Midnight Rides, Trees, and Abou

When I was a little girl, I memorized all kinds of things:  Catechism, addition tables, spelling words, times tables, all the State’s capitols, and poetry.  I loved poetry especially the kind that tells a story that made my heart happy:  Like The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or Trees by Joyce Kilmer:

“I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree..”

Climbing HighThat said a lot for climbing a tree, hanging in a crook and just smelling all those green leaves and maybe finding a robin nest with little baby birds, just a cheep-cheeping away stretching their mouths up wide, waiting for a chewed up worm from their mama.  It made me want to forget all about memorizing or poetry, or anything except being right there.

Every week, I had a new poem to memorize.  Once my class had a choice, The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendall Holmes, or Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  I chose the poem about Paul Revere ’cause it sounded like a song and it had an exciting story.  Most everyone else chose The Chambered Nautilus because Continue reading

Itching For a New Nose

This is the time year when I close the windows and turn on the air filter.  I begin days when Jack Frost paints the fields with a layer of white icing.  Years before I knew Ragweed was my enemy, I wished for the sweet relief a killing frost would bring.  A world of itching filled late summer and early fall, when I was a little girl.  The real kind, not the figurative kind that’s good for us all.

My skin itched like crazy.  Sometimes, Mom taped popsicle sticks to the inside of my arms, so I had to keep my arms straight.  She thought that would keep me from scratching.  I scratched the back of my knees, and my ankles.  My skin itched from the inside out.  I needed to scratch down to the bone; not like the picky itch that a wooly sweater gives, or the sweaty itch that humid heat gives, or even the itch of a dozen mosquito bites.  It was an itch from the inside out.

“Stop that scratching,”  Mom said.  I looked down, and sure enough, there were my fingers right under the hem of my dress or wrinkling up my pant leg,just a-scratching away, without my permission.  I knew what it meant to have an itch that couldn’t be scratched.  Mom put a thick, white cream on my skin to help the itch go away.  Maybe it helped; maybe the itch would have been worse without that metallic smelling cream smeared all over me.

I knew the worst was on its way when my throat started itching.  I could get at the top of my throat with the back of my tongue, but that was just the beginning.  My eyes itched, the inside of my ears itched, and my nose itched. I pushed my nose up with the palm of my hand and rubbed it around and around in circles just to get some relief. That traitor nose Continue reading

Memory Waves on a Rainy Day

Death was part of life on the farm, when I was a little girl.  Cats died from milk fever, dogs got hit by cars, the cows and pigs we knew by name got sent to the butcher’s and returned as beef and pork for dinner.  People only died when they got really old, like Dziadzia, he was my great-grandfather, or like that truck driver Mom and Dad knew who had a heart attack when he was 43.   People always lived a long time.  Except for Bobbie-Jo.

My sister Deanna’s good friend, Cleta, had a big sister, Bobbie-Jo. Cleta and Bobbie-Jo rode my bus to school.  Bobbie-Jo wore big skirts with three can-cans underneath, so she barely fit through the aisle of the bus. She swished past me, heading for the back of the bus where the slick teenagers sat, but not in the very back seat.  The hoods sat in the very back seats, with their DA haircuts all slicked back except for a slippery curl in the middle of their foreheads.  I could smell just a whisper of lily-of-the-valley after Bobbie-Jo squeezed by; I tried to hold that smell in the back of my nose and not let go, she smelled so good.  I probably smelled like wet straw, from doing morning chores.

Bobbie-Jo’s hair was dark brown, even darker than Bonita’s, and pulled back in a tight, high ponytail that she brushed into a loose ringlet.  When she walked, the tip of that curl brushed against the back of her neck.   Bobbie-Jo was always laughing and smiling, that nice kind of smile that meant ‘I really like my life’ or maybe her ponytail just tickled her neck all the time.  Sometimes I just wanted to tug on her skirt and say, “Hey Bobbie-Jo, you can sit by me.”  Of course I  never did, ’cause my best-friend-from-the-bus, Betty, got on first and always sat right down next to me, and besides, Bobbie-Jo was a teenager, she only liked other teenagers.  And her sister, Cleta.  Of course she liked Cleta.  Mom said you have to be good to your sister, you will never find a better friend, ’cause your sister’s gonna know you from the time you’re born. No one else will know you  forever like that.  A sister will always be there for you.

