Special Solo Episode: The Membership
What forces shape who we are on our respective journeys? Wendell Berry’s 2004 novel Hannah Coulter portrays one woman’s experience with her rural Kentucky farming community referred to as “The Membership.” Drawing on Berry’s description, Lorilee shares the role that her own “Membership” played in her life; the people who came together to support each other and their farmland. Not only did this group define her childhood, but they also influenced her approach to running her design business today.
“The Membership” is an excerpt from ‘Cultivator and Creator: An autoethnographic study understanding the addicted artist,’ which you can read in full at lorileerager.com.
Sponsored by Her-Bank.com
Lorilee Rager: Today I am back with another solo episode — that’s just you and me. I recently recorded and episode with Ziddi Msangi, one of my advisors from grad school. I’m excited for you to hear our conversation next week. We talked about the power of place and it got me thinking about my own upbringing. So for along time, I personally really didn’t want to look back at my childhood and my Southern roots because when I began to think about that right at the surface level, I could think of nothing but dark and negative, sad or bad stories. But as I worked with Ziddi in grad school, I began to discover that my design practice today actually was because of some of these amazing people in my life from my childhood. I had this realization that the design process and practice that Ido today as an adult really was shaped by some of these amazing people from my past. We all have people from our past who helped us get to where we are today. I feel like that’s a universal understanding, if you can be brave enough to look back in to your past. So as I began to do this work I began to write about it. And so that is the piece that I want to share with you today. I really hope you enjoy it.
Those who call the rural Kentucky farming community where I grew up “home” are part of what I like to call “The Membership.” That’s what the main character of Wendell Berry’s beloved novel Hannah Coulter called her farming community, and it sure fits mine. Our membership is full of landlords, farmers, homemakers, tradesmen, teachers, and preachers. Some of these folks were the very same people, they just wore different hats depending on the day of the week.
You can usually guess by their dress what day it might be.
On warm days, there’s the handmade thin, patterned, sleeveless housecoats or cotton culotte britches for the women and the light plaid western-cut shirts decked out with pearl snaps paired with practical, western-cut work khakis for most of the men. I remember the women in their solid shoulder-padded wool dress suits with thick panty hose and Sunday purses too. I can still smell the Juicy Fruit from Grandma’s pocketbook as I helped grab hers from the mud room closet. I remember how it would swing from her arm as she hung onto the arm of my grandfather. I can see him stepping proudly out of church wearing his arrowhead bolo tie and pointed toe Sunday boots. Eel skin as burnt red as a candy apple. Their bodies framed by the old Methodist church’s stained glass doors arching above.
My membership included caretakers of the land, who worshiped together and played Rook on Friday nights, all together, all the time. A community of uncles, cousins, neighbors, and homemakers, all hard workers, each one with a special talent like wiring, welding, sewing, or sign painting that put their hands to use working together to make the farm successful.
There are many moving parts to harvesting a successful crop. Each one of us used our strengths to keep the full operation going. My grandma cooked lunch for everyone every day: the best fried chicken, fried okra, fried potatoes, green beans, and cornbread, hot on the table by noon without fail. Our life wasn’t like an episode of Hee Haw, all overalls and lazy dogs sleeping on the porch. Our farm bustled with welders, mechanics, painters, carpenters, cooks, and all sorts of business partners. Because of how hard we worked, and our reputation of being good stewards of the land, by the time I left for college we were operating nearly 10,000 acres of high yield crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat. We hoed miles upon miles of crops across two states and over five counties.
If you could afford it, a tractor could do the work of two or three farmhands. Hannah Coulter observes in Berry’s novel that, because of the industrial revolution, tractors made farmers dependent on big companies like never before. Tractor’s don’t get tired, you can work all night. Now, I know I was born way after the industrial revolution, but on tractor delivery day our membership gathered around this new piece of machinery like a spaceship had landed. My father would have us girls “read the manual from cover to cover” and listen closely to the salesman’s tour of the machine. It was up to us to show Uncle David Wayne, Uncle Durell Jr., Mose, Woody, and Lawrence how to use it ‘cause most of them couldn’t read nor write. Other farmers were a bit jealous, I think. They would say down at the local Crop service office as we sat and sipped early morning coffee, “That green paint is sure expensive,” while asking us “what all can that new thing do?”
The membership of my childhood not only worked in the fields but also to restore the house I grew up in, the old Maude Gill homeplace. Even today, the front porch has started rotting in places and is in need of repair. Many other farmhouses in the area have fallen due to neglect. They’re hollow shells of past farms that were once full of family, consumed and overgrown by kudzu and full-grown trees. To my family, the rich history of this Eastlake-style Victorian cottage built in 1885 has been worth preserving. Together we all worked for years on the house, replacing the real wood siding, rebuilding gingerbread trim, and plastering the crumbling walls. It was hard work that took intricate detail and patience, but it had to be done to stop the house from falling in on itself. I now realize maintaining this house is a forever, ongoing project, just as you might care for your own self.
Many of the early farmhands in the membership have passed away, but their memory, love, and work are still present on the farm. The workforce of 1976 came together when Grandfather and Grannie Thompson moved from town to help on the farm. They brought with them Woody and Jean Snell, who lived in the tenant house across the field. Not long after that some local neighbors, Jab and Virginia Cheatam, started walking to the farm each day to work with us, Jab in the field and Mrs. Virginia in the house with us girls and mama. They were too poor to own a car and too proud to ask for a ride.
