When I was a little girl, nobody had air conditioning. Summertime was hot. We depended on cool breezes through open windows, shade-trees, cold drinks, and meals that required little, if any cooking. Brick Bar-B-Qs and wooden picnic tables were all the rage in everybody’s back yard. We were just like everybody else. Well, maybe not quite.
Besides having a great imagination, Dad was a genius at saving money. Instead of buying bricks to build a BBQ, he got the keen idea to build one out of clay tiles; the kind of tiles that farmers use to drain a field. That way us kids could just stick our hotdog fork right on through the tile, and get it right in the fire without burning our arms. My Uncle Jim said if a man had to be able to build a good fire, or he would have a bad mother-in-law. When we had a weenie roast, Dad built a fire that sent sparks up to the sky. I tell you, my Dad was the smartest Dad in the whole world. That tile BBQ was almost as smart as Grandpa’s invention of a rototiller, with the two middle forks missing, so you could get right up close to the vegetable plants. The only reason Grandpa’s invention was smarter, was ’cause I hated hoeing in the garden, and only Mom got to use the rototiller, so in the end, Grandpa’s invention made my life way easier; Dad’s invention just kept my face and arm from getting hot. Besides that, there was a problem with Dad’s invention, but there was no way for him to figure that one out, so it’s still right up there as nifty as all get-out. And it free, ’cause he found all those clay tiles, just waiting to be tossed in the dump.
Mom got the Koegels from Ballard’s Gas and Grocery. Ballard’s was exactly two-and-a-half miles from our house. One time when Mom and Dad still rented part of the house out, one of the renters asked me if I wanted to walk down to Ballard’s and get him some Lucky Strikes and me a Hershey Bar. That sounded like a pretty good deal, so of course I said yes, which made him laugh uproariously. I knew the difference between being told a joke and being laughed at, even way back when I was super-little, before I went to school. It wasn’t nice to pull jokes like that on people. I never really trusted that guy much after that. Ballard’s had all kinds of meats and cheeses in trays in a big case, even cottage cheese. Mr. Ballard weighed up exactly how much Mom wanted and wrapped it up in brown paper. Anyways, Koegel’s hotdogs are the best ever; Dad said so.
I helped Mom make a giant potato salad with bits of green pepper and radishes from the garden. The only cooking she had to do was to boil some potatoes and eggs, and she did it the night before, after everything cooled down, so the kitchen didn’t heat up the whole house. Mom was an expert at slipping the potato skins off of boiled potatoes. She told me it’s better to leave the skins on and only put a little water in the pan, they don’t have to be covered all the way up. Peel after boiling them, ’cause that way the vitamins stay in, and you can just get the tiniest, thin layer of skin off; no potato. Grandma probably taught her that; she’s always complaining if I peel the potatoes, on account of all the waste I have and how darned long it takes me. I helped cut the potatoes into bite-size chunks, and Mom cut the radishes into itsy-bitsy pieces, like grains of sand. She said that way they only add flavor and anybody who doesn’t like radishes doesn’t even know they are there. I loved the way radishes smell all earthy and spicy at the same time, but sometimes they were kinda hot, especially if it was a dry summer, so I was glad Mom cut them so tiny.
I cut up tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden and carrots and celery from the grocery store, not from Ballard’s, from the big grocery store in town. Ballard’s didn’t have stuff like that. Mom said to cut of a tiny piece of cucumber from each end and taste it, to make sure there was no bitterness. If there was, I had to cut that part out. Yech, that was a tough job, ’cause sometimes there was a whole lot of bitter on the end, and I had to keep cutting and tasting, ’til I got rid of all the bitter. Still, I mostly liked this job, ’cause I learned in 4-H how to make a relish tray really pretty, that’s what a whole plate full of raw vegetables is call. I stacked up sliced tomatoes in the middle, then arranged the spears of cucumbers, celery, and carrots, all around, coming out from the center, like a start of greens and orange. Sometimes I made radish flowers for Dad, he loved to just crunch right into those things. Mom just slapped the vegetables all down on the plate in handfuls; she didn’t care if it looked pretty, except she always noticed how pretty I made the plate look.
Me and Bonita and Deanna lugged all the food outside to the picnic table, then we started roasting the hot dogs. Everything went along great, with Dad’s new invention, until those clay tiles got all heated up, then they started to pop and spit out little bits of hot clay. Dad didn’t believe us at first, he just thought we were being big sissies until he got his big hotdog fork, the one that roasted three hot dogs at a time for the little kids, and he got a dose of the sparks and spits himself. Then he saw for himself what he just couldn’t believe before. “Oh well,” he said. “The best laid plans of mice and men.” I had no idea what that meant, ’cause I never heard of a mouse making any kind of plan at all, but I figured that’s the way a grown man says, ‘whoops, I guess I should have known better.”
I loved eating outside. For some reason, it felt like we were on a vacation. When Dad was home, Bonita ate whatever he ate, ’cause she just adored Dad. She loved mustard because Dad loved mustard. One time she said she could eat the whole jar. I thought she said that just to impress Dad, and because she knew I didn’t like mustard, so I volunteered to put the mustard on her hotdog.
“Just tell me when you have enough,” I told her. She was busy talking away and never told me to stop, so pretty soon there was a whole gob of mustard on her hotdog, so much the hotdog practically disappeared. When she finally noticed she started to scream bloody murder.
“You said you could eat the whole jar,” I said, laughing, but pretty soon I stopped laughing, ’cause Dad didn’t think that very nice.
“You think you’re so funny, well, I guess you’re going to have to eat that wiener and all that mustard,” he said, with his mouth all turned down and his blue eyes looking like daggers instead of stars. Bonita laughed right at me without any sound coming out of her mouth, but I could hear it loud as day; her big brown cow eyes looking straight at me dancing away and her eyebrows way up under her eyebrows. That Bonita was one smart cookie. Bonita still likes to tell that story, but the laughs on her, because that’s the day I developed a liking for mustard. I love mustard now, especially spicy Dijon mustard.
Sometimes life is going along all pleasant and comfortable, then out of left field, circumstances force me to take on new challenges when I rather stay with the status quo. Sometimes I have to swallow some bitterness and admit I was wrong. Sometimes it’s due to my own actions, and sometimes it’s because of someone else’s, but most of the time the complexity of the situation makes blame difficult to determine. In the end, I often discover the very thing I tried so hard to avoid, just brings more spice and color into my life. Isn’t life just wonderful that way?