O Johnny, O Johnny, Heavens Above

When I was a little girl, Mom brought home a little brother she and Dad named John Ellis:  the last of nine, the third boy.  Well to be honest, I was not such a little girl anymore; I was 14, and in 7th grade.  My little Johnny was a bit like a puppy who I could cuddle and love and talk to endlessly,   a sweet oasis in my otherwise tumultuous life.    John gave me a reason to stay a child a little longer,  and helped me appreciate life.

Seventh grade was a mixture of fun and heartache:  On top of adolescence,  I had 60  city kids join my 30 country classmates;  I had more than one teacher, all of which I’d never seen before; I fell in love with Arthur, one of the city kids, who broke my heart; and President Kennedy told school kids to get in shape, and then he was assassinated.  Amidst all that, there was my Johnny, a sweet bundle of pure joy —Well, almost.

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                                    Johnny, Frank, Julie, Marcia, and Loren

John needed lots of attention because he had severe allergies which affected his skin and gave him asthma.  Twenty minutes, every two hours, according to doctor’s direction,  I helped bathe John in Balnetar bath oil, which helped relieve his itching.  Then I greased him up in Crisco, which Dr. Cookingham, the specialist, said was the best skin moisturizer around.  John went without a diaper, again Dr. Cookingham, but sometimes I thought this was a practical joke from the doctor, because John peed all the time, and his bottom was the only  skin clear and soft as a, well as a soft as baby’s behind.  Mom made John thick mittens out of flannel and the tops of old socks which I pinned, high up on his shirtsleeves and pajama-legs, so he couldn’t scratch in his sleep.  Most people smell talcum powder and think of babies, for me it’s pine tar and shortening:  what a sweet smell.

There was a whole bunch of stuff that John stayed away from:  wheat, milk, soy, eggs, chocolate, barley, dust, dander, pollen, mold—including anything with a fermented ingredient—no bologna, no mustard, no catchup, no cheese; you get the idea, I’m sure.  We had to replace a real Christmas tree with a plastic one, we carefully spaced any baking with eggs, absolutely no frying of an egg, and we could only cook a tom turkey for Thanksgiving dinner because of John’s egg allergy. Once he had an asthma attack because Mom switched from Gerber to Beechnut rice baby cereal; it turned out Beechnut added coconut oil; that was before food labeling requirements.  Once when he was a toddler, he got his hands on an oleo wrapper and collapsed on the floor.  No EMTs, no ambulances, Mom rushed him to the hospital, 30 minutes away, for an epinephrine shot.

In those days, every child got a smallpox vaccination; not me.  That was too dangerous for John:  he was at risk of  contracting the disease.  When he was still a baby, not talking yet, Mom gave him a his first haircut, which led to a skin infection over his entire body, yet another rush to the hospital, this one the most serious of all.   Mom came home one day and told me John might not make it, the infection was so severe, the doctor had John packed in ice.  My little Johnny stretched out his hand and said his first word, ” Mamma” to a mother, who I could see, even through all my teenage angst, felt absolutely powerless to help him.

What my little Johnny gave me was lots of storytelling time while I bathed him, some of which was about my woeful teenage life, because he didn’t care;  permission to still play like the child that I almost wasn’t anymore; lots of experimenting with wheatless, eggless, milkless recipes; and of course lots of laughs.

John ate Rice Krispies and 7-up for breakfast, had his own drawer of special cookies, and he didn’t have to eat anything “that makes my throat itch.”  Believe me, he learned to work that one.

Mom had a special song for John:

Oh, Johnny, Oh Johnny, Heavens above,

Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, How you can love,

You make my sad heart jump for joy,

And when you’re near I just can’t, sit still a minute.

He loved that song.  I had one, too:

Johnny get ang-ery, Johnny get mad.

Give me the biggest lecture, I’ve ever had.

I want a brave man, I want a cave man.

That made John ball up his fists, bare his little, baby teeth and hiss at me, then we both laughed, a wild abandoned laugh.

Mom always told us to eat our spinach (or green beans or tomatoes, or whatever) and we would grow hair on our chest like Popeye.  John, ever the puzzler, asked Mom, pointing to his crotch, “What do you have to eat to grow hair down here?” Deanna, Bonita, and I covered our mouths to stifle our shy teenage giggles.

John stayed my buddy, he even offered to be my ring bearer when I got married. He joined the wrestling team in high school, he took his date to the prom in a vintage Mustang, and he let a greased pig go in the middle of the high school, and married a beauty who is his best friend.   He doesn’t remember that much about me, because I was grown and he was growing, but thanks to Mom, I kept up with my little Johnny.

I still love talking to him, except now it’s much better, because it’s a two-way street:  what he says is as important to me as his listening skills.

