A Genuine Chunk of Kentucky by Grace Winkler care of Natasha Kolar
The cross-country drives and flights to Kentucky from our homes in California, Nana and Aunt Clelta at the helm and us rascally cousins behind, remain vivid memories from my childhood. We weren’t exactly trekking 2,000 miles to visit relatives, I don’t think. Though we have a great many friendly relations there. And Lewisport definitely was not a typical tourist’s vacation destination - dripping hot in summer when we typically visited...
I think the reason we went to Kentucky all those Augusts was to satisfy Nana’s (and her siblings’) deep and enduring desire to preserve spaces for themselves in the place their parents called home. Both Great Grandma Grace and Great Grandpa Clarence had died by the time Nana bought The Emmick Plantation House in a state of complete disrepair. She was thrilled at the opportunity to turn it into a beautiful historic home worthy of visitors from across Kentucky and Indiana. All the relatives, neighbors, antique enthusiasts, local history buffs, and anyone with a skill or a hammer or a pie to share were conscripted to help restore the house to its former glory.
While these adventures were wildly entertaining to me as a kiddo, it wasn’t until reading the diaries Grace wrote about her young life in Kentucky that I understood the gravitational pull Nana and her siblings felt to this place of their parents’ birth. Surely their mother was full of stories, wisdom, and warnings from farm life, even at the dinner table in their San Fransisco high-rise apartment building. They probably spent their childhood summers visiting, as well. As adults, Kentucky probably felt a little more like home, sometimes, than their family homes in Los Angeles.
In the selection that follows, I did my best to piece together passages from Grace Winkler’s diaries that captured the essence of her childhood home and life in Kentucky. I didn’t change the wording, but adapted a tendency toward stream of consciousness into more of a narrative structure. I hope you enjoy it! Discovering the recollections of Grace Winkler this year has made me cherish my memories at and ongoing pilgrimages to The Emmick Plantation House more than ever.
My dearest heritage is memory. I know pretty much where I’ve been and how I got there, which makes a beautifully echoing recollection of my past, to whatever life tossed in my path. A bewildered drifting without strength or direction. The good God seems to have given me an assignment not to disguise life by putting it into costumes. It has warts and I conceal nothing. I try to show every facet and layer of life, each to be a part of the other.
Guidance and teaching taught me that the world was not just unrelated confusion just happening. But the developing of an understanding of our environment so I might profit by it more fully and comprehend the process which is sweeping us into the future. Life is a storm, warning souls.
Dearest Mother and Father
My parents’ wisdom far outweighed their mistakes, whatever else I thought or however impatient I became. Our happenings were their first concern. Time has come when I myself understand, trying ever so hard to see my own children through.
Mother had the pioneer spirit for gardening. Was out in the early morning to take stock of her garden and yard, which she declared going to rack and ruin each spring. Her planted flowers, flowered out well. They should, for she showered them with all sorts of attention and care. They were stuffed to the roots with fertilized topsoil. Her garden soul went marching on throughout her life. She considered it a very poor form to raise either vegetables or flowers that just grew by themselves.
She was seemingly distressed by a feeling of thirst for meaning which had it’s origin beyond vanity, beyond a personal wish for salvation. It’s origin was in the very nature of being alive. Her hands, those magical creations, were marred by their devotion. She could do anything. Make the best food, kill a rattle snake, move flustrated old setting hens. Her clothes were so carefully mended that they almost seemed like a patchwork quilt.
Motherhood, for her, was no part-time affair to be dabbled at during vacant hours. All her time and talent were given to the family, knitting stockings and socks, sewing clothes, quilting. Lines of weariness about her sensitive features. How necessary mother’s ceaseless efforts had been in order to keep the family together became apparent soon after her death.
Father was a hill farmer. Put him on the city street and he’d drag and scuff his anxious feet; look bewildered, helpless, old; and shiver with alien cold. Put him on the gaunt hillside, where his father lived and died, and he’d straighten like a tree, grow erect and proud and free. On the lofty hill he found beauty in this farm - a genuine chunk of Kentucky, draped across Daviess county.
Father had a talent for humor that never stung. His sunny nature lit up environments given to gloom. He was a simple man without a shred of pretension. His tastes were innocent, his desires easily satisfied. He made no demands on anyone. He disapproved of gossip and simply did not know the meaning of envy. He never pried or probed or stuck his nose in anyone else’s affairs. I never heard him use profanity.
