My Mom and Dad had a Little House, and us kids had a Play House, when I was growing up. The Little House was a milk house, when Uncle Merle and Aunt Lucille and their kids shared our home. The Play House was a dog house way back when Mom and Dad raised German Shepherds. That was before I had any memory at all, which was a long, long time ago.
The Little House was right next to the barn. It was really, really little: a teeny-tiny kitchen, a living room, and two bitsy bedrooms, and of course a bathroom with a shower; there was no room for a bathtub. All those rooms would probably fit inside our fronchroom; the little house didn’t have a fronchroom or a dining room, just all in one room. It didn’t have a porch, and no backyard, no upstairs and no basement, no place to do laundry, and no telephone. Renters stayed in the Little House.
Renters pretty much kept to themselves, except to come over and pay the rent or use the phone; mostly they came over to use the phone. Renters weren’t supposed to call long-distance, but they did anyway, sometimes without even asking. That was like stealing, ’cause long-distance cost money. If the renters asked and didn’t pay for the long-distance minutes, that was stealing and lying, which was double bad. Mom hated it when renters came over and just gabbed on the phone for no real reason, that was a rude thing to do; plus Mom couldn’t help but listen to one half the conversation, which made her feel rude. Being polite was super important to my Mom. Sometimes the only way I could tell she was irritated with somebody was because her lips pressed together tight and her words got super distinct: I could almost hear every letter of every word if Mom was mad. Maybe that’s how I got to be such a good speller, on account of listening to Mom talk so clear. She wasn’t so concerned about being polite to me though, I got yelled at plenty of times; then her words ran all together like thunder rolling before a storm. I tried hard to keep from making Mom mad, but it seemed like that was about as impossible as hoping for no thunderstorms in July.
Calling long-distance was just for emergencies, if somebody called us long distance, they’d always say something like, “This is Aunt Millie, I’m calling long-distance, is your Mom there?” Then I knew to run and get Mom quick as lightning, ’cause every second was pennies down the drain with just a dead line, no one talking at all, and tying up the party-line to boot. If Mom was out in the garden or taking care of the peonies out in front, then I had to say, “She’ll call you back.” Otherwise, it would cost Aunt Millie too much money, just waiting around for Mom to get to the phone; that was wasteful. I hated those peonies out front; there were always ants crawling around on them. Mom said ants were farmers, raising aphids, just like we raised cows; in the evening the aphids collected nectar all day, and the ants took them home and milked them. Now that was pretty darned interesting. My Mom sure knew a lot of stuff; probably from all those books Grandpa had when she was growing up, and from reading the newspaper every day, and going to the Book-Mobile and getting big thick books. I know I learned a bunch of stuff from reading.
Lots of times renters forgot to pay the rent, and called long-distance, and asked to borrow gas from the gas tank that was only for the tractors. Everybody was super-polite, always knocking on the back door, and calling Mom ma’am and saying please and thank you, just like the magic words Captain Kangaroo said to use, ‘abracadabra, please and thank you,’ except grown-ups always left the abracadabra part out. Renters were kind of like a mystery. They hardly ever talked to me, except to say, “Is your mother home?: Renters smelled different, sometimes like tobacco or a sour malty smell all mixed up with sweat. Smoking was against the rules, on account of the Little House being so close to the barn. If Dad got wind of somebody smelling like tobacco, he marched right on over there and gave them a piece of his mind.
Mom had a soft heart, that’s what Dad said. If renters asked for a little extra time, or forgot their dimes for a phone call, Mom always said, “Pay me on Friday,” which sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. Lots of times they didn’t. Mom said she thought if someone was renting that itty-bitty house, maybe they needed a helping hand, and we should be understanding. She said it in that super-distinct voice, then snapped the diaper she was folding and clenched her teeth together so tight, I could see ripples on her jaws. People were always stopping in to see if that Little House was for rent, even without a sign or an advertisement in the paper. Most renters stayed for a little while, and as far as I can remember almost everybody needed some understanding.
Sometimes I get disillusioned. It sure seems like people know how to stretch the rules, lie straight to your face and milk generosity out of charitable people. Still and all, more often I think the world would be a better place if we all lent a helping hand and extended some understanding more often. Even when it makes us grind our teeth in agitation.