Many years ago, when he was remodeling the old farmhouse he and his family now live in, he asked me, “When will people stop thinking of me as the baby?  No one listens to me.”

He paused, considering what he wanted to say next. “Loren says the exact same thing I do, and people listen to him.”

“Loren’s got one thing you don’t, John.”  I told him.  He looked at me with his clear steady eyes, just like our father’s.

“He’s got grey hair.  Just give yourself a little time.”  I said.  You’ll be surprised how much more people will listen when you have a little grey in those curls.”   John’s pulled on his chin and looked far away like he was thinking through a riddle, then he raked his fingers through his hair, and a smile started up one side of his face.  “You could have something there.”  he said.

Of course I was right, I always have been a pretty smart cookie.  The house turned from a ramshackle ruin to a beautiful home, then John took another risk and started his own business.  He’s everyone’s go-to guy in a psychedelic electrician’s van.  Still and all, he’ll always be my sweet little Johnny.

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                          John, Mom, and Loren

Shhh… help me keep that last part a secret.

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

Jumping off the Dock

Back Camera

When I was a little girl, I loved to swim, almost as much as I liked to dance.  Every summer, Mom signed me up for swimming lessons at Myers Lake.  All through grade-school I took swimming lessons.  I learned to swim the first year, still, it was loads of fun to go back each year. I’ll never been to Myers Lake.  I’ll never forget swimming lessons.

Nobody swam at a pool around my house:  there were no public pools around me, and for sure nobody had a pool big enough to swim in at their house.  For Pete’s sake, everybody knew that kind of stuff was just for movie stars and millionaires.  Around me, pools were just for the Little Kids.  Mom bought one of those, but it was a pain in the neck:  grass got kicked into it, the our dog Nikki, drank out of it, Frankie went #1  in it, I think our lamb, Jack, went #2 in it, and finally it sprang a leak and failed to hold any water at all.  Like I said, Mom bought one.  Once.

To get to swimming lessons, Mom drove me to school, where I got on a school bus with a whole bunch of kids.  My friends Daylene and Connie walked to school, so swimming lessons was the only time they rode a bus.  It was different from school.  For one thing, everybody had on shorts and jeans over our swimsuits.  No dresses, not one.  Nobody knew where to sit, cuz of lots of different kids and no high-schoolers, so everybody just got mixed up and in different seats than on the way to school.  On the way to school, it was like assigned seats with nobody telling us which seat to take; we just knew.  I liked to sit on the bump; the wheel was under there, so if the bus driver went over a bump, Continue reading

Valentine Protocol, Penmanship, and Pride

I wish my artwork was (is) this good.

I wish my artwork was (is) this good.

When I was a little girl, I loved February:  Valentine’s Day is in February.  So was my birthday; that’s a story for another day.

My whole class got ready for Valentine’s Day for weeks.  Everyone brought a shoebox to school, and we decorated it with crêpe paper flowers and hearts. I had lots of shoe-boxes to pick from on account of everyone getting new hard sole shoes at Baldy’s shoe store way back in September, special for school starting.

Art stuff was hard for me.  I got paste all stuck in my hair and all over my clothes.  I liked to taste paste, too.  The smell got all up in my nose and begged my fingers to put some in my mouth. Yummy.  Teacher said it was no good and would make me sick, but it never did.  Not even a little bit.

Mom brought home little store-bought cards in big bags from the grocery store, and I printed MY name on the back.  Then I got to choose which card went to each student in my class.  I had two Bettys in my class and two Lindas.  I’ve heard about kids being sore or sad that they didn’t receive a card on Valentine’s Day.   I gave a card to everyone, and I got one from everyone, too. That’s just mean to leave someone out.  Who  got which card was the tricky part.  I wanted to make sure I express my love for that certain someone in just the right way.  Should Frankie’s say “Be Mine” or “Forever Yours”?  And what if Frankie’s to me just said, “Friends”?  What if he gave me the ‘teacher’ card that came in every box?  That would be the worst ’cause that meant he never even thought about which card he gave me.

I almost flunked out of Kindergarten ’cause I went haywire on my writing.  Valentine’s Day saved me.  All year, up until I had to get my cards ready for the party, I wrote my name  wrong.   Mom talked about my printing to everyone who would listen:   all my aunts, Grandma Z, and even Betty’s and Nancy’s moms.

Mom said, “Why do you write your name like you’re looking in a mirror?”IMG_2812

I looked at my name, clear as day, just the way it was supposed to be.  What in the world was she talking about?  I wrote just like everybody else.

Mom said I had to get my name right or I might not go to First Grade.  She never said that to me; I just heard Continue reading

A clone of Me? God help me!

Once a boss of mine extolled the virtues of cloning.