Bobbie-Jo learned to drive and got a part-time job after school over in the City.  Sometimes, she had to drive home kinda late at night, especially on the weekend.  One night when it was raining really hard, a man drove right into her lane and hit her straight, head-on.  Bobbie-Jo never knew what hit her.  She died right then and there. I know that because I heard it straight from the guy at the funeral parlor.

Cleta’s phone was on the same party-line as my phone.  If you had a party-line and if you heard a voice on the line, you had to hang up really fast.  Listening-in was super rude and an invasion of privacy.  Besides that, Mom got hopping mad if she caught anyone listening-in.  Deanna could lift that phone up and cover the receiver; she listened-in without anyone knowing.  I tried sometimes, ’cause it was kind of interesting to hear boring stuff going on at somebody else’s house, but usually whoever was talking, mostly Lois, my best-friend-from-the-bus, Betty’s, teenager sister, would say “Hang up the phone!” in an angry voice.  I hated people getting angry at me, even when they didn’t know it was me.  Anyway, when Bobbie-Jo got in that car wreck, I stayed right away from that phone.  I only picked it up once, and I heard Cleta’s mom crying to the undertaker.  That was the worst kind of sadness I ever heard.

Teacher took the whole class to the funeral home to pay our respects to Cleta and her family; it was only three blocks away, so we all walked down there at Noon Hour.  I think the whole school went to the funeral home that day.  Lots of adults stood around saying how good Bobbie-Jo looked.  That body in there did not even look like Bobbie-Jo to me:  no smile, no can-cans fluffing her dress way out, and no ponytail at all, just a fancy curly hairstyle, kind of like her mom’s, that Bobbie-Jo never, ever wore in real life.

Now Cleta had no sister at all.  Who was going to be her friend for life? I was so lucky, I had five sisters.  Five friends for life.  Cleta only had Bobbie-Jo.

Rainy days like today are good days for thinking about sad memories.  Somehow we manage to keep going after deep losses; I guess it’s just what’s called human resiliency. But sometimes the memories come swelling up from way deep inside like a wave.  The kind of wave that I can hardly see approaching until all of a sudden, I’m deep in over my head.  I hope people like Cleta find someone who can be as good a friend as a sister is.  I thank God everyday that I have five sisters far away, yet close in spirit.  Everybody needs friends like that.

(Just for the record, my brothers are pretty darn keen friends, too.)

You ain’t heavy….If I just keep lifting

When I was a little girl, I had a calf named Tiny.  She was a little Holstein heifer; she was not Belle’s calf, Dad bought her; she was such a runt, I have a sneaking suspicion that Tiny came cheap.  I loved Tiny.  I loved Tiny as much any kid loved their dog, as much as Bonita loved Nikki, our German Shepherd.

The grass was still frosty in the morning when Dad showed me how to teach Tiny how to drink from a bucket.  First I mixed up a powder milk formula for her; Belle had her own calf, plus we needed some of her milk for the house, so Tiny drank formula.  I used warm water so Tiny would think she was drinking from her mother, then I wet my fingers with the formula and put them in front of Tiny’s nose.  She gave a little sniff, licked my fingers, then slurped all my fingers into her mouth and started sucking them like there was no tomorrow.   It almost the same way as when I put the vacuum cleaner hose up to my cheek and I thought my whole face was a goner, only really wet.

I gotta admit, it was atinsy bit scary and at the same time it made my skin have those happy tingles like when somebody remembered  my birthday with no reminder at all.  Slowly I lowered my hand into the bucket as Tiny kept on sucking.  Then I pulled my fingers out.  Up came Tiny’s head all puzzled-looking thinking, where did my teats go? So we started all over again.  Eventually, Tiny didn’t need my fingers at all, but I still let her suck on them, ’cause by then it just felt like her way of saying she loved me, too.

