Working to Relax

Last Saturday, I read this story at a local music festival.  Telling or reading a story is so different from writing it and waiting for a response. It was the second year for me at the festival. Last year, I got to know the real definition of stage fright. You know when people say they are so nervous might pee their pants? Yeah. No exaggeration. I was that scared.  This year, I was much less nervous.  People laughed in all the right places. I think I like this story-telling gig.  I just might do it again. Here' my story:

When I was a little girl, every August Dad took two weeks off from working at Ma Bell for a vacation.

One week was for getting ready to go, and one week was for the actual vacation.

He always took us camping. Dad learned how to camp in the army.

Mom camped when she was a little girl, back when Times Were Tough, before campgrounds. Grandpa had to put bees’ wax on his tent to get it waterproofed.

Grandpa just drove the family around until Grandma said “dinner’s ready.” She had food cooking in a pot under the hood of their engine.

They camped right beside the road; wherever they stopped. Usually by some lake or river.

The first thing WE had to do to get ready was bake cookies. Mom had a big lard-tin that had to get filled up.

My sister, Deanna baked Cherry Winks. Yuck, I hated those: maraschino cherries and corn flakes. I hated Corn flakes ’cause of the six thousand boxes we ate saving Post Toasties box tops so all eleven of us got free cereal bowls and juice glasses. Besides that, maraschino cherries were so sweet they made my teeth hurt.

Vickie made no bake chocolate cookies. Vickie was the littlest Big Kid, so she got an easy recipe.

Bonita made peanut butter cookies. I liked those warm with a glass of good, cold milk. I held a bite of cookie in my mouth and added the milk. That’s almost the same as dunking, but no crumbs in the milk glass.

Mom hated dunking, it was against the rules.

I made the chocolate chip cookies. Those were my Blue Ribbon specialty. I had to eat some right out of the oven, ’cause that caramelly-good smell mixed with melted chocolate made my mouth get slippery inside. Taking cookies left greasy stains on the newspaper. I put new cookies on top of those stains, so Mom wouldn’t know I snitched any.

I had to go to confession for that: stealing, lying, disobeying. I never knew how I should categorize it. Or was that three sins in one action I had to be careful, cuz not confessing a sin was a sin too.

Sometimes I forgot to set the timer and got lost in one of my Book-mobile. Pretty soon Mom was shouting:

“The cookies are burning,” and “are you trying to burn the house down?” That was one of those questions I wasn’t really supposed to answer.

I just kept my smart-aleck thoughts in my head where they belonged and shook my head ‘no.’

Girl on tractorDad got busy fixing up stuff in the barn to make it easy for Ralph. He was one of the teenagers Dad hired at haying and vacation time. He lived three miles away, so if the cows got out while we were gone, they could be wandering for hours before Ralph knew about it, with our phone ringing off the hook and neighbors knocking our door down, and nobody to get the cows back behind the fence.

Cows are super-smart about discovering bad fences. Dad said they put their chin hairs up against the wire to see if it tickles. No tickling and they just barged on through.

Good fences are more important than anything before vacation.

I helped Dad make sure the fences were in tip-top shape. That was fun, ’cause he let me drive the tractor, and test the fences for grounds. It was quiet out there in the pastures with the cows all around, and Queen Anne’s lace blooming up to my shoulders making everything smell like green carrots.

Sometimes a sweat-bee would buzz around me.

Mom knew how to show a sweat-bee who’s boss. Just swatted ’em straight down toward the ground; then the bee would buzz off all dizzy, hardly knowing which way was up. You can do that to a sweat bee.

Never try that with the kinds of bees that like to live in wood piles behind the church. Those will chase you right into the church and pretty soon all the women who’ve ever been moms, or ever had a mom will be swarming around, putting ice on you or baking soda poultices and ointment; oooing and ahhing like nobody’s business. If that didn’t feel so good, it might be embarrassing.

Tons of stuff in the garden got ready for picking right about when we were ready for vacation. Early in the morning, us kids picked beans and tomatoes and cucumbers and corn.

Mom was right there in the kitchen we baked cookies, canning away, so nothing got wasted. Besides canning, she packed things up so we had fresh stuff to eat while we were camping. That saved money.

