Thanks, yet again, to Nan and her blog, Letters from a Hill Farm, for introducing me to the books of Gladys Taber, who lived and wrote at Stillmeadow, an old farmhouse in Connecticut. The book I am reading, Stillmeadow Daybook, was published in 1955 by J. B. Lippincott Company, and in it Taber chronicles each month of the year on her farm. She starts with April, which is a good place to begin when gardening is central to your life. In her forward Taber writes, “There is something about the task of preparing vegetables that gives a woman a reflective mood. I wondered how many tons of potatoes I had pared since we put our roots down here in these forty acres of stony Connecticut soil.”
Taber loved the white farm house, built in 1690, from the moment she saw it: “[W]ith its steeply pitched roof, little windows with bubbly glass, and worn lintel, I knew I belonged to it.” But how Taber came to own this house and live there is a little unconventional. Taber, her husband, and her daughter were living in New York City as were Taber’s good friend Jill, her husband, and two children. Both families wanted a house in the country, “a week-end place where we could have outdoor living in peace…where vacations and holidays could be, we felt, very economical.”
So the two families pitched their fortunes together, bought the house, and, amazingly enough, they all got exactly what they wanted. As the children in both families grew and went to “various schools and colleges,” Stillmeadow was the home they could come back to. Even more amazing, over the years, the friendship between the two families didn’t fray with the tensions that must inevitably come with joint ownership. According to the book’s forward, when both Gladys and Jill became widows, they decided to live together at Stillmeadow, which became their “refuge and a haven.” Jill and Gladys had gardens where they raised all their vegetables, and they raised dogs as well. At one point they had thirty-six cocker spaniels, although in Stillmeadow Daybook, they are down to eight cocker spaniels and one Irish setter.
If Stillmeadow Daybook were only about country living—cooking, family, and food—then that would certainly be enough. To me, these are subjects that never grow old. But Taber, a writer and a creative writing teacher, had other things on her mind, too. Her thoughts about poetry—Keats was a favorite—world peace, literature, and other larger subjects are folded into the homely details of life at Stillmeadow, and they bring depth to this charming book. Here is Taber’s take on fiction: “I think novels and short stories will probably be around as long as men can read at all. And there is a great satisfaction to a writer in creating characters which no amount of good reporting could duplicate. I venture to say also that great fiction illuminates life in a way no other form can do.”
Another thing that impressed me was how much of a foodie Taber was, especially as we tend to think of the 1950s as a grim culinary era in the United States. Taber’s concern with fresh, local food seems amazingly contemporary. “Economics is too complex for me. But I have instincts about supply and demand which I believe in. And I shall always feel a carrot next door is better than a carrot from Ames, Iowa, all things being equal.”
We baby boomers tend to feel sorry for women who came of age before the 1960s, those poor, unliberated things who spent day after frustrating day cooped up in their little houses with their little children, eating Spam sandwiches. While it is true that before the 1960s, the opportunities for women were far more limited than they are now, it is not true that all those pre-1960s women were bubble brains on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And it is arrogant of my generation to think this way. When I read As Always, Julia, the letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, I was struck by what a rich life of the mind these women had. The same was true for Gladys and her friend Jill, and that life of the mind brought a spark to even the most mundane chores, from peeling potatoes to making current jelly. The best thing about the life of the mind is that it can be lived anywhere that there are books and magazines, even on a farm in Connecticut, even in a little house in Winthrop, Maine.
The copy of Stillmeadow Daybook I am reading came from Lithgow Public Library as an interlibrary loan book. However, a quick look on Amazon.com showed me that while Stillmeadow Daybook is no longer in print, it can be purchased used at a reasonable price. I also expect that library sales and second-hand shops might be a good place to find Stillmeadow Daybook as well as any of the other numerous books that Taber wrote.
I am looking forward to reading more of Gladys Taber, and I will certainly be looking for her books at various summer book sales.
Again, many thanks, Nan, for introducing me to Gladys Taber.