Cindy BarloweLiving most of my adult life in the same geographical region used to embarrass me.  While worldly friends and acquaintances reminisced about far-off abodes, I envied their adventures, missed inhaling fragrant smells of exotic flowers, listening to night songs of unfamiliar insects, and savoring flavors of fruits and vegetables that do not exist in my corner of the world.  However, as I enter that realm of past mid-life, I appreciate how geography connects me to my ancestors, their determined work to survive, sometimes despite harsh conditions, in western North Carolina, and the common bonds that tie me to those European immigrants. Like many of my generation, I possess tangible heirlooms passed through several generations that not only feed my body, but sustain my soul. Heirloom seeds, packed safely among the belongings of ancestors five generations removed, continue to reproduce in my rich soil and their strong life force, suspended each year to rejuvenate the next, awes me when I see a seed germinate into a plant, echoing the same pattern observed by my fifth-great-grandmother, Polly Schmidt.

Granny’s summer squash, like other heirlooms, often produce unusual offspring.


As a child of the sixties, I looked forward to the nights when my mother thawed frozen TV dinners for my brother and me to enjoy while we watched fantastical shows about outer space. Saturday trips to the only fast-food restaurant in our town were a special treat.  We gobbled hot fries as my mother zoomed home in the 1965 Comet where we spread open paper wrappings surrounding hamburgers and inhaled the aroma of toasted bread slathered with “special” sauce. Only as an adult did I realize that the slower meals our family shared every other day of the week were far more special and delicious than those Saturday treats.       

Typically, when family gathered at our small formica table, my father’s eyes would scan the assembled bowls, platters and plates. The recital would begin.“Your grandmother grew those beans.  I killed that deer.  The tomatoes and cucumbers came from our garden.  Your mama made the biscuits.  Our bees gave us the honey.”  He continued the litany until every dish was designated.  Often, as I served my plate with an ingredient, I recalled how that vegetable or fruit looked when I helped harvest it from the garden.  Cleaned, prepared and cooked, it retained its fresh state in my mind and, although I hate to admit it now, I took that food for granted.  Only as an adult did I realize how special those everyday meals were, how flavorful freshly harvested backyard garden ingredients colored my childhood.  It is now, as I look back on those evenings, that I can fully appreciate Daddy’s acknowledgements.  Knowing the source of food we enjoy today not only gives a visceral connection, it provides a powerful link to our past.

Not until 2008 did I begin to realize the power of heirloom plants when my parents shared seeds my grandmothers saved.  Perhaps that inheritance would not be remarkable, but since my maternal grandmother died in 1986 and my paternal grandmother in 1995, it came as a surprise when almost every seed I planted from the stash stored in my parents’ freezer not only germinated, but thrived to produce an abundant bounty of beautiful fruits and vegetables. 


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