It Was Better Than We Knew
Ellie S. Thomas
© Copyright 2012 by Ellie S. Thomas
"Gonna rain," the old timers announced, dentures sliding back and forth as they nodded to each other.
Over on Larry's farm, Wesley and Ellen teetered on a plank straddling a barrel. As Ellen rose, Wesley descended; as Wesley rose, Ellen's end went down. Up, down, down, up, they see-sawed until even that palled and that was when Wesley mischievously jumped off his end, letting Ellen's side fall to the ground, pinning her legs beneath and scraping them cruelly. He rolled on the ground, laughing uproariously at her anguished howl. She leaped to her feet, arm raised to strike, but then she had a better idea. She seized a clod from the pile of horse manure on the ground close by, and impaled a chunk on his slightly protuberant front teeth, then she took off for the house. Wesley darted after her, spitting and wiping his mouth on his sleeve. As they passed the chopping block, he seized the axe and around the house they went, he in hot pursuit, around the lilac bush and then Ellen dashed through the front door and up the stairs where she barricaded her door with an old trunk. She heard their mother below expostulating and quieting the rabid boy.
"I don't know what I'm going to do with you two," she sighed, wiping her forehead on a plump forearm. "Bring me in some more wood, Wesley, while I see how that bread's doing."
"But, Maw," he shrieked, "She stuck a horse turd in my mouth. I'll kill her-"
"Hark now," his mother answered impatiently, "I've got no time for such shenanigans. It's almost suppertime and your Father will be done milking. I've got to get that bread done and these berries into the jars before he gets in here." She stirred the stewing fruit, absentmindedly looking about for holders so she could set the pan to the rear of the wood stove.
"Don't slam the door", she thundered as Wesley banged his way out, venting his outrage on the cowdog who stood panting in the skimpy shade.
"My God, kids," she stated to no one in particular. She mentally sympathized with Wesley, it was a filthy trick and Ellen was just the one to find such an underhanded way of getting even. She'd look to that young lady later but, seriously, she pondered, Wesley's temper was getting worse. If not checked before he got older, it could land him in trouble some day.
"There now," she grunted with satisfaction as she tightened the cap on the eighth jar. "That's done.
Life was difficult for the Smithers family on their thirty-two acres of sandy, gravelly soil, soil so light that the only things that could profitably be grown without extensive fertilizing were hops and potatoes. And since almost everyone around grew potatoes, even those weren't really profitable. And as Larry lacked the equipment and help necessary to raise hops properly, that source of revenue was denied to him, too.
It was six a.m. again and the couple crawled from their warm cotton mattress, a too-thin padding over sagging link springs. Bit by bit, they straightened their kinked and aching backs and made their way downstairs to the chilly kitchen. Larry started a fire in the old kitchen range with wood that he'd cut and hauled down the mountain many bitterly cold days before, some of them sub-zero...days spent in lonely solitude except for his horse, high on the side of the mountain, where he chopped down trees and man-handled them onto a pair of sleds. Back home, he'd off-loaded them and sawed them into stove length chunks, then he'd laboriously split them by hand, first pounding a huge wedge into a chunk with a sledge hammer, and then cutting them into smaller pieces with an axe. Now, he was feeding into the firebox and all that labor was disappearing up the chimney as just so much smoke. He finished with his fire and fell to his knees for a few minutes of prayer, then he started for the barn to do his chores.
Bernie dressed beside the stove whose warmth could already be felt. She filled the percolator and got that going and then got out her board and began slicing bacon. By the time Larry got back to the house with a fresh pail of water from the well, there was a tempting breakfast on the table. He sat and ate bacon and eggs with home fries, delicious homemade bread spread with their own butter, and had a choice of home canned applesauce, or berries, or jams.
Today he wanted to plow and was anxious to get at it before it got too hot. He ate rapidly and methodically with an economy of motion. Each movement was deliberate and meaningful. When he was finished, he pushed his plate back and began to strain the fresh milk. For a big man, he was surprisingly light on his feet. Before their marriage, he'd attracted attention with his 'step-dancing'. Those days were over now. A man was too tired to dance after plowing, or harvesting all day.
"Get those kids up," he ordered, "and get the boys weeding. If you have nothing for her to do in the house, let her pick some potato bugs." With those endearing words, he grabbed his over-all frock and headed for the fields. He took the milk can along with him as he went out, intending to lower it into the old well that was in the side yard. Keeping the milk cool was all that well was good for because it often ran dry in summer months.
After he'd gone out, Bernie spent a few minutes on her knees, then went to the wash basin where she made a more elaborate toilette now that the water in the kettle was warm. She poured from the steaming kettle, carefully re-filled it and set it back to heat before she took time for herself. Without conscious thought, she washed her face, neck, arms, and upper torso with the warm water and soft soap that she'd made way back last fall. Forever ago, it seemed now. After she'd coiled up her hair and brushed her teeth, she was ready to face the day.
The sun sent lengthening rays westward across the small plateau where the old house had been sited by Larry's grand-dad some fifty years ago. There was already a faint warmth on the sheltered side of the rickety old porch. The morning glories were opening their trumpets and the birds were industriously picking up the sluggish insects from the gravelly driveway. It was going to be a nice day. She went inside and filled her copper boiler and drew it over the hottest part of the range. Today was washday. The limpid light reflected off the copper washboiler of water and gleamed through panes of flawed glass that made eddies and whirlpools of twisted light on the floor, the wide planks of white-pine that Bernie kept gleaming like bleached bones with her weekly applications of lye.
The children began to straggle down the narrow stairs, one at a time. First the girl came, trailing her ragged nightgown on the stairs as she descended. She gave her mother a sleepy smile and went over by the stove to dress. She did it quickly, reminiscent of her father in her small, darting motions. Then she went over to the wash basin where she washed in the still-warm water her mother'd left. Bernie made a cup of cocoa and set it before the girl. She'd secretly beaten an egg into it because this child was frail. She worried over the stick-like arms and legs, the shoulder blades protruding from the back like incipient bird wings. The little girl ate a good big bowl of porridge and a piece of toast, too, but Bernie knew she would likely as not rush outside and vomit it all up.
The boys pummeled and tusseled their way down the steeply pitched stairs. She watched them placidly. Bernie was not a worrier, generally. Her concern over the girl had been a long drawn out thing. For several years now, she'd dragged the child from one doctor to another but none could explain the sudden stomach aches of desperate agony; the failure to gain weight. "Nerves", they'd say, "she'll outgrow it."
The boys now, they were a different matter. Almost vulgar in their healthiness. Always hungry and bursting with energy from morning to night. Right now, they were squabbling over who would get the largest mug of cocoa.
"Wash first, or no one gets any," their mother ordered. They marched to the washstand and splashed their fingers in a desultory fashion, in the cold water left by their mother and sister. When they finished, it was black and muddy. Bernie took it outside and carefully poured it over the woodvine by the front steps.
After breakfast was over, Bernie arranged two metal dishpans side by side in the dry sink. She filled them with steaming water from the reservoir that was attached to one side of the kitchen range. She washed the dishes in one pan, then dipped them into the second to rinse in the clear, hot water, then she dried them on a towel made from bleached cotton sacking. When she finished, she hung the sopping towels on a line out on the porch.
The children were loitering on the porch, trying to decide what to do with their day. The oldest boy stood first on one bare foot and then the other, using the spare to run black, chipped nails up and down the opposite leg. It gave him a sensuous feeling that made him shiver. He noticed that the bumblebees were busy gathering nectar in the morning glory vines and he began to stalk one. When it had burrowed deep inside the blossom, humming with delight as it browsed on the sweet juices, he quickly pinched the outer edges of the blossom together with nimble, knowing fingers. Now that he had the bee imprisoned, he held it for a moment, pondering. The younger boys watched him; the girl watched too, anticipating a howl of anguish but he darted around to the rear of the old frame house . When he reached the rain barrel, he dropped his captive, still encapsulated, into the water. There was a frantic buzzing and then silence. Fascinated, the younger brothers ran back and began gathering their own bees. Inevitably it happened and Wesley ran inside, seeking his mother.
"What's the matter?" Bernie pushed him out of the way as she wrung out a work shirt. Sobbing, he informed her, "A bumble bee bumbled me."
Comforted with cookies, the children filed down through the fields towards the back end of the farm. They found hidden delights where an abandoned road followed the boundary line across the back end. There was a pit of fine white sand where one could dig, or lie half-buried letting the warmth of the sand cause a drowsy state of bliss. Just above the sand pit was a small, plank bridge over a thin stream. One could lie prone on the silvery grey wood and gaze into the crystal water where minnows, skippers, and occasionally, a tiny crab resided. The water eddied and swirled, reflecting a bit of sky and adjacent greenery, the underside of the bridge, and a rumple-haired youngster. If one spit into the current, it could be seen traveling along, whirling one way and then another, into the distance and around the curve, out of sight forever.
The children followed the little stream across the line fence back on to their father's property and towards the water's source. Where it sprang out of the ground, it formed pools and at the sides, in between clumps of springy, soggy moss, there were huge patches of frog eggs and squirming tadpoles. They harvested handfuls of the squirming mass into an old tin can and placed them in the cool shade to carry home. Afterwards, they waded up and down the stream looking for a likely place to dam it. Soon they were busy mining and damming, widening and deepening some areas and cutting others off completely. The boys were utterly absorbed but the girl soon tired of the messy business and retired up the hill to throw herself down beneath a small poplar tree. As she chewed on a bit of grass, she peacefully watched the fleecy clouds drift overhead. If she stared long and hard enough, she got the sensation that she, not they, were spinning across the sky. It made her feel like someone up there was watching her. That didn't bother her because she was used to being watched; Grandpa watched her, so did her brothers, and her parents. It made her feel loved and protected. Now and again, a gentle breeze stirred the small, round leaves 'til they rustled and clicked like miniature castanets. It was a soothing sound, almost religious. That peaceful memory, that day, would remain with her forever after.
Bernie rubbed the clothing up and down on the corrugated board, lathering them well with strong yellow soap. Her once shapely hands were roughened and red, the knuckles enlarged and nails ridged and broken. Her back ached unbearably. She brushed a wisp of lanky, lifeless hair back from her streaming face. As she glanced at the clock, she anxiously noted that she'd have to stop soon and get some food cooking. Larry would need, and expect, a hot, bountiful meal, regardless, and the kids would be in from the fields and be ravenous. Where had the morning gone? She was probably the only member of the family who'd never had a chance to observe it's beauty and promise.
Bernie's disposition was remarkably cheerful despite her heavy work load and lack of conveniences. She might start off the day with a tentative hum as she threw kerosene inside the kitchen range for a quick ignition of that wood that had been laid the night before. As the flames and carbon spewed skyward in a mighty whoosh, she'd pick up volume and begin the first few lines of a hymn that might only be audible for ten minutes or more, other lines or verses appearing later in the day as she dragged a child's wagon through the fields, gathering fuels and incendiary materials for the next fire.
Sometimes she'd sing in the mornings after Larry had gone to start the fire in the kitchen range and the rest waited for the rooms below to warm up enough that they might go down and dress. She'd sing old Irish ballads not heard again until later years when the Irish Rovers made them popular.
By the time that it dawned on the children that they were hungry and had probably been gone a long time, the afternoon was indeed well advanced. They began the long trek homewards; at least, the distance always seemed twice as long as it had in the morning. The sun seemed so much hotter and it felt as though it were baking right through the top of their heads. Their legs ached and their feet dragged with every step. Far off in the distance, they could see the slanted back roof of their home, and as they grew nearer, their mother's wash dancing in the light breeze, only the forked pole holding the heavy load from touching the ground. As they dragged into the kitchen, they discovered that their father had already been in to eat and returned to his fields. Their mother had finished her wash and used the water to wash the kitchen floor. Now she was carrying the mop water to pour around her cherished flowers out in the yard. They would have to make do with sandwiches and milk. These were fallen on with an alarming lack of bickering, and after they'd eaten their through several, they carried large, sugar-sprinkled molasses cookies outside. As they munched these delectables, the boys dispersed to observe and help their grandfather at the grindstone, and the girl to the swing.
She swung idly back and forth, watching the boys take turns at the wheel. Each rotated the handle 'for Grandpa' until his arm tired and then they wandered off to the nearby woods to build a tree house. Ellen, tired of swinging in a conventional manner, stood on her head, and wound her legs about the rope. It was an interesting view of the world upside down and the movement of the swing caused objects to advance and recede in an alarming manner but the motion made her dizzy and she was forced to stop. She wandered into the side yard and after a few moment's search among the grasses, found some ripe wild strawberries. She squatted on her heels and picked one and then another of the delicious dainty tidbits while fragments of familiar hymns often sung at the tiny church echoed in her mind. They were about the only music she ever heard because who owned a radio? While the larks circled high above, pouring out their souls, she added her praises to God, words learned at her mother's knee or the altar rail.
She hunted and found even larger berries buried in the cool depths. Her mouth turned rosy as well as her fingertips. A deerfly circled her head annoyingly but after a few swipes at him with her hand, she ignored him. Sated, she gathered fruit by the handful and took some inside for her mother. Bernie gazed at them thoughtfully.
"I suppose we should have a nice strawberry shortcake for supper tonight," she mused. She called the children to help her and before long they'd gathered enough for dessert. They spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning and hulling the tiny things, then Bernie made light, fluffy biscuit dough and poured the crushed, sugared fruit over it. The family enjoyed this seasonal delight served with cream topping, fresh from old Boss, then the males retired from the table, burping with contentment. Bernie began clearing and rinsing her dishes while Ellen silently stole to the backyard where she vomited her supper behind the lilac bush.
After the evening chores were finished, the family gathered for a rare moment of relaxation on the front porch. Although large, comfortable rockers graced this inelegant structure all summer long, they were seldom used. There were just a few weeks in early summer before the black flies began, and then the mosquitoes, both of which made the outdoors nearly impossible for man or beast. For some reason, the children became inured to them and though their heads were bloody with bites, they continued to spend most of their waking hours out of doors. Tonight, however, everything was calm and peaceful. In the foreign world over along the unseen highway an auto sounded its horn; the sound of a bugle drifted across the meadow, it's silvery notes carrying on the evening breeze, a brook rushed and gurgled it's way through the woody ravine close by, and across the brook, a cowbell tinkled as it's bearer plodded it's stiff-legged way from clump to clump of sweet grasses.
Old Brownie came around the corner of the house and wriggled up to coax attention from his master. His tail beat a rat-tat-a-tat on the floor. One of the boys pulled a wide blade of grass and fixed it cunningly between his thumbs. He made a fearful racket blowing on it and Larry yawned in resignation and said, "Guess that's it for tonight."
No-one knew if he referred to the cessation of peace and quiet, or to the end of daylight and no-one dared ask. Bernie followed her husband inside and before long, the yellow glow of lamplight lit the windows and cast slanting rays on to the old porch. The children prolonged their day as long as possible but soon they, too, gave up and wandered inside for the bedtime cup of cocoa. They took as long as possible over washing up and saying their prayers but it was impossible to stop the clock. Time ran out quickly and soon they were all abed, child and adult too. Darkness descended and the world was left to the creatures of the night.
Day followed day, where adults truly worked from sunrise to sunset. Then it suddenly changed, ushered in by a violent thunder storm in the early evening. Weatherwise old-timers were not surprised; they had noted the thunderheads piling up over the mountain tops to the south. Lightening crackled and thunder rumbled. The old dog whined piteously and tried to crawl under the daybed. Whenever the outdoors was lighted momentarily , they could see the horses with their backs to the lashing rain.
"This is good for the garden," Larry announced with satisfaction. "Better now than in haying time." Bernie agreed doubtfully, thinking of the day ahead with the kids indoors. She was right too, because daylight showed the rain continuing, the room a ghostly grey. 'Oh, well, life goes on,' she thought as she prepared her 'sponge'. Today would be a good day for baking bread. A bit on the cool side, the heat would feel good and the fragrant odor would be cheery. Since churning went with bread-making in her mind, she scalded the big old crank churn and got it ready to receive the cream from the big crock that stood in the cellarway. While the bread was raising, she pulled the crank around and around. The effort required little concentration and she was able to think her own thoughts and they wandered to things she might do to make their home more liveable. There were the curtains to be done up as soon as she could find time. It would have to wait for a nice day when she could wash and starch them, then pin them on the tenter hooks of the old frame and let them dry outside. Larry didn't like anything that cluttered his paths through the house. And the ticks on the beds should be changed, or at least taken outside and aired. They were filled with goose down from his grand-mother's geese; needless to say, by now, they required a lot of pummeling and shaking to keep them fluffed up. By the time she'd finished with them, the rugs would have to be taken outdoors and slung over the lines where they could be beaten. That was a good job to start the kids on although she knew that they wouldn't last long. Well, any help was welcome.
Larry hurried to the barn shortly after breakfast. Today he would mend harnesses and gear. The children made a train of chairs, pursing their lips and making chuffing sounds for the engine. Wesley was the conductor, with Grandpa's old cap crowning his towhead; Ellen was a passenger, and Buddy, the eldest was always engineer, (he was the only one yet able to whistle). They played at this for the better part of the forenoon until it began to pall, then Ellen retired to the upstairs and her dolls, while the boys joined their father in the barn.
From time to time, Bernie was called from her duties to find thread and needles, then a piece of fabric. After she'd donated the equipment, she started searching the cupboards for ingredients for lunch. Time slipped by and when there was no response to her call, she tiptoed up the stairs. The dolls were lined up on the pillows in various stages of undress. The little seamstress eyed them with serious regard as she tried first one brightly colored scrap after another for size. One 'baby' already wore a dress of surprising accomplishment, while another was being measured. Bernie watched tenderly, a loving smile on her face. She was reluctant to interrupt, but- "Come on down, honey. It's time to eat!"
The family gathered about the circular oak table laden with steaming victuals. Ellen banged on the wall for Grandpa to come and heard his muffled response on the other side. Larry seated himself impatiently and the rest followed suit. Grandpa, as oldest member, said grace, then everyone tucked in. They'd scarcely swallowed their food when there was the sound of a vehicle entering the yard. Larry set his cup down with a splash and went out on the porch.
"Hello there, Paul," they heard him say. "Ain't you lost way up here today?"
Eyes asking permission, the children rushed outside, also. It was the farrier! They crowded eagerly about the jitney with it's cunningly contrived smithy on the back end. They didn't miss a single detail as they wove in and out between the conversing men, avoiding getting stepped on and keeping out of the way as they'd been warned to countless times before.
Grandpa wandered outside, picking his teeth. "Hello, Paul" he waved.
Paul answered the old man politely, pausing to inquire about health, garden, etc. Soon all three men were on their way to the barn, the children stringing along like a gaggle of geese.
Bernie watched from inside. The afternoon was her own now, she realized. Nothing would prise them loose from the spectacle of watching the farrier shoe the horse. There seemed to be a fascination in watching the glowing embers, the man pounding the red hot irons into the shape of the hoof, then the hiss when he dropped them into the cold water. The horse stood on three legs while he fitted the shoes and the children shivered at his daring. He seized first one foot and then another, slapping the animal's knee to make him 'pick up'. He inspected the soles closely and then bent his back to the animal, holding a big foot between his knees to pound at it. Huge rasps and pliers were strewn about his feet as he calmly nailed the shoes to the hooves. The children considered the possibilities of what could happen if the horse lost patience; however, the day wore on and the animal was shod. Rain ceased and the sun came out. The man picked up his tools and straightened his back. He pushed his cap back on his head as he emerged from the stall. "Well, the sun's come out," he observed. "Guess it'll be a nice day after all."
Bernie was resigned. She had learned a long time ago to sublimate the longings and cravings that most young women feel for new things in the best interests of her family. Most of the time it wasn't difficult due to her sort of life, hidden away at the end of a dusty country road . There was no money to do anything with in any event, and most of the time, she was just too tired. There was just one thing, however, that Bernie craved with all her heart and that was to learn to drive a car. There never seemed any possibility that her dreams might come true but she continued to dream...and then one day, kindly Lady Fortune smiled. An elderly man who had been visiting the family often over a period of years, learned of her desires. He knew that Larry was not generous with his car so the old fellow told Bernie, "Take my car and go practice your driving."
