DAYS OF SUN AND SHADOW
Mom loved to sing. She would rattle around the kitchen, making biscuits or her floury sugar cookies, and sing hymns in her high soprano voice, trembling as she grew older with vibratto, but still melodious. For some reason, the words to those hymns are embedded in my brain. I can sing them to this day, these many years later.
Mom had five daughters and I don't believe any one of them were of much help in the kitchen. It wasn't that she didn't believe in teaching girls to cook. It was the imposing, dangerous task of manipulating that woodstove. When I remember Mom, I remember her enveloped in a steaming cloud of smoke as she stoked that fire, her face red with heat blasting up at her, an iron poker in her hand.
We had an icebox, but it was usually devoid of ice. When someone came up with the money for ice, the iceman would bring it in, clutched in its pincers, his muscled body filling our kitchen with his lusty presence. He liked kids and would give us all a slab of ice to suck on and chew as his ice truck rattled out of the driveway.
While Pop worked in the fields, plowing and tending the Golden Bantam corn, Mom tended her garden, milked the cows, fed the chickens, sewed the clothing, cooked the food and cleaned the old farmhouse. What a life! She never complained and continued singing her hymns, staunchly devoted to her religion.
It soon occurred to all of us children that Mom's religion forbade everything that was fun....dancing, wearing makeup, attending movies, listening to modern music, smoking, playing cards, etc. etc. We soon discarded anything resembling a work ethic and devoted our lives to just being children and having as much fun as possible. We were never corrected, never disciplined. The closest thing to discipline is the anger Hubert displayed toward me when Sis and I ruined his favorite hat.
We promptly wrote a song about it and sang it whenever we were around him...."Hubert's favorite hat, is just a ransack, cause Puppy mistook it for a bone. Angry Hubert said, I'll knock you in the head, 'cause you can't leave anything alone!"...... the rest of this musical composition escapes me, but it gave us a great deal of enjoyment.
Mom's favorite, as you may have guessed, was Helma. Helma was a scrawny, delicate child with a sweet disposition when Mom was around and a punch like Mohammed Ali's when she was not. We shared a bed, and this was a mistake from the get-go, for we spent hours after bedtime in constant arguments about who invaded the other's territory.
Helma's close companion was our neice, Donna Belle. And mine were Sis and Norma Jean, two other neices. Helma and Donna grew into cute teenagers while the rest of us were still considered gawky children. It grew pretty tiresome listening to people coo over how cute Helma and Donna had become. Helma wore a long, page-boy hairdo with a wave at the front, and she spent hours with that wave, until it was a perfect wave, a model of how waves should look. She called herself "Bunny" and Donna Belle chose "Jackie", if I remember correctly. I mean, who can blame them? No one ever attracted boys with names like Helma Lou and Donna Belle.
The Farm was a children's paradise. We never took a moment to notice how much work Mom did, how having so many families visiting daily had to mean even more hard work. She never complained of the grandchildren visiting, although she never embraced them or gave them any attention. She left the affection to Pop, who loved his little ones, and dangled them from his knee, allowing them to climb around on his chair, pulling on his hair and playing with his rough, workworn hands. He would laugh at their antics and never tire of them.
Connie was a favorite of ours, because she was little and red-haired and loved to laugh. She was so different than Bud, her husband, who was usually quiet and solemn. It was Connie who took me aside one day, after I had read one of my many poems aloud to the family. I was led into the storeroom and Connie faced me.
"You have a knack for writing," she said. "And that is good. But you sometimes use that talent to hurt people because you are trying to be funny. You must always look for the good in people. Even the worst people have something good in them, if you look for it!"
I tried to remember that advice, haven't always followed it, but still respect it as the best advice I ever received.
I remember so well those hot summer days on the Farm, the sun beating down on the roof, even the cavernous living room getting uncomfortably warm, and the bedrooms upstairs like steamrooms. I can remember Mom singing her hymns as Hubert and Pop worked in the fields and Bud tried to put together an old plow. I would lay on a blanket under the pine tree in the front yard and read, transported to other places by the characters in a book. Sure, flies and wasps might be buzzing above my head and the gnarled branches of that old tree filtered out the sun, but I was Scarlett O'Hara trying to survive the Civil War, or I was Heidi living with her old grandfather.
Those were the lazy days, the good days, the days before Pop had a stroke and went to the hospital, with Ronnie shaking his head and saying to me, "Oh, we'll never see him again!" and all of us children sitting around with wide eyes and pounding hearts, never having made the acquaintance of Death or Disaster, wishing only to have the good life continue forever, to run like gypsies in the orchard with the dogs cantering at our sides and the hot sun overhead.
But, as we all learned, nothing lasts forever.....not childhood, not happiness, not anything in this world!