June 1995

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Letters to Suzanna

Mama's Plants, Part 1


Barbara H. Bell

Letters to Suzanna is a series of fictional letters based closely on historical facts that tell of the day-to-day experiences of a family establishing a homestead in the region near the south end of Seneca Lake in the early nineteenth century. Click here for more letters.

Dear Suzanna,

When women went into newly-opened areas of the United Slates as pioneers, most of them tried to make their new surroundings like the places they came from if they were happy in the former homes. If they had not been satisfied with former home sites, they would try to establish homes and yards and neighborhoods according to their own notions of what was ideal.

Mama was no different. She had loved her old home in Connecticut where her father had a general store, at first in a room attached to his own house. Her first summer here in Reading, she was busy just getting the cabin fixed whenever she had a few minutes away from daily chores and housekeeping. Considering the hard way she had to get water and heat it to house-clean, you can understand how long it took her to change and clean things in a log cabin where only men had lived before.

Those, men, Papa and Uncle John, had pushed themselves from dawn to dark, clearing land for crops, cutting logs and providing their own food. There was scant time to worry about housekeeping.

After winter set in and because there were no roads or neighbors within visiting distance and no mail arrived, Mama did not go anywhere for months. She saw no one but Papa. By the time spring blossomed, she had a miserable case of "cabin fever. " On the first warm day. she took a walk, looking for signs of greens and medicinal plants. Although it was far too early for much success in this endeavor, she always told us that she did get plenty of good fresh air and it was laden with new hope. Also, by that time, she knew she would bear her first child in early autumn. She would not have another winter so secluded from human companionship.

Then came the day when Telenemut dropped in for the first time after her arrival. At first, she was leery about the only Indian she had ever met. The fact that he was dressed in the same type of garb as Papa, and spoke English moderately well, helped ease her apprehension. Telenemut was polite and made no move to come inside the cabin until she invited him. She gave him some cornbread and tea.

This gives you some idea as to the kind of person Mama was. She had brought tea from Grandfather's store as a bride and had used it sparingly all winter, trying to make it last until she could get more. Papa had not seen Telenemut arrive. He was out checking his traplines.

Mama was so lonesome for a "new" face that she soon was chatting away with her visitor. She told him about going to look for greens and medicinal plants. He offered to show her where there were some plants that his people used to treat illnesses and to help her check out the area to see what else might be found to be of use. Telenemut knew a little about Reading although his own home had always been farther south of Seneca Lake.

When he went hunting or traveling, he usually headed eastward towards Cayuga Lake and Indian settlements there or went north to the Onondagas. He did not know our hill west of Seneca Lake very well.

About that time, Papa came in for dinner, the mid-day meal. He had known Telenemut for over a year. The two men liked and respected each other. After dinner, Mama and her new guide set out for fields west of our woods. They were successful in finding a number of plants desired although some had not yet grown enough to pick or dig.

Some of them were plants whose roots could be useful. Others would produce leaves or flowers which Mama would later gather. They returned to the cabin with some greens which provided a welcome change in the diet. Mama was grateful to Telenemut and she was absolutely delighted to report that they had found young chicory plants. It was still too small and young for use but, later, she would harvest it to use in a hot drink, something like coffee which was not yet available in our western wilds.

That is what upstate New York was in the early 1800's—the western wilds. Sometimes when Telenemut came, he brought fresh-picked mushrooms from the marsh woods. He once brought cattail roots which could be cooked and eaten like any other vegetable or which might be cleaned and dried to be ground into a powder. Telenemut taught her how to use this as a thickening for milk pudding.

Once, he brought a big turtle which he killed. After removing the hard shell, he prepared the good part of the turtle meat and Mama made a stew, adding whatever greens or other vegetables were at hand. There were times in later years when we had turtle stew. I like it. The meat had a mild taste, not fishy as I had expected the first time. I never cooked any, myself. There is a lot of work to prepare a turtle for the cook pot.

We always scoured out the turtle shells to use for serving dishes or shallow wash pans like we used in the necessary. Did you ever see the inside of a turtle shell? They are pretty.

Telenemut never came without some kind of gift if he expected to eat with us. When he stayed overnight and the weather was good, he slept outdoors but, if it was bitter or rainy, he slept on a pallet by the fireplace in the cabin. He was a good friend.

I was born in October about eighteen months after Mama came to our farm as a bride. All that summer, she had wandered the area in her spare time. She picked prickly mustard leaves to eat in green salads or to cook. She cut young burdock because the tender stems were tasty. Very early, before cattails began to grow fuzz, she picked some to eat raw or to cook very briefly. When there was enough milk to make butter, the cattail spears were especially delicious with butter flavor.

When the time was right she brought home chicory to dry. She picked wild berries and dried some to reconstitute in winter for use in cobblers. But she wanted flowers growing around the cabin. Papa had cleared enough trees from the front, the east side, so the sun reached us until after dinner time. She found both purple and white violets and planted some near the front wall on one side. She returned home after one flower-hunting expedition, very excited, to tell Papa she had found a place with Morning Trumpets. They had pinky-white blossoms shaped like a trumpet. The flowers opened as soon as the morning sun warmed them, but, as the day wore on, they closed. Each flower opened only one day. After they closed, they began to form seeds. In time, the dead petals dried, withered and fell off, leaving a tiny egg-shaped brown seed pod. Mama kept watch of these and gathered many pods which she tucked away for the next spring.

She cut three sturdy but not too big-around branches from a tree. When Papa went to cut marsh hay, she asked him to bring her a supply of reeds from the marsh. She peeled these and, as they dried, split them vertically until she had many weaving reeds. She laid them flat on the floor, weighted down with cobblestones so they would finish drying flat and smooth.

Next, she wove a sort of coarse framework around the three uprights until she had what she called a trellis. In spring, she set this up in front of the cabin on the opposite side from the violets. It stood under one of the two windows and was almost tall enough to touch the window sill. Here she planted her precious Morning Trumpet seeds. They thrived. From that time on, she always had them adorning that spot. The vines grew so tall that she cut some wild grape stems of tendril size and had Papa attach them to the roof. Then she wound their lower ends around her trellis for the Trumpet vines to cling to as they reached upward. Every year, those Morning Trumpets climbed clear to our cabin roof. They made a lacy curtain over the window, too. They were beautiful!

© 1992, Barbara H. Bell
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