Dad lifted Tiny up and moved her around, just like she was one of his own kids.  I lifted Tiny too, but it was hard for me to walk with her, ’cause her legs dangled down almost to the floor, probably because I was  a whole lot shorter than Dad.

“If you lift Tiny everyday, you’ll be able to lift a full-grown cow when she’s grown,”  Dad told me.  “But you gotta lift her every day.”  Dad’s eyes got damp looking and twinkling like they did when he was telling a story about a telephone extension he sold when he was fixing someone’s line  in the city.  Those stories always ended in laughter, but not so this day, he was all solemn looking in the face, like he was in church, except for his eyes didn’t look so dazzley in church.

I would be about the strongest girl in school, even stronger than Jeannie. She was super strong, ’cause she had four brothers and no sister.  She was tough as any boy.  I never saw Jeannie cry and she could hit a baseball harder than any boy in my school.  I had mostly sisters, I wasn’t all that tough, I cried easy, but I was stronger than most of the kids in my grade.  I knew because I could beat them at arm wrestling and pull-ups.  That’s because of the bales of hay and buckets of silage I lifted doing chores with Dad.

Twice a day and sometimes more, I went out to the barn to feed Tiny and lifted her up as far as I could, burying my nose in her soft hair that smelled like fresh straw and damp skin all at once.  If she was lying down, I snuggled right up beside her and told her all about my day, with a soft voice, so only she and I could hear.  There’s something about the way any baby smells, a kitten, a puppy,  piglet, Tiny or my baby sister, Julie, maybe it’s all the milk babies drink. The smell just opens up my heart and makes me want to breathe in deeper.

I liked being in the barn anyway, especially when Dad was there.  The cats gathered in back of Belle while Dad milked, and sometimes Dad squirted milk in the cats’ mouths.  If he missed his mark, the cat got all offended looking, as if Dad did something on purpose to disgrace her.  He always gave the cats a little shallow bowl full of milk.  As soon as he finished milking he gave a little “Haruph” and hoisted himself off the stool and limped his first step,  like he’d been sitting there for days and he was all stiff.  The cats all stood six inches back from the bowl, waiting all polite-like for the milk to be poured.

Once our old sow, Red Rose’s eight piglets got out of the pen and came a tripping over each other running like it’d been a month since they last ate, and didn’t already just nurse from Red Rose.  They slobbered and grunted in that cat dish, spilling milk and putting their front feet right in the dish.  The cats sat back on their hind quarters and put their noses in the air at each other.  I could just hear them thinking, Well! I never. All smug and prissy. If a cat could turn up their little finger, our cats would’ve.

I did pretty well, lifting Tiny, all though the summer.  Then we went on vacation camping.  We were gone a week, and Dad said he wanted to stay another week.

I started crying, “I gotta get back to Tiny.”  So we went home and didn’t stay an extra week.

Mom said it had nothing to do with me, and I just let her think that, ’cause she and Deanna and Bonita, and Vickie, and the Little Kids, if they were big enough to think at all, would be mad at me if they thought we could have stayed an extra week if it weren’t for my blubbering.IMG_5528

When I got home, first I hugged the carpet in the frunch-room and rolled around on it for a bit. I was so happy to get home.

I had to see  Tiny.  There she was happy to see me, looking like she hadn’t changed a bit.  I scratched her neck and she pointed her nose right up toward the sky in delight; she sucked at my fingers just like always.  But I was unable to lift her. I pulled and tugged, but no luck. Just like Dad said, I had to lift her everyday, if I wanted to be able to lift a full-grown cow.

I have grandchildren now, I gave up on lifting calves.  When my  first grandson was still a toddler, I told him that if I lifted him everyday, when he got to be a full-grown man, I could carry him down the aisle on his wedding day.   By eleven I could still lift him, but his feet were starting to brush the ground because he’s almost as tall as me. He’s sixteen now and has a pretty busy schedule, so I don’t see him as often as I used to. That’s probably the reason I can’t lift him up anymore.