A Log Cabin for Eleven
The log cabin in which I was born consisted of one log room and a board kitchen, two stick and clay chimneys, and two small windows (one in each room). The log room was a combination beds and living room. The board kitchen was a combination kitchen, bed and dining room, and an upstairs catch all. Doors hung on leather hinges. The huge wood fireplace was our meeting place for study and gratis lectures on responsibility of chores, such as carrying water, wood, milking, and incredible complexibilities too numerous to mention.
We did not live with one another but on top of one another. There was our family of ten (seven girls and one boy beautifully spaced two years apart) and a hired man. We shared trundle beds tucked under posters - rolled out for occupancy and double decks reaching the ceiling. Corn shucks and wheat straw made mattresses, goose and duck feather filled beds and pillows. The feather beds cuddled and covered us up all at the same time.
I was cradled in security, nursed on liberty, weaned on equality, all of which gave me greater stimulating action. ‘How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood when fond recollections present them to view.’
Hot Milk and Poor Manners
Over the house hung the pleasant homey fragrance of cornbread, hot biscuits, snickering tenderloin, fresh brewed coffee, cow juice for we children a plenty, fruit trees, vines, garden, and chickens.
I was a grazing animal, would eat anytime so long as it was not at a table. Before and after mealtime I was constantly under mother’s feet, piteously pleading to scrape the crocks or pans. Then, before the call to the table, I’d disappear and become absorbed in some project of my own... to be torn away and herded to the table. Meals at our home were not a time for conversation, and if so we children were not included. Though we were included in turns.
To one: “Stop blowing in your boiled milk!” And to another, “Yes, we know dogs lap their food but you’re not a dog.” And to another who had gone fork, knife, or spoon hunting, ”GET OUT FROM UNDER THE TABLE.” This gave my face the expression of the desperate resignation of a sick sailor. A temporary case of battle fatigue.
Misadventures in Fashion
Women of distinction kept their buttons and shoulder straps firmly sewed in place. Me, why should I care? My clothes selection seemingly made me look like a scarecrow escaped from a cornfield. So? I was trying, in a frenzy, to corral too long skirts, clothes sizes too large (lest we outgrow them).
Cousins seemed to march in the grand tradition that gave me a challenging despair. I was one of those girls who came apart. Awkwardness rendered me prone to accident from the cradle. Other gratuitous gifts from fate: skin that blisters, burns, and shines without provocation; dresses that hiked over my stomach; knees that kept going out of my stockings; shoelaces always breaking at inexcusable moments. I happened to have on a red dress when I met a bull! The fright threatened as though there was something naughty about a red dress and red shoes.
The Travails of School
The wishful weary road that ran from our home to school was a two-mile walk. Dirt roads, hills with no road at all, huge fields of broom sage knee deep to shorten the distance through a seemingly never ending beat. I remember well the icy winds biting my ears.
The kerosene lamp assisted nighttime study. I was not gifted but possessed a nature that was to crown a long career of farsighted efforts and deep thinking. I did not expect easy going. I am stubborn. I do not have the priceless quality of humility, which can help heal so many unnecessary aches. The way turned out to be a blessing in disguise. With a day by day will to win, with a kind of here goes nothing recklessness about me.
An Industrious Girl with Chores Upon Chores
On the farm you don’t have to go to work, you are surrounded by it when you get up. The corn, tobacco patch, blackberries, and weeds saw more of me than the four walls. The wide-spreading pond, the spring that lay by it supplying water for the animals, and nature’s moss covering under the hill. The orchard, the meadow, the deep tangled wildwood, and every loved spot that my infancy knew.
Many of our wants were supplied with the equivalent. Fish in the pond and creek. Acres of woods manicured with a careful casualness, abounding with squirrels, rabbits, opossums, quails. Slices of the countryside transplanted with hickory nut trees, walnuts, chestnuts, papaws, mulberries, and fruit trees galore for our use. We sisters gathered blackberries, delivered them 16 miles to market for 25 cents per three gallon wooden bucket.
I never learned to goof off, a half done job was not good enough for me to flee from responsibility. I did drudgery for an aunt (a thanky job) until I found the extra spare time more profitable drying apples and pumpkin seeds to let uncle Harlee sell in his country store on Scythia. Next stretch of empty time, I wove rag carpets. The difficult boom and crash of the homemade loom. The delicate movements of the clumsy human fingers, more and more excited with each step. Tearing rags, sewing, winding into balls, dying them. I was fascinated to see the finished product on the floor.
Above all I’ve made sure never to fall in love with my work for the thrill. I watched for the moment when pride began to creep into my work - to avoid the feeling of wanting to tell someone I had a really good day. God gave me hills to climb and strength, ambition, and determination for climbing. Not failure.