Poor Bernie, her head reeled with the possibilities. She could drive over to the post office- to church- to the store! And wouldn't her friends goggle to see her drive past. She bravely sat in the little roadster and after a few suggestions from the kindly man, learned the simple operations necessary to traverse the trafficless countryside. Each time her old guest came, Bernie practiced and was soon quite proficient. She ranged further each time, much to her husband's scorn; after all, no good could come from a woman learning how to drive!
One bright day, she decided to drive to the next village; of course, the children had to go, too. Bernie allowed the two older ones to climb into the rumble seat while she took the toddler and got into the front. With a great clashing of gears, she threw the car into reverse and backed around. When she passed underneath the clothesline, the lip of the door caught and threw the rumble seat forward, closing the children inside. They screamed in helpless fury and fright as she roared off down the dusty road, the sand and fumes nearly suffocating them. Fortunately, as soon as she'd gotten her motor under control she looked back to see if they were enjoying themselves but there were no children to be seen! Properly horrified, she ground to a halt and let them out. After soothing and clearing their dusty throats, the voyagers continued on. They investigated one inviting road after another and when juicy looking berries beckoned from the verge, Bernie pulled off the shoulder and went clanking over a large rock. They ate their fill of the luscious fruit and Bernie yearned for berry pails. Wouldn't it be nice if they could pick enough to sell and earn money for the fair? She thought of all those going to waste over behind the river, and the cranberries dropping from the bushes in the marshes. The old folks used to keep them picked, they knew a good thing when they saw it. Probably the old cranberry picker was still there waiting- hanging from the slivery fencepost where some long ago picker had left it to mark his spot. Oh, well-
Once they were sated, they got back into the car and that's when her ghastly mistake was visible. It was impossible to move forward or backward without sinister scrunchings and scrapings sounding underneath. They got back out and peered below. The rock was all too apparent.
"Oh, what will we do?" poor Bernie wrung her hands. When she got 'nerved up', her voice grew shrill.
"Pray, children, pray," she beseeched.
They stood beside the road, praying, for quite some time. She knew it wouldn't be much longer before her absence was noted and oh, the irony if Larry could see her predicament. He must never find out the extent of her folly. Oh, why did no one come by?
Eventually, someone did come by
and he dug her out and saw her on her way, grateful thanks echoing in
his ears. She listened anxiously for ominous noises all the way home
but everything sounded okay. She was relieved to relinquished the
keys and run to prepare the evening meal. She watched the old man
drive away, sure he would denounce her as soon as he started the car
up, but he said nothing, either then, or ever.
Most days there was little to break the monotony. Get up, eat, do chores, go to bed. When one tired of what one was doing, there would be five other tasks waiting to be finished. Well, today would be different because Grandpa was coming to visit. The old man couldn't make the long cross-country trip by horse and farm wagon as often as he wanted to although Bernie was his favorite grandchild. Once the silent old figure had arrived, Bernie bustled around serving his favorite foods, then she made him comfortable on the porch while she cleared away the dishes.
The children stood about and stared at him in owl-eyed concentration and he stared back at them. He seemed at least a hundred years old, with his cane and big, walrus moustache. Eventually, the girl got brave enough to cross the porch directly in front of him. The boys were horrified when the old man seized her about the neck with the curved part of his cane and they blanched with fear when he gruffly said, "Come here,"..all the while pulling her closer. They fled around the corner of the house, unable to look any longer. Some time later, they draggled back, one by one, to peek around the corner. There she sat, blissfully eating pink and white peppermints!.
The game continued throughout the afternoon. One after another allowed himself to be caught and dragged on the old man's lap and rewarded with candy. They enjoyed the day immensely and told their mother that they loved Grandpa (after he'd gone), but no-one wished to admit to the tiny thrill of fear that he'd experienced.
Now school was officially out for the summer, there were other obligations. Once a week, Buddy and Ellen had to walk the long, dusty road to church where they were drilled in catechism. Both had made their First Communion some time ago, the girls in white dresses and veils, looking like the angels everyone knew they weren't. The boys usually got their first suit and wore a white armband, looking very unhappy about the whole thing. It wouldn't be many years before they'd begin preparing for their confirmation. Now they were expected to reinforce their faith by attending religious lessons and receiving the sacraments once a week. They demonstrated whether they'd studied or not by repeating the little lessons they'd had to learn by heart. The most proficient would receive a prize when the summer was done, usually a little bible, (just what every kid wanted). Often they had a break in mid-afternoon and could run outside for ten minutes. Afterwards, they would regroup and practice hymns for awhile before the long way home. They walked the long, dusty roads to attend catechism, get the mail, or catch the bus to school in later years. Sometimes they got caught out after dark and had to walk home in the enveloping blackness that pressed so closely on a person that they felt they might smother. Ellen, always a timid soul, feared each rustle beside the road as something equally frightened, dashed away into the night.
Daylight made it all less threatening. Then she could take her vaulting pole, an old mop handle, and sail over the tops of weeds, rocks, and rustling objects with never a care in the world. She sailed over obstructions and mud puddles and cow patties; it was next best to flying!.
Bernie often utilized their religious treks as a god-sent opportunity to get a needed item from the store, and Larry wasn't above sending a message. One day, he sent Buddy over to the garage to announce that he had puppies for sale. The old hunting dog had produced a litter of beagle pups that were old enough to be taken from their mother.
"How much does your dad want for them?" the men inquired.
"Dad said to tell you $15, and if you wouldn't pay that, say $10.00," the boy calmly replied.
The next day was Sunday and the family dressed in their threadbare best to attend mass. Ellen thought how pretty her mother looked, even if the clothes were Auntie's hand-me-down's. They were allowed to climb sedately into Larry's old car for the occasion. They sat back on the velour seats and were very quiet the entire ride. They entered the family pew, looking neither to the right, nor to the left. The organist wheezed her way through the opening hymn and mass began. After a fine exhortation by the priest and several renditions by the choir, mass ended. It had lasted just one hour.
The congregation trickled outside to stand about on the lawn and enjoy a good visit with friends and neighbors whom one didn't have time for on weekdays. Weekday visiting was only for calling on the sick or those who needed help; Sunday was for letting down barriers and being social. The children hoped that their parents would save the visiting and get them home because their stomachs were growling and gurgling from fasting overnight. They'd gone to confession the day before and there was fasting was mandatory from the last meal of the day until they 'received' the next morning at mass. Now they were hungry.
Still, Ellen was delighted to see her aunt's beaming face just outside the church door. Maybe Auntie Fay wanted Ellen to go home with her for the day, she always made it a delightful occasion, too. Ellen played dominoes, or cards with her teen-aged cousins, or Georgie played his guitar for her. Sometimes the indulgent boys saddled a horse and took their little cousin for thrilling rides. And Auntie was waiting for them when they got back, a plate of her huge, sugar cookies on the table.
Sometimes, Ellen swung back and forth in the big, creaking porch glider but the bees enjoyed the sunny spot, too and chased her inside. There were no conveniences in Aunt Fay's house. Lamp light illuminated the dark, high-ceilinged rooms where lithographs of dead game and fruit in oval frames hung on the wood paneling. At one time, years earlier, carbide lighting was piped into the downstairs area but Uncle Al parsimoniously gave it up as too costly. The dainty crystal globes still hung on the faded walls at the end of copper pipes.
There was a space heater in the archway between the large dining room and tiny parlor and a big black range crouched in the kitchen. Theoretically, the metal stove pipes that traversed the bedrooms above, supplied adequate heat for the part of the house where the 'boys' slept. There was a rack of wooden slats above the kitchen range and it usually drooped with dish towels and wet socks. The kitchen was 'L' shaped and there was a huge cupboard built across the foot of the 'l' and a dry sink stood beside it. The big, black wood range was next and the table and chairs stood beneath the front windows. Through them one could see ranges of jagged mountains, stands of mixed woods, and a bewildering complexity of flowering vines and shrubs.
The 'men' dragged drinking water from a crystal clear spring on the downward slope of the mountain. When the barrel was empty, they put it on a stoneboat and dragged it down to the spring with the team of horses. They laboriously filled it bucket by bucket and the the poor horses, straining and exerting every muscle, would drag the infernal thing back to the house and around to the rear door, where it remained covered with an upended wash tub until the next time. Poor horses! Ellen suffered for them in their fierce exertion, their bellies nearly touching the ground, huge muscles in shoulder and flank bulging as their eyes rolled upwards into the sockets. The sparks flew as their shoes hit rocks and the wooden planks scraped over the gravel and cobblestones.
There were two comfort stations, one inside at the back of the big, old woodshed at the end of a long boardwalk. That was only for winter use, the one used in summer was a pleasant stroll uphill from the back door, between two lilac bushes and around to the right behind the larger shrub. The idea was to keep odors and insects away from the house in warm weather, even though few people yet associated many contagious diseases with flies.
The complex of house, barn, outhouses, etc., was picturesquely located high on the mountain side, well away from any neighbors. Heavily wooded areas were all about, teeming with wild life and often the wolves howled about the barn at night. When Ellen slept over, she would snuggle up to Auntie's back and shiver in delicious terror as their barks and cries echoed back and forth. The air was so crystal clear and pure that on a fine day, Ellen could look across the valley and see her Grandpa's house on the opposite mountain side.
Uncle Al was considered to be something of a skinflint and house tyrant but he was always mild and affectionate with her. They'd walk hand-in-hand to the barn where she observed the boys milking; hand-in-hand again to the milk house where she watched the separator go around and around, the warm, milky odor calling the cats and the hornets as well, because they too, loved to drink. Yes, Uncle Al liked Ellen so well that he invited her to stay the winter and attend the nearby school that fall.
"I'll buy her shoes, if she'll stay," he announced to her surprised parents, an unheard concession from him. But, although he coaxed and Auntie cried to see her go, Ellen returned home with her parents.
The family was making one of their rare excursions to visit Grandma and Grandpa. At one time, the three mile trek had to be made by horse and sleigh, cross-country through a woody road with deep ravines on each side. Ellen was always frightened because the shadowy forests suggested bears and wolves. What would one do if they came out and pursued the sleigh? Would the horse be able to run fast enough, or would they jump in on top of the family? Would they drag a little girl out and eat her leaving the rest to escape while they had the chance? Fortunately, none had ever caught anyone yet, or even tried, but now Daddy had a car and one could keep the windows up and be safe. Minutes later, they arrived in Grandpa's yard and he was standing on the cracked cement porch, making fierce faces at them.
"Grandpa", they cried in delight, kissing his dear face and trying to miss the big moustache over his top lip. He pulled them into the kitchen where Grandma was waiting to commence the kissing all over again. Her shrill "Land sakes, come on in", urged them forward to the 'sittin-room'. It should have been the dining room and did have a dining table and dish closet but as they always ate in the kitchen, this was called the sitting room. There was a rope cot and a pot-bellied stove with ising glass windows in the door. Grandpa usually sat before the stove in an old captain's chair, his stockinged feet on the nickel trim. His poor old socks had been turned, one could see. As he wore holes through the heels, he simply gave the socks a 180 degree turn and wore the hole tucked in and folded under, at the top of the foot much like a heeless, tube sock of later times.
Grandpa had farmed all of his life except for brief forays into the lumber woods when he was younger. Farming wasn't easy on his mountain home because it was well littered with stones of assorted size. Frosts came early and lingered late and the soil was light and required extensive fertilizing...and that cost money. Thrifty men saved the wood as they cleared and burned it, leaving the ashes behind. Once enough had been collected, they were leached by pouring water through them and then the caustic liquid was boiled down to potash. That made fertilizer but if it was baked, pearlash resulted which could be sold for saleratus, a substitute for later day baking powder, or used in medicines and various other necessities. It made a good crop if a man could produce extra.
Today, as usual, Mother and Grandma sat at the table and swapped confidences in lowered tones for the children's benefit and out of modesty due to the men. And Grandpa fetched a basin of wrinkled apples from the cellar, the last of the fall crop. They certainly kept well in Grandpa's cellar!
As the children munched away, Grandpa and Daddy discussed world events and Grandpa condemned 'Roosh-hay' for causing trouble. Old Gyp whined to be let in and he came and demanded attention before collapsing by the stove.
Everything seemed so different, so interesting , at Grandpa's. There was the embossed metal ceiling with the wide, wide metal molding, all egg and dart design around the top of the walls. And the beautiful pull-down lamp over Grandma's table, with the hand painted roses on the globe and the base, and the matching table lamp, all soft, glowing colors and gold filigree. And the stuffed owl and pheasant, the deer's head holding Grandpa's rifle, and the beautiful wicker rockers, looking like thrones. And Grandma usually had a beautiful new quilt started, or a braided rug. The painted wainscot was surmounted by wallpaper tastefully stripped or decorated with a light floral design and a small door allowed a peek at tiny, narrow stairs leading upward. There was so much to see-
Outside, they could run above the barn and play hide and seek through the sugar bush, or play 'King of the Mountain' on the huge out-croppings of shale. And down near the line fence, cunningly hidden in a hollow beneath a giant elm, was the spring. If they lifted the trap door over the top, the murky black depths sent up cool, mossy odors and they slammed the cover quickly lest someone disappear from sight and the grown ups would cry and feel bad. Uphill, near the barn and under the gigantic 'Pound Sweet' apple tree was the little privy with the inward swinging door where Grandma had been trapped by the snake. Uncle Billy had heard her shrieking and ran out to see a snake going up the outside of the door. As Grandma daren't touch the door because of the snake being on it, she couldn't go past and get out. Uncle Billy killed the snake with a hoe and saved Grandma's life.
They ran up on the shale near Grandpa's 'sugar bush' and slid on the great expanses of smooth rock. Then they wandered across the road to the abandoned house where the Dow's used to live, the man trying to care for his family with only the 'paddle' of a hand left. He met callers in the shed, informing them that 'this isn't the hoose, ya know, this is the shed' Now all that remained was his big, square house and the artesian well still trickling away in the yard, the rod after rod of stone wall, smothered in fertile grape vines. Ellen liked to wander through the rooms, imagining the life that had gone on there, fancying she could still hear the echoes of children's laughter, the cries of the mother.
And just a bit farther down the road was the old Scott lot that Grandpa now owned. There was the remnants of an old orchard, the trees still producing abundantly and the fields growing luscious blackberries that field a pail in record time because the fruit was as big around as your finger, as long as the fingertip to first joint.
When Mother and Daddy got ready to leave, Grandma asked if Ellen could stay the week for 'her vacation'. The folks drove off leaving a supercilious daughter waving them off.
The first few days passed rapidly. She watched Grandpa doing his chores and rode on the hay wagon...Grandpa put up a swing in one of the apple trees and that was fun for awhile. The next day, Grandma kept Ellen close as she was making her a dress and it called for fittings from time to time. The following day, after the dress was finished, Ellen wore it to Grandma's quilting bee. The ladies and Grandma gathered at a small house down the hill and spent the afternoon sewing. There were refreshments and Ellen was made over and the new dress admired.
The following day disaster struck. Grandma had a mean, old cat. Ellen had been warned from the very first to leave the cat alone. The cat was pretty and looked so sweet and Ellen knew it liked her, so she finally cornered it. Caught, the cat turned into a berserk buzz-saw, ripping and clawing the child's arms from wrist to elbow. Screaming and bloody, Ellen sought out a pragmatic grandmother, who tended the wounds and noted how many times she had said 'leave the cat alone'. Ellen returned home a day or two later to tell of the good times she'd had on her vacation and she had the marks to prove it!
Shortly after her return, Ellen suffered another attack of stomach pain. The spasms begun shortly after dinner, a delicious dinner of roast pork and mashed potatoes smothered in the rich, fragrant gravy. There were slices of luscious red tomatoes with mayonnaise on them, and cabbage salad. Afterwards, Mother served a cream cake. Everyone ate far too much of the tempting fare and when the dishes were washed up the pains started. Ellen ran outside and tried to heave up some of the food that felt like a load of lead in her stomach but this time, it wouldn't come forth as it usually did all too readily. The pains grew worse and she felt like someone had buried an axe between her shoulder blades. Scarcely able to breathe, she sank into her mother's low rocker and sobbed in misery. Her mother gave her a glass of bicarbonate of soda and warm water but it only seemed to intensify the awful pressure inside her.
Grandpa checked in to see how she was feeling. He felt sorry for the suffering child and he dragged rocker, child, and all through the back door of the kitchen, through the woodshed and in through his backdoor and into the little parlor. He tenderly lifted her on to the sofa there and covered her with an afghan. The suffering and sobbing continued through the evening until finally exhaustion took over and she slept. Throughout the night, Bernie stole near, feeling with a roughened hand for the fevered brow, careful not to wake her. Ellen occasionally drew long, shuddering breaths but she slept on. In the morning, her eyes were swollen nearly closed and her lips were doubled in size from her ordeal but the pain was gone.
It seems that trouble never comes singly. Bernie had not been feeling well for a long time. She was just played out all the time and her back ached terribly. Now the doctor said she must have 'female' surgery. It was kept from the children until the day she had to go. That morning they told the children and then Aunt Marty arrived. Mother was packed off with Daddy and Uncle Jay. When they drove out the driveway, Ellen was upstairs sitting on the floor of the closet crying. Aunt Marty found her there and put her arm about the little shoulders. They cried together and then Auntie spoke briskly.
"Come on downstairs now. Don't cry. You're coming home with me until your mother comes home."
Ellen went home with Aunt Marty and Uncle Jay but she wasn't happy. Aunt Marty did her duty and she kept Ellen clean and well-fed, she even cut up her second best coat and made a good warm one for Ellen, but Ellen was lonesome.
She quarreled with the girls until the happy day arrived when she could go home. She was certain they were as happy to see her go as she was to leave. On reaching her own door, she dashed in expecting to see her mother waiting, perhaps at the stove stirring a saucepan or turning meat. This was not the case. A daybed was placed against one wall and on it lay a white, weak, wasted shadow of her mother. Ellen burst into tears and rushed over and threw herself on the cot.
"There, there," her mother soothed and cuddled her, "Everything's going to be all right."
Things were not really all
right for a long time, however; Bernie's blood count remained low and
the doctor was very concerned about her.
Once Bernie forgot her dreams of driving about the country, she went back to being her usual humorous self. Friends called often and she wasn't above kidding them a little with her tongue-in-the-cheek sort of fun. One particular friend, easily excitable and credulous, came to call one day. Bernie was in the midst of 'putting up' tomatoes and wanted to finish, but obviously felt that she should offer some excuse.
"Have you heard," she said, "the world is supposed to come to an end today?"
Well...the poor soul was nearly numb with shock and amazement. Actually, deep down, she knew it wasn't so; but, you know how some people hate to take chances.
"Do you really mean it?" she said.
"Yes," Bernie said, "today it comes to an end and I want to get my canning done."
For years after, whenever the woman saw a family member, she'd mention 'the day when the world was supposed to come to an end.'
Playing tricks on Larry was another great source of amusement to Bernie. He detested chickens and just the sight of a feather was enough to send him into a panic. He made it his business to remain as far from poultry as possible...Bernie thought that was funny. And she just happened to have an old hen that was determined to set and Bernie was as determined that she should not. She tried first one method and then another to get the hen to mend her ways, until finally someone told Bernie to close the hen in something with just a bit of water in the bottom so that it could not squat down. That was guaranteed to break the hen of setting.
Bernie found an old washboiler that was used to store papers in. She put the hen in it with the required amount of water and put the lid on top, leaving a vent open for air. When Larry came in, Bernie innocently called, "Please bring me some papers out of the old washboiler".
Larry went out and raised the lid. When he did, there was an explosion of feathers and squawking hen went one way while lid and Larry went the other. Bernie stood inside, holding her sides; however, her luck was soon to turn.
