(revised from my memoirs)
The small acreage a mile or so from the nearest village wasn’t really a farm. It was just a little place in the country that my grandparents bought for their early retirement. However, it came with two horses, two cows, a big shaggy black dog named “Duke” and chickens everywhere. What else could a wide-eyed town kid call it but a farm?
There were marvels in abundance, frogs in the burbling creek, garter snakes under the bridge, brooding, whispery woods nearby, precious jewels to be found along the newly graveled road and a graveyard of rusting machinery in a no-go zone behind the barn, complete with graphic descriptions of what would happen if a barefoot child chanced to step on a stray nail or rod. Tetanus, or “Lockjaw,” as it was known in those days, was the stuff of nightmares. Naturally, this forbidden spot was the biggest draw on the place anytime the coast was clear.
No self-respecting child wore shoes on those long summer days, except possibly for a few brief hours on Sunday, so my pal Duke and I ran free, chasing from one adventure to another. We leaped over cow pies and dodged nettles in the pastures, waded the creek and stepped into countless blobs of chicken poo hidden in the grass as we made our daily rounds.
One eventful experience that became the stuff of family lore occurred when I became lost in the woods. Duke did his best to alert the family, and when he was told to “go find Joan” he bounded off and soon led me out of the woods to safety. This story was told and retold at every family gathering from then on for years to come. I never knew how to react during the telling; sometimes I put on a modest face, sometimes I tried to look proud or grateful, but mostly being the heroine of the story was just plain embarrassing.
I was the most fortunate of children, sent to spend summers with my grandparents for seven long, wonderful seasons. I hated being dragged back to home and school, back to four bratty brothers and a spoiled little sister, having to put on shoes and return to a boring existence. Thinking back to the child I was, from an adult perspective, I shake my head in shame. I was one of those screaming, tantrum throwing monster children, bent on driving my perfectly nice parents insane, and they quite frankly needed a respite from time to time. Happily for me, I had grandparents who were willing to take me in and I thrived.
I played tour director for any visiting kids, pointing out the best spot for catching frogs in the creek, rushing from one favorite place to another with my awed visitors in tow. We always ended with the Viewing of The Teeth. Making certain we had a look-out at the bottom of the stairs, we’d creep up and sneak into Grandpa’s bedroom, and there they were! A full set of chompers, never used, leering madly at us from the bottom of a glass of water. Stifling our giggles, we crept out again, wondering how he ever ate a meal.
As for the frogs, the object was to catch as many as possible. Borrowing Grandma’s cast iron Dutch oven, we’d lug it down to the creek, fill it with water and grab tiny frogs by the handful. This was Duke’s favorite game and he happily chased frogs with us.
Now an empty Dutch oven weighs a lot. A Dutch oven full of creek water and jumping frogs was almost impossible for two children, one on each side, to carry across a pasture and up a slight incline. The squabbling and insults grew as we struggled, got mad, swapped partners, got mad at them too and tried to get our bounty home. Water sloshed and frogs leaped out to left and right, desperate to get back to their safe haven. Finally we’d be forced to give up, dumping what water and frogs were left onto the pasture and returning Grandma’s empty Dutch oven to her.
I’ve often wondered what on earth we intended to do with those frogs. Make a frog pond in the yard? Put them down one another’s neck or slide them into beds? I’d heard of eating frog legs but those tiny critters wouldn’t have provided a mouthful for a catfish. We never had a chance to find out.
My brothers and boy cousins joined me on the farm at least once every summer but never stayed long. They found country life too boring, and besides, Grandpa always needed extra hands for chores. He would set the boys to work at some tedious job and they’d soon be looking for rides back to town.
My youngest aunt was still living at home, finishing high school, and the older girl cousins often came out for a few days at a time. They loved dressing me up in their clothes, manicuring my nails – clear polish only – and doing my hair. They’d light a kerosene lamp, stick an old fashioned curling rod down the chimney to heat it, then plop down on the beds and gossip about boys until my ears burned.
Their chatter was of the innocent “Who threw the spitball that stuck to the back of who’s shirtwaist in study hall?” type, but my ears by now were quite literally burning. My hair was smoking, my scalp was singed and the tips of my ears were blistered. Why they never burned the house down, I don’t know, but I had to pretend I loved my frizzy hair-do so they would leave me alone.
Why did oatmeal taste so much better back then than it does today? Grandma would leave a pan of cooked oatmeal on the back of the wood stove, keeping it warm until I came downstairs for breakfast long after Grandpa and she had finished. She would pour real cream over it, thick and yellow, and I loved every bite. The closest I can come to that heavenly flavor now is with steel-cut Irish oats, and pure cream is just a dream nowadays. Skim milk and 1% just don’t do it.
One of my chores, since the house had no electricity or refrigeration, was to bring up the food that needed to be kept cool in the cellar. The big old cellar doors would be propped open to the outside of the house, and I’d climb down into another temperature zone, cool on even the hottest days. The packed earth floor felt wonderful on bare feet and I never hurried. Glass jars full of Grandma’s canned fruits, veggies and preserves filled shelves on all sides and there were bins for potatoes and onions. I was sometimes entrusted to bring up a jar of green beans or maybe some apple butter along with the milk, butter and other perishables.
