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Dancing with My Grandmothers at Lammas

quilt with child and grandmother baking bread

More than 80 years ago, my grandmother, Ingeborg Klegseth, boarded the Norwegian-America Line's S/S Stavangerfjord with her husband and six children and left the green hills of Norway forever. She emigrated to the Palouse country, in the southwest corner of Washington State, where she and my grandfather, Ole Slind, became wheat farmers. (When I think of her, I always use the Norwegian word for grandmother, Bestemor).

Nearly 60 years ago, my other grandmother Hazel Suver — a descendent of pioneers who walked the length of the Oregon Trail — pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter, tied an apron around my waist, and plunged my hands into a mound of bread dough in a big metal bowl. (My name for this grandmother was Grandmie).

So every time the wheel of the year turns round to Lammas, my heart is tugged to my grandmothers, who are the two goddesses I think of and celebrate at this special season. Both of them are deeply connected with the mystery of the grain harvest, this feast of abundance and the work of women's hands.

Thousands of years ago, our foremothers invented/discovered agriculture, and most scholars say the first crops were ancestors of the cereal crops on which so much of the world depends today.

And it's likely that it was our female ancestors who figured out the miracle of grain fermentation that allowed bread to rise and beer to brew. Those secrets from our remote foremothers were passed directly on to me through my two grandmothers.

Whenever I stand amid the grain-covered golden hills of the Palouse, tears slide down my cheeks, both for the beauty wheat tassles, held by the authorof the land and for memories of the hard hard life my immigrant grandmother experienced there as a farmer. In her day, the wheat harvest was a time of backbreaking labor. A team of 24 recalcitrant mules who had to be hitched up one-by-one every day under a hot July sun pulled the combine. And my Bestemor had to lay out the huge meals for the hungry harvest crew: typically two kinds of meat, five kinds of cooked vegetables, fruit, pies, cakes, and pitchers of iced tea.

I wonder how she managed, in a house without electricity, to cook, do laundry, clean the house — Norwegians are fanatical about clean houses — take care of six kids under the age of 12, feed the farm animals, and tend her kitchen garden. Her work got even harder at harvest, when she was cooking those enormous meals, and helping to bring in the grain crop on which her family's entire cash income for the year depended. (My Bestemor died before I was born — she was only in her 40s — from what I've heard, worn out by hard work, and perhaps her homesickness for Norway.)

geometric patterns of harvested wheat fieldsAnd whenever I pull my bread pans from the oven, and turn out golden loaves with rounded tops, my other grandmother shows up in my kitchen. There's an old expression about a person's being "as good as bread." My warm, nourishing bread with the perfect crust and crumb is the best possible reminder of the unconditional love and acceptance this grandmother always gave me.

Grandmie died nearly 50 years ago, but I still remember the baking lessons she gave me. I know that the dough is kneaded enough when it's as softly pneumatic as a baby's bottom, and it makes a "fttt fttt" sound as I press it down with both hands. Like my grandmother, I save my butter wrappers to run across the tops of the loaves as soon as I take them out of the oven.

Two years ago, I left my home in California at the end of July and drove up to the Pacific Northwest, then across to the Midwest, and down the Mississippi River Valley. I realized I was chasing Lammas, following the grain harvest as it moved to different regions of the country. The fields near Vacaville, California were full and ripe when I left, and by the time I got up to the Palouse, combines were moving across the fields, cutting the grain in complex patterns worthy of an abstract expressionist.

a large building with turrets, the exterior is decorated with grains of cornI saw hard red winter wheat in Montana and vast flat fields of wheat in the Dakotas. In Iowa and Missouri I saw that corn took the place of wheat as the regional cereal crop. I took photos of the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, a large regional meeting hall newly decorated every year with murals made from dried corn kernels.

As I drove across the country, one thought kept returning to me: The earth is our mother and she gives us such abundance. All through history, women have taken that abundance, nurtured it, tended it, and extended it to feed a hungry world.

Ever year at Lammas I host a big dinner at my house. I mainly invite my Pagan friends, but a few muggles get included, too. It's a wonderful time of year here in Northern California, with my garden fragrant and all abloom. Before we eat, I gather everyone in a large circle in the garden, and we pass from hand to hand the homemade bread we will eat that night. Each of us places a wish or a memory into that bread.

I grew up in a religious tradition in which bread became sacred when blessed by male priests. But the bread we eat at Lammas is inherently sacred, fruit of the abundance of the earth and the work of human hands. And the memory that is in my bread is always of my grandmothers, my personal Lammas goddesses. Grandmie and Bestemor, what is remembered lives!

Graphics Credits

  • "Baking Bread with Grandmie," quilt by Victoria Slind-Flor, © 1996 Victorial Slind-Flor. All rights reserved.
  • wheat bouquet, Palouse wheat fields at harvest, corn palace, © 2005 Victorial Slind-Flor. All rights reserved.
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