It wasn't long before Larry was able to have his turn laughing. As it got on towards fall, various farmers came looking for hop pickers. Bernie thought it would be nice to have the extra revenue so she and the kids agreed to go to pick hops and Larry would pull poles. The days were long and hot, the fields were dirty and dusty, and the vines were coated with chemicals and insects of varying descriptions. Bernie had to get up even earlier and pack lunches for the family, provide layered clothing because the chill mornings soon heated up, and she wrapped wet washcloths in waxed paper. Larry cut the vines low on the poles and drew the poles out of the ground and draped them over the big box, the hop vines still clinging to them. All forenoon the family picked hard at filling the boxes, large as a coffin, with the sticky, sulphurous vines. A heavy paste clung to their fingers, almost impossible to wash off, and when it was time to eat, they had to hold sandwiches, soaked through with the juice from sliced tomatoes, and try to disregard the squashed bugs and hop juice.
By afternoon, the hard work and the heat began to take its toll and the kids were inclined to lean against the box. That brought scoldings from Bernie because at the slightest jar, the hops already picked would settle alarmingly. What had appeared a box nearly full would suddenly be only half-filled. And then she had to leave for the woods. She found a secluded spot and lowered her denims. After a few minutes, she pulled them back up not noticing the bee that was imprisoned in the folds. She'd no sooner gotten back to her 'picking' space when the bee made itself felt and Bernie took off for the woods where her cries came echoing back to the amusement of other pickers.
Soon after, Bernie ordered new linoleum for the kitchen floor. It certainly did a lot to brighten the place up. It matched the new paint Bernie had swabbed over the trim around the doors and windows. The solid door to the shed shone green in the lamplight. She'd also covered the waist-high wainscoting. She probably would have put some on the matched wainscoting that covered the ceiling if she could have reached it.
Larry announced, puckering his noise at the smell of fresh paint.
However, it did look nice- and fresh and clean. It was an added
source of satisfaction because the family had scrimped, and saved,
and worked all those extra hours to get it for her but after a couple
of weeks there was a noticeably rank smell in the kitchen. No one
could imagine what it might be but Bernie speculated that perhaps
water had gotten underneath the linoleum and was rotting the floor.
The children gloomily started pulling it up. They began at the front
door, moving the furniture and cupboards as they tore up all the way
across to the back door. When they reached the back of the room,
they had to move one small stand that had a shelf underneath. The
shelf was hidden from view by a cloth draped over the top. When the
stand was moved, there was a sloshing sound and ...lo, and behold!
There was a pan of fish that Wesley had caught a few days earlier and
forgotten. That was called the family's story of the little fishes!
People who lived in splendid solitude in the country may not have been as isolated as one would think. When enough houses multiplied to form a tiny hamlet, some enterprising young M.D. fresh from his medical school, would move in and begin his life's work. There would be a priest and often a minister, too, a school teacher would be roomed and boarded at first one home and then another, and someone would form a general store.
As Bernie grew up, and after the demise of 'Carty's store', a traveling van began to take a regular route through the hills. Usually, every Thursday Mr. Baker's truck came puffing up the gravelly hill, loaded with staples like flour, sugar, etc.; he'd have some meats that kept well such as salt pork and bacon, thread, fly papers, and candy. He would take orders for things he ordinarily didn't have room for, and he'd bring them the following week. His truck was a familiar sight for many years, chugging along the country roads. Mr. Baker, the grocer, and Mr. Premo, the farrier, did more than bring their wares, or services to the people, they brought news. They built morale with the sight and sound of new things, and each in his own way, brought hope, because he was a herald of spring year in and year out.
The Watkins man also made regular rounds of the country roads. He sold salves and ointments, linaments and cold remedies, corn plasters and pudding mixes. In later years, Larry took over one of the routes himself, but soon gave it up, unable to make it pay.
Young Dr. Harwood appeared on the scene, fresh out of medical school in Vermont. The climate and countryside was close enough to what he was used to that he felt right at home . He brought both Bernie and Larry into the world, as well as most of their children. He pulled Larry's mother's teeth, and set Ellen's arm. He was an indispensable adjunct to the area. He frequently treated mother and daughter's confinements simultaneously.
It was much better now that when Larry was young. He'd fallen ill with appendicitis and had to be transported down the rutty mountain trail in a farm wagon to the railroad station, placed aboard a coach and transported some fifty or more miles distance to a hospital. After his surgery, he was again put aboard the train, drains in his side, and carried back to his mountain home.
In those days when a doctor was almost impossible to find, people relied on herbs for many illnesses...and when there was a death they'd take a door down and arrange the body on it. Larry liked to tell how they'd put the his great-grandfather's body in the proper position of repose on a door in a small parlor. There was a tall candle at the head of the bier, and one at the foot. They opened a window to keep the room cool. Members of the family came to pay their last respects and as the evening wore on, they drifted away. Soon, there was only Larry and a cousin keeping watch with the old man. Larry knew she was very tired so he told her to go to bed, that he would sit up. As she passed the dead man, she accidentally kicked the footstool from under his feet. The door crashed to the floor, making a loud racket in the quiet house. She ran screaming from the room, slamming the door behind her. The sudden draft caused by the door's closing blew out the candles and Larry was alone in the darkened room with a corpse rolling about the floor.
Many times, however, people who were dreadfully ill, or gravely injured, still went without treatment by choice. Ellen never forgot 'the accident at the woodshed.' A huge, iron hook swung there, suspended from a staple by a long piece of wire. It was used to hold the trap door open so wood could be tossed into the shed after it was split. The double bitted axe was ordinarily left just beneath, dug deeply into the chopping block.
Ellen and Buddy seized the hook for support and 'walked' their feet up the side of the building. They dangled, swaying first one way and then another. One day after a lot of dangling, the staple gave way and Buddy fell down on his back, striking his head sharply on the axe below. There was a loud cry and a great deal of blood. Ellen fled screaming from the scene. Help arrived and the fainting boy was carried inside for treatment. Closer inspection showed bone glistening wetly through the aperture. They applied compresses heavily saturated with disinfectant. In due course Buddy recovered but the rest of his life he bore a large, white scar at the base of his skull.
In the course of tending his farm, Larry often injured himself, and as he was prone to bleed profusely, the scene of the accident could be a terrifying sight. One afternoon, Ellen returned home from school to find her father swooning in his big chair, one leg extended over a foot bath nearly filled with pink water. He had opened a gash almost two inches long down the front of one shin bone with his brush hook. Somehow, or other, he had managed to get to the house before he grew too weak; when Bernie returned, she'd found him trying vainly to staunch the bleeding with an old rag. After she'd elevated the leg and applied pressure bandages, the bleeding finally slowed up and then quit entirely leaving two pale and shaky people. It took a long time to get such a wound to close without the benefit of stitches, which Larry always refused, and there was the worry of infection, but eventually, it healed. He often remarked that his infant brother had bled to death. If a person healed well, it was said that 'his blood was clean'.
Sharp objects, or poisons, were not kept under lock and key at the Smithers'. The youngsters were expected to know what they might play with, and what they should leave alone. They were pretty good about respecting this unwritten law but it was still possible to get into trouble. Ellen remembered the time the scythe fell down from where it hung over a projecting log at the corner of the old barn, and since she was passing the corner at that time, it nicked her right wrist. She was considered lucky to get off with so slight a cut.
And, later, when she followed the boys into the pasture to slide down the rear of the old cars, her arm had somehow got twisted sharply behind her back and up between her shoulder blades. The doctor called it a 'green-stick' fracture and she wore a metal cast between elbow and wrist for several weeks afterward. She had barely healed from that when she got a hop hook stuck into the top of her foot when she tried to dig worms. It was very difficult to keep up with three brothers. Sometimes, they would tolerate her and, again, life could get pretty lonely.
One day, Larry returned from the store with Bernie's groceries. Much to the kids delight, he had unaccountably brought them each a box of Cracker-Jacks. They excitedly rooted about among the kernels of popcorn to discover what the prize would be. Al had gotten a long, thin whistle. Throughout the afternoon the door yard rang with his shrill pipings which suddenly turned into piercing shrieks. Bernie ran out back to discover that he'd fallen and jammed the flat, thin metal into the roof of his mouth. It was deeply imbedded and Bernie felt like shrieking right along with Ellen, but she bid the girl to shut her noise, drew the whistle out of the boy's mouth and then rushed him indoors to tend him.
Weeks would go by when it seemed that there was a bad accident a day. The two older boys were now proud possessors of pocket knives. Of course, it was asking too much of human nature to expect them to go off and enjoy themselves quietly and privately. No, they must demonstrate their superiority in front of the others and it was only a matter of time before Buddy forgot and laid his down for a moment. It was quietly and furtively picked back up by another little hand. A struggle ensued and Buddy jerked his knife away from the small hand that fought to retain it by holding on to the blade. Buddy won but nearly severed his brother's fingers. Blood flew, and cries of pain were heard. Tendons were seen through the gashes, but the fingers still worked...eventually, they healed, too.
Going without treatment was not thrift carried to extremes, or masochism, but an ingrained Yankee hardiness, a will to survive under all conditions. The one doctor was already worked to death and well might be at the other end of the township on a life or death matter, or the current emergency might be so extreme that there wouldn't be time to hitch up a horse, ride to the doctor's in the hope of finding him home, and get back over the roads, impassable often in winter, or rutted, or muddy in summer, before someone choked, or bled to death, etc. People just had to learn to treat themselves. Many methods that they learned were excellent first aid maneuvers, forerunners of some present day treatments and medications, others were strictly barbaric, straight out of nightmares, or witch doctoring. People were often so frightened at the prospect of being helpless in the face of real illness, that they would resort to any thing that offered hope. Red strings of wool were tied about the neck of infants to protect them against whooping cough or diptheria; others wore bags of fried onions strung about their neck to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. Urine from animals was put into ears, or gargled with; smoke was blown into aching ears and anything that could possibly be tried was used at least once. Now and again, the old timers would stumble on something of real value and many of the old time herbs which they used are still in use today.
Of course, there was the odd time when thrift entered the picture. Aluminum foil was a good case in point. It came off chewing tobacco, and gum, etc. Larry started a ball of it that eventually grew bigger than his head....And his pieces of glass. He would not discard a broken window because a broken pane could be used as an overlay over a hole in another window...and bent nails were saved for straightening; that was good rainy day therapy, also good for driving away neighboring kids when they came to call and hold everything up. Huge balls of string and pieces of broken harness and old leather were also saved. For many years, Larry's father's 'buffalo' robe and woolen mackinaws hung, moldering in the shed, calling moths by the score during the hot summer months. They hung like shadowy spectres until the old man died and the next generation inherited the tradition of keeping them 'just in case.'
It might be difficult to visualize how people amused themselves in days past; however, the teller of tales was always a welcomed guest, or the person who was known as a 'good visitor' found many doors opened to them. Much family history was passed on this way, generation to generation. Many times young ears ingested facts pertaining to their heritage all unwittingly, and in later years when they found themselves passing the same information on to yet another generation, they would remark, 'fancy that, me remembering that all these years.'
Both Bernie's family and Larry's possessed many fine 'visitors' and so the children were never a problem when they went for an evening out. They listened in wide-eyed wonder to the tales of hunting and tracking, the sagas of the lumber camps, and the stories of the early settlers making their homes, reclaiming the land and establishing the towns. The family was a mixture of French and Irish, so it was not be wondered at if much of the retelling was spoken in hyperbole. Bernie's family especially, had the Irish way-with-words and a rollicking sense of humor.
Visiting was planned on and scheduled for, times when work was impossible. Evenings would have been fine except that people who arose at daylight were too tired to be, or receive, guests. Besides, traveling was still a bit too primitive to risk going out in the dark. The old cars which were in a parlous state for the most part, on bald tires and held together with baling twine and bits of wire, had a difficult time navigating the rutted country roads. They shook and jounced along as though driving over a washboard. If one broke down, or got out of the road after dark, there were no street lights or service stations nearby for aid. Even meeting another vehicle, while highly unlikely, could be fraught with danger because narrow country roads were not built for turning, had no grading, no curbs, or ditches. No; better to stay home and wait for Sunday and...hope the weather was fine!
On Sunday, they arose with anticipation. The men hurried through their chores; that work had to be done even if it was the Lord's day. Those tasks out of the way, there was much shaving and bathing and readying for church. The services seemed twice as long as usual. Ellen held her breath afterwards for fear that someone would announce their imminent arrival that afternoon. No one did, fortunately, so Larry and Bernie hurried home and they joined in a cold repast...then to Grandma's.
Grandma and Grandpa's was a place of endless delights. First, just talking with the older people and listening to conversation larded with their quaint sayings was entertaining. And there was something about the atmosphere- the 'sitting-room' with the embossed metal ceiling, the rope cots and the peacock chair, the firelight sparkling through the mica windows of the round Oak heater where Grandpa had his sock feet on the warm fender and old Gyp lay snuffling and steaming behind. It was a foreign land. And if Grandpa happened to be in the barn- that was an even more adventuresome place to traverse in order to see him.
Grandpa and Uncle Billy were seated half-way down a long line of uneasy cattle rumps. It was staggering to comprehend the distance, from safety at the open door past all those muddy hooves and switching tails, to reach Grandpa's side. And supposing, halfway down to where Grandpa sat calmly milking, one of those vicious, house-high creatures swung it's head around and saw one's darting form? What might they do?
Horses were even worse. They were so tall that the glistening buttocks and tail seemed to merge with the shadowy beams of the ceiling. Huge muscles stood out along the angled legs and the feet were shod with sharp, deadly looking armor. One lift of that hoof and a swift kick backward would nail one to the rear wall, or perhaps, even through it! No, animals could not to be trusted. From either end. The front parts either had long, yellow teeth, or huge, sharp horns. The barn was a dangerous place. The few times when one had dared to make the long, perilous journey to Grandpa's side ended with racing heart, gasping, pumping breaths, and the giddy terror would like as not return later at nighttime. It just wasn't worth it.
The rest of the barn was okay. There was the springy hay to jump in even if it picked and made one sneeze. And...there was often the possibility of kittens. Grandpa had one cow that he kept segregated from the rest because she'd just 'calved', and when he 'stripped' her of her last few drops of milk after the calf had nursed, he could aim a long, warm stream of milk right into one's mouth! The cats soon learned of the trick and formed a circle to get their share, too.'
One day, Ellen and Wesley left the barn to return to the house but they diverged from the path and went around the lilac bush that screened most of the hen house. On the backside of the bush, hanging upside down in the shadows, was a bat. The furry mouselike creature seemed deep in sleep. They poked at it with a stick but as there was no reaction, they soon got bored with that and left it alone.
Once the chores were finished and the men gathered to visit, one was hesitant to miss a word. It usually began with questions, or remarks as to how one was coming along with the haying, gardening, or wood cutting, depending on the time of year. The wood cutting usually led to tales of the lumber-woods and that opened up the gate for the hunting stories.
Larry was a very resourceful and self-sufficient person which shouldn't have been surprising because he'd been brought up in the woods, the son of a woodsman and guide to the rich. His uncles and cousins had also served in that capacity and so most males in the family knew the mountains and fields about almost by heart. He spent the greater part of his life in the deeply wooded Alermak Mountains and became a crack-shot, expert hunter and tracker, and a reticent, anti-social individual, as well. He nurtured the idea that his sons had no talent for either fishing or farming, and were, to his way of thinking, 'rather soft.'
As he grew older and life should have gotten easier, he still refused to adapt himself to modern methods. He continued living hermit fashion at the old homestead. In the winter he went into the woods and chopped his own firewood, drew water from a well, kept cows and horses, and was quite content with his own little world.
Sometimes he trapped, and caught, a number of skinny red foxes. He decided they should be fattened if the fur was to have any value, so he got about twelve or thirteen wooden soap boxes and staked the foxes to them with collars and chains. They were the angriest, meanest animals ever seen. When it was time to feed them, he was forced to use a forked stick and pin them down by the neck so that he could get close enough to leave food and water. They yapped for a good six weeks before he judged them mature enough to be killed. The carcasses looked strangely like hairless dogs lying about the fields once the pelt had been removed. It was a situation that kept the women very unhappy and when the pelts became almost worthless and ended the enterprise, they were well pleased.
The foxes were followed successively by coons and rabbits. One day, Larry returned home with an infant 'coon. It had not been injured in the trap and the cute little thing was quite lively. When he released it, it climbed the broom handle where it clung, looking about with two bright eyes surrounded by dark, owlish rings.
Sometimes the hunting tales gave way to those of the lumber woods- a life that could only be for the hardy. Now and again there was a cam well managed and clean but often as not, the tales of lice and dirt were hair raising.
The cookhouses and dormitories were of necessity, jerry built structures in, or close by, the woods where the men were working. Huge piles of wood and refuse stood outside the door. The cook was busy from dawn to after dark preparing huge quantities of potatoes, breads, doughnuts, cakes and pies for the hard-working men with insatiable appetites. As he worked, there were racks of wet socks drying over the fire. Sometimes, one fell down into the soup, or a mouse, or squirrel met the same fate. The washbasins outside the door were the only source of water except for the pitcher on the table. If a person must bathe, he was free to head for the nearest river. Needless to say, few did but existed in an aura of sweat, smoke, fly dope, and tobacco week after week. Most of the men wore long underwear summer and winter, not only for warmth but as protection against black flies, the bane of the outdoorsman. These items might not get washed until they were nearly able to stand alone. Once body lice and bedbugs got started in a camp, they were nearly impossible to be gotten rid of because it was so difficult to get everybody and everything, clean at the same time.
If the cook was clean and industrious, the men were fortunate, however, the old-timers used to tell about working where the cook was lazy and hated to wash dishes. The men were obliged to turn their used plate over their dirty utensils meal after meal. Usually a lazy, or dirty, cook was given short shrift in a lumber woods because the best workers would not stay where the food was bad.
Cold weather was hard on the men. Although the food kept better and longer, potatoes and staples were simply left outside in the snowbank and when the cook needed some for a meal, he just dropped them into cold water to thaw out.
The men slept in an unheated, non-insulated, log shack. Occasionally there was a stoned-up fireplace at one end for all they were worth. The toilets were down a long path outside; cold, smelly two-seaters. Catalogs and old magazines took the place of the Charmin. It was not a life for the soft or sheltered.
It was also a place fraught with danger. Men worked from early morn until late afternoon using two-man saws, axes, wedges, peeveys, cant hooks, and chains; oxen and sleds, and a multiple of things, all capable of crushing, or maiming a man in some way.
After the logs were cut and skidded out, they might ride a flume down to the mill, or river where the drovers would keep them floating freely. Men got very adept at riding logs and one who regularly worked in the woods wouldn't expect the luxury of a bridge for crossing; he'd be more apt to fell a tree and speed across on the trunk. The old time ballads were often sagas of the loss of a riverman who'd lost his footing and went underneath the floating logs, or got caught in a 'jam', the nightmare of rivermen. "The Jam On Jerry's Rock" was one of the sad, old ballads of the rivermen.
When there was a jam, the logs would pile up like jackstraws, blocking the river. They had to be dislodged, otherwise all traffic was clocked down to the mill. The oldtimers could usually tell which was the logical log to pry at because when that 'key' log was moved, it allowed the others to shoot free and 'shoot free' they did, usually in a huge explosion due to the pressure of those backed up behind. Wintertime made the procedure just that more dangerous when logs were coated with wet snow and slick with ice.
It was all familiar territory to Larry, he'd done it all at some time or other. Seeing wild animals was no novelty, either, because he often times spent the larger portion of a day in the forest. He drove a horse and sled to the place where he'd cut the huge trees down, drag them out and chop them up. It required a strong, patient horse and one with great drawing power because when the sled was fully loaded, it sank deep into the snow and was very difficult to get started.
One winter he used a big, grey mare. She was a fine, healthy beast except she was blind. She was kind and a willing worker, but if she became frightened, she kicked like a fury. One thing in particular scared her silly and that was if the lines touched her back. She'd immediately rear and kick out in all directions, ruining anything nearby.
One day they started out, the man and the big grey mare. It was a cold frosty day with big banks of snow piled along each side of the road in a tunnel-effect. When it was time for them to return, the family watched their coming far off across the fields. Something was obviously wrong because though the horse appeared to be walking normally, the man did not seem to be walking at all; he seemed to be gliding over the top of the snow. As they drew closer it was apparent the mare had broken the sled into pieces and there was only one runner left on which Larry stood to ride down out of the woods. He was a hilarious sight with his heavy mackinaw buttoned high about his ears, looking like a Roman charioteer gliding gracefully along.
