Hogs

Midterm, the second semester of my senior year at Augie, I still worked the night shift–50 cents per hour from 11 pm to 7 am–at West Truck Haven Cafe on the northwest side of the West 12st Street overpass for the newly built Interstate 29, which by the end of the summer before in 1964, was somewhat close to Watertown.  Once again, I was counter waitress, manning two big curved U’s that dipped towards the south, occasionally helping out the dining room waitress, who then was ten years younger than I am now.  At Augie I took  the remaining 11 hours to finish up my senior year.  My first class was in the morning, Education Tests and Measurements with Dr. Oscar Oksol, who chided me once or twice for falling asleep.  So boring that class was, but I learned about means and medians.

Classes, waitressing, and theatre activities exhausted me that semester, exhausted me more when blizzards swept the Interstate of cars and trucks and Greyhound busses; and some of the fearful, tired occupants slumped on stools at my counter while the rest crowded in the dining room.  That rush of costumers, I was used to, for West Truck Haven, like Kirk’s Drive-Inn on the other side of the Interstate on the south side, always a great place for breakfast at 2 am after the bars closed, after 4 am when the nightclubs closed, after evening shifts ended at Morrell’s Meat Packing Plant, manufacturers, night-security shifts, police.  But I was not used to working double shifts because other waitresses couldn’t make it.  On a night of a particular blizzard, I twisted my right ankle. We were so busy that I didn’t notice the pain and the increased swelling in my ankle until there was a lull.  After 18 hours or so when I was able to get back to my apartment on Summit Ave., my ankle was almost the size of a football, and black and blue.  Because of poverty, behaviors instilled by my parents who demanded chores be done morning and night with no excuses, for my next shift, I wrapped my ankle in Ace bandages and shuffled through evening shifts until I was able to walk normally.  I blame the sprain on cheap nurse’s shoes I wore, the only ones I could afford at Lewis Drug, the ankle unstable  from the 1″ rubber soles.

During second-semester midterms, required exams in all classes, work and studying for tests and directing and acting and building sets, costuming, props merged into marathons. In the summer of 1964,  I rented a basement apartment with another female student other than Edie, another student name I don’t remember now, nor really care to, for we really grew only to tolerate one another by the end of my senior year.  The landlords were on the main floor, the husband once in a while peeking in through the transom window into our living room.  I caught him one late spring night when I walked naked from the bedroom back to the bathroom for something.  I looked up at  that south window, the little light curtains open a foot a so, in time to hear rustling as someone ran away.  When the upstairs’ back door opened and closed, I knew it had to be her or him; more than likely him, for he always scurried away whenever one of us girls came within sight.

At the end of the midterms, three days awake with only catnaps of fifteen minutes or so, my head on the kitchen table or my body in a fetal position on the sofa, I called my mom and begged the folks to get me a loan so I could get through the rest of the semester and the summer.  $500 was all.  A day later they called and said the bank agreed. Sometime during my first teaching year, I paid them back.  It was only the second time I received money from the folks.  The first was during Christmas vacation my second or third year at college.  Mother took me into their bedroom and handed me an envelope containing $50, the largest amount of money I had ever seen at one time then. We both sat at the foot of the bed, Mom to my right.   She had me hold out my hand and pressed the envelope into mine.  I can still see her face, framed by the then shorn hair; her braids coiled like dun-colored snakes were placed in a covered wooden bowl, the bowl tucked on an end table placed next to the china cabinet.  She whispered to me, this money is hard-earned, so spend it wisely and carefully, for there will be no more like this for some time, if ever.

My father had a heart attack in my junior college year.  My older brother took over the farming, while Dad stayed bedridden for six weeks, that’s all. No insurance then or ever.  Mom was uninsurable I’m sure after all the surgeries when we were little, and my father distrusted hospitals, fearing the cost.  As my father said, we never had before or since a pot to piss in.  The hogs that paid the folks’ way on the O’Boyle place from my junior year in high school up until my first year in college was no more, the result of over-vaccination covered up by  a veterinarian who condemned the barn, saying that it was contaminated.  Years later after the vet died, another vet told my father what had happened.

