Tuesday, January 31, 2006


The Farm where I grew up was a two story building, painted yellow, the paint turned gray by the wind and weather, with an attached wing where the kitchen was located. Over the kitchen was the attic, a dusty spot with dirty windows where the sun was filtered through to cast a prism of golden colors on the plank floor. A child could dream there, staring at those glowing particles of light filtering through the dust. There wasn't too much stored in the attic, simply because we never had enough possessions to store anything. Everything we owned was used.

My mother used to put a chamberpot in the attic on cold winter nights, so the children would not have to go outside in the frigid air to go to the bathroom. In the mornings, she would dutifully carry that foul-smelling container to the outhouse and empty it.

For some reason, Mom carried out all of the menial chores. Pop and the rest of the family would snuggle in bed until Mom had stoked a fire in the kitchen stove and the woodstove in the living room. When the kitchen was warm and cozy, she would call us down for the breakfast she had made. She gave us biscuits every meal, fried to a golden crisp on top and baked in the oven until done. She gave us eggs she had gathered from the henhouse and, of course, there was Pop's grease gravy. Grease gravy was simply a dish of bacon grease and Pop sprinkled it over everything.

The farmhouse had two porches, one in front, the other in back. Both were sagging affairs, threatening collapse, gray and weathered. The front porch was empty and largely ignored. A huge wild rosebush grew beside it, bursting with pink flowers in the Spring and early Summer, its fragrance drifting in the air.

The back porch was a hub of activity. It was there that Mom hung those cheesecloth containers of curdled milk for her homemade cottage cheese. This cheesecloth kept up a continual drip of odorous, greenish liquid. Finally, after many years had passed, Hubert bought a used washing machine and it was placed on the back porch. To Mom, it was a godsend, sparing her from the arduous task of scrubbing dirty denims and thick corduroys by hand.

However, that washing machine, painted green, was a fearful and monstrous machine! It rumbled and teetered as it washed the clothes in the water that had to be carried from the pump. Sometimes it sent a cloud of smoke into the air, like a tribe of Indians declaring war. I was scared of that machine, because I knew that, if you touched it, it shocked you. It would send a stab of alarming pain up your arm and into your body.

Mom used a wooden stick to control the machine, so that she wouldn't get shocked. With the stick, she would feed the clothing through the wringer, which would clutch them and squeeze the water from them. This seemed to anger that washing machine and it would growl and snarl like an enraged beast, shaking and causing the old porch to vibrate. Mom handled it with great courage, but coward that I was, I used to steer clear of that green predator on washday.

Electricity, for Mom, was a triumph. All the other houses where we had lived until we moved to the Farm had no electricity as well as plumbing. To her, electricity was the greatest invention on earth. No more coal oil lamps, no more living in darkness. Electricity made her life much easier.

Water was another problem. In order to get water, one had to keep the pump in running condition. Sometimes one had to prime the pump with a gallon of water, just to coax a dribble of liquid from its rusty iron mouth. And, in the wintertime, the pump invariably froze up.

That left Mom in a quandary, for she had to feed all of her children. So she dipped water from the creek, brought it to the house and boiled it on the stove for oatmeal, which was our regular breakfast, along with slabs of homemade bread and milk from the cows.

One time, we sat down, Deed, Helma and I, to a hearty breakfast of oatmeal, preparing to start the long journey to school. Mom put the pot of oatmeal in the center of the table, then placed empty bowls in front of us, along with our spoons. The pot held a big ladle, so that we could dip out the quantity wanted.

I dipped myself a bowl filled with the hot, steamy cereal, poured milk on it, sprinkled it with sugar and began eating. Deed did the same. Then it was Helma's turn. She picked up the ladle, dipped it into the oatmeal and the ladle emerged draped with the boiled, lifeless, sprawled body of a large bullfrog, its yellow underbelly glowing and moist!

Helma screeched and screamed, covering her eyes and jumping back from the table. Deed and I sat in stunned silence, contemplating the frog-flavored oatmeal we had been devouring. Mom fluttered about, her face red with embarassment, and Pop roared with laughter.

Helma refused to eat for a day after that incident, declaring herself done with food for a lifetime. I told her she had no worries, at least she hadn't eaten the stuff. But this did not comfort her. Her mind was filled with images of the sprawled dead frog.

To this day, I have never eaten froglegs and I never will. As far as I am concerned, I will leave frogs to a long and hearty lifetime as long as they don't climb into my food. And that terrifying sight on a cold winter morning has remained with me to this day. Of course, there was a little comfort in seeing the sheer terror on Helma's face. That was always uplifting.

When I remember my mother, I recall this small, work-laden woman struggling to give her best to her children. Why she didn't make us work more and herself less is puzzling, but we grew up secure in her love and care.