My most hated task involved crawling around on the floor, oily rag in hand, wiping down all the furniture legs, feet and rungs. I could spend most of a morning under a table, daydreaming and dawdling over a job that should have taken minutes. I was given no time limit; it was my job to finish and those ornate ugly old pieces wouldn’t get dusted until I brought myself to do it, a lesson to be learned.
There was no end to the chores. Grandpa was seldom seen at the house except at mealtime. Grandma was kept busy with the myriad jobs any home needs, not to mention cleaning lamp chimneys and trimming wicks, and emptying and scouring the “thunder mugs” tucked under the beds so no one had to run out to the facilities in the dark of night. She kept a huge kitchen garden, which always needed something, planting, weeding, thinning, picking or preserving. She took her task of scrubbing and scalding the cream separator very seriously. No one else was allowed to touch it; much of their livelihood depended on the brimming cans of fresh milk that were hauled into the creamery every few days.
Grandpa would harness one of the horses to a light buggy, load up the milk cans and trot off down the road to leave them at the creamery in the village, after which he’d pull Grandma’s shopping list out of the pocket on his bib overalls and head for the small General Store to pick up groceries.
I recall the time she asked for a lug of fresh peaches, any variety the store happened to have except “Clingstones.” It was obvious from the name that they would be difficult to work with. Poor Grandpa, times were hard, a dollar was a dollar and his thriftiness got the better of him. Grandma hit the roof, something that almost never happened, and we all avoided the kitchen until after she finally got those Clingstones safely sealed in their jars.
My youngest uncle was also still at home, finishing high school and he was such fun, light hearted and full of jokes, pounding away on the old upright and singing at the top of his lungs. He’d squirt milk into the hungry mouths of the barn cats during milking, aiming at me occasionally as I tried to dodge. He cheerfully took on the chore of delivering the milk to the creamery and I loved riding along.
He was his usual jolly self on the trips into town but the closer we got the quieter he became. We’d avoid both of the main streets, slipping up on the creamery and away again by the back road. We’d be halfway home before he began to laugh and sing again. It took me a long time to realize that he was the only boy in school who’s family owned neither a car nor a truck and he dreaded being seen by classmates while he was driving a horse and buggy.
Outings and entertainment were rare, and an opportunity to relax and visit with neighbors was a welcome change. We walked across the fields one afternoon to a reception for a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. While Grandma and Grandpa caught up on the news, I spent the afternoon staring at the honorees, wondering how anyone could possibly be that old. 73 and 74 years? Impossible!
Monday was laundry day and Grandma would drag her old gas fired washing machine out to get started. Tubs full of water were heated on the wood stove while the washer roared, snorted, back-fired and sometimes galloped across the floor. It had a nasty habit of stopping for no good reason, and was very difficult to re-start. Everyone tippy-toed around on wash day while Grandma fought that beast until the last pair of overalls was pinned to the clothesline, flapping in the breeze.
Ironing was worse. Tuesdays always seemed to be sweltering, the hottest days of the week, with no fans or air-conditioning. The irons were heated on the wood stove, regardless of the heat or humidity, and everything got ironed, from handkerchiefs to overalls.
Baking was done on Saturday, browned loaves of the world’s best bread, pans of cinnamon rolls, pies and cakes. A hungry child lurking in the kitchen, inhaling all those spicy smells, got to lick lots of bowls and spoons. Grandma’s warm molasses cookies were my favorites.
And then came Sunday, family day, when carloads of relatives rolled in with a great honking of horns. No matter how early they began showing up, several chickens had already been caught, heads chopped off, feathers stripped after a quick dunk in boiling water and the pieces now breaded and waiting for the frying pans.
Since my family didn’t own a car they weren’t able to come very often. When they did I was thrilled to see them all, but never ready to go home with them. The aunts brought covered dishes, casseroles, gelatin salads which had to be whisked down to the cool cellar, home-made pickles and more desserts. What a festive day; even Grandpa relaxed.
After the long day, after the last car left the driveway, after Duke feasted on the leftovers, after Grandpa did his evening chores and went off to bed, I’d fill a basin full of fresh cold well water, grab an old towel and sit out on the back porch washing my feet and pulling out any stray nettles. Grandma sat on the lawn in her old rocker, resting, and we watched the stars come out, soon followed by the fireflies. We’d listen to the frogs and crickets, and laugh over the chickens clucking and chuckling quietly to themselves as they settled to roost.
When the house began to cool off we’d wind our way up to bed. My clean feet would slide down between soft, sweet-smelling old sheets and sleep came easily.
Looking back over the decades, those days were always sunny and bright, those skies always cloudless and blue, and the breeze smelled of new mown hay. How long ago it seems and how quickly time has passed. Thankfully, memories are forever.