The deaths of the pigs happened within hours on the night before and early morning of my last day at home on a vacation.  I remember my father and older brother hauling one dead pig or hog or sow after another out of the barn by its hoof.  So distraught, his sadness so pervasive, one that results only in the heaving of a chest and silent tears, my father took a butcher knife and split open each pig from groin to sternum, as if butchering, and revealed lungs oozing blood, stomachs, abdomen.  Somehow or other earlier my mother arranged for me to  ride with the mailman to Denison to catch the bus back to Sioux Falls.  From the back seat of the mailman’s car, with dead pigs laid like huge white grotesque slugs in an arc some 30 feet of the south barn door, the last sight I saw was my father with a butcher knife bent over the last one he or my brother drug out. I know he was sobbing as was my mother who stood on the porch of the house holding the hand of my five-year-old brother.

Record

My first teaching position after college was at the newly built Lincoln High School.  Probably the reason that I was hired by principal T. C. Tollefson was due to my student teaching at Washington High under Barney Kremer, one of the best drama and speech coaches a high school could ever have, at least it seemed then; and he probably was for Sioux Falls at that time. As far as I observed, students adored him, clamored to be in his plays, respected him even when not cast.  Barney was epileptic, his condition progressing as he became older.  I remember him having a seizure once during those eight weeks of student teaching. Or was it a semester? During an afternoon speech class, it happened.

Barney’s room was set up with a small stage on a six-inch platform flush against the west side. The classroom had two main doors, one of either side of the west wall.  Student chairs, not desks I don’t think, were positioned around three sides towards the stage.  Even now I can see the room in all its beigeness, a chalkboard as a backdrop for the stage; another on the south wall between the two doors; however, in my memory most of  the seats were  empty, as most seats are during four to six weeks of rehearsals.  Doors to two small rooms were on either side of the south wall’s chalkboard: A room for props, costumes, etc., farthest away from door to the classroom; Barney’s office right as one entered the classroom.

During a semester many plays were performed for classes in that room: a teacher ushered in one class on the right while another teacher guided her or her class out the other door. During a run actors performed the same play continuously throughout the school day and then again on a night or two.  In front of the stage, and it remained that way for a speech class, was an open space that sometimes felt like an immense sand dune, especially  when I took over a rehearsal or taught an oral interpretation class.

I had seen someone have a seizure once before, in the middle of the afternoon at Kirk’s Cafe, downtown Sioux Falls,. I’m not sure if it was a Sunday or a Saturday, or even for sure if it really was in the middle of the afternoon.  I was tending  counter, my basic post at Kirk’s.  Normally I worked from 2 in the morning until sometime late forenoon.  I know that I started waitressing for Kirk’s in the summer of 1962,  right after my freshman year.  Earlier that summer I moved into Mrs. Rudd’s home, across the street, north of Augie’s Old Main.  A bunch of Augie girls, refugees from their own homes like me, lived there–I in the middle north bedroom on the second floor.  It had a little closet on the west wall, the bed facing the north wall most of the time.

That summer my younger sister stayed with me for a few weeks.  It must have taken my mother a great deal of courage to let Gloria ride the bus up from Denison, Iowa to Sioux Falls.  Maybe Gloria begged, or I did, or Gloria needed a job and there wasn’t anything for any female teenager then around Manilla and Vail.  I probably told her she could probably get one at the Arena.  But more than likely it was because we were so damn poor, and my father and mother probably thinking she has to start finding her way on her own.  When she came, we probably positioned the bed against the north wall, for I remember she coming home a little before the time I was to go to work with a chameleon somehow pinned to her shirt.  I remember her waking me up to show it to me.  I think I told her to get that damn thing away from me after I pointed my finger at her and asked if she wanted another cup of coffee.