He had a great fondness for domestic animals and usually kept a cow or two. Sad to say, he was not unlike his grandfather, who lost his temper and bit his cow when she kicked over the milk pail. One day Larry left the barn in a violent mood. The cow had knocked over a shovel and then stepped on the scoop part of it. That brought the handle up in the air where it caught under a cross part on the inside of the door. When Larry opened the door, the handle was freed to bounce up into the air and strike him on the end of the nose. He was surprised and hurt, and mad as a hornet. He was probably fortunate that his nose wasn't broken. It didn't help matters any when he told what had happened and everyone laughed.
Larry's proficiency with a gun stood him in good stead because he was often host to woodchucks, skunks, squirrels, willingly or not. If they stayed away from the buildings, he didn't bother them; however, if they got into the shed or barns, that made it a personal matter. That fall, a tiny mouse entered the house and liked it so well that it stayed. It grew bolder and bolder. It robbed the cereal boxes, plundered the bread, and anything else that suited it's fancy. The final slap in the face was when it started robbing the seeds Larry had stored for the spring planting. He sat in the crude living room and when the mouse appeared beneath the cupboard, he took aim with the gun that always stood ready and neatly blew it's head off.
He found the country quiet and tame compared to the days of his youth when he roamed the woods like an aborigine. He and his parents lived six miles back from any settlement, on the top of a mountain. When he wanted ammunition, or staples, he hiked or snowshoed out. He was often followed step-by-step by a mountain lion, or a wildcat, or lynx. He was not convinced that they wished to attack but figured that, like all cats, they had a large bump of curiousity. Often he would see a big, black bear and deer were too numerous to mention.
Ellen found these stories as fascinating as did the boys. She was right out there on the grassy knoll with her father when he stood 'watch' and the others drove through the forest, trying to frighten the deer into running in his direction. She felt the bite in the fall wind and noted the geese honking their way south; she saw the bright eyed chipmunks and squirrels as they paused, just out of reach, trying to bluff one into leaving their territory with sharp, incessant chattering. These tales may have grown a bit with the telling, but basically, they were valid sagas of men against nature. Often times, they harked back to days of the Depression and it's aftermath when times were exceedingly harsh for most everyone. Ellen could easily remember the day when, knowing she had no shoes for the fall school term, her father paid 50c to an itinerant peddler who gladly foisted off a pair of extremely passe` shoes. It was a battle to get her to put them on and she fought against going to school if she had to wear them, but there was no help for it, as she had nothing better, nor did they possess the money to purchase anything else.
One story the youngsters loved was about Uncle Herb's new car. It was a real, classy job made about 1924, or thereabouts, with a convertible top, and isinglass curtains that snapped on, in case of rain. The men drove along and Uncle Herb talked a mile a minute, paying little or no attention where he was driving. His companion grew increasingly uncomfortable and finally reminded Uncle Herb for perhaps the tenth time, 'better watch where we're going, Herbie', when Uncle suddenly pulled the steering wheel off the shaft and put it into his passenger's hands. The poor man nearly fainted, not realizing that Uncle Herb had some arrangement underneath the dash for steering with his knees. That was a treasured story and the youngsters always liked to hear it. Uncle Herbie would tell it over and over again, in the long winter evenings as they gathered around Gramp's stove eating apples. He roared with remembrance each time he repeated it.
Story-telling was one of the treasured times of childhood. And Grandpa was no slackard at telling homespun tales, himself, and the children listened quietly when he told of the times when his mother and father were young marrieds, living on the lonely side of the mountain, trying to eke a living from the rocky soil with nothing but a scrawny cow, a horse, and a few chickens. Times got so hard that Grandfather had to go away into the lumbering camps to support his little family. Great-grandmother was responsible for the animals, tending the little garden, watching the children, and doing the baking, preserving, and spinning.
In the cold, fall twilight, she would wrap the baby in the folds of her voluminous apron and go after the cow because the wolves grew bolder with the dark, and it wasn't safe to leave her out. Once inside the safety of their cabin, Grandma sometimes burned feathers in the fireplace to keep the catamounts from jumping down the chimney. Grandpa often spent the whole day on the high side of the mountain cutting logs, then when the day's work was finished, he and the other men rode their skippers fast as the wind, down the mountainside to the logging camp. It must have been an inspiring sight to see the bearded men riding the small, one-runnered skippers which were very difficult to balance, let alone ride along on, but the men managed it and seemed to have a great time doing so.
In those days, a family would frequently go a long while with absolutely no meat. The chickens were kept to supply eggs and more chickens for next year, the cow was for milk and cheese, and many could not afford a pig, so potatoes, salt, and flour were staples that most had, with not much else for variety in the winter. The women kept a little bit of fat to grease their pans for cooking and it was called the 'greaser'. It was treasured until good times came again, and fresh meat, with fat that could be rendered for cooking and baking. One calamitous day a stranger came along...in the way of the times, he was invited in to eat and during the meal, he ate grandmother's greaser!
The family grew up and times got better, and great-grandfather lived to be 93. As his memory dimmed and he grew too old to take part in the story-telling, Uncle Herbie grew more indispensable. Jolly Uncle Herbie- the robust one with the big laugh, and always time for the children. Long after 'the' car had gone the way old cars go, Uncle Herb was walking home from the local store some five miles down the steep mountainside. Usually, any fortunate possessing an automobile would have pity on someone making their way up the long, arduous trail and give them a ride. This particular day, Uncle Herb was huffing and puffing his way along when a car with two laughing young men in it passed him by. They gaily waved as they passed but didn't stop. Halfway to the top, Uncle Herb came upon them. They had stalled and weren't able to hold the car long enough to get it started and going forward again. Relief showed on their faces as they spied Uncle Herb, and they called him to come help.
"Did you offer me a ride back there?" my uncle asked.
"Well, no, we were making the hill," was their reply.
"Well, so am I," Uncle answered and continued on his way.
By this time, they were living, more or less, on prohibited wild meat and fish. The country still felt the aftermath of the Depression and times were hard. Local people would not condemn a man who broke the fish and game laws to feed his family, so Ellen's Dad was safe from all but the conservation officers and their stoolies. It got to be a game, trying to see who could outwit whom and the kids came to regard their father as a modern day Robin Hood. The game protectors made frequent and impromptu visits at the farm. hoping to catch Larry in some overt act of lawlessness, but he was too wily for them. The kids got used to seeing him prepare to go out shortly after dusk. He got his rifle down off the wall and picked out several appropriate cartridges. The dog begun leaping up and down in a joyous frenzy, knowing what was going to happen. Sometimes, Herman took a large celled flashlight that fit on the head, similar to those used by miners, but he hated to use it unless he really had to, because it was a dead give away to his whereabouts and left him less chance of escape.
One evening after he'd left, leaving instructions with the children about what they should say, a friend called at the house looking for him.
"Where is your Dad, Buddy?" the oldest was asked.
"Oh, he's gone for a walk," the boy replied, "but he took his gun-"
When Larry 'had a little luck' as he termed it, the children were taught to station themselves outside watching the road. Ellen was posted at an upstairs window from which she could observe the comings and goings for nearly a mile. Dust raised a noticeable cloud long before a car could be seen.
Downstairs, there was a frantic washing of meat and then the search for a place to store it. For immediate concealment, it could be buried in the hay in the barn, or lowered into the old well nearby. After it had been cut up, it could be put into barrels, or crocks.
One evening shortly after dusk, the game protectors came along. The one usually stationed in the area was being transferred and wanted his successor to get a good look at one of the most suspect persons in his territory. "Let me make you acquainted with Larry," Carl elbowed his buddy.
When the patrol car was spotted coming down the road, Bernie had seized her platter of freshly cooked venison and thrust it into the oven. The rest was hurriedly stuffed into a pork barrel in the back shed. Larry strode outside, hoping to keep the men talking while she hid away every sign...no such luck. Carl made it plain that they wanted to search so Grandpa got into the act.
"Let me light the lantern, boys," he offered. "Where do you want to begin. Would you like to start in the cellar?"
He led them down with alacrity, knowing there was nothing to fear- this time. Gleefully, he watched them poke through the bins of sprouting potatoes and withered carrots and turnips. A surprised toad hopped away from the intrusive beam of light and unwarranted activity. The men dusted their dirty hands and tried to brush the cobwebs from their uniforms. After they had searched and dug to their satisfaction, Grandpa offered a tour of the barns. Perhaps they were getting a bit dubious of the old man by now because they paused in the shed, leaning against the pork barrel to smoke a cigarette, while discussing the pros and cons of whether they should search the outbuildings. Finally, they left and Grandpa sagged in his tracks, nearly overcome with relief.
Another time, they arrived just a dusk. Larry had just finished cutting meat and had no time to wash his bloody hands. He brazenly went out before they had time to get out and carefully holding his tell-tale palms downward, shook hands most congenially with both officers. "Hadda doo, fellas," he offered most congenially. Breaking the law, however, was not all fun and enjoyment. The near brushes with officials, the tension and strain, were part of the risks one took to feed one's family and soon abandoned when the economy improved.
It was easier for those who were canny, and naturally sly, to get by with their poaching. It took a lot of inherent brass to brazen it out with game protectors but Larry did and so a state of undeclared warfare existed between them.
When Larry had the taste for fresh fish, he shouldered his pole and went off down into the fields. Here, he fished the sparkling, gurgling brooks which traversed his property and his adjoining neighbors, with impunity. Time and again, the old timers and novices too, among the local conservationists, followed his tracks only to discover him industriously kicking at a rotted fencepost when they got there. He worked it busily backward and forward, much the 'good farmer walking his line', reinforcing the fences to keep his'n in and their'n out. He pretended to be unaware of being observed through the foliage, but as soon as they left, he picked his gear back out of the bushes and resumed his fishing. Having been a law unto himself since age seven, he had a deal of practice in deception, which now served him well.
He laughed to tell of the fine day when he came out of the fields with his latest kill. He'd dressed out the meat and wrapped it in an old tarp and tied it to one of the kid's sleds. He piled brush wood on top and headed homewards; however, halfway there, he was obliged to pass the game protector's house. As luck would have it, the man was out in the yard and to pass by without 'passing the time of day' would be most suspicious. Ever the gregarious soul, Larry stopped and they had a good chinwag. One of the man's hounds came over and circled the sled, sniffing industriously and getting very interested; too interested.
"What's the matter with that dog of yours?" Larry inquired in an annoyed tone.
"I dunno- the stupid sunofa bitch", the man answered, lifting it in the hind end with his boot whereat it yelped off and crawled under the porch, letting Larry continue on home.
A good ploy for a hunting man was to take his wife with him. It was sometimes the only time Larry cheerfully allowed Bernie into his car. They would set off for all the world to see as though planning to shop, or pay a visit, but then, Larry would detour into the woods. It still wouldn't look suspicious to see him sitting in the car in the forest because for all anyone knew, he might be courting another man's wife! Once he left the car with his gun though, he was treading on thin ice and could be picked up anytime. He made sure to tread lightly and was prepared to throw his gun into the undergrowth at the first snap of a twig. This was when the conservationist earned his money and stories abounded of one being shot through the leg, or foot, or another being set upon and beaten by a gang of poachers.
One night, Larry was nearly caught. He'd been 'jacking deer' and the beams of his big flashlight made long rays of brightness through the evening skies. The game protectors, usually traveling by twos, jumped into their patrol car and headed for the light's source. They followed the sandy forest road which circled a nearby lake, getting closer and closer to the source of light. They grew tense and the passenger checked his gun for easy access, while the driver licked his lips and grasped the wheel with sticky hands.
"We've got 'im dead to rights this time", he announced with satisfaction. "I'll make an example of him. Bet it's that Larry. I've been dying to get this one for a lo-o-ng time."
The car ground to a halt and the men jumped out, sure of their catch this time for there was no other road out but this and they were blocking it. They ran off into the bushes following the trail of broken branches and flattened fern made by the hunter with his old jalopy. Much to their dismay, they feared they knew where his trail was leading them. Sure enough! There was the limping, jumping clatter of his old car going down the railroad bed. They ground their teeth in fury because by the time they turned around and went all the way back around the lake, he'd followed the straighter route and was home.
An unseasonably hot spell was making people miserable. The beaches were just too far away to walk to and the lucky few who possessed a car hoarded their gas for more important occasions. The majority of country homes still lacked running water which spelled bathrooms, tubs, or showers. Children got sponge baths and summer showers, no matter how brief, brought them running out in their swimsuits. Huge black callused rings raised about their ankles and spread down heels and around the toes to turn embarrassingly dark. Knees and elbows showed the same alarming symptoms and required prolonged soaking and creaming to restore normal appearance. Larry solved his personal hygiene problems by hopping into the horse trough when his day's work was done.
Houses held the day's heat and it was difficult to sleep in the upstairs chambers. Most were close under an un-insulated roof and seldom was there more than a solitary window. Beds rose like burgeoning yeast with thick feather 'ticks' and pillows. They were wonderful in cold weather but they enveloped the body in heat retaining folds in summer. They were difficult to make up into a presentable looking bed because the feathers would shift into the corners or down to either end, and the tick had to be shaken or 'plumped', wonderful, sneezy work in hot weather.
The children were greatly affected by the fierce heat and baseball games and strenuous activities such as tag, rolling the hoop, or just general running around came to an abrupt halt. They sprawled in bored lassitude wherever there was shade. Usually, the pets sprawled somewhere beside them. As they lay about, bored and too warm to contemplate much but the fleecy clouds drifting above, it was an innovative youngster who could think of something to do.
Buddy stared over at Ellen's recumbent form, resting among the clover blossoms.
"You know- the poor old dog must be just about dying with all that fur on 'em."
Ellen eyed the dog wearily. "Yeah, I guess he is."
"It's too bad he can't be like us. He'd be a lot cooler if he had bare skin."
Ellen eyed her brother. She knew him too well not to realize that this was leading somewhere.
"Well," she ventured, "It would be nice if he was cooler, but I guess he's going to have to stand it, unless"...they jumped to their feet and raced into the house. There was a session of unwarranted activity until time for Larry to come home. When the old car chugged into the driveway and Larry got out, he was met by a surprisingly amiable lion. The lion jumped up and demonstrated his welcome but there was a noticeable absence of kids, kids who were usually there with eager eyes and flapping mouths. Oh, well, the dinner hour would bring them out.
When the food was finally on the table, Ellen, Wesley, and Buddy slid unobtrusively on to their chairs. Dinner was eaten in ominous silence and afterwards, while Bernie cleared away and washed up the dishes, the youngsters accounted for the massacre of the old dog and for the unauthorized use of their father's hairclippers. Soon, a chastened trio made their way out to the potato field with soup cans where they collected potato bugs until dusk.
The dog, old Charlie, was part-collie, a mutt full of savvy and one which Larry kept for his talents. He was not only a superb watchdog; he also knew when it was time to fetch the cows each night and he'd gently round them up and bring them home to the barn. If one got balky and did not want to come, he'd get behind and nip her heels just enough to make her fall in line. This pleased Larry for a dog who 'ran' the cows just before milking time was no good.
Charlie was the kid's faithful companion and followed them through the fields and woods and was one of the reasons why Bernie seldom worried about them. She knew Charlie'd take care of them. And he did, too. One day he demonstrated the lengths to which he was prepared to go to protect his charges.
It was a beautiful spring day. The sun was hot and high and it called them into the fields. As usual, they followed the line fence down over the hill towards the backend where Buddy figured the wild strawberries would be riper on the sun-drenched crest of the neighbor's hill. They crawled under the barbed wire fence and sure enough, huge patches of mouth-watering redness spread before them.
They crouched and began to fill their mouths. Deer flies swarmed about their heads, and they were stung by various insects but all that stuff went unnoticed in the delightful treat. A vicious bellow accompanied by an awful growl from Charlie awakened them to their danger.
The neighbor's bull was coming up the pasture hill, belching fire like a big black locomotive.
"Run for the fence," Buddy screamed as he tried to dig a deeply embedded rock from the earth. "Quick...get." His brothers and his sister started but then she stopped, loath to leave Buddy to pay for their safety.
"Go," he screamed again, and by now the bull was almost on them. Charlie, good, old Charlie, heard the urgency in their voices, and saw the oncoming bull. He jumped between the beast and the children, teeth bared and a low, ominous rumbling came from his throat. The bull paused at this new threat. He snorted and he pawed the ground. Huge clods the size of dinner-plates flew over his shoulder and the ground shook with his frightful stampings.
Buddy continued to work at the buried rock with bruised and bleeding fingers, demented in his own fright and concern for his siblings.
"Take him, Charlie," he encouraged. "Get him, boy."
Charlie reacted at the urgent request and began to advance, belly close to the ground and both eyes watchful. The bull circled, keeping his head facing the golden dog, who'd dart forwards to snap in the bull's face and then jump backwards always just in time. From first one side and then another, Charlie'd jump and snap, always trying to force the bull backwards and farther away. Ellen was on the far side of the fence now and had she'd pulled her younger brother through. Now they stood, crying and wringing their hands.
"Cone on, Buddy, come on" they couldn't understand why he didn't run through and save himself now that they were safe but then Ellen realized that he didn't want to leave the brave dog to the bull.
Off in the distance the fat, dumpy farmer approached with a pitchfork, his short, stubby legs vainly trying to carry him over the rutted earth.
"Come on, Buddy. Mr Cee's coming after the bull. Come on."
By now the dog had caught the bull by the nose. The bull roared and swung his massive head, whirling the dog in a circle overhead from whence he spun off and landed on the ground several feet away. The dog lay inert and Buddy started forwards. Again the bull turned their way but the dog was back on his feet...a bit dizzy but by no means out of the fray. The bull whirled to renew the attack and the dog got him by the nose again. Around and around they whirled, but this time, the dog hung on. Poor valiant brute, he was dragged and thumped over the stony surface in a bruising manner but by now, the farmer was on the scene. He ran forward and jabbed the bull in the rump with the long tines of the manure fork. With a mighty last bellow, the battle was ended and the bull ran off down the hill.
Mr. Cee wiped his streaming face on a large, red kerchief. "Are you kids all right?"
Released now from their mighty emotions, their tongues flapped simultaneously, telling the story and assuring him that they were fine, that Charlie had saved them. The dog stood proudly, tongue lolling and tail waving triumphantly. Charlie had saved the day.
Later in the day when they rode the hay wagon up from the fields, they observed the bull from safety, high up on the load of hay, from whence they jeered and thumbed their noses at him. Forgotten was that instant of near-tragedy when they'd been all too vulnerable.
It was school time again. Mornings were nippy and the youngsters trudged along, some swinging Karo syrup pails, some lard buckets, and a favored few had bona fide lunch pails. The long crocodile picked up momentum as it went along.
There were three from Larry's place, and three from the next, and so on until there may have been fifteen, or eighteen youngsters, singing and bickering and dancing along the highway. Those from the next homestead plodded silently along, their noses clogged with yellow nasal despoits, their rickety mal-nourished bodies constant host to viruses and parasites. Those who joined at the end of the street scratched and dug at their lice infested heads, their rotund bodies a testimonial to a diet of high-starches, rather than good feeding. The lady closest the school prudently kept her little girl back until it was nearly time for the bell, so the immaculate chit would not have to walk with any of these ruffians.
The last mentioned youngster was a novelty to the others, held in awe as a strange, exotic pet might be. Her dainty organdy dresses, her shiny shoes, and exquisite person set her apart and she was as unreal as a piece of Dresden china. They stood back and stared at her, mouths hanging open. Needless to say, she was the teacher's pet.
When they reached the frame schoolhouse, the windows were thrown open to air out the various odors and a fresh bucket of water sat on the shelf. The trustees paid one of the older boys, (his father was one of the most vocal of their members,) to keep the school swept out and built the fire on winter mornings. Through the day, he would bring several armloads of wood from the shed that was attached to the rear of the schoolhouse. In warm weather, he would open windows and door and get the building ventilated before the teacher arrived.
