April 7, 2021

Nita Marie Grubb

        One of my favorite writers is a farmer and writer named Wendell Berry. He lives in the hills of Kentucky with his wife of sixty-four years, where they farm crops and sheep and a host of other animals. He was born along the Kentucky River on his family's farm and after getting his education, he moved to New York City where he taught writing at NYU. And then, suddenly, in 1965, just as his career was taking off, he decided to move back to Kentucky to farm and write, where he has lived ever since. After returning to his homeland, he wrote the following words (paraphrased): 

Much of the interest and excitement that I have in my life now has come from the deepening of my relationship to this countryside that is my native place. For in spite of all that has happened to me in other places, the great change and the great possibility of change in my life has been in my sense of this place. I have grown to be wholeheartedly present here. This is partly in being free of the suspicion that pursued me early in my life, no matter where I was, that there was perhaps another place I should be, or would be happier or better in. But it is only here that I am able to sit and be quiet at the foot of some tree in the woods and feel a deep peace. — Wendell Berry, A Native Hill

One of Berry’s most profound ideas is that of being a  placed person. Someone who doesn’t just have a home, but someone who has a long history of a home, a family record. Someone who doesn’t just live on the land, but deeply understands the land, the weather, the soil, the trees and flowers, how the animals respond to the winter and the way it smells in the spring. A placed person has a thousand stories of a particular geography, stories of humor and heartache, of potential and devastation, stories that bridge the past to the present and will eventually connect to the future. A placed person often has sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters that continue to exist in such a place, who have their own stories to write and their own homeland to understand and cherish. 

When I think of Grandma Grubb, what strikes me the most these days is that she was and lived her life as a placed person. She was present here. She was engaged with this land and the people who live here. For whatever hardship she endured or joy she experienced, she seemed content here. She raised four children in these hills and buried a child who didn’t quite make it. She was married to Grandpa for sixty-seven years before burying him too. She went to church here, worked at the local school here and ate at the local restaurant on Saturdays for dinner. She stubbornly hung her clothes on the line in December and mowed the lawn in the muggy August heat and could recall every time the creek ran high. If there ever was a placed person, it was Nita Marie Grubb. 

I spent my childhood summers watching her harvest vegetables in her garden on the edge of the cornfield. She showed me how to make a bacon and scrambled egg sandwich and that waking up at 7am every single day was absolutely required if I wanted breakfast. She is the one who took me to see New York City for the first time, even though we just drove to its edge and looked in. She loved and cared for me in the way she knew best: by being exceptionally present. Whether it was tending to my poison ivy or baking my favorite cake or taking a whole gang of us to Uncle Basil’s pool on a hot August day, she was always there. She somehow mastered the art of always moving without ever seeming hurried. And perhaps most importantly, she let me roam free and run wild and deeply experience this place as my own, even though it was no longer mine. My mother was raised here but left as a young woman, and even though I never lived here, half of me was from this place. And even though I didn’t know how important it was then, the fact that Grandma let me loose here, summer after summer, shaped me for the rest of my life. As the son of two wandering parents, and as a drifter myself, I would not yet call myself a placed person in the way Wendell Berry or my Grandma were placed. But as I get older and as my children get older, I find myself desiring more and more to become like them. And so it is now, as I say goodbye, I am grateful to her for showing me the way. 


bluegoose said...

Beautiful Josh! She was inherently good and amazingly content in profound ways that I still don't fully understand. We were truly blessed to see how she lived!

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