The Folklore Project
By Susannah Nesmith
As I sat in a dark Kissimmee, Florida, hotel room, my two cats sleeping on the bed with me, the puppy comfortable on her bed on the floor, I thought about the skillet.
Evacuating from a hurricane requires a kind of existential internal conversation about what matters. What must I have, if it is all I have?
I left after many had already fled Miami. I was in a rush to get on the road, worried about traffic, gas, driving with nervous pets. The night before, I had already done some reckoning with the importance of my possessions. Stuff could be replaced; the first priority was to protect the heartbeats; the second priority was to protect our financial future.
I could not take the stuff. But over nearly half a century of collecting the stuff, I also knew that much of it was also essentially irreplaceable. I said goodbye to it reluctantly.
Long before I loaded up the car, I had decided that my brother’s paintings could not come. Irreplaceable, but too large to fit in a Mini that also had to carry a 70-pound dog, two cats and the dog’s crate. On the other hand, I knew I’d grab the insurance documents. If the house was crushed, or flooded, which both looked imminent, recovery would require those documents. A few family photos that have never been scanned could also go, along with a vow to scan those as soon as I could.
Strangely, in my hurry, I packed four sundresses and two pairs of hiking boots, and every pair of underwear I own, but just one pair of shorts. I brought cat litter, but no litter box, dog food but no food or water dish. I grabbed bills that needed to be paid and a roll of stamps, but left our passports, my checkbook, and the bottle of wine I had intended to bring to ease me through this moment, when the wind and rain were howling outside my disconcertingly low-lying hotel room with my surprisingly calm pets. They didn’t realize what we had left behind.
I look around now, at my undamaged home and beat-up yard and marvel at what I didn’t take. I left my grandmother’s book, something my father self-published before that was really possible, its pages hand-stitched together, her inscription to me showing the pride she had in the college degree I was working on then. I didn’t take my father’s book, published by a real imprint, but now out of print, with his note to me in the acknowledgments. Neither even occurred to me in my haste and worry. And even in that worry-filled moment in the hotel room, as winds howled and waters threatened to rise, they didn’t cross my mind.
I had meant to grab the skillet. I had even joked to my father that I could justify it as ballast.
The cast-iron skillet is 13 inches in diameter and so heavy I have to use both hands to pour anything out of it. And it tells a story of Florida endurance and female endurance that I wanted with me in that moment, a thing I never want to lose. It belonged to my great-great-grandmother, the cook on a wagon train from Georgia to Florida in the late 19th century.
At some point she would have worried that she was getting sick. Maybe it was a tickle in her throat or a sniffle. We’ve all experienced those first symptoms. For us, today, that realization usually leads us to wonder – cold or flu? Bad or worse?
She got worse. And at some point, when she was gravely ill, she would have known that people as sick as she was often died. Her world was unforgiving, and by the time she was a young mother, she would have known that, seen it many times before. A fever could kill.
I wonder how she handled it.
It’s both hard and easy to imagine her. She had packed up everything she could, including the skillet, an even more massive Dutch oven and a one-gallon soup pot, all of them iron, all built to last. The kinds of things you take when you can take only important things.
She had also bundled up a tiny baby, a girl, her first, her only. My great-grandmother.
They were leaving her family and everything she knew, a life in Georgia that was probably not easy, but was certainly more familiar, more predictable, than the life she was heading to in the wilderness of Florida.
Did she go willingly? I’ll never know. She probably didn’t have much of a choice. Her husband would have made the decisions for the family. And he had decided to go, to give up on a life he could predict would not be prosperous for him or his family. The decision was made to chase a dream of a new beginning, a place where no one knew them or their simple, limited prospects.
His decision was one of dreams, but also solidly grounded in what his reality was – they were not leaving behind much that was worth staying for. If poverty was all there was to look forward to where they were, why not chase the stories of prosperity for the hard-working someplace else?
Outside Plant City, Florida, I’m told there used to be an intersection of two dirt roads. One was called Nesmith Road. The other was called Hollis Nesmith Road. That was the intersection where my grandfather’s legacy intersected with his father’s legacy. The two farmers had homesteads in the woods, toiled to harvest strawberries and grapefruits, and worked hard to make sure their children did OK. I’m the result of all of that work – my father went to college, something that made his father, who left school after the seventh grade, proud.
My father was able to send me to an elite Northeastern college, cementing the middle class legacy his father was able to launch him into during the post-World War II period when many things seemed possible.
But my history also includes the women I am descended from. No dirt roads were named after them, but they fed the legacy. My great-great-grandmother did so literally, cooking for the people on the wagon train as a small group of ambitious young men took their families on that dream-chasing trip.
We don’t know how my great-great-grandmother died. Family lore has it that she “took a fever,” which could have been malaria, the common flu, or some infection we could probably treat now with a quick shot or a six-day dose of some pill. Our lives are easier. This makes me wonder how the rest of the people on the wagon train ate after she died. Who took over the cooking, and why didn’t that woman – because it was certainly a woman – adopt my great-great-grandmother’s pots? It would have seemed reasonable, but for some reason lost to the untold history of women pioneers who settled wild places like Florida, the pots stayed in my family. They were passed down, for decades. And because they’re iron, they had to be carefully protected. Most likely, they were repeatedly seasoned – the way you protect iron with oil – because people, women, were using them.