The shed also housed the two-holers, one on either side of the shed to separate the sexes, and barricaded down the middle by long stacks of wood. Oftentimes the boys would put their eye to the cracks in this edifice and whisper seductive phrases in an effort to lure the little girls through to the other side.
One time Ellen reached the school a good deal ahead of her companions. There was only herself and the monitor present and he immediately seized her. There was a brief, frenzied struggle between them until some of the others arrived in the nick of time to save her. She didn't know what she was being saved from but his actions didn't seem just right.
When recess time came, the students were excused for a fifteen minute run and it was put to good advantage by heading for the closest beechnut grove. The most agile boys would climb as high as possible, and they would shake down the delicious beechnuts. The girls below quickly filled their dinner pails and when the receptacles were full, they filled their pockets and ate as many as they could before the bell rang for them to return.
In mid-afternoon the lower grades were dismissed ahead of the older students. When Bernie saw her youngest appear on the horizon, she'd rush to put a kettle on the burner with a couple inches of water inside. If he didn't 'see' something cooking for dinner, he'd be very disturbed. She sang while the kettle steamed away, making him happy. After that was taken care of and the others were home, they'd help her bring in the old tick that she'd filled with dried corn-husks, providing someone with a new mattress. It was much better to sing one's way through the drudgery, it all had to be done anyhow and 'blessed are the cheerful workers,' she'd cannily announce. Often she'd set the alphabet to a little jingle, allowing a cluster of three letters to a beat, thus encouraging the little ones to learn their letters.
Sometimes after school was finished for the day, the big kids climbed the pinnacle behind the school and marauded through the beechnut trees that grew up the flanks of the mound. It was pleasant, crunching their way through the crisp Smithers and golden leaves. Looking back and downward at the toy village off in the distance, their homes bore a magical distortion. Gone was the squalor and meanness, all appeared gay and appealing as though in a painting.
When the nutting was done with, the boys drew an old wagon around and the foolhardy climbed aboard. There was no means for steering, and none for braking but who thinks of that at ten, or eleven, or even twelve?
The gig picked up momentum and objects begun to blur as they hurtled past. Ellen realized that she'd made an enormous mistake, but that was academic now. They flew past the stragglers who'd declined the ride, (wisely, it now appeared), and who stood regarding the mad race with open mouths. On they went, the wheels struck outcropping rocks and sparks flew. One wheel ran over a rather large rock and the gig nearly upended but it's tenacious riders hung on for dear life. The near upset had changed their direction and they veered off from the barbed wire fence that had seemed to be their ultimate destination...and perhaps, their doom, and now they were bound for the aspen grove.
Fortunately, the young trees were resilient and gave at the first brutal onslaught. The gig hit them at mid-point and they allowed it to go forwards but quickly reached a point where they could give no longer; they had checked it's momentum enough that they could now assert their own strength and hurl it backwards in the direction from whence it had just arrived. Kids flew in every direction; the fortunate landing in heaps of leaves, other lucky ones were deposited on soggy tussocks of grass, but the unfavored few who landed among the rocks were fortunate to emerge without their heads broken. No one had much sympathy for their lumps and abrasions...they were deemed too lucky to be alive. After a few discreet sniffles behind their sleeves, they continued on to their respective homes. Unlucky those who had lost the contents of their buckets and had no recompense to offer their mothers for the torn clothing and ruined shoes.
Ellen got home just in time to smell the winey odor of drying apples. Her mother had spent her afternoon paring and peeling apples, then she quartered them and threaded them on strings. These were pinned to the clothesline in the bright autumn sunlight. Wasps gathered and refreshed themselves on the sparkling drops of juice that appeared from time to time.
There were berry stands along the roadsides each fall and Bernie saw it as a way to fatten the wallet. One warm day she took her progeny to the off side of the pinnacle where they filled many pails. The kids were buoyed by the thoughts of the delicious short cake they would have that night for supper; however, when they got home they had a caller who was so entranced with the beautiful harvest that she offered to purchase all of it. She made an offer Bernie couldn't refuse, much to the chagrin of the youngsters who moped the rest of the afternoon. Bernie told them not to mind, the next day she'd take them to the river where they could pick and swim, too.
They spent a pleasant morning picking blueberries and ate their lunch by the water. They ate berries by the handful, occasionally getting traces of the horrible, musky tasting 'stinkbug'. They splashed about in the shallows and then they'd pick a few more berries. When the pails were full they began the walk back, long and hot now, in the high afternoon sun. Deer flies and bugs of many descriptions dogged their steps, adding to the misery of the welts caused by forcing their way through brambles, and often, one or another, had sunburn. Usually someone had to 'go' before they got back. One time Wesley had to go, so he went off into the bushes by himself. When he was finished his 'business', he confused the remnants of an old CCC trail with the one he should have taken to rejoin the family. He walked on for some time and suddenly became alarmed. He began to run and then he panicked. The family could hear his frantic cries as he ran back and forth but never quite reaching them. Three, or four, dropped their pails and ran off in search of the young boy, calling but unable to make him hear over his loud cries. After a bit, the oldest son caught up with him and dragged the shamed-faced child back to the proper trail.
It had been a long trying day but Bernie, as promised, made them an appetizing cobbler for being so diligent in their picking. She put it out on the settee on the porch to cool. As they were eating, a friend stopped in with a message for Larry.
"Say, Bernie," he asked, "Was that anything that you wanted to save out here on the porch?"
They dashed to the door- too late. The big rooster and several hens, stood first on one foot and then another in the still bubbling juices, busily picking the steaming dessert into their beaks.
When the wild berries ripened, people knew it to be the 'swan song' of summer. It represented a last chance to replenish the larder with Nature's bounty. Sometimes several families combined their efforts to locate the biggest, juciest berries; those which filled the baskets fastest.
In late summer, Bernie and Larry made plans with the Blairs, who agreed to arrive early the following morning and they would spend the day across the river berrying; however, man proposes and God disposes. During the night the temperatures dropped sharply and there was a frost before morning. When the Blairs arrived, there was much discussion whether it would be worth going, or not. Likely the cold had got all the berries but the women had made plans for a day's outing and were loth to give up without trying. Good-naturedly, the men gave in and the youngsters gleefully jumped in the back of the big old hay truck.
They trundled out of the yard and over the country roads until they reached the river. The morning mists and s team arose from the water, nearly obscuring the big, fat log on which they must cross. Once down at the river and actually on it, it no longer looked so large, or fat. The water was high and it roiled and spun past underneath. The men went across first with the lunch baskets, then the older boys crossed. Then it was time for the women and little ones. No one wanted to be first to cry craven but actually, no one wanted to cross any more at all. The men coaxed and dared, threatened, all to no avail. The women just couldn't do it. Finally they agreed; the men would pick on the far side, the women on the near and they fanned out and the picking began. As the women dragged their children through the dew-drenched bushes that left them covered with wet leaves and picky mosses, cries of dismay resounded from side to side. The berries were all soft and squashy! They weren't any good any longer. They picked up and then dropped the luscious fruit sadly; if only they'd come just one day earlier. IF-
It was a halcyon time and doomed to end shortly. It wouldn't be long before Halloween and already conversation was studded with scary tales of goblins, ghosts, and frightening spectres. The worst was Grandpa's loup garoup. It was never quite clear to Ellen what it looked like; some unlikely combination of werewolf and banshee, she guessed, whatever they were. They were horrible, in any event, and her flesh quivered just thinking about them.
When they sat about in the evening, the fire snapping and just Ellen and her brothers, and their mother, Bernie might pause and listen intently.
"What was that?" she'd whisper. That whispered question was more frightening than any scream. One night, she frightened herself so that she loaded Larry's gun and ran out into the yard. She shot straight at the moon and then ran back into the house, satisfied that nothing would dare bother a woman so brave and well armed.
Time sped along and it was time for the fall mission's and a missionary would spend a week in the parish and each evening there was services. Anyone who professed to be a church member, and who dared be so independent as not to be, tried his or her best to attend every night because the missionaries were almost entirely, excellent speakers. They called the spellbound congregation to account for their sins and their lax ways. Individuals looked at one another, they hadn't realized how wicked they were, how they'd fallen away from God's commandments. By the end of the week, most were ready to fall on their knees and confess their sins. Then they were given absolution followed by communion at the next mass.
The water froze over and snow fell in brief warnings. It was harder to 'get out' all the time so residents of the tiny hamlet circumscribed their range and began to hold dances in their kitchens. Every third house seemed to boast a fiddler and the dances occurred turn and turn about, at first one house and then the next. Little ones were carried along and bedded down on benches and cross-wise the beds in rows of three, or four. Those who could play anything, including a comb, were pressed into service. Those who could sing, or 'toe-dance' were expected to perform. The remainder danced- and danced, whirling appreciatively; perspiring, dizzily circling to 'Turkey-In-The-Straw', and 'My Darlin' Nellie Grey'. The break-down brought everything to a smashing conclusion when everyone stopped for the refreshments, of which each participant had brought some token.
The home dances were interspersed with the church bazaars. Through the bad weather, homemakers worked on 'pieced' quilts, braided or hooked rugs, crochet work, and many other items of home-crafting which would be likely to sell and they were placed on long trestles along one side of the social halls, along with homemade cookies, cakes, pies, jams and jellies.
Each home sent a representative to work on the bazaars, either cooking, waiting on tables, selling tickets, or being a vendor at one of the craft booths, or tables which meant there was a lot of haircurling and primping beforehand. Ellen stuck the curling iron down the lamp chimney so she could have ringlets. Now and again she'd forget it and it would get too hot and when she made the curl, it cooked the hair and it would drop off and the odor smelled the whole house up. She learned to test it with a bit of spit on one finger. She had to look nice because she was one of the waitresses chosen to help with the huge dinners that were served harvest style in relay after relay.
After folks had glutted themselves, the fiddlers tuned up and the small fry were bedded down on the benches along the walls while their parents whirled and bounced over the dance floors. Everyone was expected to be sociable and greybeard danced with emerging maiden, old ladies were gallantly squired by young striplings, while a young 'un of eight, or ten might be seen solemnly rotating with a parent, or aunt, or uncle. One got in the habit of combining work and fun at an early age, and it was thoroughly enjoyed.
It was good to celebrate life before the roads became clogged with snow, or treacherous with ice. Soon, the glittering crystals covered everything indiscriminately, and what appeared beautiful might be in reality, a treacherous trap.
One such place was the chasm where the road ended just past Larry's home. It was a place of mild danger in good weather because most drivers had the sense to throttle down as they approached the end, and cattle and horses never went down except sideways, thus mitigating the steep plunge of a straight descent. In winter, it was a vastly different place. The snow rolled over the edges of the rim like frosting on a huge wedding cake. Like rolling ocean-waves, it curled over the edges in huge, fleecy piles, where it lay like billowing clouds, tempting the unwary to jump... just one heavenly, big, soft jump.
Of course, Ellen, Wesley, and one of the neighbor's boys had to try it. With a great plopping skid, they went out and over and plummeted far below. They were fortunate not to cause an avalanche because it was very possible that half of the barely clinging snow above might have descended with them...might still, and now they found that they were unable to move. The snow in the ravine was so deep that they were unable to lift one leg high enough to extend it in front of the other. What could they do now?
First one, then the other, tried to lie down and roll but the snow was too light. They tried to pull one another but that only settled them deeper in the cold whiteness. They began to scream and call for help but the snow not only muffled their cries, the roaring brook conspired to deaden the sounds that simply reverberated into the woods and died away. Their calls turned to tears that began to freeze on their faces because the high, noon sun was fading fast, and the cold increasing.
The child who had been sliding with them was one of the malnourished crew belonging to the next neighbor. His bowed, wiry legs he owed to rickets, and while he was as old as, or older than, Ellen, or Wesley, he was much smaller...all items in his favor because he was able to pull himself up by brambles and weeds that would not support their weight. He kept up his attempts and was soon successful and made the top and raced off for home, leaving them alone.
For a time, Ellen and Wesley waited with bated breath, sure he would send someone to get them out, but as time passed, it was clear that he had treacherously deserted them. They cried some more and Wesley had to 'go' desperately, and Ellen was thirsty. She tried eating some snow but it only increased her thirst. Their teeth chattered and they began to shake. Then they realized they'd been hearing hallo's from time to time.
They begun to scream and suddenly, they felt a minor impact and lo, they were joined by the family dog, who had literally dropped out of the sky. He jumped and barked, and licked their faces. They hugged him and he barked some more, looking upwards and sending a cascade of snow down upon them. It wasn't long before they saw their father's face peering cautiously over the rim. He looked to the right, and to the left. There was no safe way down. He began to go away and they screamed frantically. Was he going to leave them there? His head returned and he motioned to them. It wasn't long before they saw a rope descending towards them, a huge ring on the end.
It snowed again, and they were more or less confined to the house. The house groaned and creaked with the cold and Larry would give them an extra lie-in when it was extra frosty by going down ahead of the rest and getting the fires going. It took longer for the old house, minus insulation of any kind, to heat up and often the nails would sing or go popping out of the siding with a loud bang like a shot from a gun. They got fairly good at guessing the temperature from the way the train whistle sounded as the locomotive chugged its way up to the high plateau with its ring of blue mountains all around about. They'd hear the lonesome whistle echo and drain away, the frost making it sound brittle in the crisp cold air, like a tap on crystal.
There was little to do on such cold days except read or played games until they got so bored with one another's company that anything attempted developed into a brawl. Finally, one day the boys went outdoors to slide and Ellen stayed in the kitchen, ostensibly to help her mother make cookies.
Bernie was a great believer in teaching children useful things. Just a few short weeks ago, when they were down with the chickenpox, she'd taught them to embroider, and didn't Wesley excel over all the rest?
Ellen mixed the sugar, eggs, and shortening according to her mother's instructions. She sifted the flour and dry ingredients together, trying to measure accurately with the bent spoons and dented cups. Then, she alternately added the wet ingredients with the dry, stirring vigorously each time. She surveyed the large, golden mass with delight. These would be yummy and those boys would get only what she chose to give them!
"I have to go out now and feed the chickens," Bernie announced. "Just let it set until I come back in." She bustled about, buttoning on a heavy coat and tying a scarf over her head. "Now wait for me. Don't do anything until I get back." She picked up the cans of warmed mash and one of warm water and stepped out the door.
Ellen ran her finger around the rim of the bowl and took a good lick. Boy, that was good. She wandered to the window and peeked out. The boys were sliding over the heavily crusted snow. When they broke through, it cut the flesh so they learned not to to push their bodies forward with their arms. If they did, their wrists soon looked as though they'd been manacled.
The sun sank lower. What was taking her mother so long? Back to the table for another swipe around the inside of the bowl. Gee, the cookies should have been done by now. Wouldn't Mom be surprised if they were?
Throwing caution to the winds, Ellen lightly floured the board as she'd so often seen Bernie do, then she dumped out a large dollop of the sticky molasses dough. She cautiously scattered a bit more flour on top and seizing the rolling pin, pushed down hard in an attempt to roll the batter out. The roller all but disappeared into the glutinous mass. The gelid substance oozed over the roller, the board, and both of her hands. She seized a table knife lying at the side of the board and tried to scrape the gooey mess back into a compact mound. She was able to get a lot of it back into place, but it took a good deal of flour in the process, and when she tried to move it around, it appeared glued to the board. What did Mom do when this happened? Ellen couldn't remember seeing it happen to her mother.
'What are you doing?" She hadn't heard her mother come in. "Didn't I tell you to wait for me?"
"But I wanted to surprise you-"
"Yes, well, I'm surprised. Let go now and let me see if I can clean up this mess."
Ellen sullenly went to wash her hands. Might as well go out and slide with the boys. Nobody appreciated anything you tried to do for them around here.
She bundled up in her warmest clothing and went outside. Despite the brilliant sun, the raw air nearly took her breath away. Her nostrils stuck together as if they might be freezing up. She barely got to the slope when her brothers, tired of their long afternoon of sliding, gave up and went inside. Oh, well, who needed them, anyway?
Ellen made a few slides up and down the hill. remarking how the sunshine sparkled when it hit the shiny runners of her sled. She licked at one shimmering spot and could not break loose from the sled...It was stuck to her tongue! She whimpered in fright and tried cautiously to pull it loose, but when her tongue was seared by raw pain she had to give up Crying hysterically, she headed for the house. Would she ever make it before her tongue froze solid? It was impossible to hurry with the sled hanging from her tongue; if she fell, she'd pull half the skin off. She trundled along, still a long way to go...then half-way..a quarter, and then some of her tears ran down the runner and loosened her tongue...she was free!
It remained bitterly cold all that day and late in the evening, they watched the neighbor's house burn. The flames reached high over the rooftop and momentarily outlined doors and windows in an eerie fashion. Off to the side, the Aurora Borealis danced over the horizon in a staccato pattern as though trying to outdo the flames on the dying structure. They watched first the house, then nature's spectacular, the colors changing from blue to orange, salmon to Nile green, then yellow- finally they shut it out and went to bed.
The baby was proud to tell Grandpa how he'd seen the 'weary Alice' when the neighbor's house burned.
The cold continued and there wasn't much to do but wait it out. Larry couldn't take the old horse to the woodlot to cut wood; the horse would freeze to death standing about all day waiting for him to cut a load. His usual winter's work with the road gang was in abeyance because the snow was frozen too hard to shovel. And few of the men had clothing warm enough to withstand the sub-zero temperatures.
When they did go out, Larry wore his flannel pajamas underneath woolen work trousers, a flannel shirt, woolen sweater, overall frock, topped off by a sheepskin mackinaw, that weighed over twenty pounds all by itself. His feet were encased in a couple pair of woolen socks, felt patens, or puttees, stuck inside leather uppers, the rubberized feet like 'duck-boots'. Before long his feet would be steaming with sweat which froze and then spread up the legs. The men stamped their feet frequently and worked their toes, anything to keep them from freezing. Their hands were covered with work gloves, thrust inside bulky mitts, homemade from old woolen coats.
At noon the men adjourned to the workshack, a single-boarded shelter that provided nothing but a windbreak and storage place for tools. Larry ate his cold pancakes there with chunks of salt pork sandwiched inside and drank his jar of cold tea. Sometimes, there were a couple of frozen doughnuts to round out the fare.
Now while the thermometer ranged in the -40 -50 degree brackets, the men were not going out. Indeed, not many people were going anywhere. Larry did take one exceptionally bright day to hitch up the cutter and take the family to see Bernie's parents. Her grandfather was living with his son and daughter-in-law, and the poor old soul was not at all well.
It was strange to see his captain's chair empty. The old gent had spent his declining years seated by the welcome heat from the wood range while the rest bustled about him, going on with their work, with their life. Now he lay upstairs in the small chamber, breathing stertoriously, his empty chair by the fireside an eloquent reminder of his mortality.
Grandma opened the door to them and helped them unwrap while Grandpa and Dad got old Prince unhitched and into the barn. Grandma's unusually solemn demeanor showed that this was a special occasion. She led them quietly into the 'sittin room' and when Aunt 'Winey emerged from the downstairs chamber, gently tried to herd the mad old lady back into her room. She, like children, seemed to have a prescience that something extraordinary was going to happen and would not be led without causing more fuss than it was worth, so they stood back and allowed her to shuffle about, tentative hands reached out to check her.
First, she grabbed Wesley's red ball from him and essayed a bite from it. It was clear that this was no good, so she rounded on Ellen, the nearest one.
'Mercy me, why is that young 'un allowed to play with that baby?' she demanded, snatching the doll from Ellen's arms. Ellen emitted a loud wail, half-stifled on it's way out by her mother's hand over her mouth.
'Hush your noise- old Grandpa's sick."
"But she's got my doll!" Ellen's indignant complaint was choked back in her throat by her mother's advance.
"Let her hold it a little while if it keeps her quiet. She'll forget all about it soon if you let her alone."
Ellen sat back, arms folded and a scowl on her face. She directed hateful glances at her great aunt while her elders talked in lowered voices.
