Indian had a certain stigma and Grandma was Indian – and proud of it! She never tried to hide her heritage.
She was in her 60s when I first remember her. To get to church, she walked on a dirt road up a long hill. She didn’t dress up but came wearing a bib apron. As soon as she came in, I would go to her. She would pick me and set me on her lap. Then she pulled whatever she had brought me from inside the bib of her apron.
In spring and summer, it might be something from her garden; or it might be an apple or a guinea egg with a light green shell. She had a flock of guineas as much for protection of her place as for their egg production. (Have you ever heard a flock of guineas raise a ruckus? They’re noisier than watch dogs! And, yes, they will chase you!).
Sometimes her gift was something she had picked up in the woods and kept for me: a few pecans, a brightly-colored bird feather, a leaf or flower. She would tell me the gift’s significance, where she had found it, and why it was important.
Grandma and my mother became good friends. In the spring, we would go with her to the woods to gather edible greens. She taught us to look around the edge of brush piles or along the south banks of a small creek, where wild onions, dock, dandelion, polk, and other greens would come up as soon as the snow had gone.
Our little community had two general stores, where we bought flour, a little sugar, coffee for my dad and tea for my mom. But like most country people in those depression years, my parents had very little money, and we lived mostly on what we raised. By spring, dried beans, sprouting potatoes, corn bread and gravy were getting old, and my mother especially longed for something fresh and green.
Grandma also knew about herbs for healing. In fact my mother gave her credit for saving my life in the winter of 1935. My parents had made a trip to California in the fall of 1934 seeking jobs and a better life. In the spring of 1935 I had a long bout with whooping cough, then measles, and finally pneumonia. Doctors in Porterville, CA gave my parents little hope for my life. But my parents were praying people and attended a church where prayer was made. In God’s goodness, I survived.
They returned to Oklahoma in the early summer of 1935 and resumed share-cropping along with my dad’s church work. My mother was extremely protective of me, but that winter, I again came down with pneumonia. In spite of much prayer I continued to get worse. Finally my dad made a trip to the nearest town to get a doctor. The doctor noted my high fever and difficulty breathing and said there was nothing he could do. He told my parents that the fever would likely break that night, but in my weakened state he couldn’t offer much hope of recovery.
After he left, Grandma Foster came to see what the doctor had said. My mother told her that he didn’t expect me to live. Grandma had brought with her some herbs and a small bag of onions. She asked my mother if she could treat me. Mama thought there was nothing to lose so she agreed.
The wood cook stove was hot; Grandma took an iron skillet and filled it with sliced onions. While the onions were heating, she made a tea with some kind of herb, and Mama held me up in bed to breathe the steam from the tea. Then Grandma asked for a piece of wool cloth. Mama got one, and Grandma poured the hot onions on the wool and wrapped them tightly, then wrapped the bundle in a feed-sack towel and placed on my chest.
Grandma and Mama sat by the bed and waited. After some time I began to cough and struggle to breath. Grandma told Mama to hold me up while she held a pan under my chin. Mama said I began to spit yellow/greenish mucus into the pan.
Eventually I was breathing easier and soon broke into a sweat as the fever decreased. Grandma stayed the night and sat with my mother. By morning my fever was lower, and I was on the slow road to recovery.
Later when I was about 5 years old, when my mother could get a day’s work doing washing for someone in winter (the old method – a big black washpot heated full of water and two tubs of water: one to wash the clothes with a rub-board, one to rinse them, then pin them on the clothesline.) or helping with butchering, or other farm work, she sometimes left me with Grandma. If the weather was nice, Grandma took me for walks in the woods, and we gathered herbs.
On those walks, she told me stories about her Indian heritage. One of those stories was about her grandparents who had come to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. They were young people, traveling with their families, but in love and planning to be married. The trip was a horrible journey through cold, wet weather. By the time the government-supplied food reached the travelers, it was often molded and wormy, and the young woman became ill.
The Indians traveled by horseback, walking, and horse-drawn carts. Each evening they made camp and built fires to prepare a meal. As the young woman became weaker, her lover grew increasingly concerned. Knowing that she needed nourishing food, he began to scout the farms they passed each day to buy eggs and milk for her.
They had in their camping supplies a small iron teakettle that would hang over the fire. It held 3 eggs to boil. The young man would boil the eggs and coax his beloved to eat at least one, keeping the other two for the morning and noon meal the next day. The eggs and milk, along with any other fresh food he could buy, enabled her to gain strength and survive the long trail.
Grandma emphasized to me that the Indians paid for the food they got from the farms they passed. I didn’t understand the significance of that then, but later when I read about the Trail of Tears, I learned that some people said the Indians robbed their fields and barns for food. Perhaps some did, but Grandma believed that her grandfather was a honorable man. Her grandparents had a great influence on her life.
Later when we moved away, Grandma gave me that little teakettle as a goodbye gift. It has moved with me through life and sits tonight on top of the china cabinet.
Grandma died in 1942. As I grew up and thought of Grandma, I sometimes wondered why she told me, a 5- and 6-year-old-child, the stories about her grandparents. But now that I am approaching 80, I find myself willing to tell children things I would not think of sharing with adults. I have decided that it is because the child is not judgmental. When Jesus said, “Except you become as little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” perhaps He was asking us to show more love and acceptance to our fellow travelers and less condemnation.
That’s how I remember Grandma Foster.
Copyright 2013, Joyce Wells Booze