My Grandma Minnie Bell was a tiny little thing who would not have been five feet tall even if she stood her her toes. She didn’t have an inch of fat on her body so I doubt that she ever weighed a hundred pounds. In spite of her smallness she was a tough women who would have been a successful contestant on the popular television hit Survivor. She could handle a river filled with snakes and bring home something for dinner with a fishing pole or a rifle. She knew which plants were edible and which were poison. She had the ability to make things grow even then they appeared to be dead. She found uses for everything, never wasting, never wanting.
Grandma remembered going to school off and on for a very short time. She never learned how to read or write before she was called back home to take on family duties. She was illiterate but she had more common sense than anyone that I have ever known. She was a bonafide survivor, not just a television version of one and I found myself learning from her every single time we got together. She was a great teacher of the subject of life.
My grandmother learned from experiences and she was an exceptional student in that regard. She was able to name every bird that flew her way with uncanny knowledge about their habits just from observing them. She knew how to communicate with them by making sounds that mimicked their calls. She showed us how to follow the tracks of animals and what we might learn about them just by noticing their strides and the depth of their footprints. She taught us how to be respectful and cautious in the wild places of nature. She even showed us how to dress to protect ourselves from the elements. Taking walks with her was like being in the presence of a world renowned botanist or a professor of animal sciences.
Grandma might have taught a course in agriculture. She had instincts and homegrown knowledge about when, where and how to plant everything from flowers to fruit trees. She created a Garden of Eden with her techniques, all of which she likely learned when she had to leave the formal classroom to stay home and help her family. She might easily have hosted a gardening program with all of her tips and experiences. There never seemed to be anything that she could not grow bigger and better than anyone had ever seen.
Grandma was a little fireball of activity. She awoke before the sun came up because she understood that working in the cool of the morning was preferable to waiting for the noon day heat. By eight or nine each day all of her cultivating and pruning and picking was already completed. Then she would turn to her indoor projects. She used feed bags to make her dresses and when those dresses were worn she would turn the fabric into quilts. She was a conservationist before it was fashionable to be a conservationist.
If someone had recorded Grandma’s lessons about living and then transcribed them into written form, her wisdom might have filled a dozen books. She could have been a contributor to the Foxfire series of pioneer folkways. She explained how ordinary folk brushed their teeth when she was a girl. She told me that she used an old rag to rub ashes from the cooking fire across her pearly whites and then she would swish around some water and spit it on a plant so as not to waste that precious liquid. She would laugh when I showed my amazement and asked how well it worked, telling me that her dentures seemed to be proof that it wasn’t as effective as she had hoped. Her stories of outhouses were instructive and interesting as well.
My grandmother’s folksy wisdom kept her family warm and well fed but it also provided them with a genuine love of nature and its place beside us in this world. Even my father echoed her notions that we must honor the creatures who live around us and nurture the plants that provide us with sustenance and beauty. From the time I was very young my grandmother taught me things that I have never forgotten. She was a natural born teacher who quietly hid the reality that she was not even able to write her own name.
I remember being shocked the first time that I realized her lack of formal education. I accompanied her and my grandfather to sign some important papers. I watched as she put an “X” on the line for her signature after which my grandfather printed her name as her representative. I was only seven but had already mastered the art of writing my name and reading enough words to understand what the document was about. I felt her shame in being unable to read or write and I wanted to hug her and tell her that she knew so much more than most people ever learn. Instead I sat quietly admiring her dignity and thinking of how incredibly she had overcome her deficiencies in schooling. Perhaps that was a moment when the idea of teaching lit up a part of my soul.
My Grandma Minnie had a PhD. in common sense. She learned by closely observing everything and everyone around her. She used her curiosity to explore. She may not have had formal papers to certify her knowledge but she was nonetheless incredibly educated in practical ways. We too often downplay the value of hands on experience in the process of true learning. She was a graduate of the oral tradition, the university of folks who tackled the challenges that they encountered with an understanding of how things actually work. I miss those mini-lectures that she provided me whenever she demonstrated her skills. She was a brilliant woman.