"Why don't you give her back the 'apple'?" she whispered spitefully to Wesley.
A bit later, the priest came and they all knelt and said the rosary for old Grandpa. Then it was time for his medicine so the children were allowed to see him, knowing that he had to be disturbed anyway. Uncle Herbie drew off a teaspoonful of dark green liquid and forced it between the old man's lips. He gurgled and a good deal of it trickled out of the corner of his mouth and ran down his chin. Wesley ran down the stairs in horror. On the way home, he informed his parents that 'Uncle Herbie had poisoned old Grandpa'.
If the work was slack for the men, it never let up inside the house. In days of such early darkness, there were kerosene lamps to be filled and the 'chimbleys' washed. They were usually smoked up again each morning and covered with deposits of carbon.
At the first washing, the carbon did not mix, not disintegrate in the soapy water but floated on top, or formed a film on the hands. A repeated wash and thorough rinse got the rest off and the glass had to be polished with a lint-free cloth, or newspaper, by reaching a cautious hand inside from first one end and then the other, very, very carefully, because the least pressure broke the fragile crystal and could viciously slice into the hand or fingers.
Pouring kerosene into the tiny aperture was an equally distasteful task because, as one readily perceived, anything coming into contact with kerosene acquired a nauseous taint that did not readily wash off. Of course, there were always the minute drops splashed on one's clothing, as well as the aroma on the hands, which lingered, and lingered- If the lamp was set on the table, then the table covering carried the smell and taste of kerosene and perhaps the upcoming meal, as well-
A while ago Larry noticed that his brother-in-law had a pressure lantern that gave a fine, white light. Kerosene lamps were so unsatisfactory, the light so dim that Larry decided that he had to have one of those lanterns, and he got one. He brought it home and filled it with fuel. Then he pumped it up and got it lit, but something went wrong and it burst into flames. He barely had time to grab it and throw it out into the snowbank before it exploded.
Meantime, the housework was getting very difficult for Bernie; there were six of them now and no labor saving devices, and her back ached incessantly. Larry found her a gasoline iron. There was a font on the heel to fill and when it was lit, the iron was supposed to be just wonderful. When warm weather came, she would be able to iron on hot days without having the wood range going. But like the other appliances, once it was lighted, the iron bubbled and hissed in an alarming manner and one day, that exploded.
It seemed that nothing they had to do was easy. There was no running water, no plumbing, no central heat, and no electricity. Disposing of waste had always been a problem for country people. They tried to keep it as sanitary as possible, fearing disease and infection but cold weather forced them into using chamber pots in the bedrooms and slop pails in the kitchen. Needless to say, they were emptied as quickly as possible.
Adults tried to use the privy outside as much as they could and they kept a bucket of lime or ashes close at hand so they might cover their excretions and foil the flies and bugs. Once spring arrived, Grandpa would be able to harness the horses and attach them to a giant ring that was on the exterior of the privy wall. They would pull out the bottom compartment that was made like a drawer and take it down into the fields and bury the contents; meantime, cold weather forced them to use the facilities inside the shed.
In good weather, dirty water and so on from the kitchen was saved to scrub the floor and then it was taken out and poured around the flowers in summer, simply emptied in winter.
Heavier, more organic refuse was composted for the garden, or if it was edible, it went into the swill pail for the pigs. The ashes from both stoves were saved to make soap, and sometimes potash, and indirectly 'saleratus' for baking.
Washdays were particularly bad days in cold weather. The old range was kept stoked like a blast furnace, boiling the white clothes in a copper boiler on the top. The steam rose from the water and mixed with the fumes of yellow soap, and most pathways were blocked by the wash and rinse tubs. Often, Larry would use the occasion of the stove being fired to high to boil some potatoes for the pits. The actual scrubbing the family wash on the corrigated board was hot laborious work, no wonder Bernie's back ached. Years later, Larry was able to purchase a gasoline operated washer for her but what it accomplished in ease of laundering, it sacrificed in sound and smell. One window had to be raised enough to let the end of the exhaust outside and the thing roared and rattled as the clothing sloshed back and forth. Needless to say, good weather solved many problems!
As times continued to be rough for the Smithers, Larry was driven to work out and Bernie agreed to do the same. The family would split up temporarily; Wesley went to stay with his grandparents and Ellen went to an elderly couple who had sometimes baby-sat when she and the boys were younger. They allowed her to bring her pet dog and although they treated her very kindly, they'd never had any children of their own and it was just different. There were girls in the next house to visit with and there were slopes behind the house to ski on but the old folks wanted her to stay close. Ellen was finally forced to slide down the gentle inclines by herself with her small dog on her shoulders.
One cold, sunny day the dog ran away. Surmising that the dog too, was homesick, the oldsters suggested that it had gone home. There was no way home except by skis because the roads were impassable with snow, so Ellen and one of the girls started out across the fields both riding the same pair of old, wooden skis. It wasn't bad, at first, for the day was young and the sun was high, but half-way there, the skis became absorbent and began to stick. Neither had any wax with them, so they'd go a bit and stop and bang the accumulation off the ski bottoms, then they'd go a bit further and then repeat the process. By the time they'd arrived at the house, they were exhausted.
The old place stood empty, forlorn, and cold. The eaves dripped a lonely little refrain and on the porch crouched the naughty dog...and they still had to go all the way back.
The girls rested for awhile but the lowering sun warned them not to dally, so Ellen shouldered her burden and they started back. They were hampered by the dog because each time they stopped to unclog the skis, the dog tried to run back to the house. Finally, they were forced to tie her with a piece of shoestring before they could continue. By the time they reached the main road again, they were tired out. The dog was well watched after that because Ellen couldn't afford a repeat trip to fetch it.
The days whirled by for Ellen. Are all adolescents nothing but selfish hedonists? Do they ever look into the faces of a parent and see the lines of worry and fatigue that are written there? Did Ellen ever seriously look at the countenances of the couple who cared for her and consider that she might be causing them concern? That she might be invading their privacy? That they really didn't need the worry of a teenager in their home?
Ellen looked and saw them, but they didn't really register on her mind. She was too busy getting up each morning and preening before her mirror in an effort to make herself pretty for the coming day, trying innovative ways of wearing the same old clothing. Though she was passing through school, she scarcely gave a thought to that, either and often arrived at class unprepared. Her written work might be scribbled on her lap before the bell rang and the teacher was forced to leave off visiting with the one in the next room, to come in to conduct the class. If there wasn't time to finish writing, Ellen learned the devious trick of inveigling her teacher into 'explaining' some point in the text. The teacher was flattered at being asked to expound and did so at length, giving Ellen time to finish writing the assignment.
It could certainly be assumed that Ellen's brother was leading the same feckless life with his grandparents because when Larry and Bernie came home on the weekends and got their children together for a family 'visit', it was mostly spent in complaints against their hosts.
Ellen was bitter because the elderly couple lived so far from the school that she was unable to attend any extra-curricular functions, and they wouldn't allow her to visit around in the evenings but wanted her in after dark...indeed, they insisted on retiring for the night indecently early. And Wesley complained because he was forced to attend school with the Joners, the raffish neighbors who lived by Grandpa and Grandma...and the boy came to play cards in the evenings and he cheated. And so the boys fought incessantly...just what Grandma and Grandpa needed, of course, but the children couldn't see that. Fortunately, time was passing and before the youngsters could kill their hosts, it was again spring and the old house was opened once more and the family enclosed inside.
The economy limped along and Bernie and Larry were still driven to piteous means of survival.. Bernie had brought home old flannel shower curtains which her employer had done with, and the boys slept between them. Wesley was suffering from legache at this time and night after night, Bernie or Larry had to get up and rub the boy's legs with linament. Buddy was bothered with bronchitis, so the nights they weren't rubbing legs, they were administering cough medicine.
One home remedy after another was tried and discarded. Bernie made cough medicine from melted butter mixed with a bit of alum; then Grandpa picked wormwood and Bernie made them drink a tea from it; next they got honey and lemons, and so on until warm weather proved the best remedy of all.
As the weather moderated, the priest began to make his parish visits before the beginning of Lent. He called at each home in turn and shared his concerns for the community, the church, the family. He was a kind and caring man. He accepted a cup of tea from Bernie and to her astonishment, light a cigarette to go along with it. She didn't know anyone who'd ever seen a priest 'smoke' before.
They had a long discussion about the children's progress in school and in religious classes. Father DeBeaupre could see the youngsters were well grounded in their prayers, their catechism, and knowledge of the Catholic way of life. He left, reminding them of their duties in the coming weeks ahead.
Lent was a hard time for families who worked at hard physical labor. They were not supposed to eat any meat on any Friday during Lent, a long period stretching from Ash Wednesday to Easter. On Ash Wednesday, everyone attended church and received the ashes on their forehead to remind them of their mortality. As most meals were prepared with meat in some form and/or some of its byproducts, it was tricky to maintain one's obligations and never forget for a single moment, not to let a shred of flesh cross one's lips. That meant no gravy, no meat stock used for soups.
"As well eat the Devil as drink his broth," the elders would remind anyone tempted to make the Friday soup more palatable by throwing in a soup bone. Not only were there prohibitions against eating meat on Fridays, but from Maundy Thursday, through Good Friday and lunchtime on Holy Saturday, meat was prohibited. It was hard on hard-working men. Only the ill, infants to the age of seven and the elderly, or perhaps a pregnant woman were excused. Perhaps the glorious celebration on Easter Sunday made it all worthwhile when the church was trimmed with red and gold, the priest wore red and gold vestments and the calla lilies made the altar resplendent, and the Easter eggs were decorated and waiting, and even, occasionally, there was some new article of clothing.
With the return of warm weather, the lure of strawberries drew them to pick along the railroad bed. Where the banks slanted downwards from the tracks, strawberries flourished in profusion on the sunny slopes. They picked industriously until Buddy noticed the neat pool formed by a conduit that the railroad men had installed to carry a small stream from one side of the tracks to the other. Buddy swore it was a marvelous swimming hole, and Bernie fondly listened to her eldest son lead his siblings into danger.
The water poured from the conduit with enough force to form a small whirlpool and Buddy was barely able to escape its pull. After this narrow escape, the youngsters were content to swim closer to home and often climbed down the steep ravine to puddle in the swiftly running brook below. The brook was not deep and was very cold....scarcely an ideal place for swimming but it was refreshing on a hot, humid day. One such day, Buddy and Ellen retired there and spent the long afternoon in quiet enjoyment. He found water striders and a tiny crab, while she lay between the rocks, letting the limpid waters stream over her.
It really was cold and her limbs grew quite numb so she didn't realize that she had cut herself, nor how badly, until Wesley pointed in horror at the bloody water running from her foot. When she held it up, they nearly fainted because the heel was almost severed. Buddy helped her over to a rock at the edge of the stream and tried to wrap a handkerchief about her heel. They could see it was useless..and both could see that she would not be able to walk up the precipitous trail.
Buddy made a tourniquet with a handkerchief and a stick, but fortunately, it did not work, so he left her and ran for help. Luckily for them, there was a man hard at work on the upper bank and he heard Buddy's cries and hurried downward. One glance and he threw the girl over his shoulder and staggered up the steep incline. When he got her home, her mother drew a basin of water laced with a carbolic solution and immersed the foot. Ellen was directed to keep soaking while they was debated what to do with her.
First one remedy and then another was suggested and rejected, none so 'mad' as to suggest going to a doctor for stitches. Country people did not do that! It was decided to bind up the foot with a mixture of yellow soap and salt pork. Luckily, no infection occurred but healing was very slow and throughout the summer, when Ellen forgot and touched her toes to the floor, she nearly passed out from the pain.
Bernie was happy to see the onset of spring because it gave her some welcome additions to the menu. As soon as the dandelion shoots poked their heads above the ground, she was there with her basket. She picked dandelion greens and then what she called pigweed but others said were lamb's quarters. Whatever they were, she made delicious soup out of them, some sliced potatoes, and a bit of salt pork.
Larry, too, was busy trying to devise something different to supplement their diet and he started some home brew. It stood in a cask on the porch where it bubbled and fermented and began to smell delicious. The kids learned that if they found a long, hollow straw, they were able to draw up some pretty good tastes, which they began to do... frequently. It wasn't long before their father caught them at it and threatened bodily harm, so they desisted, until the day when the whole shebang blew up and they reminded him that he should have let them drink it.
Bernie was experimenting, too. Someone told her that the cracked corn used for the chickens made a delectable fare so she brought in a panful and put it on to boil in a caustic solution of soda and water. It boiled and it boiled. Then it was put through numerous water baths which she scrubbed and rubbed together until the glassy 'hulls' came off. It was cooked some more and then flavored with butter and salt and pepper. It certainly was delicious, but when one counted the man hours necessary to prepare it, it was food fit for a king!
The old fellow next door wasn't about to be outdone. He liked to call on Larry's Dad and the two oldsters would enjoy a little nip of the stuff that was proscribed at home. The neighbor wanted Bernie to know that he was a great fisherman and as his glass empties, the length of his fish grew. When he went home, he cleared the line fence as nimbly as a deer. Bernie was determined to get even...and it didn't take her long.
She and the children had climbed down the deep ravine at the end of the road and poked about at the water's edge. Much to her surprise, she came across a glorious speckled trout about twelve inches long and it still had the leader in its mouth. Unfortunately, it was well advanced in decay but she picked it up. She cautioned the kids to keep moving as they passed the old man, now sitting on his porch. When they got opposite him, she held up the fish and said, "How do you like my fish?"
The old fellow peered myopically at her but all he could see was that she had a nice big fish. What he didn't see was the fish falling apart just after they'd got past.
Even the old dog had tried to help the economy by dropping half a dozen puppies. Larry was happy for there was usually a market for hunting dogs. They watched the puppies grow and flourish. Their coats shone and they grew in strength every day.
'Their tails have to come off,' Larry decided. 'A long-tailed dog suffers in the woods, you know. Wes, you'll have to help me.'
Larry wound a cord about the small whips until he thought they were numb and then, while Buddy held them over the chopping block, Larry chopped off the tails. The puppies cried and whimpered and Buddy ran into the house, tears of horror and indignation in his eyes. He raged and protested to his mother, knowing she was powerless to help.
Throughout the day and night, the howls went on and towards daylight, the puppies began to die. By evening the following day, all were dead and Larry wore a glum and discouraged countenance. He tried to pretend that he could care less that no one spoke to him if they could help it, except Ellen, who did look at him but with such hate and loathing that she might better have not. It was a hard incident to forget.
About the only salvation was that the days were growing warm and beautiful again and Grandfather Smithers took her with him to gather herbs. Grandpa was a firm believer in herbs. Once when Ellen had a headache, Grandpa showed her how to pick the fan-shaped leaves from buttercups and chafe them together in the palms of her hands until friction reduced them to a sweaty pulp. She then held her cupped hands over her nose and inhaled the aroma and true enough, her headache disappeared!
Today, they were going back down the ravine and along the brook where she had cut herself so dreadfully. They found the small, glossy green leaves that indicated gold thread beneath the big trees where the soil was black and rich. When they tugged on the runners, a mesh of golden threads was visible going from one plant to another a lot like strawberry runners. Grandpa said it was good; fresh, dried, or made into a tea, for gargles, sore mouth, sore throat, canker sores, and many ailments of the eye.
On the way home, Ellen showed Grandpa the Devil's tobacco, which was really called sourdock, and that she had caught Buddy smoking. Grandpa replied that that too, had it's medical uses. It appeared to Ellen that almost everything that grew outdoors had some good use for mankind if one were only smart enough to know just what.
Ellen wandered out to the old barn. It was one of those times when there seemed nothing to do and her brothers had been conspicuous by their absence for some time. Entering the stable, she found Buddy lying along old Prince's broad back. He flicked his fingers at her while the horse eyed her sleepily. The somnolent afternoon seemed to be affecting the animals, too. Charlie was nowhere in sight. Probably with the younger children, guarding them as was his duty.
'We ought to go fishing," Buddy announced without moving.
Ellen thought him an unlikely candidate to walk the fields as far as the brook. Somehow, she couldn't visualize him making the effort to dig worms- not today. Besides, the last time they'd gone, although he'd been brave enough to thread worms on to their bent pins and after they'd fished for most of the afternoon and he'd been lucky enough to catch a small fish, they'd had to walk all the way back to the house for Grandpa to take the fish off the line and gut it for them. When their father noted this, he'd humorously recited:
Fishy, fishy, in the brook, Buddy caught 'im on a hook
Mommy fry him in a pan, and Buddy ate 'im like a man."
There was a loud rustling in the corner and a large rat ran up the harnesses that dangled from a spike. Ellen ran outside and Buddy was not far behind. The sun bore down, it was almost directly overhead now and not a breath of air was stirring. Even the cows were coming up from the field, seeking the shade of the sheds. The brindle cow caught sight of them in her barnyard and, seized with some mad impulse, charged them. Fright sped their heels and they flew to the side of the barn and up the splintery logs, nimble as squirrels while the cow bellered below and shook her horns at the soles of their feet.
The door to the loft was open and they crawled inside and lay on the soft hay while their hearts continued to pound for several minutes. They'd been lying there for maybe twenty minutes when they heard Charlie below. Certainly: now that they didn't need him, there he was!
They looked out. The mean red cow was gone and Buddy's big, buck rabbit was hopping about the yard. Charlie adopted a stalking posture and begun to sneak up on Bucky. Closer and closer he crept, most likely thinking himself the greatest hunter on earth. The rabbit feigned ignorance; for all he was concerned, there wasn't a dog in miles- but they could tell by the way he kept flicking his ears and wiggling his nose that he knew all about it.
When Charlie considered he was near enough, he lunged. The rabbit became air-borne and easily maintained several feet of distance ahead of the dog. They circled the yard, around and around, Charlie barking excitedly while the rabbit flaunted his heels in the dog's face. They couldn't maintain the a pace in such heat, so both sank to the ground. They rested for several minutes, as if by agreement, and then began their mad circling again. They circled and rested, and circled and rested until both tired of the game and the rabbit ran under the tool shed. Charlie gave one sassy bark in that direction and then he crawled in the shade of the lilac bush.
Well, guess it was time to come down now. Ellen and Buddy made their way down more carefully, wiping their hands on their hips when they reached the ground. They winced as they felt the slivers catch on the threads of their clothing. They went in to have their mother get a needle and remove the splinters.
As Bernie worked over their hands, they told her about the new game Charlie was enjoying with the rabbit. She sat back and laughed appreciatively, remembrance lighting her face.
"Sit down and I'll tell you a story," she said. "Years ago, I had a big old tomcat that I thought the world of for some reason. He was a great hunter and there was never a mouse as long as we had him. After he'd hunted all the mice, he began to bring home young squirrels, pheasants, and baby rabbits..' She paused as her mind traveled backwards. 'Yes, he sure was a good hunter."
"Anyway, one day your father bought several nice rabbits from a man. The owner delivered them late in the afternoon and threw them inside the tool shed. It was much newer then and tighter and he figured they'd be safe. I was busy most of the day and forgot all about them, not being used to having rabbits, you see."
"About four your father came home and when he came on the porch, there was my old tomcat yelling and trying to get in. Well, he'd always hated the cat anyway, so he grabbed it and threw it into the tool shed and shut the door!"
"You can imagine! It was like throwing a fox into a hencoop! When he found out his rabbits had been delivered, all he had was two, or three corpses left. Was he mad!" She laughed again and shook her head. She slapped her knees with her palms and then sighed as she got up to go on with her tasks. Ellen and Buddy ran outside as their father chugged into the yard.
"Can I go? Can I go?' they screamed. Unaccountably, he stopped and allowed them to climb in. They obediently sat back and their voices dropped to a whisper.
'Where are we going?'
'To Uncle Emery's sawmill."
She squirmed blissfully. The sawmill was an exciting place to visit. They were not allowed to go inside, of course, but they could wander outside, kick through the golden piles of sawdust and peek through the clever triangles of piled lumber- smell the freshly cut wood. Oh, it was enchanting. She sighed extravagantly.