Nobody ever said so, but I was pretty sure God gave some extra points off in purgatory for being thrifty.

Mom and us kids dragged all the camping gear down for the attic: A huge tent that was about big enough for a circus, and wooden tent poles and stakes. Dad said it was an army tent. We could’ve fit all the Little Kids in the tent bag and had ‘em come out one by one, like a clown car. Tarps, canvas cots, sleeping bags, ice box, Coleman stove, lantern, flashlights, pots and pans, clothesline, clothespins, water bucket, dipper, dish pans, hatchet, and lots and lots of playing cards.

Mom gave each Kid an empty beer crate for packing our clothes: new shorts and shirts Mom made specially for the trip, a pair of jeans, our beach towel, sweatshirt, underwear and bathing suit. If it didn’t fit in that beer case, tough luck, it was staying home. Anyways, most of the time we wore our bathing suits; clothes were only for if it got cold or we went to town.

Each Big Kids helped a Little Kid pack up their beer crate.

Mom packed all the food and Dad packed up the trailer.

Nobody helped Dad pack the trailer, except to hand him stuff, ’cause he had to have the trailer ‘just so.’

Nobody knew what ‘just so’ was, except Dad. It took lots of studying and adjusting and loads of time.

By the time Dad got everything packed ‘just so’, he was letting out low grunt noises and rubbing the back of his neck up there where his head sits, and pinching the top of his nose between his eyebrows.

Amidst all this hubbub, the house was getting cleaned from top to bottom: dusting, mopping, scrubbing, and vacuuming. The whole place got Spin-n-Span and smelling like pine and Bon-Ami. It looked like company was coming on Easter Sunday, when we finally got in the car to go UP NORTH. Mom said, she didn’t want anyone coming in a messy house if we got in a car accident and died while we were on vacation.

I always said a Sincere Act of Contrition when Dad started up the engine. I said sorry for all the bad things I did, forgot to do, or forgot I did. I wanted to be on the other side of the Pearly Gates before the neighbors started talking. I’m pretty sure criticism gets a busy signal in heaven.

I hear a lot of talk about how life was simpler back in the good old days. Maybe some things were. But it sure seems like it was a whole lot more work to relax back then.

A Girl and her Cow

One day in the early spring, our cow, Belle, gave birth to a perfect little heifer.  She was mine.  It was my job to train her, feed her, and clean her.  In August, I would show the world just what a capable 10-year-old I was.  This was no ordinary calf, she was a registered Holstein.  She needed a name that would befit her lineage.

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This is my niece. She’s growing up on the same farm that I did.

I named my first calf Tiny.  That was a good name for a calf, but not so good for a grown cow, besides there was only one Tiny, and this new little wobbly-legged calf was not her.  This new calf looked a lot like Belle: mostly black with just the perfect amount of white marking across her back, up her feet and legs and under her belly.  Belle never even saw my calf’s father.  That’s because Dr. Friese came over with his little frozen vial, and that’s how Belle got pregnant.  It didn’t take any love or marriage for cows, ’cause cows didn’t have souls.  They were still God’s creatures, that’s for sure, but they never ate apples from that tree in the Garden of Eden, so no rules, and no sins. ‘Course there weren’t any cows in heaven either, so that was the down side of all that freedom.

Dad was really good at picking out names; he picked out all the girls names at my house, except for Mom’s of course.  Any Dodo bird would know that.  Dad even helped me name my doll, Jonesy-Belle, so for sure he would be a good help with this new calf of mine, the only one, besides Belle who was a genuine, registered Holstein.  Me and Dad put our heads together for days, trying to come up with names.  Dad helped Bonita name her calf Black Eyes; that was easy, she was mostly white with a few giant black blotches, and big black circles around her eyes.  Besides that, Dad called Bonita his black-eyed Susan, so Bonita loved calling her calf, Black Eyes.  Bonita was too little for 4-H and Black Eyes was just a regular old Holstein calf, not a registered Holstein, like mine.

One evening, while Dad was milking Belle, he said, “I got an idea, let’s name her after someone in the Vice-President’s family.”  He rested his head against Belle’s belly, and turned just enough to look at me. Continue reading

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.)