Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Grace Snyder's No Time on My Hands

Grace McCance Snyder's autobiography, No Time on My Hands, written with her daughter, Nellie Snyder Yost, is the account of her pioneer life from 1885--when Grace is three years old and her family moves to Nebraska from settled Missouri--until 1962, a full 20 years before Grace Snyder died at the age of 100. I have read all of Laura Wilder's books of life on the prairie and other fictional and non-fictional accounts of pioneering women, but No Time on My Hands makes these accounts even more vivid and awe-inspiring because of the great detail that Grace shares about the work that she and her mother and sisters did at their sod homestead on the plains of Nebraska.

The book's title comes from Grace's paternal grandmother, Mrs. McCance, who was heard to say that "if there's one thing more'n another I simply can't abide, it's time on my hands." The elderly Mrs. McCance, as Grace's mother and Grace herself, were in a state of perpetual motion tending to the work on their farms and ranches. Grace and her grandmother thrived on work of all kinds; Grace's mother, of more fragile health, had long bouts of illness and a perpetual cough and her thin body seemed nearly crushed by the weight of her daily burdens. Nevertheless, she too lived to raise all of her children and see her great-grandchildren thrive.

The McCance Family. Grace's parents, Mr. and Mrs. McCance are standing together on the right. The six McCance children (there were eventually nine) are seated, with Grace third from the left. Grace's older sister Florry (second from left seated) died in childbirth.

As I read this 541-page book, I jotted down the different activities that these women routinely performed. Given that many of these tasks must be repeated daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly and also that calamities--primarily caused by extreme weather--posed constant disruptions to any routine, it is difficult to imagine how a woman would plan such a whirlwind of work as that performed in a well-managed homestead. Here is my list:

Creating and tending a vegetable garden (be prepared for heartbreak caused by hail or loose animals pummeling the garden to pulp)
Gathering cow chips for fuel
Berry gathering
Making jam
Drying corn Grinding corn for cornmeal
Churning butter
Curing meat
Making cheese
Preparing meals
Washing up the dishes and pots and pans after meals
Making yeast (boiling cornmeal and hop leaves to a thick mush and drying it in hard cakes, out of doors under cheesecloth in the summer and in the oven in winter) Baking bread
Making desserts with fruit and baking custards
Putting up (canning) fruits and vegetables for the winter and spring

Washing clothes
Making starch (smearing potato starch on a large piece of canvas and letting it dry, then peeling it off, and storing for use)
Hanging and gathering in clothes
Mending clothes--(a major activity, for example: During broomcorn harvesting, "each day the sharp stalks ripped their jacket sleeves to ravlings, and every evening Mama basted the backs of old overall legs to the sleeves, replacing the shredded patches she'd sewed on the night before.")
Making clothes--without patterns
Making quilts--Grace became a nationally known quilter--more on that later

Keeping a sod house clean (no mean feat)
Home decorating (curtains, etc.)

Breastfeeding babies
Watching young children
Homeschooling children

Feeding hens and chickens, goats, and cows, all of which contribute to putting food on the table
Milking the cows and/or goats

Killing snakes--one day a rattler got into the house and was sitting on the same blanket Grace's baby brother was on. Grace's mother killed the snake and then sought and found the den where it had come from and killed all 22 rattlesnakes therein.

Nursing the sick (Grace describes being at the bedside of a seriously ill person for days on end and also night and day)
Tending to and healing wounded or sick animals
Laying out the dead
Helping afflicted families

Even with this workload, Grace's mother found time to make delectable picnic food when the family went to town for the annual Fourth of July celebration, which, next to Christmas, was the biggest holiday. "Under the seats we carried a bag of grain for the mules and a tubful of picnic lunch--including

one of Mama's five-layer cakes, three white and two yellow, with custard filling between the layers and whipped cream, shredded coconut, and black walnut meats on the tops and sides.

Hands of a Farmwoman, photo by Russell Lee, 1936. "Grandma's hands were thin and brown and spotted, their soft, paper-dry skin crisscrossed with high, dark veins, and the fingers twisted and knotty, but she would look at them with grim satisfaction--anyone could see she'd never had any time on her hands."


Jodi said...

I'd LOVE this book. Linda, I have to laugh, 'cause visiting your blog is expensive, heehee. I always want to read and own the books you review. I like the picture of the bird cage in the photo. I read somewhere that it was the only way Prairie women could hear birds sing, because of the lack of trees. It comforted them to have a pet bird.

Betsy said...

I love this book, so glad to see you feature it. I read it about 12 years ago and it remains a favorite. The changes and progress that Grace saw in her lifetime were astounding: from living in a soddy as a girl to seeing her son use an airplane to help with ranching to retiring to Long Beach, Ca. If I remember right, two of her quilts are considered among the 100 best quilts of the 20th century. A remarkable life. I'm feeling inspired to take it off the shelf and read it again. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I could not put this book down but, upon completing it, was reduced to tears and sobbing. The harsh circumstances are not unknown to me. I grew up in an area of Kansas where we and our neighbors had no electricity, running water, indoor toilets, refrigeration, etc. until the 1950's, and I know what a "woman killer" such circumstances are -- I saw it in my own mother, whose health problems were those of a woman at least two decades older than her chronological age. Every bite of our food was cooked on a wood-burning stove and wood-burning heaters provided the only warmth in our old Victorian farm house. Water was carried in buckets from the well, clothes were ironed with "sad irons" heated on the wood-burning cookstove, and washing was done on a washboard, using homemade lye soap. It reminded me of sad, sad times.