I waited tables for the Kirk brothers from that summer up through my junior year: first for Ted, who ran the one downtown,and then for Larry, who managed Kirk’s Drive Inn, until I jumped shift to the truck stop across the overpass on the newly built Interstate 29.  I’m not sure what were my wages per hour, but it wasn’t much.  At the truck stop in 1965, fifty cents an hour plus tips,, so at Kirk’s probably the same.  Apparently  four Kirk brothers had their fingers in both places,

The seizure at Kirk’s I do remember occurred in bright light, more than likely streaming in from the corner south and west windows that the counter faced.   This couple always came in the middle of the afternoon, two cups of coffee, maybe a little pie or a donut.  The man looked like the lead in Dragnet, Jack Web, quiet, soft spoken, a little pasty, as characters in black and white appeared; the woman, always quiet, never saying much.  I know I was sitting on the other side of the counter, drinking my own coffee, for they were the only two in the place.  Maybe I was visiting with them, something that was a waitress’s obligation then–keep the customers happy, make them feel at home.  And the wife fell between the stools and the counter, wedged up under there; the bar on which customers put their feet probably caused a bruise on her back.

In my memory, it’s a series of stills: first the heavy bang against the stool on her right, then another when she went twisting under the counter, her back arching, the body flopping in that small space.   Foam came out of her mouth, white like a bloated cow.  Her husband pulled her out over to center of the floor, near one of the tables on the west side. He took a tough depressor out of his shirt pocket.  I remember the embarrassment in his eyes when he asked me to hold her head while he put the depressor in her mouth.   It seemed forever she spasmed while her husband then held her head while I held the depressor in her mouth.

Barney’s seizure also was in the bright light of an afternoon, in the empty space in front of the stage.  He must have known it was coming on, for I think he got to his knees.   I thought it strange that he was doing so, but Barney, like Earl Mundt, Augies’s theatre director and me, sometimes enacted moves for those we directed.  He didn’t flop as much as the woman at Kirk’s.  Neither did foam come out of his mouth.  His back did arch, and he became stiff and stared at the ceiling; his eyes rolled back in his head.  I stood there, as I did at Kirk’s, not knowing what to do.  The students did, however.  They were calm, respectful,  as if they were witnessing a death.  One, I’m not sure who it was, left and brought back another teacher.

Barney eventually had to quit teaching, retiring to his home on west 18th Street.

My other stint at student teaching was in 7th & 8th grade math classes  under an old bitty of a woman who ran her classes as if they were prison lockdowns. I really don’t know what it was that irked her so about me, as I often don’t know what irks others about me, except that at this time at the end of her career, as she appeared then, I believe she feared innovation, wanted the classroom managed precisely the way she did.  I really don’t think my approach was all that much different from her’s–I had to follow lesson plans that my supervisor and she approved; but of course, I didn’t see myself as she did. And it was Patrick Henry Junior High; at that time, in the elite part of Sioux Falls–two Country Clubs nearby, Sioux Valley Hospital, V. A. Hospital,  Park Ridge, all those beautiful homes northwest of 18th Street and Western.  Later, with my children, even though they were toddlers, I would drive through the curved streets, pointing out to them the imposing door of one home, the graduated curved lane of another, the cupolas that dotted many of them, the immaculate lawns. I still dream about one of those houses–three-story gray stucco, narrow but deep, with a façade that seemed to curve into fantasy.

What I did learn from student teaching at Patrick Henry was that absolutely, unequivocally I was not meant for junior high teaching, the way that it was taught then.  It was more important in the 1960s, maybe also for junior highs now, that students sit still quietly, heads in obeisance, and perform according to the way that it was always done, instead of challenging them to learn advanced skills and concepts.  But boredom is as boredom does. It kills me still, every single night of the week.  But what did I know about my junior high math teaching ability?   I do know that at Augie I tutored male math students my own age and above,  who after college worked for companies who paid them well, like MIT.  My first take-home paycheck from teaching at Lincoln was $358. I was a female, only groomed for teaching or nursing; and expected as soon as possible, if not before graduation, to “hook-up” and marry, if not get pregnant and marry, or get pregnant and not get married.  But to be fair, during that student teaching experience, if I remember correctly, besides working at Kirk’s Truck Stove, which now doesn’t exist, and later waitressing at night West Truck Haven, I was also in a play.