They were passing the LaNess dooryard that bore the scuff marks of a large family. A huge rubber tire dangled from a tree and there was an assortment of broken toys; bits and pieces of doll dishes, punctured balls, etc.
The car chugged to a stop and the high pitched whine of saws assaulted their ears. They looked meaningfully at each other and opened their doors. They could see their father's back entering the shadowy interior. They were free for awhile.
They hurried to the run-off and stared into the murky water. It was roily with bark and sawdust; here and there, iridescent patches of oil coated it's surface. A dead cat floated towards the spillway where the current pushed it back towards them. They backed off a bit. Drowning was one thing, but to fall into such a mixture as this was unthinkable.
They wandered about for quite some time. When their father got to visiting with other men, he was apt to forget the time. It would have been fun to go over to where Uncle Emery kept postoffice but they didn't quite dare. The minute they left, he would come out. That meant they wouldn't get to see cousin Chuck's pet crow today. Chuck was trying to teach it to talk, and the loud, raucous cries were a menace to the quiet of the neighborhood. First one and then another offered their advice on the best thing for the pet. One old-timer declared if it's tongue was slit, it would be able to speak fluently. Their father insisted that it needed a diet of salt. They thought that remark was unnecessarily nasty because they knew salt would kill it.
There was a loud rumble close by and they picked up their ears. The men were working on the road; little by little they edged closer. After all, they were still within calling range and their father would be able to see them quite clearly. The huge machine grumbled forwards and backwards, scraping up mounds of soil as it passed. One large blade shaved the top soil from the ditch and it was difficult to see what the driver hoped to accomplish. The grader stopped and the men went to work with shovels.
"Hello there, young fellow. Who's your girl friend?'
Buddy grinned sheepishly and dug his toe into the ground. Ellen stared at the bold one who'd tried to talk silly to them just because they were kids.
"Want a job? Come on over here and grab a shovel!" That man sure felt he was quite a comedian. He laughed as the red rose from Buddy's collar and up about his ears. Just then a small grass snake was flushed from the weeds. The wit picked it up and threw it on to the sparkplugs where there was a shower of sparks and the snake went rigid and fell to the ground lifeless. Ellen hated snakes but this appeared outrageous even to her. She turned her back and went back to the car. Her father was just emerging from the mill.
It was fortunate that local children were amused with relatively little. They knew better than expect a new toy every time their parents went to market; it would have been a futile hope to begin with, and little fun, anyway. It was more exciting to devise their own amusement, like jumping in the sweet smelling hay, each trying to outdo the other in bravado and initiative.
The sunny motes danced in rays that penetrated cracks in the old barn and there was a heady odor of clover, sweet grass, and other assorted herbs. The boys climbed higher into the mows and cat-called from their lofty perches. They dared Ellen to follow and she climbed up , too. After they jumped down into the resilient piles below, she shut her eyes and let go. There was a sickening sensation in the pit of her stomach as she felt herself falling and then she was brought up short, prickly straws jabbing up her sleeves and underneath the waistband of her shirt. Dust swirled, causing her to sneeze. She looked about for an appreciative audience but they were already ascending to new heights.
Up the old logs they went, like monkeys, chattering and exhorting the next to observe how high up they were now! Ellen looked up at Buddy, high in the peak of the roof. She wanted to tell him to come down and not go so high, but that would leave her open to accusations of cowardice. It really was high up there. They would expect her to go there next, she supposed. But how could she do it?
Buddy was still poised up there like a large bat, milking it for all it was worth, making them anticipate his jump. Would he jump, or not? He was committed now...had to jump, willing or not because two pair of eyes rested on him. He pretended to fall and her heart lurched. Why didn't he get it over with? She sneezed and he was down, his glorious moment unregistered because for the space of a second, her eyes had been closed. Now, it was her turn.
Reluctantly she began the 'last mile'. Hand over hand, she pulled herself up the slivery old logs. It seemed that there must be a hundred, or more. Why hadn't she counted them? She looked downward and gasped in alarm. Never, never look down. Her brothers appeared far below, as through the wrong end of a telescope. There was only one way down now.
She hung on. Below, the boys eyed her, at first they called derisively, "What's the matter? Got cold feet?" Their scorn turned to uneasiness. Buddy suddenly realized that if she fell, he, as eldest, would bear a great deal of blame.
"Either jump or climb down," he ordered unreasonably, not realizing that she could not climb back down. Her arms began to tremble and her eyes glazed with fright. She knew that she'd fall in a few more minutes. She shut her eyes in despair and let go.
It seemed a mile down. The air fanned her hair out behind her and her skirt ballooned like an umbrella. She was conscious that, somehow, unaccountably, she had landed safely and for once, the boys were complimenting her on her lion-heartedness. She no longer cared for their approval. She would never climb the logs again. She stood up, conscious that she was clutching something that she hadn't had when she was climbing up. She looked at her hands. She held the mangled, sticky, half-chewed body of a mouse, a victim of the family cat.
After awhile the jumping fever abated and they began tunneling their way through the hard-packed hay. They made long in-roads through the sub-structure and it was a wonder that none got suffocated. There were moments of giddy terror half-way through, and the knowledge that Dad would never be able to move all the hay in time if one got stuck. Fortunately, that amusement didn't last long before they went on to making tree houses, and then playing 'King of the Mountain' on the huge rocks across the road.
One day they persuaded Ellen to bring out her large plaster doll. The doll played the part of a victim, or patient, until even Ellen tired of the game and surprisingly, wandered off, leaving her cherished baby in the boy's care.
No one remembered the doll until the next day. Unfortunately, it had rained during the night and the paint had blistered. The doll appeared in the last stages of leprosy and would have made a more convincing patient that the day before. Ellen cried but it was shrugged off as merely another unfortunate incident..
Ellen and Wesley walked down in the field. It was a beautiful day and the springy, dark green moss was like high-pile carpet. They cut spruce gum from trees and peered at robin's eggs in the hollowed out fenceposts; there was something interesting to look at wherever they turned. After they left the shadowy, moss-covered avenues between the trees, they came out onto the sparsely tufted sand. It was tunneled with anthills and- something moved, running away from them and Wesley was after it.
"Ha, ha, I've got you!" He got to his feet, holding a bunched up 'something' in his hands. The handkerchief bulged and jerked back and forth in an alarming manner.
"What have you got there, Wesley? What is it?"
"I've got a mouse," he announced excitedly. "Wait a minute and I'll show you."
He jerked and yowled in pain..whatever he thought he'd got, had gotten him. "My finger- my finger. Let go." He shook his hand but the mouse hung on. Ellen had to squeeze her fingers about the creature's neck before it would remove its teeth.
They walked up through the fields, Wesley still determined to keep the mouse, despite its desire to bite him. He put it inside an old bird cage until he could devise something better and then he went to bathe his finger with disinfectant. Ellen heard him outside later on, banging away on an old box, covering it with fine wire. He displayed his new pet for several days, but then one day, he found the box, unaccountably- empty. Various members of the family were blamed in turn for turning the mouse loose..but the mystery was never solved.
Whenever Wesley referred to his mouse, wondering what had happened to it, Buddy would smirk and look at Ellen out of the corner of his eyes. She knew how his mind worked. Hateful- hateful.
He liked to remind her of the day they'd found their father shoveling the manure away from the rear of the barn. It had been tossed out through the trap in the side wall all winter long, and by spring there was a considerable pile. He loaded it on to his wagon to spread over the fields and the pile was riddled by mice and there was nest after nest of babies. The old dog watched eagerly and when these pockets were opened up, he sprang on them, gulping them down one by one. Ellen watched them squeak their way down the dog's throat and turned away, retching. From then on, each meal was punctuated by a few squeaks from Buddy and howls of rage from his sister.
"Make him stop- make him stop; I can't eat, " she wailed.
His parents looked around, mildly surprised.
"What is he doing? I didn't see him do anything." Bernie insisted.
"What are you doing, Buddy? Straighten up and eat, or leave the table."
Larry continued to ladle the food into his mouth. Buddy looked innocent. After a while, he rubbed his rubber boots together and they gave off satisfactory squeaks.
"He's doing it again- he'd doing it again," she screamed.
"Ellen, leave the table," her father ordered and she walked out the door, sobbing. After the rest had finished up and left the kitchen, Bernie called her back inside and fixed her something special. It was sweet and kind of her mother but Ellen only pretended to eat. Her father had put a large iron kettle on the range, filled with little potatoes, and he was cooking them to feed the pigs. The odor of the potatoes simmering in the pot that had contained swill was just too much. When her mother stepped outside, Ellen scraped her plate into the bucket and scurried upstairs.
The chamber above seemed awfully hot today- Big, old flies buzzed in the windows and there was a musty smell from the corn-filled ticks. Somebody hadn't emptied their chamberpot from the night before; Ellen could tell. A spark fell at her feet and she looked up.
"Dad, call Dad- call Dad," she screamed, "the ceiling's on fire!'
Her cries didn't seem to register, they were used to her screaming, but when Bernie heard her say, 'Fire' again, she pounded up the stairs. She began to throw inflammable materials away from the falling embers and ordered Ellen to 'go get your Father".
Larry go the fire out and returned to the fields. Ellen thought it was poor spirited that no one thought to congratulate her on her alertness.
Larry thought he was pretty smart, getting his fields done before it began to rain because it rained- and rained. Everything was soggy and the roads were saturated. They turned from muddy wallows to flowing streams. There was no way in or out the dirt road; it was simply impossible. The fields lay under water and it might have been possible to float a flat bottomed scow over them. Larry kept boiling potatoes for the pigs, adding to the misery of the house-bound family. He scolded Ellen, who had been corrected for peeling the potatoes too thick during the winter when he feared they might not last until spring, and said that she wasn't doing it thick enough now that he wanted to feed the pigs up. Table scraps were added to the mess, plus generous dollops of grain. The container gave off a malty, yeasty odor and tomato scraps and various tidbits floated on the top. It would have to be kept in the shed until the rain stopped; needless to say, the flies loved this and buzzed around, contesting with the big hornets. Ellen was afraid to get stung whenever she was required to take the garbage out.
As they got further into fall, the rains continued and the youngsters nearly drove Bernie crazy. Finally, she began reading to them. They did 'Grumpy-Weasel' until the pages fell out and then it was the story of the Three Trolls who lived under a bridge. They were going to eat a little boy, but offered to spare him- if he'd bring them the new baby from his house. There was a lot of comment after this story, trying to figure out who they would spare. And then the roads cleared up and their mother disappeared to Grandma's and produced a baby brother.
"But I wanted a black one,' Wesley insisted. After that, their mother suggested they give the new baby to the trolls. They thought she had unaccountably turned cruel and the baby was nice- The doctor turned aside when Larry asked for a bill and wasn't surprised to find a haunch of venison on his kitchen table a week later.
As soon as the roads dried up, neighbors began to stop to see how they'd made out and view the new addition. Bill was drunk as a skunk, as usual.
"Hi, Bernie". He stopped her mid-way the door, dog's dish in her hand.
"Hey, that puffala looks purty good, hein?" He smirked at the gawking children as he took a generous taste from the container.
"But, Bill, Bill..it was too late, and he'd never hear her anyway. She directed him out to the barn to find Larry.
Larry had been forking over hay, making sure there was no moisture in it. He lifted a bit from the corner and felt something live drop into his ankle high workshoe. He jerked the laces loose and dumped out a grass snake. It wriggled off just as Bill came through the door. He stomped at it and made a few profane remarks to Bill about not liking snakes. Bill laughed philosophically.
"Me? I don't like dem neidder. They bother me so during haying that I cut off my dog's feet with the haymower!"
Well, anything was possible on a farm. Larry told Bill about the rat running up his pantleg a while back. Larry'd seized his leg and danced about excitedly and the rat fell out. Bill didn't think he'd care for rats, either.
When the days began to lengthen, 'the cold began to strengthen', as the old-timers chanted. It was true. There were many days now of brilliant sunshine that set the eaves to dripping. It made long, glittering icicles that the kids broke free and sucked on, or sometimes they fenced with the icy daggers. The roof was coated with ice and the huge snowbank before the house resembled a gigantic couch of ice. Buddy and Wesley climbed the sloping shed roof and then up to the main part of the house. Their father had company and didn't notice they were walking on his roof. They slid down the back end repeatedly, daring Ellen to follow them. After enduring an afternoon of cat-calls, she left her family of snow people and climbed the roof. Buddy had decided on a new variation; this time instead of taking the gentler slope of house roof-to-shed roof to ground, they would take the front route, where the house dropped abruptly to the porch roof and then there was a gap of several feet down to the ice couch.
Buddy went down without any trouble because he was smart enough to drop off to the side where there was a longer fall but softer snow. Foolish Ellen went down dead center, clearing the three feet from the house to the porch with a mighty thump, then sliding the six foot width of the porch roof and off into space to land with a bone-jarring crash on the rigid pile below. She lay immobile, the air knocked out of her body. She gasped a thin whistling sound, writhing like a fish out of water- oh, would the air never come? Her lungs began to work once more and she let out a quavering cry, drawing her parents- and guest- outside to stare at her. Larry hauled her off the snowbank.
"What's the matter with ya?" he demanded. Buddy hurried to get in his version before she could get her breath and tell it like it was. He knew he wasn't guiltless in this situation and he wanted it cleared up before she could talk again.
"Knocked the breath out of her," the guest acknowledged sagely.
"That's what you get for trying to keep up with the boys," her father added unsympathetically.
Ellen lay about for the next day but when Bernie said Buddy could walk out to the village to go to the store, he graciously asked if Ellen wanted to go, too.
They marched out over the crunching snow. They'd gotten quite a lot, several inches in fact, and until the plow came through, Larry's old car was useless. They chattered as they walked, planning how they'd spend the nickel they were authorized to use for themself. Buddy had his mind on some red hot jawbreakers but Ellen couldn't decide. Once they reached the store, she was saved a choice because the storekeeper gave them each a strip of licorice and told her to put her nickel in her piggybank!
They started home blissfully sucking candy, dutifully keeping the other end for their little brothers. Half-way down the high-banked road, they heard a roar behind them. The snowplow was coming. Like a bat out of hell it raced down on them.
"He's not gonna stop!," Buddy shrieked. "Can't be he sees us. Climb up the bank."
They grappled at the frozen chunks, trying to pull themselves up out of the way. Terror gave new strength to quivering arms and legs; they must get all the way up and over or the huge, extended wing could still reach them. It was nearly on them now with it's huge, rasping, racing growl and sprays and rolls of snow and frost were thrown so high that the plow was completely hidden within the cloud. They were over and stood speechless as the monster rattled by.
They righted their sled and repiled the groceries, it was just a short way before they were home. The driver and the wingman sat inside drinking coffee with their father. They laughed heartily as they related how 'them little devils had got up that bank! Sure was funny." They haw-hawed while the kids silently handed their mother her broken eggs.
It was time to kill the hogs and Bernie didn't want to be around when it happened. She had fed those pigs all summer, scratching their backs as they crowded to the troughs, grunting in contentment. They'd been such cute little piglets; she'd carried treats to them and watched them wax and grow...it was like watching your own children thrive- and now they must be killed. She huddled in the house, a child at each side, trying to stuff their ears closed. Perhaps it bothered Larry too, no one really knew what he felt, and someone had to be tough. Otherwise, what would they do for meat all winter? For fats to cook with? For bacon to go with the eggs? For ham for the holidays? Still-
Bernie's brother, Wat, had come to help Larry stick and draw the hogs. He didn't know how much help he'd be because he had two huge boils on the back of his neck and they were causing him intense pain. He'd give anything...anything he said, to be rid of them. Larry, perhaps rehearsing for the butchery to come, inquired how much he really wanted to be rid of them. Wat said ..again.."Well, anything."
Larry put the kettle on to steam and got out a quart milk bottle. Wat eyed the preparations with interest. What did he propose to do?
Larry rinsed the milk bottle with boiling water and then clamped it over the top of one of the boils. Wat didn't say much...at first, but then when a vacuum had formed and the bottle tried to draw air inside, it also drew on the abcessed part of his neck. The pain was outrageous and Wat began to stomp and rave. There was no way out now because if he pulled the bottle, it would only hasten matters. Tears came to his eyes and ran down his cheeks. He cursed, he swore, he implored, but nothing helped and the pain was blinding until the abcess suddenly burst. Blood and infectious matter filled the neck of the bottle. It was a grisly sight but his relief was almost instantaneous.
They removed the bottle and Bernie bandaged her brother's neck. He looked at his host with admiration. "Boy, oh, boy, Larry, you sure know your business! But you're lucky you didn't get a sock right in the puss. By God, what you did to me today! But you know, it's feeling better...but what a man has to do to get rid of the damn things!"
The men went outside and there was a terrible squealing followed by silence. Luckily, the hog killing was followed by cold, crisp weather that was good for the hanging meat. Many weren't quite so lucky about having their own hogs to kill. They had to join the city hunters who were infiltrating the woods, trying to get their buck.
The sports travelled down the dirt road, and entered the woods dressed in bright reds and kelly green. The woods echoed with the thunder of their big guns.
The less fortunate wore everyday clothing with scraps of red rag tied about their arms or pieces pinned to their backs. They hoped other hunters had good enough eyesight to pick up their red signals.
Larry couldn't see it; such concentrated hunting all at once for sport. He preferred to wait until there was an actual need for meat, and illegal though it might be, then he took down his rifle and got himself some meat, and not before.
Today, he sat in the dooryard and watched the nimrods vanish into the shrubbery. They banged and boomed for the best part of the day, staggering along on rubbery legs, unused to such harsh walking. In late afternoon, Larry looked up to see a handsome buck break out of the woods. Old habits die hard and before he knew it, he'd jumped to his feet and grabbed his gun. The deer lay dead and Larry departed for town to get his license so he could 'tag' his buck.
The weather continued to grow colder and then there was a thaw, that flooded the fields and meadows just before freezing again. Whenever there was a break in the tasks that everyone had, the youngsters dug skates out of the closets and they glided and swooped over areas that had been waving grain. They had to join the throng even though Buddy was the only one possessing regulation skates.
Ellen had to wear a pair of exceedingly passe' ones that had belonged to her aunt when she was a young girl. They fastened to the sole of the shoe with a pair of clamps but Ellen'd get them both fastened on and stand up to glide off when one would go flying off into the bushes. It was frustrating to watch the other kids having fun, swooping and gliding while she spent all her time trying to keep her skates on. And, the worst part of it was they were slowly and inexorably pulling the soles off her shoes. Wait until her parents saw that!
Larry was discussing the hazardous conditions with Wat who'd come to call again. They were still trying to figure out how Wat had managed to get up the 'big hill'.
"It sure is icy," Wat remarked. "Now, if I had a pair of skates like those kids do, I could skate from Hell to Harlem!"
Spring rolled around once more with its attendant pleasures and drawbacks. When the weather was warm, the family packed a lunch and headed for the suckerhole. They spent a gorgeous afternoon at the river where Larry and Bernie pulled in lethargic fish twelve or thirteen inches long while the kids splashed and played. Suddenly they heard their father calling them and they converged on the river bank to see him holding a foreign object in his hands.
"What is it? I know- It's a stork!"
"It's a blue heron," they were informed. Larry held up the dead bird, it's long legs dangled beneath it like stilts. He spread the wings out and tip to tip must have measured five feet, or better.
"What happened to it? Why is it dead?"
"Look at it, Wesley. See here where someone shot it? It's illegal to shoot them, somebody could be arrested." The kids were momentarily impressed but it was of passing significance in the light of their 'holiday'...they were having a picnic and they could swim! The balmy weather continued on and it was vacation time, what more could they ask?
More people invaded the countryside and time after time, they'd come barrelling down the dirt road to bring up short at the dead end. The women would come to the house, looking for a drink of water, or the toilet and Bernie would good-naturedly let them in. They may have looked askance at the splintery old house but when they saw Bernie scrubbing her floors with caustic soda water, and spied the big molasses cookies, they were pleased to try one with a glass of buttermilk.
And then the kinfolk, desperate to get out of the cities, arrived. They loaded their station wagons, their city wives, and their city kids, even their dogs, and came chugging over the dirt road.