Peacocks had taken up residence in the farmhouse before we arrived, and there was no indoor plumbing or central heat and air. Needless to say, there was plenty of work to do. My cousin Craig, a teenager from the city struggling with his extra religious mother and extra abusive alcoholic father, eventually moved in with us. He was the son my father, with three little girls, never had.
My mom’s brothers David Wayne and Durell Jr. came on over once Grandaddy and Grandma Smith retired from dairy farming. Other full-time loyal helpers later joined. They felt like family; Mose and Lawrence I remember best. Mose taught me how to sharpen my pocketknives and called me “Boots” because my hand-me-down ropers always seemed just a hair too big as I clumped around the shop. Lawrence taught me how to run the bush hog, especially how to get up under and around trees without getting all cut up from the limbs.
Uncle Ivy, another of my grandma’s brothers, was a carpenter. He always smelled like the best mix of paint thinner, Ivory soap, and sawdust. He fixed up and painted buildings all around the farm and helped to restore the house one room at a time. I spent hours helping him, or really, just following him around. He would let me paint when no one was looking. He cleaned me up when I accidentally leaned on the old Carriage House walls as I talked his head off about my big world views at 5 years old. He also repaired and wired the little cabin we used as a playhouse growing up.
Here’s an interesting fact I learned recently. That little cabin playhouse was actually known as Taylor’s Cabin. Mrs. Virginia had told my mother that when Maude Gill lived on the farm this playhouse was where Mr. Taylor Mitchell lived. He was known then as the yard boy and helped around the home. He milked the cow, hooked up the horse and buggy for trips to town, and gathered eggs from the coop. Although I never knew him, I think of him as one of the earliest members of the membership caring for the farm.
Now one of the most cherished members I’d say was Grandaddy Thompson, my dad’s father. He was on up in years, so Grandaddy Thompson was assigned to run all the errands to town. Things like running to get parts, fueling trailers, and buying seed bags and chemicals. He called the house every morning at 5 a.m. to get his orders for the day — where he needed to be, what men needed to be transported to what fields, and whether I needed to be picked up from preschool at the Church of Christ. I loved when he picked me up because it often involved a secret stop in town for soft serve ice cream cones from the Bethel Dipper.
I’ve learned that there were others who helped out even if they weren’t physically there. One such member was my Great Uncle Lee, part of my namesake, Lorilee. My Grandaddy Thompson paid for his little brother Lee to go off to college while he stayed back to keep the family farm. Uncle Lee became an engineer in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He worked on secret government projects during World War Two. He made good money but lived farther away. so He helped financially when times on the farm were bad or “Fair to middlin’” as Grandaddy Thompson would say. He bought us our first microwave and our first cars when we turned 16.
Berry’s Hannah Coulter described her membership as a caring, reliable, hardworking group willing to endure the hot days and push harder to get the crop in before the storms. My membership was just the same. They were loyal to the crop and the people they worked beside. They were kind, quick thinkers. Always designing the best routes around sink holes while welding a broken axle and making sure the next day’s seed and fuel wagons were topped off. Each one of the members had individual talents that came together to complete a harvest from cultivation to combining. This is how our membership worked. These were also my earliest memories of process, planning and design.
This mindset of the membership is how I built my design firm. I often refer to my web designers as the carpenters doing the unseen work behind the sheetrock. Like how you just trust the toilet will flush when you push down the pretty handle, and the light switch never fails to brighten the room. Designers have a hand in the nitty gritty behind the scenes that makes that abracadabra. Like the magic my father made as a farmer. He did his part to make that loaf of bread appear on the WholeFoods shelf and the five-pound bag of Martha White flour pop into your Instacart.
My team of creatives work in positions that take advantage of their skills as makers. With the farm membership in mind, I’ve created a culture where we care for our clients and meet their production needs just as my father taught me to respect and care for our landlords. We don’t need many acres to sit a laptop on today, but I’ve always expected my team to have the same love and dedication to design come rain or shine.
My childhood membership gave me a sense of belonging, self-worth, confidence, and comfort. I felt so much love as a child. Helping things grow is all I ever knew how to do. This way of growing up made me feel that the work you do matters, it feeds someone. I feel the same way about what I do as a designer. Building a team like on the farm, of loyal people you care about and work side by side with, supporting each other’s strengths and working together solving problems, is my every day. Much like the farmer, the small business owner helps the community, helps humanity, and makes a difference in the world.
Connection and community are truly what makes the world go around — whether you’re on a farm, in a big city, or anywhere in between. This network of support and inspiration, no matter how big or small, is what keeps us going. So today, right now, I would love for you to think about who is in your membership and how they help you on your journey through life. Maybe send them a little bit of extra love today too, because you mean just as much to them as they do to you.
Thank you for tuning in to this solo episode of Ground and Gratitude. You can read this piece, find more information about the show and listen to past episodes at GroundAndGratitude.com.
I’d also love to hear from you — we’re on Instagram @GroundAndGratitude and you can leave us a review on Apple Podcasts.
Be sure and join me next time for more honest conversations exploring what it means to truly live a life grounded in gratitude. I’ll be talking about sense of place with Ziddi Msangi.
This episode of Ground and Gratitude was produced by Kelly Drake and Anna McClain.