Fighting the Weasel Monster

I posted this back in 2010.  Yesterday, a small cat crossed in front of the car.  She had short little legs that made her almost slink.  If it weren’t for the slight calico markings on her dark coat, I might have thought she was a weasel.  Mom and  the weasel popped into my head and I started to laugh.  

When I was a little girl, I lived in a big house full of mysteries.  The windows had shutters operated by ropes inside the house, except paint made the ropes stick and there was one window which had shutters that never opened.  I could only see the shuttered window from the outside, so sometimes on rainy days, I searched the inside, looking for the secret window.  The basement floor was dirt, and sometimes animals like moles would make their way into the house.  Once a skunk got in there and got scared, and woke us all up in the middle of the night to a dreadful smell.   There always seemed to be places to explore and mysteries to contemplate in that house.

The bottom corner of each bedroom door had a half-circle of wood missing. Maybe  a hungry wood-eating monster took a bite out of each door.  Mom said squirrels lived in the house before we moved there because  the house was empty for a while.   I tried hard to imagine that house empty, no one there at all, and it seemed impossible, my house was a house that needed noise.   Continue reading

Vickie: The Littlest of the Big Kids

When I was a little girl, I had a little sister named Vickie. Vickie was the first baby I remember Mom bringing home, mainly because I was always trying so hard to get a peek at her.  Vickie was the littlest of the Big Kids.  The Big Kids had the most responsibility when we were growing up.

I had to stand on my tippiest-tip-toes to barely see Vickie wrapped up tight in her pink striped receiving blanket in that eyelet covered bassinet. Once, or maybe more times, I tipped the whole kit-n-kaboodle over on top of me and spilled Vickie right out into my lap.  There we were, under the bassinet, little rays of sun coming through the basket weaves, like a cozy hide-away smelling like Ivory Snow and baby oil.  I felt like I just swallowed one of those sunbeams, until Mom sucked in her breath really hard, as if she was getting ready to blow up a balloon , as big as the giant one that I saw outside the Dodge car-store.  I knew that sound meant trouble.  After that, Mom gave me a little stool to stand on, then I could see Vickie with no trouble at all.

img037Vickie had blond hair and blue eyes and a beauty mark on her cheek; not the cheek on her face either, the other one that only people who are really close to her ever get to see.  I helped Mom change Vickie’s diapers, so I saw Vickie’s beauty mark lots of times.  Having a beauty mark means the angels marked you special ’cause you’re so beautiful.  Mom had a beauty mark too, on her big toe; she told me once that she almost got missed, but an angel grabbed her by the big toe, just as she was diving down from heaven.  I don’t have any beauty marks.

Mom read us a book one time about a little angel that couldn’t get her star shined up good enough and kept getting in trouble with the head honcho angel, probably Michael, but the book didn’t point any fingers, you’re not supposed to tattle.  The littlest angel always tried really hard to keep up with the bigger angels; she just kept rubbing and rubbing her star, never quite satisfied.  For some reason, Vickie always made me think of that angel; probably ’cause her white hair floated around her head like a halo and her eyes were so true-blue, she must have gotten them in heaven, and her lips were like a little rosebud; or maybe because she tried hard to keep up with the other Big Kids.

Dad drilled  holes in two boards, and threaded big thick hemp rope through the holes;  he tossed the rope over a giant limb of a boxelder tree growing right outside the house, and voíla,  we had two swings.  Sometimes Deanna, me and Bonita pumped way up high and jumped out to see who could jump the  farthest.  We did this so much, the grass just got tired of trying to grow around there; not even weeds would give it a try, and we had weeds everywhere.  If it rained, a big puddle of rain-water sat there right under the swings, then we had to run and jump to get on the swings and not get our shoes wet.  One day Tom and Cathy, from next door, and Doug and Nancy, from across the road, were over and we had a big swing jumping contest.  Two at a time jumped and then we marked a line in the dirt, so the next jumpers could see how far they had to go to be the winner.   All us kids got really excited and we lost track of where Vickie was; she was too little to jump, she couldn’t even get up in the swing by herself, that’s how little she was.  I guess she wanted to be a Big Kids ’cause the next thing I knew BAM! one of the swings hit her right in the mouth.  That swing almost knocked one of her dog-teeth right out of her head.  The tooth just stayed that way, all loose and dangly, reminding me that I let her get hurt,  until she got to second grade and it was supposed to come out.  Then the tooth fairy left her a whole dollar bill, and a note thanking Vickie for taking such good care of that tooth for such a long time.

We had a cousin, Janet, who was the same age as Vickie;  Janet was Uncle Gerald’s and Aunt Millie’s little girl.  Janet had the same angel-blond hair and angel-blue eyes as Vickie’s, and the two of them sucked the same finger of their hand when they got tired.  Sometimes I asked Vickie if I could have some of her finger juice; she just shook her head “no” and laughed; that was a pretty funny joke we had.  One Sunday, Vickie got right in Uncle Gerald’s car when it was time to go home.  Uncle Gerald turned around in the driver’s seat to count his kids; he saw Vickie there and thought she was Janet.  I guess he was a bad counter, ’cause he had one extra little girl.  When he got all the way to his house, and Aunt Millie sat the supper-table, they realized they had an extra kid.  Uncle Gerald just laughed because he thought Dad was playing a joke on him; those brothers were always playing jokes on each other.  In the meantime, everybody else searched frantic-like for Vickie.  Whenever something was lost and Mom wanted it found, I dropped everything and started looking, ’cause Mom got super-grouchy when she was looking for stuff and nobody helped.  We even had a special prayer to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things: “Tony Tony, look around, something’s lost and must be found.”  That day  St. Anthony must have dropped everything, because everyone was praying, even the non-catholics.  I bet a whole lot of  prayers were left unanswered,  on account of all the ones going up about Vickie; and the entire time she was at Uncle Gerald’s having a bowl of ice cream.

Vickie was the last of the Big Kids:  Sometimes I was trying my darndest to be like Deanna, who just wanted to be left alone, Vickie was trying to be like Bonita, who was trying to be Dad’s best boy.  Maybe we were always in some version of that swing contest, we just kept swinging and jumping and trying hard to make our mark, and once in a while something got knocked loose.  I guess we all got lost now and then, sometimes we didn’t even realize it.  The  most important thing is that someone is always there to dust us off when we got knocked in the teeth and someone is there to celebrate when we find our way again.

Happy Birthday, Vickie

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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

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.)

Endless Summers Behind and Ahead

Of course, when I was a little girl, the first day of school was the very best day of school, but the next best was the last day of school.  All the summer stretching out ahead of me was just marvelous, with no particular plans, except vacation in August.  I had animals to tend, the garden to hoe, lawn to mow, and I had to help with the cooking and cleaning and watching the Little Kids, but other than that, free time, like no other time of the year.  Plus, I got to ride my bike to school and wear shorts on the last day.

School was about five miles away, in town, so I had to get an early start.  Deanna and Bonita and Vickie and me from my house, Nancy and Doug from across the road and Cathy and Tom from next door, then we picked up more kids as we got closer to school:  Mike, Diane, Bob, and Annette and Brenda. We went single file for a half-mile down the paved road, until we got to Brenda’s house; the rest of the way was on dirt roads, so we could spread out any old way we wanted. Continue reading