"Hello-hello-hello. It's wonderful to see you. You're all looking so Smithers and healthy. But are the bugs always like this?"
They went inside and feasted on doughnuts and buttermilk, coffee and pie, fresh strawberry shortcake. Oh, the country was wonderful.
The kids ran outside and set up a swift game of tag. They chased one another this way and that way until the game was terminated by Jan running into the galvanized wire that Larry had stretched out to protect his lawn. She lay on the ground, the wind knocked out of her; the other children ran for their parents, shrieking. They knew she wasn't dead, her eyes were open, but she should've been dead.
Jan was picked up and carried inside where she tearfully recovered. Had the wire been just a few inches higher, it would have caught her across the throat and she'd been one of the earliest casualties of the summer. After her narrow escape, it was decided that the 'family' should do something together so they set off on a hiking trip. They drove to the foot of the mountain and began to climb. It may have been foolhardy to include city folks who were not in shape but later, rather than sooner, they made it to the top and stood gazing all around. They were breathless from their exertion but the scenery would have made them so, anyway, because that's what it was, breathtaking! The tiny hamlet at their feet some 2200 feet below looked furnished with dollhouses. The road was an ochre strip of ribbon, silvery threads meandered in and out of the woods and they could see the giant Saint Larry River some fifty miles distant. The air was pure and clear and its exquisite texture was enough to bring on an attack of rapture.
"Why have you been saving this?" the guests cried. "And why didn't you tell us to bring a camera?" Useless to say this was all old hat to people who's spent all their lives here.
The guests stayed for ten days enjoying the fresh air and endless acres for playing, the scrumptious food. They were unstinting in their remarks about the 'quaint' way they must stand on the side porch, mug in hand, toothbrush in the other, to brush their teeth. And who would fetch a pail of really fresh water from the well when they needed a drink? And someone used the last of the hot water in the teakettle for dishes just when Claire wanted to wash her hair! And poor little Jan just couldn't figure out the workings of the two-holer and left a small pile on the floor instead, like a puppy, because she was afraid to sit over the hole. Well, it'd been a long summer, anyway, so fall was greeted with open arms and the kids went back to school.
The awful heat of dog days was over and humans and animals alike, seemed to have more energy. The snappy fall days embued one with a sense of well-being and Bernie watched the antics of the dog and her old rooster through the window. The rooster had discovered the dog dish in the yard and it still contained some food, which he was taking advantage of. The dog ambled over and decided to dispute such raiding of his property. The rooster pecked until the dog got near and gave a low growl, The large bird withdrew a foot, or so, then flapped his wings and crowed to show he was not entirely intimidated. The dog took a few token bites but when the rooster crowed and flapped his wings, the dog gave ground and backed up a little. He stood and watched the rooster gobble up a bit more and finally garnered enough courage to growl and advance again, driving the rooster back. Back and forth they seesawed, neither giving way entirely, but neither forcing a confrontation until no scraps remained and they lost interest.
Larry had gone down the big hill to the community grocery, as he usually did the last night of each week. The grocer kept a box of meat scraps that hadn't sold, for Larry's dogs.. He took them home and fed his hounds when he got around to it. Sometimes, if he was overtired, he didn't take the meat from the rear of the truck, but sat the evening away, digesting his dinner, smoking his pipe, listening to the news- until he forgot all about the meat.
One evening he sat in an easy chair, allowing his bones to sag, his eyes grow heavy, and he dozed. It was almost when he was awakened by a clamor from the hounds.
"What in the devil? Someone must be coming-" He painfully levered himself to standing position, pulling his 'gallus'es' on to his shoulders and thrust his feet into his frayed old carpet slippers. He stepped to the door and peered out, expecting to see someone shutting off his motor, descending from a car; instead, he observed a large, black bear raise on his hind feet, neatly pick up the box of meat in his forepaws and make off for the woods.
Wild animals were not a rarity in Larry's rural area and many of the old 'hold-overs' from depression times were still common. One young father nearly learned the hard way to ignore those old tales about Larry and his pals and how they'd gotten away with their outlaw activities in former years. Sated by tales of law-breaking and foiling the conservation officers, the young man nearly got a stiff fine and a jail sentence, too. If he hadn't thought quickly and thrust his haunch of venison into bed with a 'sick kid', he would have been caught. No, it just wasn't worth it.
There were plenty of other ways to cut corners and save money. The women could have told him some. Bernie had begun sewing, making quilts, table linens, and clothes for the kids. She enjoyed nothing better than cutting into a scrap of cloth and seeing it turn into a dress, or lovely blouse. The only problem was that she hadn't yet learned about the importance of choosing the right fabrics for the job at hand; her criteria was merely that they be pretty.
One day, she found an exceptionally pretty print. It was a silky material and she could just visualize a lovely new blouse for Ellen out of it. She bought it, very reasonably, and soon was busily cutting and stitching. It certainly turned out beautifully and she smiled as she selected just the right buttons. Wait 'til Ellen sees this!
The following day Ellen wore her pretty new blouse to school and Bernie was itchy with impatience to hear what all her friends would say.
Ellen came in, a gloomy look on her face. What was wrong? This wasn't the face of a girl with a new blouse- What had happened? Was she ill?
"Well, what is wrong, Ellen? Didn't anyone like your new blouse?"
Ellen dumbly held out her arms before her mother. Long ravellings of fabric dangled from the sleeves where the seams had separated; she revolved slowly, displaying the huge gaps where each shoulder had frayed and pulled apart at the seam. Threads hung from the bottom, buttons had pulled triangular bites from the front and buttonholes had ripped from one to the next. Bernie looked at the despondent girl in consternation.
"I can't believe it," she said. "The cloth must have been rotten".
Ellen shook her head. "It was lining material, my teacher said-" she announced flatly and went upstairs to change. To add insult to injury, the 'baby' had been retching and gagging. Bernie removed long, stringy substances from his throat. What had he been in to? Then she remembered; she'd put the clippings from her sewing into an old milk container as always, only this one still had milk in it and he'd come along and helped himself to a drink. Oh, well-
Ellen was growing old enough to realize that her days of following Grandpa through the fields picking herbs, buttercup leaves for headache, or dogwood for spring tonic, couldn't go on forever. He was growing older and soon, his poor, old legs wouldn't carry him where they were used to go. Still, they went down the bank into the ravine and dug gold thread, the properties of which he said were good for sore mouth or throat, sore eyes, and many other problems. Sometimes he'd cut off a small round of willow and make her a whistle. Other times they just sat on a stone and observed the antics of the cedar waxwings. He explained the marvelous birds to her in a way that she never forgot.
They watched the birds range themselves in a favorite spot where they'd perch, small golden suns in their own right, their masked faces like tiny bandits. Suddenly they'd spiral up after a passing insect, (one supposed,) then they'd drop straight back to the same spot they'd just left. Ellen loved to watch them because they looked like they'd been shot upwards by springs.
Other times, they'd find a porcupine that the cruel boys had stoned to death and he'd tie a string to its still warm body and drag it over to Grandma Crab's. The old lady loved a meal of roast porky. Some said she was 'crazy as a bedbug' but they didn't realize that she was just a lonely old woman. Ellen liked to visit her because her house had a lot of things to see and she didn't figure different meant crazy.
One time there was the large head of a pig on the counter. The hide was still on, and the eyes, it was a ferocious looking thing but she explained that she would clean it thoroughly, cook it, and make 'head cheese', nothing one could care for but which adults said was delicious.
Such things put her off her food for a while, something easily done, and she'd hurry home and maybe eat nothing but toast, made over the big griddle of the kitchen range, made in a strange square wire grid that opened up to put the slice of bread inside and then closed up, pincher fashion to hold the bread over the heat. Occasionally they'd have something the French called
toyettes which was merely raw potatoes cut up and thrown directly on the hot stove top.
The boys might be in by then, wrestling and shoving and pushing each other, or perhaps they might be on punishment if they'd been too rowdy. Often they came in from the barn with Larry holding them each by an ear.
'They fit,' he'd inform Bernie and after supper, they'd go upstairs early. Larry readily admitted to a lack of education but he wanted his children to be decent people. He insisted on manners and that they wash immediately upon arising, and before each meal, and again at bedtime. They also had to brush their teeth and say 'please' and 'thank-you.' Older persons were addressed as Mister, or Missus, unless they were intimate neighbors, then they became auxiliary 'aunts' and 'uncles.' His children were kept close to home, not allowed to wander the neighborhood at will, he didn't consider it 'fittin', it only led to their getting into trouble, and besides, he usually had chores for them to do. He was himself inordinately polite to others and tugged at the brim of his hat when he passed a woman on the street and introduced his acquaintances to one another with a 'let me make you known to so and so'.
When his sister-in-law accused him of being too strict with his children, he'd laugh and admit, 'I know I be, but they'll thank me for it some day.'
She thought he was just
terrible because he refused to allow Ellen to wear shorts, or slacks,
or any of the other things that her contemporaries might be enjoying
at the time. She felt a great deal of pity for the young girl,
doomed to wearing second-hand clothing all her life. Some of it was
much too far gone for anyone to wear, corduroys with the seat worn
off, and sweaters with the elbows out, and the girl never had a new
pair of shoes. In later years, she would exhibit her deformed feet
that had been jammed into shoes far too short for them most of her
life. Well, she knew her place and kept her mouth shut...but she
thought a lot.
Bernie was thinning out her flock of hens because they weren't laying their daily quota. She planned to sell them, or can them, and get new chicks in the spring. Larry left an ad in the postoffice and another in the general store and before long, a neighbor from down below, and in behind an enormous mound, came to see them.
It was odd to call folks 'neighbor' who isolated themselves from everyone else and lived so far away that they were as strange as chipmunks coming from a hole in the ground. Theirs was a huge family, the patriarch of which had hand-delivered his numerous progeny but today there was only himself, his wife, and a retarded son. They would catch the fowls themselves; (Larry had no intention of getting roped into the job.)
It didn't go too badly because the handicapped boy loved chickens and particularly their feathers. He saved huge sacks of them from birds, both domestic and wild, and stood on the roof on windy days, releasing them one by one. Other times, he drew them through his fingers, crooning as he did so.
After the hens were caught and bagged, the visitors stayed a few minutes to talk. The head of the family revealed that his older girls were at home trying to get the fall plowing done before the school term began. It wouldn't take them long because they had two strong young oxen to draw the plow and they were nearly half finished already!
After they'd gone, Bernie and Larry were discussing the boy's love of feathers. Larry felt it worthy of comment in view of his own loathing of them...they gave him the creeps but they provided many hours of amusement and pleasure for the poor, simple boy.
"The only good use I ever saw for a feather was when we had toothaches and would dip a feather in bleach and put it into the hole!"
His fortitude was something he came by naturally when one remembered how his poor mother visited the country doctor who sat her on a little stool and yanked out her aching teeth cold-turkey!
Undoubtedly that was where Larry inherited the stamina to stagger over to the wire fence and pull off enough wire to wind around his leg after he'd circled it with his chain saw. He turned the wire tight enough to form a tourniquet and enable him to get to the house without bleeding to death. He was determined to take chances with his life, it seemed.
Now he was growing heavier all the time. His mother's family had been overweight people who died young in consequence. Larry didn't see the handwriting on the wall. No one connected high cholesterol and obesity with stroke, highblood pressure and early death. And it was Larry's misfortune to love fatty foods and he overindulged in them far too often. He'd cut the fat from pork and eat it with relish, then he'd cover a slice of bread with rich, Smithers gravy and eat that with gusto. Meantime, his blood pressure soared and his weight increased. Before long, he was incapacitated by nosebleeds and dizziness. It made him uglier than ever.
The neighbors called to see if they could be helpful but Larry dismissed his problems as 'all part of getting older.' Everyone knew what that was so no one really worried.
One evening Bernie sat with a neighbor whose mother was ill. The woman industriously peeled potatoes as they talked. When she was finished, the potatoes looked more like they'd been shaved, than peeled. Ellen remarked on it.
"Yes, she's not one to waste a mite of food if she can help it. Your father tells me to leave a bit on the peelings this time of year so the pigs will get some good out of them, but not that one- she's a skinflint all right."
Later that night, the woman's uncle burned to death in his little cottage. The men of the village turned out to fight the blaze and protect nearby structures and although Larry tried manfully to be of assistance, his shortness of breath and swollen hands and feet made him nearly useless. It was a bad time for him to be unwell because Bernie too, was to pay the price for their fatty diet; she had to have her gall-bladder out. And if the doctors had been more alert, they might have looked to the source for Ellen's frequent indispositions.
Their way of life was probably a large factor in much of their health problems. The boys coughed and rattled with bronchitis all winter long in the unheated bedchambers, the only warmth they got was in the dusty feather ticks and pillows. Ellen's emaciated body never seemed to grow any way but upwards and she was prone to stomach aches and nosebleeds. Larry got cod-liver oil for the youngsters to take but they whined and fought against it and he took it himself.
At least, they now had more living space. After Larry's father died, they'd opened up the old house and practically doubled their living quarters. From the original sixteen foot square kitchen and chamber above in which they'd raised their four children to pre-adolescence, they now had two more bedrooms and a living room. Riches indeed.
It was some time before they added any luxuries on and evenings were spent entertaining each other. Bernie often read aloud to them, or they'd spend the long quiet nights, enjoying the snap of the fires, the tick-tock of the big old clock, and the interaction between the dog and cat.
Charlie #one and #two were long gone and they now possessed a small, black female of indeterminate breed. She was a pretty thing, with a glossy black coat and white markings. They also had a long haired cat that was a friend to Billy, the dog, and they'd grown up together.
When the evenings got too quiet, the cat crept up to the daybed when the dog lay asleep, paws and nose extending over the forward edge. The cat stood on her hindlegs and batted at the dog until she got Billy to chase her.
Around and around the room they flew, then the cat ran under the Hoosier cabinet. The foolish dog never learned that she couldn't get underneath it, too and she raced forward and struck her head with a resounding crack.
When she saw that she couldn't pursue the cat beneath the cabinet, Billy would rest her head on her front paws and bark excitedly while the cat remained demurely hidden. After the dog forgot and walked away, the cat emerged again and attack the dog's hindquarters. They were better than watching a show and in later years, after Larry had finally broken down and given them a radio, and then after the dawn of that awful contraption, the television, he often yearned for the old evening's entertainment again.
As the children grew older, life was not necessarily easier. They wanted things that they saw their peers enjoying and it was no longer possible to keep them isolated, immune to desires for material things.
Ellen wanted a birthday party; she had been to quite a few, generally quiet, mannerly affairs with the day given over to making the celebrant happy. At her home, it was not like that.
First of all, it was difficult to have a group of young people in when you had no way to entertain them privately. And most people shrank from the idea of letting others see their toilet facilities, certain that their's looked the worst. And of course, being outdoors, and never a pretty affair at any time, that was a desperate remedy in chilly weather.
Cold weather meant boots and heavy wraps to be placed on the beds where guests could look around at the make-shift night stands made out of orange crates, picturesquely decorated with tacked on strips of cretonne, the 'closets' made from a wall-hung shelf and surrounded by a curtain that was supposed to conceal the nails in the wall that held hangers. That everyone had pretty much the same didn't make it less embarrassing.
Then there was the lack of refrigeration. Bernie daren't ask for icecream, because of the expense and also, the less fuss caused by the party, the better, lest Larry become angry and forbid the whole thing. But jellos did not mold unless the weather was really cold and if the weather was cold that meant that someone must keep replenishing the fires in the front room where the guests were, as well as the kitchen. No, it was very hard. And Larry would not make matters easier.
He seemed to have soured on life and figured that anyone who had more than he did had to have gotten it by political skullduggery, some dirty bit of chicanery. Before long, he avoided all those he suspected and as nearly everyone did have more than the Smithers, friends were few and far between.
In his opinion, all this fooling around for birthdays and inviting 'strangers' in was a lot of nonsense, anyway. He grew balky and would deliberately make it hard for the matter to come to a successful conclusion. Luckily, he didn't dare be outright rude to the children of people he had to see everyday in the community, so the party plans went forward.
The girls arrived and grouped themselves in the sitting room where the younger siblings stood in the door to stare, finger in mouth. One tried to ignore the runny nose and sticky hands, although, presumably, the guests were used to the same situation at home. The rooms were alternately too warm or too chilly, depending on who was available to keep the fires stoked. There were no real games to be played because it was impossible to keep a game in its entirety if one had siblings; there were no stereopticon slides to view because brothers were always 'fixing' the viewer, there were no records or radio because Larry didn't 'hold' with such things, so the girls sat and stared at each other and giggled, conscious of the ubiquitous adults such a short distance away.
After Bernie had greeted them and inquired about the health of the parents and what were they doing today, she went back to her cake decorating. It wasn't turning out at all well. She tried to hurry things along and the cake was too fresh to be iced. The crust rolled up behind the icing spatula as fast as she tried to spread it. It just wouldn't spread...and the jello, standing in the shed that was cold but not cold enough, remained a watery, slimy liquid. And it was time to serve whatever she planned to serve.
The girls good-naturedly ate a bit of cake and scooped up the jello with a spoon, giggling and rolling their eyes at each other. Ellen could just imagine what they'd say once they left and she squirmed in embarrassment.
"Tomorrow, they'll be on to somebody else and have forgotten all about us, " Bernie assured her but it did nothing to make her happy.
After the party, the cold really clamped down and the roads filled up and became impassable. The kids had to walk along the tops of the frozen snowbanks. They found themselves on a level with the telephone wires humming in the bitter cold. School seemed a long way off and Ellen's lungs felt seared by the frost. Her nostrils stuck together but when she pulled her scarf up over her nose and mouth and tried to breathe through it, the moisture from her breath froze it to her face. She'd run out of breath and have to sit on a great ball of ice and snow to rest for a minute.
The weather grew worse and the trustees met to discuss 'drawing' the children to school. The man hired used the front half of a pair of bob-sleds on which he constructed a small hut of canvas. He built benches along each side under the tent-like arrangement and filled the bottom with hay. There was even a tiny glass window in the rear wall...all the comforts of home!
It was hard to be in such close confinement with people you disliked, or who disliked you and Ellen had a particularly bad time. The boys could get out and walk beside the driver but she was stuck inside with Margaret, a neighbor's girl, who was malicious. All day she'd pick on Ellen and jeer at her so when it was time for her to exit the caravan, Ellen helped her along with a boot in her backside.
The next morning was hard to face but Ellen didn't want to miss any school these days because she'd been chosen to be the angel in the Christmas play with Maggie as understudy. It was impossible not to dream of her moment when she'd be strutting across the stage, looking absolutely gorgeous in her gilded wings and halo. Alas, it was not to be.
There had been one epidemic after another that fall. It began with a scourge of impetigo sores and the teacher decreed that if they weren't healed up, she couldn't chance putting on a pageant with the reduced numbers still able to attend school. Nor did she feel like spreading the disease further by inviting guests to an infectious school.
The community went on a binge of cleaning and disinfecting and home-doctoring the likes of which they'd seldom seen. At Smithers', Ellen had a bad case of sores on her legs and each boy had several, also. They were particularly bad when they occurred in the hair because the area had to be shaved before treatment could be effective.
The school nurse distributed tablets that made a vile looking mixture that turned everything purple but she insisted everyone bathe their lesions with it daily. Bernie also used her favorite 'creolin' water to soak the scabs off and she believed in using water just under the boiling point.
"The hotter you can stand it, the better it will be," she promised her cringing victims. Her theory was that hot water dropped from a distance was more effective so she held a sopping rag about eighteen inches above the leg, or arm, and then squeezed it.
Perhaps her treatment worked, or maybe it was just time for the problem to run its course; in any event, the youngsters were all healed in good time and they went back to school and practicing their lines. Ellen knew all hers letter perfect and was ready to go but then two days before the performance, she and Buddy broke out all over with red spots. The spots became pustules and Larry had to go inform the teacher that the kids had chickenpox. Poor Ellen lay in her bed wanting to die as her rival, Maggie turned and strutted upon the stage wearing Ellen's golden wings!
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Ellie's Story List and Biography