Friday, March 26, 2010

Cora's Namesake

This is a photo of my great grandparents Cora and Neil Vanderstouw, I'm not sure what year it was taken. They had many hardships in their lives but I love how happy, connected and in love they look in this photo. I had the good fortune to know my great grandmother for the first 9 years of my life. Just as I was beginning to bloom and learn about this world she was starting to wilt and withdraw from it. Regardless her vivacity and iron strength shined through and she made an enormous impression on me in those few years.

I have vivid memories of days spent at their farm, my three brothers and I running wild harassing the chickens and crawling through the corn cages. Grandma Cora was always busy in her kitchen or her garden ready with home made sweet tea and molasses cookies bigger then my head made from the molasses they kept in the barn to add to the horse feed. She was a very short woman, especially in comparison to my great grandfather but she never felt short to me, her personality making her seem larger then anyone else in the room. I loved being with her, I loved watching her in her kitchen.

When I struggled through the years of infertility I would often find myself talking to my great grandmother, asking for her help from the other side. I would implore her to guide and help along the baby who would one day join us, to watch over her and help her find us. As strange as it may sound there were many times I felt my great grandmother close at hand watching over me and loving me.

The elder Cora immigrating to this country from Holland when she was 2 or 3 years old, passing through Ellis Island into this country. Many years ago I visited the museum that was created from the entry point on that island. I was very young at the time and was heading there just to "check it off" my tourist list. Once there I was silenced and awed to stand in the very room where so much of our history, so many of our loved ones finally came into this country. Looking out the barred windows at the Manhatten shoreline I could feel the anxiety still resting in the still air of this room.

I tried to imagine what it was like for these people who travelled the huge oceans spending their family savings only to be turned away when their dream was a shining vision outside that window. Luckily for me my great grandparents were not turned away.

Those few years spent crossing paths with my great grandmother laid a bedrock foundation within me that respects and loves the homesteading way of life. Her knowledge was lost to me somewhere in the mix of the generation in between. It wasn't until almost 20 years later as a married woman of my own living in a city all the way across the country that I began to stumble through the magic I watched her work. Slowly, slowly I have taught myself how to can food, to put up the harvest for the harsh winters that we do not have here in Portland. Slowly I taught myself how to bake so I could make huge molasses cookies and pie crusts with little effort and mostly from memory. Slowly I have begun to learn how to grow food for my family in my kitchen garden. My sunflowers are still not as high and magnificent as hers but I am getting there, and last year I put my planning to work and we built a chicken coop and are raising hens for eggs. I can still hear the verbal lashings I received from my great grandfather after repeatedly crawling through the hen house on the farm and upsetting all of those comfy fat hens. I was obsessed with those chickens which I guess shows through today.

This is who my daughter is named for. This is her history and her legacy through her mother, combined with the immigration history of her father's Italian family weaves a beautiful complexity that is uniquely American and uniquely hers forever.


  1. Beautiful post, CC. I loved learning about Cora's namesake. How lucky that you got to know your great-grandmother! A cousin of mine has two kids, aged 22 and 20, and they've both grown up knowing my grandmother, their great-grandmother. It's a pretty special bond.

  2. This is a most beautiful tale, and beautifully told. It makes me want your molasses cookie recipe. I've never made a molasses cookie... and I'd love to.