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The Instinct to Survive, by Hayley Wilson

My great grandmother made pies from scratch every summer morning from the berries I had picked the night before.

Mesa del Conquistador, by Jaime Altieri
"Mesa del Conquistador",
by Jaime Altieri
Even at 7:00 a. m., the air outside made us feel sticky inside the kitchen. The year was 1976, but Mama and Papa Johnnie, as I used to call my great grandparents, didn't own an air conditioner; they just used a fly swatter instead. They were born in a time when a man could milk cows and grow corn for a living. Getting married and having children wasn't a lifestyle choice; it was the way of life. As a child, I always thought that their ways were old fashioned, but quaint. Mama and Papa Johnnie were simple people, but they were also very happy.

The summer before I entered the second grade, Papa Johnnie invited me to help him milk the cows, one July morning. I felt honored to help with such an important task, so I didn't mind having to wake up at 5:30 a. m. When Papa Johnnie woke me up, I dusted the sleep from my eyes and pulled on my jeans. I followed him around like a puppy dog through his pre-dawn routine.

We grabbed two cold biscuits each from the icebox, left over from breakfast the day before. I shoved those in my dirty little pocket as Papa Johnnie grabbed a thermos full of hot, black coffee and headed out the back door toward the barn.

The world was quiet and still in those last few minutes of darkness before the sun came up. Everyone in the house was asleep, and even the unfailing rooster hadn't cockadoodledoed yet. The air was warm and pregnant, a promise of the hot, country day to come. We sat silently together on wooden stools, preparing to coax milk from a less-than-willing cow. But I wasn't frightened; my great grandfather, in his faded blue coveralls, had the situation under control.

My stomach silently rumbled, hungry for those biscuits in my pocket. I didn't dare eat them, though, because Papa Johnnie wasn't eating his. I wanted to be just like him. None of my friends in my southern California suburb milked cows or knew somebody who was eighty years old. I was special. I had a connection to the past and to a different way of life.

My great grandmother was another such connection for me. Papa Johnnie ruled the farm, but the home was her domain. She made butter, cooked supper, stitched quilts, and cared for their only child, James, my grandfather. From her I learned that real biscuits were made from scratch, that family mealtime was a ritual, and that love made a house a home. In her house dress and pinned hairdo, she was as much a fixture of the farm as my great grandfather.

Mama and Papa Johnnie were as connected to the land as they were to each other. The simplicity of their country lifestyle reflected the uncomplicated nature of their marriage. They could no more think of leaving the farm than they could think of leaving each other. Being married was as natural as being alive.

It wasn't surprising, therefore, when Mama Johnnie died three months after my great grandfather was consumed by cancer. Her death certificate indicated that she died of natural causes, but everyone in the family knew that she died of a broken heart. Maybe it wasn't even the loss of love that killed her. Maybe she just didn't know how to live without someone else. There is something tragic about the notion that my Mama Johnnie could not survive on her own. I'd like to believe that no matter whom I marry, I will always be my own person with my own life. Mama Johnnie didn't have that luxury.

The world has changed since my great grandparents first got married. Most people don't live on farms, anymore. People work the system, not the land, to make a living. Death is still inevitable, but we no longer have to accept the roles created for us. Unlike my great grandmother, whose only options in life were domestic, I can do anything I want. My dreams include career aspirations in addition to domestic yearnings. In fact I will feel extremely lucky if I meet someone with whom I can happily share my life.

I don't take for granted that there is a "Papa Johnnie" out there waiting for me. Neither do I assume that my life will be a happy one. I am responsible for creating my own direction in life. Where will I work? Will I have children? Should I get married now, or wait until my career is established? These are questions I must answer for myself, questions that my great grandparents never had reason to consider.

In many ways, my life differs vastly from that of my Mama and Papa Johnnie. My destiny will not be formed by the gentle, natural rhythms that fashioned the comfortable, predictable life they shared. The hassle of traffic, the dizzying speed of the Internet, and the frantic effort to complete my to-do list will determine the character of my days, if I let them.

Life may not be the same as it was at the turn of the twentieth century, but we can still learn lessons from an era gone by. When life seems complicated and confusing, when I think that love is just a fantasy, I reflect on the summers I spent with my great grandparents when I was a little girl. I take my cue from a man and woman who lived off the land and each other's love for more than fifty years: Live simply, live happily.

BIO: Marcia Wall is a writer, photographer and teacher whose work has appeared in such publications as SageWoman, Moxie, and the Gay and Lesbian Times. Her first book, Malaria Shots Not Included: A Guide to Surviving Life after College, is available from
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