 

The Aroma of Hope

Yesterday I  walked to the Village Hall to vote.  I’ve had the blues lately.  The walk filled my heart with joy. No, not because I was exercising my citizenship, although that does make me proud. Because my brain filled with the sights and sounds and especially the aromas of my childhood.

When I was a little girl, fall came with vivid sounds and colors and smells.  And lots of work.  Every season had work and the work always smelled different, but underneath it all, came the smell of the good earth. In fall work was dusty and musty and golden and frosty and filled with wind rustling everything it touched.  Fall filled up my nose with burning leaves and rotting pumpkins and earthy potatoes dug from the ground.  Even dried corn plucked from the stalks had that aroma of tortillas waiting to be fried.

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One year the corn stayed unharvested.  Dad worked too many hours at Ma Bell and he missed the combine trading time, or perhaps some other reason I never knew about prevented him from getting the corn in.  Corn stalks became dry and brittle and the ears hung open like so many rows of loose teeth.

“We can do it,”  Mom said.

“In my day, we didn’t have fancy combines,” Dad said, giving the dining room table a slap.  Every big decision came down with a slap at the dining room table.

I already knew about Dad’s days, ‘cuz he smiled like he just brought home an A+ history paper when he showed us kids the old-timer farm equipment at the county fair.  Of course Mr. and Mrs. T, who had a farm down Terry Lane, still used some of that old stuff. They were like people lost in time, wearing old-time trousers and farm dresses with aprons.  When Dad was a kid farms had machines with long belts attached to generators, and blades so big they had two handles, so a farmer could swing it with both hands. It’s a wonder our nation could get fed at all with a breadbasket harvested with those antiques.

But then again, we didn’t even have those old tools and if we did, Mom would never let us use them.  She was all the time worrying about one of us getting sucked up into the combine and made into pig feed before anyone noticed we went missing.  That kind of stuff happened to some kid she knew, and she never ever forgot about it.  She didn’t any kids with missing fingers or arms, and she sure didn’t want to pick one out of a combine.  Those long belts and huge blades were probably way too dangerous with all kinds of places to snag clothes, or pinch off fingers or even cut off a foot or two.

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We had buckets and mittened hands.  Yup.  We harvested that whole field by hand.

Dad gave the Little Kids flashlights to hold and Big Kids buckets.  He took a row, and I took a row, and everyone else got divided onto our teams.  Of course Bonita was on my team.  She was my best-friend-sister, so she had to be on my team even though sometimes she cried to be on Dad’s team cuz she wanted to be his favorite more than she wanted to be my best friend.

“Bucket Brigade!” Dad shouted, and off we went, picking corn as fast as we could and sending one bucket back to be dumped in the trailer.  As a full bucket went back, an empty came forward.  Sometimes the back kid ran forward with the empty, on account of passing was too slow.  The corn stalks pulled at our feet and rustled like torn apart Christmas wrapping.

“Hi-yup!” Dad said, each time a new bucket got filled.

“Go!” I’d say in the row right beside him. I never got more than a few feet behind.  Victory was close, I tasted it.

A race to the middle of the field and back again.  I started out with frost crunching and nipping and wishing be somewhere warm.  I stopped hot and thirsty and with my nose filled with corn cob dust.  We laughed all the way to the house.

Beyond the field, yellow light smiled out of lace-covered windows.  Home hit me square in the face when I opened the door; warm against cold skin and runny nose.  Just in time for a big bowl of popcorn and “My Three Sons,” or “The Donna Reed Show.”

Everyone knows about leaves turning gold and red and orange in the fall.  Cornstalks turn from green to amber, the gentle rustle turns more insistent.  Snow is coming.  Hurry.  Batten down the hatches, bring in the stores, get ready for the cold. Fields lay barren and brown, except for winter wheats green leaves reaching for the sun, forever hopeful of the spring that promises to come.

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Pearls and Movie Star Kisses

That's me in the back seat of the car.

The summer before I went into seventh grade, I fell in real love.  Of course I was in love before.  I loved Dale, the boy I never did get to kiss in kindergarten.  I loved Warren in first grade; that is, until he got a buzz cut, and that was it for him and me.  I always loved Georgie, he was my best boy-friend ever.  But John.  John was a whole new kind of love.