Iron cookware comes in two types. There is enameled cookware that is easier to use because it cleans up easily and doesn’t have to be cared for as carefully. Just clean it with soap and water. It can also be scratched, dented, damaged, ruined. It would be a shame to ruin such a nice pot, but once it’s ruined, it’s ruined. Sooner or later, it will be ruined.
And then there is cast iron.
It also must be cared for carefully. My mother taught me that the wrong sponge, the use of soap, the failure to dry it carefully could damage it. You could let rust in, undo years of care. But mom also taught me that cast iron could last forever if you took proper care.
I also wonder how my great-grandmother survived. She was an infant at the time, back in the 1870s. Someone must have taken care of her, an act of community and charity that seems obviously necessary and at the same time so fortuitous for my great-grandmother. She was about as vulnerable as she could get, a motherless child on a wagon train pushing into the wilds of Florida.
My great-grandmother inherited little. That’s the way it was with motherless children in the 1800s. Her father remarried quickly after my great-great-grandmother died on the wagon train. I know little about that step-great-great-grandmother, beyond the fact that she made sure my great-grandmother inherited her real mother’s pots. And for years, decades, generations, those iron pots were used and cared for by her and her descendants, my ancestors, my great-aunts, my parents.
The Dutch oven is that sort of pioneer heirloom that makes you wonder how your ancestors did it. It’s even heavier than the skillet. Its top has a rim, so you could cook biscuit on the top while also cooking stew inside, all over an open fire. It has little feet to stand it above the flames. I suspect that in its time, it was actually a pretty fancy model, the kind a family might have given to a favored daughter about to embark on a journey from which she would probably never return.
It’s not hard to imagine the scene of the goodbyes. My great-great-grandmother’s own mother would not have known that her daughter might soon die, but she would have known that she probably would never see her daughter or her tiny grandchild again, that the distances that young family was about to travel were too great to be done more than once.
Goodbye, girlchild, with your own tiny girlchild. Take this skillet, and this Dutch oven, and this soup pot with you. They are heavy and well-made and will last and serve you well where you are going, if you take care of them the way I taught you to. I hope.
Goodbye, mother. Thank you for teaching me how to use these tools of women’s work, and for teaching me so many other things that I will use where I’m going. I will pass this all on to this child. I hope.
There had to have been so much sadness, yet so much hope in both goodbyes.
Last Christmas, my father gave me the skillet and gave my cousin the Dutch oven.
We joked that my cousin could give up all those modern Barre workouts, yoga sessions on the beach, and half-marathons. She could just start cooking over an open fire, wielding that pot. The squats to the fire, coupled with the lifting she’d have to do to get this giant Dutch oven off the fire, would be enough.
The women who came before us were strong.
My parents gave us these old pieces of iron over Christmas – not as presents, but as our inheritance, something we might want to cherish the way generations of women in our family have.
Being a 21st century woman, I Googled how best to season an old skillet when I brought the skillet home. Turns out you lay down a thin layer of oil and heat it, and then you do that over and over again. The scientists can explain that the oil and the iron form a polymer that is virtually indestructible, if you care for it right. If the skillet has been cared for over the years, you’re just laying down another layer of oil on the iron, on top of all the layers of oil laid down on iron before you. It needs many layers of oil on iron for it to become truly strong. But you can damage even a carefully seasoned skillet, with many thin layers of oil laid down over years, decades, if you give up on it. Or you can scour it too roughly, or leave it out to expose the iron to rust, and that will damage it too. Harsh use or serious neglect is the doom of an iron skillet.
Owning an old skillet makes you responsible to protect something valuable and strong and vulnerable. This skillet is something women before me had carefully protected for themselves and for their progeny, for me. A lot of work had been invested into those layers of protection, that delicate but fierce inheritance, all with the assumption that I would continue to lay down more thin layers.
I wonder about my great-great-grandmother cooking for the wagon train – how long did she keep cooking, even as she got sick? Did anyone try to help her, or did she just keep lifting my skillet and my cousin’s Dutch oven, until she simply couldn’t anymore? How did she care for my great-grandmother? As the situation grew dire, how did she feel about that baby, so vulnerable, yet probably so loved, and carrying an inheritance of such delicate strength?
And my great-grandmother used that skillet, inherited from a mother she could not remember, to feed a family of seven children who lived, and two who didn’t. And then, according to family stories, to feed all the children those seven children had, including my father. One of her daughters, a maiden great-aunt of mine, kept that skillet seasoned, and gave it to my father, to pass down, to make sure its history was remembered, to make sure that strength was preserved.
There are things that other women fought for, women including my mother, women who laid down the oil, layer by layer, on the iron so I could live in that legacy of the protection of anti-discrimination laws, of hostile-workplace regulations, of a world that recognized that women have something to offer, a voice, a choice. I have been able to do things and go places that my grandmothers and their mothers and their grandmothers could never have imagined for women. I owe to them, and to the girls and women who come after me, a special responsibility to care for and protect those thin layers that stand between strength and vulnerability, between rights and restrictions. I have to fight the too-tough scouring while also protecting the gentle layering of small levels of protection. I also owe a lot to the women who had the strength to do what had to be done, to make the stew over an open flame and lift that heavy Dutch oven, because they were the ones who first seasoned the skillets.
When I have to evacuate again, which I surely will in this era of rising seas, I’ll protect the heartbeats first. But I’ll also take the skillet.