Tuesday, November 06, 2007


In the early morning hours of winter, my mother would rise from her bed and stoke up the fires in both the living room and kitchen. The coals had been saved from the night before and, with just some coaxing, the wood would burst into flame and the arctic air begin to warm. How cold it must have been on those winter mornings as she left the warmth of bed and the heavy cover of her homemade quilts to walk into those unheated rooms, while the rest of us snuggled under the covers.

Her life was filled with these activities...duties, chores. She never shirked them, never took a morning off, never poked my father in the ribs and said, "You do it, sweetheart, while I catch some sleep." It wasn't in her nature. If nothing else, my mother was accountable. She felt obligated to complete every task on her agenda as quickly as possible, with no complaints. It was an agenda that would have wearied a man of steel.

Biscuits every morning. Eggs, bacon barely fried with its beloved grease that my father dripped over his potatoes, a table laden with food. Hot coffee in a pot that was coated with the stains from years of use and glasses of milk for the children. Bread toasted on the stove, buttered, and smeared with her honey from a bee tree. This feast was followed by a mountain of dirty dishes and, in a few hours, lunch. Supper wasn't far behind, and the herculean task of feeding numerous people was completed on one day only to be followed with the same tasks the next.

She made her own bread, and every Friday, those golden loaves were spread out on the counter to cool. Every Friday, the children were treated with hot buns, spread with butter and jam, and washed down with glasses of milk. We devoured those buns as though they were candy, pushing them into our mouths and asking for more.

A day or two later, that bread had hardened into slices of steel. Somehow, she would slice it and make sandwiches for our school lunches, wrapping the food with newspaper and tying it up with a string. You could have sharpened knives with those slices of bread. I can remember gnawing on a sandwich of sugar and butter with the same dedication a weight lifter uses to get hundreds of pounds into the air. It's a wonder we had any teeth.

Once a week, she washed our hair. Helma, Deed (Harlan) and I would line up and she would dunk us into a basin of water gathered from the rain barrel outside. Then she would apply Fels Naptha Soap, which was like yellow globs of pure lye, and start scrubbing. When my mother scrubbed, she didn't waste energy, but poured her heart and soul into getting every mite of dust away from our scalps, almost taking our scalps away, too. We wriggled and wept and stomped about, to no avail. It was time for "wrenching." When Mom "wrenched," it was akin to waterboarding in BushWorld. She poured water over the head until you were gasping for air, then she gathered your hair into a knot and twisted, pulling your eyebrows into your hairline and your eyes in the direction of your ears.

After the shampoo, we girls had to have our hair curled. Mom fashioned curlers out of the tin that was then used to seal cans of coffee. There was a little key attached to the can and one peeled the tin back in a little strip until the can opened. She would then cut these strips into the appropriate lengths, wrap them in paper, then use them to make our Shirley Temple curls.

Few people can realize the agony of sleeping with strips of sharp steel cutting into the scalp, like a collection of sharp daggers sticking into the head and twisting this way and that. Occasionally, Mom would give in to our pleas and use rag strips to bind our hair, but the results never pleased her as much as the tin ones. They were longlasting and were kept in a drawer, waiting for the next shampoo. When we were combed out, our thick hair fluffed out like blowing leaves in a Spring breeze. We marched off to school feeling so beautiful we forgot the agonies of the night before.

We didn't help out much. I think Mom had tired of teaching girls to cook by the time Helma and I came along. Besides, Helma was delicate and spared any work while I, sturdy and capable, benefited from her fragile condition. Then, too, the old cookstove flared its flames upward when one tried to stoke the fire, so she probably feared for our lives if she left us to the task of cooking. However, one would think that she would at least have given us the chore of doing the dishes.

It seemed unfair to me that the boys were allowed to go to the barn and help Pop with the fancy chores, like fiddling with horses and mules, harnessing them, hitching them to the plow, feeding them, petting them, while we girls were to be confined to the mundane tasks of setting tables and putting out food in bowls. I became expert at evading all of this. Sis, Norma Jean and I would hightail it to the attic the minute a meal was finished. We knew the mountain of dishes would await. If we gathered around the stovepipe that warmed the attic somewhat, we could hear the conversations in the kitchen as the women gathered to do the dishes. The sisters and sisters-in-law would wonder loudly where "those girls have disappeared to," but they never made any effort to find us. We could wait until they were banging pots and pans in the kitchen, sneak out the living room door around the house to the outhouse, which had a big window with no glass that we could climb out of and make our escape to the orchard.

One had to wind through the cows and the cow dung, the mules and the chickens, in order to make it to the orchard. The cows would follow us, lowing, sure we were carrying a load of fodder for them to eat, and the mules would snort at us as we passed. Once we reached the orchard, the gnarled old trees provided a wonderland of twisted limbs, perfect for a child to climb on, pretending to be a Cowboy or an Indian or an Aztec queen. Sometimes the boys were already there, all the nephews, cooking up mischief, chasing us, teasing us, doing all of the things that boys always like to do. They knew better than to rile us up too much, because one complaint would bring the family wrath down upon them. Girls, despite their status as household help, always had a leg up when it came to complaints. The boys would be soundly scolded.

Once a week, my mother would pump water into buckets for pouring into the big washtub. In the winter, when the pump was always frozen, she would melt snow. Then, with her scrubboard and the ever-ready Fels Naptha soap, she would do the family wash. In the summertime, she would take the tub out under a tree, the chickens roaming at her feet, and do the wash outside, enjoying the warmth of the sunshine. In the winter, the clean clothes were hung in the kitchen and dining room. Wet overalls would slap you in the face as you tried to walk to the living room. Summers, the clothes were hung on the lines outside, billowing about in the breeze. They would be brought in the house when they were dry, soft and smelling like the summer sun, the green of trees and the fragrance of the wild roses around the porch. In the winter, however, they were stiff as boards and, when you tried to put on the clothes, it was like crawling into hollow logs dragged in from the woods.

At night, we would crawl between the blankets of the beds, lifting those heavy homemade quilts, and our toes would encounter hot irons wrapped in towels. Mom always placed these irons in our beds on cold nights. Their warmth would take the chill from the sheets and we would snuggle there, tired and content, until the morning came and we could hear Mom wrestling with the stoves. Then we would gather our courage, throw the covers back with a courageous thrust, shriek at the blast of icy air that greeted us, and dash like Olympic runners for the comfort of the downstairs heat.

It was always there. She was always there, damper in hand, stoking this fire or that, making sure that her family would have that heat, the biscuits in the cast iron pan, the coffee bubbling in the pot, the apron wrapped around her "everyday" clothes. What a life it must have been for her and I think of her now, up in Heaven, mixing up biscuits for the angels to enjoy for breakfast. Sit around and enjoy the luxuries of Heavenly comforts? Not Mom! She'll be scrubbing the angel's wings with Fels Naptha and then "wrenching" to make sure they are clean!