Monday, April 21, 2008

WHEN EVERY DAY WAS "EARTH DAY!"

Here it is, Earth Day, started in San Francisco about fifty or sixty years ago and now linked to Global Warming with the entire country trying to Go Green. I used to try to get tan in the summertime, now I have to concentrate on being green. I have the squiggley light bulbs. I turned off all my lights for an hour. I have turned the thermostat down and have contemplated allowing the weeds to win in the lawn in order to refrain from using the gas-powered mower.

Thinking back, my childhood was definitely Green and nobody knew it. Everything was recycled, clothes, shoes, even the towels, which would graduate to mop rags after the holes made them look like lace. We definitely ate organic food, but we never called it that. The only processed food we knew about was that penny lump of bubble gum Helma and I used to buy in the store, a penny's worth of sugary, rubbery gum that came with a tiny little cartoon page attached. We chewed the gum, sugar running down our chins, and read our little cartoon jokes and laughed with delight.

We charged the gum to Mom's "account," which she had set up in the store to use when times were rough, which they usually were. When her milk check came in, she meticulously paid her bill and never said a word about the extra pennies we had charged. When she milked the cows, she saved enough milk for the family to use and then poured the rest into two large tin containers that were picked up weekly by the dairyman. I presume they made cottage cheese from that spoiled milk in those containers, because it had to be pretty rancid by the time it reached the dairy. The milk that we drank was kept in the "storeroom," which was supposed to cooler than the remainder of the house, but usually wasn't. The milk wasn't pasteurized, but came straight from the cow. It wasn't cold unless Mom bought ice that week and it could be placed in the wooden ice box. Seldom could she spare the money for ice, but when she did, the milk was deliciously cold.

We relied on apples for desserts and sauces, because they were the only fruit that grew abundantly in the orchard. There was row after row of aged apple trees, gnarled and twisted, their bark as thick and black as an old rubber tire, and great fun for a child to climb into and play. Many of these trees still gave birth to stunted apples, apples that were as gnarled and twisted as the trees themselves. The wind would blow the apples to the ground and there we would collect them, carrying them home in buckets. Mom would stand for hours peeling these apples, filled as they were with worm holes and black spots. Sometimes she only got a bite or two out of an entire apple. When she was through, she would make apple pies or apple sauce. Pop loved apple sauce and ate it with every meal, calling it "apple sass" for some inexplicable reason.

Mom never put a chemical on her garden. Pop never put a chemical on his corn. All of the produce grew naturally, without human help. I don't know why, but that corn came to fruition without a mark on the golden kernels, and Mom's garden vegetables thrived despite the abundance of insects at the farm. She used manure from the barn to feed her vegetables and the cows never failed her. There is no fragrance quite as earthy as that emitted in cow barns. A horse barn cannot live up to it, and even a chicken coop smells better. The cows walk around in their manure until it mixes with the earth and becomes a smelly slop that no amount of shoveling can help. The odor clings to everything, the wood of the barn, the cows themselves, and anyone trying to handle them. A shoe worn into a cow barn is an odorous object forever.

For some reason, Mom did all the milking chores and Pop took over the feeding of the cattle and the horses. Sometimes we were trusted to help feed the chickens, which consisted of tossing breadcrumbs or anything else on the ground. We were not typical farm children who labored in the fields or in the house. While Mom labored from dawn to dusk, we lived a life of continual play. I don't know whether it was because she thought we were too precious to dirty our hands with work, or because she thought we were too dumb to do it right.

We did help pick potatoes and beans. This drudgery was met with sighs and cries of discontent and usually ended with a potato fight in the field, with all of us delightedly tossing potatoes at each other. Helma was too delicate to do much of this work, and I was too lazy to be of too much help. Sis, Norma and I went to great lengths to avoid doing the dishes. There was always a mountain of dishes after each meal and we would hide in the attic or go to the outhouse and climb out its window, running into the orchard and staying there until we figured the dishes were done.

We really weren't interested in woman's work. It was the men's work that we found fascinating. We would hide in the barn and peek through the holes in the floor and listen to Pop and my brothers as they worked with the horses. We would jump aboard the haywagon and ride to the alfalfa field. It always seemed to us that the work the men did far surpassed the drudgery of the kitchen.

Recently, I have tried to buy organic food, as advised by all people interested in good health and in the environment. However, it is expensive, and most of the wrappers are a dull brown. I don't know why the organic farmers can't dress it up a bit and drive the price down a bit. In today's world, Mom and Pop could enjoy a tidy profit with organic food. They had never heard of the word "organic" and would probably have thought it meant church music.

One job we children did have was churning butter. We didn't own a wooden churn, so Mom just put the cream skimmed from the milk into a glass jar. It was our job to shake the jar and shake the jar until the butter formed in lumps in the milk. It was a tedious task and we were none too eager to do it. I decided that Helma was NOT too delicate to shake a jar, but she complained that her arm was numb. I would shake it and shake it and threaten to throw the contents over her head. Just as our argument reached a crescendo, the butter would form and Mom would take the jar and divide the lumps from the buttermilk, awful stuff that she would drink as though it were nectar, and knead the butter until it formed one big lump. She would wash it and salt it and we always had butter for the table.

We had no idea how deadly our diet probably was. The biscuits were fried every meal. There was that eternal corn and potatoes and bowls of milk gravy. It was a cholesterol diet, filled with fat, and lathered with starches and sugars. It was the traditional poverty diet that poor folks eat to fill their stomachs and keep the hunger pains away. Luckily, the organic vegetables and plentiful supply of milk kept us healthy. We grew up with strong bones and rotten teeth, which culminated in some painful trips to the dentist when my older brothers and sisters decided some dental care was needed.

When I was eighteen, I went to Milwaukee to live with Helen and Shippy and to attend college in the city. They paid a friend of theirs, a dentist named John something or other, to fix my teeth. I was in love with John with a childish adoration and it hurt me deeply to Open Wide, an unromantic thing to do when one is in love. I was so homesick I was almost physically ill and my age and the responsibility of looking after me almost drove Shippy into a nervous breakdown. After classes, I worked in a drug store and met a lot of boys. One or the other of them would set up a date to meet me after work. I would emerge from the drug store to find Shippy waiting for me outside. His stern glare usually drove the boyfriend away. Sometimes, when I was working, I would look out the window to see Shippy staring in, keeping an eye on me. He had brown eyes and he looked exactly like a hawk staring in at his prey.

I loved the lake with its differing moods, sometimes with angry waves splashing on shore, and sometimes as placid as a peaceful summer day, but I missed the Farm, I missed the Orchard, I missed my nieces and nephews. I imagined them running through the fields, laughing and not missing me at all. When I went back home, I could have embraced that old house with its weathered exterior and sagging porches.

It was home. It still is, but I have learned to live with it only in memory. It is a segment of my life that helped shape the person I became, the person I am. Thus, each little moment of one's life is a step on a long stairway. How it ends and what that stairway leads to, we hope will be paradise. In my case, the steps upward were in themselves a childhood paradise. When I read of people who suffered early years of abuse, who were orphaned or neglected or hurt, my heart bleeds for them. This is why I write of this, to give everyone reading this a taste of what a happy childhood can be. I want to share it, to treasure it, to remember it, but one lesson I have learned is that it is never too late to love, be it a love for a person, a memory, a stand of trees, a field of flowers. Gaze upon it, treasure it and make it yours!

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