Tuesday, March 22, 2005


I grew up on a farm in Michigan, on 160 acres of land that is now a gravel pit. We rented the land from an elderly Russian gentleman, who claimed to have escaped his homeland during the Revolution lest his noble family be slaughtered. There, in those fields and in that orchard with its rows of gnarled apple trees, I wandered and played, a gypsy child, only going back home at mealtimes.

My mother was in her forties when I was born, and my father was nearing sixty. I was the twelfth child and, although my father wanted thirteen children and was quite disgusted when my mother failed to give him that last one, my mother was overworked and not paid at all. She was very tidy and kept the house immaculately clean, sewed many of our clothes, did all of the laundry, and still had time to tend her garden, which provided us with vegetables throughout the year.

We adored "Pop". Every evening, I would sit on his lap and he would tell me stories and play with me. Later, when I learned to bang around on the piano, he would dutifully listen to each of my arias as though I were a budding musical genius.

It was harder for me to relate to my mother, because she was always busy, and because every word that came out of her mouth, at least to me, came from the Scripture. I decided early on that religion was no fun, filled with rigid rules, and made very little sense to a headstrong girl in her early years.

In the wintertime, Mom washed clothes in the kitchen. The old woodstove would be fired up and the big galvanized washtubs filled with water. When the pump was out, she would fill those washtubs with snow and spend hours getting enough water to wash. Then, using a bar of Fels Naptha soap, she would scrub the clothes until they were clean, rinse them, and hang them out to freeze. Once they were stiff as boards, she would bring them in and finish drying them in the house.

That same bar of Fels Naptha soap was used to wash our hair. Once a week, we received a shampoo. Mom would "warsh and wrench", sudsing us with that smelly soap, squeezing the water from our hair with her strong, gnarled hands. She often rinsed our hair in rainwater, scooping it from the outside barrel. This didn't sit well with me, because I had seen the little squiggly things in the rainwater and was not too eager to wear them in my hair. Of course, my sister Helma was compliant, while I raged and stormed. We were like night and day, earth and sun, always competitive, always ready for battle.

In the summertime, the washtubs were balanced on two chairs under a tree in the yard. There Mom would scrub and hang the clothes. The chickens, roaming freely in the yard, would frequently sit on her shoulders as she scrubbed. Why she never put her two youngest girls to work helping her, I'll never know. Perhaps, by that time, she was tired of fussing with children and found it easier to do things by herself. But, as she worked, we played. We were royal princesses, barefoot and ragged, but pampered and indulged.

Later, someone in the family bought Mom a washing machine. She didn't trust the thing, with good reason, and placed it out on the porch where it reigned like some visitor from outer space. It was green and had a rumble like a monster emerging from a lagoon, and, when you touched it, it shocked you. To touch that machine was to risk your life and limbs. The best way was to use a wooden stick to lift the clothes in an out and get them started into the wringer. This wasn't easy to do, since the machine danced and jiggled, threatening to throw itself off the sagging farmhouse porch.

Looking back through the mist of time, I see my childhood years as time spent in a wonderland. I see the pink and white Spring blossoms on those apple trees as they stood like brides in the orchard. I see the dark fearfulness of the swamp where I balanced on old sodden logs, trying to avoid the black water with its abundance of frogs and snakes. I see the rippling beauty of the lake where I took the old boat and skimmed over the water. I see Pop in his fields nurturing his corn, and Mom working in her garden. It is a time long gone, but the memories remain to bring with them a sweet nostalgia, a lingering fragrance of the past. It always brings to mind the famed words of Thomas Wolfe..."O lost and by the wind blown, ghost, come back again!" But it never does.