“Just think,” he said.  “You could raise yourself as your own child.”  Mr. Boss’s eyes danced and his whole body looked as happy as one of my grandchildren on his birthday.  “Wouldn’t that be wonderful.”

“That would be horrible,”  I said.  “I would never want to raise myself.  Why would I do that to myself?”  The words burst out of me.  Maybe I revealed more of me than was wise.

A dull, quizzical look replaced the excitement written all over Mr. Boss.

“But you would know what the child needed.  What was best for him.”

“I’m pretty sure the grown up version of me, would have a hard time convincing the child version of me, I knew more than she did.”

I asked Mom if I was a difficult child.  Maybe I was remembering things wrong.  Childhood memories can be distorted.

“You were obedient,”  she said.  “Very obedient.  You never sneaked around, you never lied.”

Ah ha!  I was easy.

“You just had to know why for everything.”  Mom’s eyes clouded over,  exhausted by the memory.  “You wouldn’t rest until you understood the reason for every. little. thing.  Sometimes you were bull-headed.  Sometimes you took a lot of energy.”

A clone of me raised by me?  I don’t think so.  That would be a lifetime in purgatory.  Not quite the high flames of hell, but certainly 18+ years on the simmer plate.

When I was a little girl, I feared a rat biting my toes or nose while I slept because my room looked like a pig sty.  That was Mom’s way of motivating me to clean.  I slept covered up, with just a slit to breathe through.  Sometimes, I lay awake.  I imagined a mind-reading man, whose mind I could read, hid in my closet at night.  He knew I knew he was there, because he could read my mind.  I knew he knew I knew, because I could read his mind.  He knew I could read his mind, I knew he could read mine.  My thoughts spiraled on like that until, at last, I fell asleep, never really afraid of the stranger hiding in my closet; unwilling to be the first to break the cycle of mind reading.

Yeah.  I have a hard enough time being myself.  I’ll take a pass on raising me.

On  the other hand, it’d be great to have someone around who loves the tilt-a-whirl as much as I do.  Imagine, me and mini-me: tears running down our cheeks, laughing, as the world spins by in a blur.

What do you think?  Ethics aside, would you want to raise a clone of yourself?  Tell me why, please.  I still prefer to understand every. little. thing.

Ladybird, A Blue Ribbon Heifer

Emblem of the 4H organisation.

Emblem of the 4H organisation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

August is 4-H fair month.  I ran into some new friends who have daughters in 4-H and of course that got me ruminating about my experience.

The year I turned ten, in early spring, our cow, Old 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.

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.

My new calf looked a lot like Old Belle: mostly black with the perfect amount of white marking across her back, up her feet and legs and under her belly. There really is such a thing as a perfect look when it comes to Holsteins.  Too much white is bad, no white is bad too.

Old 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.  Dr. Friese came to the door and asked for a tea-cup of hot water.  That’s how I knew a cow was gonna be pregnant pretty soon.  I had to stay in the house, I never got to watch, just like when the pigs got castrated. Continue reading

Knee High and the Fourth of July

Fourth of July is our Nation’s birthday.  I love the picnics and parades, and especially the fireworks.  Fourth of July is great, especially when family and friends are close at hand.  Still this time of year gets me thinking about corn.  Yes, corn.  This year, farmers are worried about the lack of rain around my home town.  Growth is stunted.  A record amount of corn went in the ground this year, and because of the drought, it is shorter than usual.

When I was a little girl, Fourth of July was picnic time, just like now.  That meant all the aunts and uncles from Dad’s family got together. Fireworks were a rare treat, and parades were for city folks.

As much as they liked farming, the uncles of my childhood loved to have competitions.  They had competitions about everything:  who had the most kids (Dad finally won that one,)  who could lose the most weight (I’ll tell you about that another time,) and who knew the most about farming. That’s where the corn came in.

Dad and Uncle Frank both did some part-time farming.  They and Uncle Merle, were farmers at heart, even though they did different work, regular kind of work that all dads did, so they could put bread on the table.  Farming is what put the rest of the food on the table, and a deep sense of satisfaction in their hearts.

Everybody knew that springtime was the time for planting.  Planting was super-fun, ’cause for sure Dad was home, instead of working tons of overtime, fixing phones and climbing telephone poles, so his kids could have new shoes for school or new Jet-Ball sneakers for summer.

Dad would NEVER let me drive a tractor before I lost my baby teeth.All us kids helped.  Little kids took water out to people in the field.  I got to drive tractor when I was nine.  That’s when I was big enough to step down on the clutch and the brake without standing up.  Some kids got to drive tractor when they were just five years old.  Dad said that was plain foolish, and that’s how kids got killed.  I never got killed, or even hurt, and I disced the fields all by myself.

Dad was the only one who plowed a field, ’cause plowing took an eagle eye.  I had a hard time cutting fabric for an apron straight, so Continue reading