Some of the skills I learned as a small child on my grandparents’ farm are lost to me now. One of them is mending socks with the aid of a darning egg—the art of filling in a hole. Another is the skill of finding spring, which I learned from the hired hand named Mingo.
Every year, on a morning in late March or early April, Mingo took me with him to find spring. He dragged old burlap feed bags from the barn and spread them out on the muddy ground in the grove where the tall sugar maples stood interspersed with thinning patches of crystallized, lace-edged snow.
Following his lead, I lay down on my burlap, turned on my side, and pressed my ear to the earth. There was little noise in the country air then, hardly more than an occasional moo or oink or cluck to distract us. In the quiet, we listened with our buried ears for sap running through the maple roots and for trickling underground streams.
Even as a small girl ground level on burlap, I knew that there was more to finding spring than hearing the sap run. While I listened, I dug with the fingers of my outstretched hand into a nearby patch of crystallized snow and saw, surrounding it, the purple blur of sweet violets rising from the dark brown mud.
With the availability of cheap socks and the advent of weather cams for up-to-the-minute news on spring’s arrival, I am far removed from these childhood skills. They seem primitive and silly in today’s technical world. Perhaps I’ve become too sophisticated to be bothered with darning eggs and with filling in what is missing, too worldly to listen for subterranean streams. After all, what would the neighbors think if, one day in the cold of March, they looked out their windows and saw me in the yard sprawled out on a burlap bag with my ear in the mud? What might they say if I told them I was trying to find spring?
Listening for spring with an ear in the mud is not enough anymore. The old skills are obsolete. But while technological progress may be precise and refined, it lacks association. We wear fine socks that have no personality and slip into spring without the benefit of violets.
When you grow up on a farm, you sense at an early age that few things are complete within themselves. One part of everything is part of something else: fiction and truth, years and months, humor and tragedy, winter and spring, days and life. You learn to notice what is around you, to look for associations, to make connections and fill in the holes. You learn that having cake for dessert does not depend on your behavior. It depends on eggs. And eggs depend on whether or not the hens are laying. You learn that just wanting cake is not enough.
I was hungry for cake today when I received a letter from a friend, the letter written on crinkled, snow-white paper covered with sweet violets. Grandmother’s Little Feather Cake was a small white cake, hardly big enough for one meal, made from a simple old recipe. She first rubbed to a cream 2 tablespoons soft butter and a cup of sugar. Next she added a beaten egg yolk, half a cup of water and whole milk mixed, 11/2 cups of sifted flour, and a teaspoon each baking powder and vanilla.
There were three secrets to the feather cake, Grandmother said. The first was to beat an egg white stiff as meringue and fold it gently into the mixed batter. The second was to bake it at low heat—325°F—for only 25 minutes. The third was not to jump up and down in the kitchen or in any other way jar the cake while it was baking, or it would fall and be full of holes. She called it a feather cake because it was so light—so light that it disappeared from your tongue, as when you eat a mouthful of snow.
When I was a child, the violets in the dark mud and lacy snow reminded me of this little cake on the kitchen hutch, the dark brown chocolate glaze drizzled in a lacy pattern across the white cake’s top and sides.
Crystallizing the sweet violets to decorate the top of the cake is one skill I have not lost. The old method is still a good one. After picking violets, I spread them on a cookie sheet to dry for a few hours. Then I beat an egg white to a froth, paint it on each flower with a fine brush, and carefully pour fine white sugar over the flowers to coat them. Sometimes I color some of the egg white purple to add variety.
Other times, instead of using egg white, I dissolve powdered gum arabic from the drugstore in hot water, paint the violets with that, and sprinkle them with sugar. This way, the sugared violets keep in an airtight tin until July, when the first harvest of mint leaves is ready to be crystallized.
However I do it, the sweet violets and the crystallization mixture become part of each other. The sugar crystals dissolve, and as the liquid evaporates, the sugar recrystallizes, forming delicate patterns on the violets, as if the sweet violets, sprinkled among thinning patches of lacy snow, were still growing by the maple trees.
From a distance now, I look back toward the blur of purple when a small bowl of crystallized violets seemed not enough and a new pair of socks cost a nickel. Finding spring was like a story with the beginning, middle, and end all connected, but with none of the parts complete within itself.
My grandparents had survived the hard times brought on by depression, war, and nature, then lost the farm to a sibling in a last will and testament. Their new house, closer to town, was small, with no barn, animals, feed bags, or violets. My grandfather became a handyman working odd jobs for the wealthy, fixing holes in their roofs or mending broken walls. My grandmother sold homemade aprons and cakes at church fairs. Mingo, whose last name I never knew, disappeared to find spring somewhere else, and I was hired to pick violets for Miss Hamilton.
As far as I knew at the age of ten, the old lady on the corner of Pine and Prospect in Franklin, New Hampshire, had no family and no first name. She was simply Miss Hamilton, my grandmother’s new neighbor. It was customary in those times, even for people my grandmother’s age, to use a courtesy title when publicly addressing a woman who was unmarried or older. She must have been a hundred then, and calling her an old lady was practical and private: “Miss Hamilton—the old lady on the corner—will pay you 5¢ to pick violets today. Go along now,” my grandmother would say on a day in March or April. “Miss Hamilton is waiting—be kind to the old lady.”
I’d knock on Miss Hamilton’s door and enter by invitation of her frail call. The shades were drawn, and the hot room smelled heavy with dust and old perfume. With a feather pillow at her bent back, Miss Hamilton sat in the chair, her shoes loosely laced, her ankles swollen, a heavy black cane resting against her knees. In all the time I knew her, I never saw her walk. She was a thin woman with big swollen hands, a ruddy, blotchy face, and static-charged hair in shades of gray that fell below her shoulders. She was always dressed in the same sleeveless floral frock. She squinted in the daylight coming in the open door.
In front of her was a low table. Its top was strewn with colored bottles and jars in all shapes and sizes, tubes of lip color, tiny opened compacts of rouge, and small boxes of pale, loose face powder, some of it dusting the tabletop. There were hairpins, combs, brushes, and a variety of tarnished silver hand mirrors.
Also on this table was the basket for me to fill with violets. It was large and deep, shaped like a bushel basket. Using both hands, she lifted it by inserting the tip of her cane through one of the rusty handles. She poked at the air, motioning for me to take the dangling basket. I envisioned it fragrant and full, spilling over with a blur of purple.
“I want them all,” she said.
Linda Keegan writes nonfiction and short fiction for adults and children and is author of two books of poetry. She lives in McMurray, Pennsylvania.