John lived about a mile away from me, but I never met him because he went to Catholic School.  I don’t even remember how we did meet, but I do remember he was the shining memory of that summer.  That summer when I knew I was going to the high school.  I knew it.  That was the best.  Then I met John, and the best became better.

John had a two brothers; one the same age as Deanna and one the same age as Bonita, and a little sister the same age as Vickie.  That’s the way Catholic families are: bunches of kids.  But for some reason, God stopped there for John’s family, where God just kept on giving my mom and dad kids.  Maybe it was account of John’s Mom, Mrs. G. was busy teaching girls how to be secretaries and have good manners, and never wear slacks to school.  She was super strict and grumpy as all get out.  My mom just stayed home and sewed and canned and handed out chores to all her kids and was mostly in a good mood, unless somebodies shoes got lost or she was late getting somewhere, or the house was a rip-snorting pigpen.  If those things happened, she might have a screaming banshee fit, or she might just bite down hard and swallow a lot.

Anyways, somehow me and John met and fell in love.  I should remember how we met, but I don’t.  Almost everyday, he walked across the field one way, and I walked the other way, and we met somewhere in the middle.  We didn’t have any streets to cross, or sidewalks, or backyards.  Just fields.  We talked a lot.  I think we must have, cuz what else would we do?  We were outside with no TV or radio or board games or even a bike. And no one else was around, so we must’ve talked and walked.

When we walked, we kept bumping into each other, like we never learned how to walk in a straight line.  One minute, my feet were straight, and the next minute my shoulder bumped up against John’s.  Once our hands brushed and it felt like I my heart hit up against the electric fence that kept the cows from running all over tarnation.  I’m pretty sure John felt a jolt, too, cuz he and I jumped away a little.  Still, I sorta liked that shocky feeling, so before long, we brushed together again, and after enough brushing of hands, John grabbed mine and didn’t let go.  Tingles went all over me.  That’s when I knew I was in love for real.  Not the kind of Dale or Warren or Georgie kind of love. The love I had for John was the movie kind of love.  I knew it on account of I had that same mushy feeling like when I saw those movie lovebirds kissing in the shower, or when that couple was smootching under the apple tree. Continue reading

Labor Day Laborers

Deanna, me, Bonita, and baby Vickie

Deanna, me, Bonita, and baby Vickie with Dad

When I was a little girl, Labor Day marked the beginning:  the beginning of the fall, the beginning of school, the beginning of catechism.   The beginning of hard frosts and sweaters, of hard sole shoes and dresses everyday, of schedules and memorizing.  Of course every beginning follows an ending.  And Labor Day marked that too.  The end of summer:  the end of white Sunday hats and sandals, the end of baseball.  Right on Labor Day, we had our last big family picnic of the year.   Always, always all Dad’s brothers and his one sister, Barbara, with all their spouses and all their kids.   All Dad’s brothers were laborers, except Uncle Ellis; all the wives were housewives, except Aunt Barbara, she was a teacher.  I guessed Labor Day was for men to stop working and rest a little, and for women to just keep on working, ’cause a woman’s work is never done.  Anyways that’s what Grandma told me.

Uncle Merle worked for Consumers’ Power Company and Dad worked for Ma Bell.   Those two brothers both liked to climb poles and fix things; and they both liked to tell stories.  Uncle Merle was Dad’s best-friend-brother, like Bonita was my best-friend-sister.  Uncle Merle and his family  lived in our house and farmed with Dad, until it got too crowded.  Those two had the same star-blue eyes and the same smile that tugged up the corner of their mouth when they tried to look all straight-faced and tell a joke.

Uncle Frank and Uncle Gerald worked in the Shop making cars, one for Ford and one for Chevrolet.  I could never keep it straight who worked for which, but those two were always arguing about who made the best cars in the whole wide world, Ford or Chevrolet. 

Dad drove a Dodge; he said those were the best, which got his two Shop brothers all riled up and arguing, while Dad and Uncle Merle Continue reading