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  • Mj Pettengill

Grandmother Wisdom: The Other Maryjane


Piccalilli

After digging the last of the burdock roots, I sat at the edge of the woods and sipped my water. The sky was clear and bright blue, with a few billowy clouds drifting overhead. With a fair amount of bees circling the asters and me, I sat in solitude and marveled at the landscape. 

This year, letting go of summer is different. It’s more challenging than usual. The process is screaming of impermanence and how I must learn to flow with the seasons. I was supposed to have learned, the most recent lesson coming from the grey fox. No, you cannot hoard the golden days of summer. How hopelessly reluctant and melancholic this transition has become. I have much work to do.

Like a spirited artist’s canvas dotted with the skeletons of wildflowers, trees, vegetables, and herbs, I paid tribute to all that I loved. At that moment, I was one with my grandmother, the original MaryJane. Inside the house, a giant crock of piccalilli simmers—not just any, hers.

I closed my eyes and conjured up a vision of her, wildly digging poppies and daisies, with bugs swarming aggressively around her head. With her untamed curls framing her face, she said, “Mary, you will love these.”  

She was right. She placed the shocking red poppies in her basket and bent down to dig a few more before turning to the daisies. “They’re my favorite,” she said.

Like my grandmother, I often declare so many plants as my favorite. It’s quite impossible to choose just one. With profound admiration, I watched her while I swatted at the bugs, unable to comprehend why she didn’t seem to notice them. It was before I became a mother, with a deeper connection to Earth and self. Yes, I now know. In those days of youthful innocence, I hadn’t yet discovered the art of acceptance and the ability to disregard such things as black flies.

She worked tirelessly on the farm. She was not only a master gardener, but she also canned, pickled, and preserved everything that grew in abundance. She cooked for all the farmhands at the boarding house of this rather large dairy farm.

I am thankful that I had the insight to invite her to my home to show me how to make strawberry-rhubarb jam. Hers would be considered worthy of a blue ribbon. I enjoyed both the jam and her expertise tremendously. She made her jams and preserves the old fashioned way, sealing the jars with paraffin wax.

I soon became a master at jam-making, baking, brewing wine and beer, and essentially preserving everything in season, from peaches and berries to rhubarb and carrots. The list is comprehensive. I think of her every time I am involved in canning, which is often. (However, unlike her, I am a woman of the wood—a wildcrafter.) 

Another recipe that was a well-known favorite was her piccalilli. During her final days, she was hospitalized for a routine procedure. She mentioned that when she returned home, her doctor expected some of her famous piccalilli. She was proud of that.

I went to visit her after the operation, and she was not in her room. I left a note on the bedside table:

Dear Nana,

I was here, and I missed you. I’ll come back later. I’m sure that you'll be busy making your piccalilli for Doctor Hastings. I want to be there and learn your secrets. I love you. Maryjane

Sadly, MaryJane returned to her room, but she never woke up. Daily, I went to visit, singing and telling stories until she finally let go. Her death was a significant loss. 

Over the years, I continued to preserve, can, pickle, and craft medicinals. About five years ago, I had a massive crop of green tomatoes that did not have a chance of ripening. I remembered that piccalilli is made with them, so I called my mother (her daughter) and asked if she had the recipe. She looked but didn’t have it. Disappointed, I set out to do a bit of research and find one. Then, my mother called. She was so excited to have found an envelope with the recipe written on the back in my grandmother's handwriting! Of course, I had it laminated and have been using it. I slid into the role of making the most incredible piccalilli east of the Mississippi River.


Today, I thought of the ways that I had become like her. Our stories are unique and a bit dissimilar. Despite a slightly different spelling of our names, because of a typo that wasn’t corrected, we merged—she, the farmer’s wife, and me as both the farmer and the wife. 

Like the original MaryJane, I am strong in body, mind, and spirit. I know that insect bites, torn flesh, and twinges of pain from reaching, bending, and pulling accompany the joys of Earthing. The fruits of our labor are the fruits of our heritage. 

This is all possible because of grandmother wisdom. If you have lost touch, please remember the elders’ importance in our families, villages, and tribes. It is this ancient wisdom that often shines as a bright beacon in the darkness.  Go find that recipe, that note, that old envelope, and cherish it for what it is worth.

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