Great-Grandma’s Garage of Wonders

My great-grandmother was a force of nature.  Moved to this country against her will when she was young, from Norway to Canada to Minnesota.  The family hotel burned down, and they struck west for a new start.  After settling in the middle of nowhere and having a passel of children, her husband died…which brings us to the Depression (not a crash for the money-less, but no jobs for the young men) and then the War.

No surprise that her attic, decades later, still had stocks of small salvaged items.  There were balls of cord, copper wire, rubber bands, and all the usual things we discard or even recycle, but stored neatly and carefully for re-use.  Old clothes for new families (or rag rugs, or quilts) were hung on rods lining the recesses of the eaves.  An old cast iron bed, on which many local women had given birth to their first children, was still used for company and kept made.  The attic floor was bare and light came through windows at both ends.  A neat packet of gas ration coupons and an old tear-away calendar with a pretty scene were held down by a large stone, but that was all there was of clutter.

The garage was different.

The doors had been removed long ago, when the family stopped using any sort of carriage, cart, buggy, buckboard, or wagon drawn by horse.  The whole thing was strictly for storage.

Church pews were stacked in an off-balance jumble, like Scrabble tile-holders, taking up most of the floor.  A distaff cousin and I would sneak into the between spaces and hide from everyone…or so we said.  Mostly it was an excuse to be crammed on top of each other in the dark.  That hot breath on my neck (“shhhhh”) and wondering whose pulse I was feeling still plucks my lizard spine.  Any piousness imparted by generations of early country keisters planted in those pews must have boiled away under our raging hormones.

The walls were lined with shelves too high to reach, and that was a good thing.  Great-grandma had strings of double-string traps and a bear trap up there, among other dangerous goodies, and anyone who is appalled at the prospect of trapping should think about being widowed young with a passel of kids to feed and a garden that looks good to all kinds of rodents and deer, who look good to mountain lions and wolves.  Living next to Huckleberry Mountain drew bears, too, and our soft fruits looked just as good.  As did our pigs.

The piggies were gone before my recall, but a bear had torn through the sheep pen and was going to town in the sty.  My great-gran, who never topped five feet, ran out with her rifle and climbed up the fence post.  She kept nailing him, and it took five shots to bring him down.  Somewhere there is a picture of one of my giant great-uncles showing that his foot, heel to toe, fit between the bear’s eyes.  He was good eating, too; a bear that lives on berries is much tastier than one that lives on salmon.  The pelt was gorgeous.  And there was so much fat on this autumn bear that great-grandma stirred it up with lye to make soap.  There were huge blocks of it in the garage, molded in her enamel washpan and cut with cheese wire.

There was a lot of wire in the garage, too.   Barbed wire for fencing.  Chicken wire to keep our idiotic poultry contained in some areas, and out of others.  Baling wire (haywire) was used for everything.  And nothing that could be re-used was thrown away. There were old license plates nailed to the walls, old coffee cans of bolts, and the requisite dusty glass jars.  But great-grandma really did use this stuff.  Old smooth-sided cans (tin cans still, at this point) were cut into scoops, to which were screwed pegs to use as handles; these were for her Flour-Sugar-Salt canisters, and for the old country spice rack that she had, a white metal cupboard with wooden drawers for small and valuable items:  coffee, tea, black pepper, cardamom, mustard seed.  More magic for me.

Eventually the layer of post-hole diggers and unused horse collars was pushed to the back by metal fenceposts and unused car parts, but the organic monster garage itself never modernized.  The youngest layer was the inevitable tableau of a push lawnmower married to two old Schwinn bicycles by a cracking green garden hose.  But the outermost layer, just inside the shelter of the lintel, was the washing machine.

Two vats, connected by a wringer, with a corrugated board for scrubbing and a hole in the bottom to drain into a bucket — perfect.  The washer could be repaired by a layman, and it was always clean as a whistle — never any weird musty smells or mildew of any kind.  And this was a great convenience to a farming woman who had done a life of laundry with two zinc tubs and a washboard.  Wash water was dumped in the flower garden, which was tiered higher than the berry patches, who also received some benefit.

Whenever I dream of getting back to the land (or going off the grid, depending on how paranoid I feel), I think of this great device that didn’t need electricity or plumbing, and could be moved anywhere for convenience.  Great-grandma didn’t stop using it until she stopped washing her own clothes, which is when she died, in her late nineties.  We offered to get her an electric washer and dryer, and she thought that was ridiculous.  She might have been right.

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