Monday, October 1, 2012

What I Learned from the Gypsy Farm Story

 Black Jack at the Smith Family Farm

It was one of my first days volunteering at the Smith Family Farm at the Atlanta History Center and I wasn’t all that enamored with the visiting school group.  Oh, the children were cute and inquisitive and relatively well behaved; it was the adults who were bugging me.  The kids were on a field trip and they were from a Megatively Conservative Mega Church Private School and, since I couldn’t blame the kids for sending themselves to such a school, I could only blame the parents (some of whom were serving as chaperones).  Everyone was vanilla and coifed and all the same, generally the kind of people who don't interest me all that much.  However, I was on my best behavior, trying to be helpful without anyone figuring out I had absolutely no clue as to what I was doing.

I’d heard Ava, our Kitchen History Maven, telling the kids that she was cooking up some carrots they’d been keeping down in the root cellar, and minutes later, I found myself outside, standing next to the door of said root cellar, wondering if there really were any carrots down there and what else might be down there and if there really was a down there.   

The Smith home, an1840s era house and detached kitchen, are the real deal, having been moved to their present location from Dekalb County in the early 1970s, but the additional out-buildings, while historical, aren't from the Smith family.  In addition, some of the accoutrements are faux (although firmly-documented fine faux) because, well, because everything can’t be all real all of the time, even in a place as wonderful as the Smith Family Farm at the Atlanta History Center.

So, there I was standing by the either real or faux root cellar as a field trip mom stepped up to me and said, “Root cellars give me the creeps.”   

Like she would know anything about root cellars, this lily-white, suburban, probably gas-guzzling SUV driving, tennis-playing trophy wife, I thought.    But I went into docent mode anyway, using the only information I had.  

“Yeah well, the Smiths stored things like carrots down there,” I said, hoping she wouldn't ask me anything else that would indicate I'd already given her everything I had.

“My parents kept their homemade wine in ours,” she offered.  

What?  This transparent mega-church-going, private-school-sending mom had parents who kept bootlegged booze in a root cellar?  I was envisioning some color spilling on to her pallid cheeks, like Two-Buck Chuck Premium Red on a perfectly pressed linen napkin.

“You grew up on a farm?  Where?”

“Up in Michigan.”

“Your parents were farmers?”

“Well, not really.  At some point, they got a wild hair and they bought a farm.  From gypsies.”

“Your parents bought a farm from gypsies?”

“Yeah, and when we moved in, there were still gypsy wagons on the property and apparently they’d kept their animals inside the house.”

“You mean dogs and cats?”

“More like goats and chickens.” 

It turned out that this woman had grown up on a former gypsy farm and her parents had raised their own chickens and goats (outside) along with cows and vegetables and grapes for wine making, reading books as they went along to figure out how to keep everything alive, all while running a family business in a nearby town.   And these very same parents now lived with this women here in Atlanta because she was a divorced mom of three who was struggling, finishing up nurse’s training, specializing in flesh wounds.  

It was like at the beginning of the Wizard of Oz, you know the part when the black and white goes all technicolorish as Dorothy and Toto start out on the yellow brick road? Suddenly, this lady's family story and personal history brought her into a full and interesting light, and she became a reminder for me to avoid judging what could be a great book by what seems to be a stereotypical cover.  Here stood this colorful, vibrant woman who was interesting and absolutely worth getting to know, with a story only she could tell.  All I needed to do was open my mind and listen.

 By the way, there really is a root cellar under that door at the Smith Family Farm at the Atlanta History Center.  Just like the woman I talked to that day, it's  real.


For more information about the Smith Family Farm at the Atlanta History Center, see:

Smith Family Farm


marciamayo said...

Thanks to the Atlanta History Center for the "borrowed" photos.

Celia said...

Great story and a great reminder.

Rosaria Williams said...

A great story! Glad to know the woman had a real life!

marciamayo said...

Thanks, Celia and Rosaria, two west coast women. Rosaria, I see that you live in Portland. I spend my summers there where my son and grandchild live.

LC said...

Smith Family Farm sounds like a great place to volunteer. Loved all of this post and especially admired the "by the way" wrap up.

Olga said...

A good reminder about books and covers.

oklhdan said...

Wow...a great reminder about books and covers. It makes me want to go to the mall and hang out at the Gap and see if I can find some real people.

marciamayo said...

Oklhdan, I bet you can find some real gypsies at the Gap.

Friko said...

There you go, given 'em a chance and they'll prove you wrong. On the other hand, don't, if you want to feel you got hold of the right end of the stick.

Happens to me frequently, but some people just don't look anything like they are, do they?

Jean said...

Great story, Marcia. The vanilla lady definitely did have an interesting past to share. I was checking out gypsy wagons at a fair on Tuesday. My, they were ornate and colorful.

Folkways Note Book said...

What a great piece of journalism. You really gave a nice twist to your story that held my interest every inch of the way. Liked how you wrapped it up by saying, "All I needed to do was open my mind and listen." Your words should be used by everyone universally. -- barbara

Freda said...

Fascinating - it's wonderful how people can open up and surprise us. We had a house with a cellar once - I only went down once and shrieked at the several mice who just sat on a ledge and looked at me at my head height!

schmidleysscribblins, said...

My wise Mother always told us to "Never Judge a Book by its cover." I am fairly conservative but don't look it. Or maybe I do. I don't know what a conservative looks like.

My daughter and her husband bought a former pig sactuary. Some of the pigs had lived in the house. Of course if I tell you they were pet pigs who grew too large for their urban abodes, you understand.

Good story. Dianne

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