by Ron Ferrell
The topic we all are really uncomfortable talking about is our pending, inevitable demise. As a society, we don’t do a very good job of incorporating the dying process into the living process. Most everything we see and hear feeds our obsessions with staying youthful, (anti-aging, a face as free of wrinkles as a baby’s behind) all of which really translates to, "I DON’T WANT TO DIE!"
Well, die we will. It may be premature and sudden or ugly and prolonged, and there is no graceful way to face the ultimate challenge. Death. The challenge falls to the caregivers and the loved ones left behind to deal with the aftermath of a life gone before us.
As I stood in a rolling prairie cemetery last Saturday at my mother’s funeral, it dawned on me how utterly amazing it was that the early settlers to this county ever survived their first winter in this bleak, desperate place. It was grassland that needed to be destroyed in order for these wayward people to grow food for their survival and eventually thrive as a community called Rhea, Oklahoma.
I wanted to say to all of my nieces and nephews and everyone who came to pay tribute and lay to rest a woman they loved, that at the top of this hill stands a marble tombstone honoring another woman who came to this hillside in the late 1800’s desperate to claim something of her own in order for her family to survive. My Great Grandmother Martha Ferrell, along with her 3 sons, and not much else, parked a covered wagon in the middle of the section so that each wheel touched the corner of a 160 acre plot in order for the 4 of them to collectively stake their claim to a section of land…the very land where I was raised.
These new settlers to Indian Territory lived in, or perhaps more accurately camped at, this spot for over 2 years before having the resources and the will to build a one room, half dugout with logs cut on the banks of the Canadian River a couple miles away, and then dragged to their property with teams of horses. Their water came from the spring fed creek, carried in buckets to their camp site.
Looking north from the cemetery up a wide spring fed creek stands a small white farm house that my parents built for their new family. Standing beside that house is the house that my Grandfather and Grandmother built for their family before it.
Silent beacons to every family connected to this same prairie landscape are the hundreds of tombstones telling small bits of family histories, all connected to one another in many ways. Family and community were synonymous terms for those early settlers. Every family’s survival depended on the commuity’s collective success, and second only to shelter, food was the key to staying alive. The ability to grow food and preserve food was probably the biggest challenge facing these early settlers.
One of my parent’s biggest challenges in raising 8 kids on a red dirt hill was growing enough food to keep us alive for a year at a time. We used the same row-crop equipment to grow food that we used to grow cotton and feed grains. Other than salt, sugar and some other staples, we grew and preserved most everything we ate.
A successful garden demanded full participation from every family member, and your neighbors. I remember my mother canning vegetable soup with one of our neighbor ladies. We had home grown vegetables for every meal in those days, eggs and meat that we raised on my great grandmother's homestead farm.
Our Mother, like most Mothers in our community, cooked 3 full meals, everyday. It was just what they had to do to survive, and they did it with skill.
So in this uncertain time, wondering what we'll do if times get tough, we need to pause for a moment and reflect on what those who have gone before did to survive. They sustained each other as a community, and now we are burying that community, one wonderful soul at a time.
Sustainability is a word invented to describe our worst fear: that we cannot sustain our current trajectory without some major hardships, if at all. Those early settlers faced the same fear daily. But they did survive, with grit, determination, and lots of hard work. Are we up for the task?