At that time in Washington High,  no elevator swooned me to the top of that three-story structure, which is now Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science.  I don’t remember climbing those stairs then, as I do remember trudging up them 20 years later when I came back to teach and manage the English Resource library, after teaching at Garretson, a state of mind that suggests that during student teaching under Barney those stairs disappeared under my feet as those on a Vegas stage after showgirls swirled through the exits.

Rain Water

When I phoned my sister-in-law trying to find out who is the baby in a picture with Mom, I mentioned that Mom looked so old. She said that your mom looked old at 60, long before she should have.  Here I am, age 70.  My mother stares back at me in the mirror, the same jaw line, the same eyebrows, the same lines about the mouth, but not her coal black hair.  Mother was always proud of the fact that she had never dyed her hair; and for most of her life, my mom’s hair was coal black with at the most just faint streaks of gray.   In the last ten years of her life,  the black hair became lighter, and the gray more numerous.  When mine gets to where about a half-inch of white peeks through and I seem to have more scalp than hair, I dye my hair to  almost the color I had when younger, a once luscious brown with amber undertones that would shine in the sun as if hennaed.  Now a color 4 something or other that the hair dresser and I pick out.

For most of my childhood, my mother’s hair if down streamed down her back, so long that she could sit on it.   Only once in a while she would let it drape down her back or across her shoulders.   When she sat at the kitchen table, her  unbraided hair seemed as if it caressed the floor.    But then to let one’s hair display in such a manner was not seen then as proper.  Hair needed to be kept up, as mom would say, or hidden under a scarf, which she did occasionally.  When she put up her hair, four massive braids, two coils of hair on either side and a part down the middle; when down,  two braids with the sides of her hair swept up and away from her face with combs. I  often remember her asking me if her hair was fine in back, if a strand was loose to tuck it in.

Once a week, usually on a Friday or Saturday, like most farm women then, Mom washed her hair.  She would heat rain water on the stove, brought in from a barrel setting under one or another gutter, to  a temperature where an elbow could rest comfortably for a short time and then she would wash her hair, the basin full of rain water on  the drain of the sink; an empty basin in the sink to catch the water streaming from her hair.  Once her hair was shampooed thoroughly, which took a long time for thick hair such as Mom’s, then it was my turn to help, if I was around.  Both basins were rinsed clean.  One was filled with clean warm rain water to rinse; the other, placed in the sink again.    Then I would pour warm rain water onto her hair, and she would work it through, sometimes telling me to take some from the basin below.  Then we would rinse again and again until the water was clear in the basin. The final rise would be  of vinegar and water to make her hair squeak.  Then the absolutely final rinse in cold water.

Mom braids

Mom didn’t let her hair dry naturally before she braided, for it was easier to divide the hair when wet into three sections each for each braid and coil.  Sometimes she asked me to braid her hair or wrap rubber bands around the ends.  Then she would coil the braids counterclockwise, on each side one around the other.

I don’t know what doctor Mom consulted and really I don’t know when, but I do think we were still living at the Beh place when the doctor told Mom that her headaches was because of the weight of her hair.  She had them cut off, a hefty price to pay, for the headaches continued, her braids like locks of hair to remember someone by in a covered wooden bowl.  Mom’s headaches were sometimes conversation among us kids even as we grew older.  My younger brother still thinks that Mom wasn’t sick at all.   I don’t know why any of us doubted her. Ignorance more than likely, and a lack of empathy.

 

Stairs

My mother checked herself out of the Manor a month of so after she arrived  by ambulance from Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Omaha.  I’m not sure why, but I will fracture at least two reasons: that she wanted something to leave us kids, for living at the Manor would exhaust whatever savings was left after Dad died, and that she was worried about my brother.  There were probably many more.  Another reason will be the same reason that I will, if I’m able, not to resign myself to the inevitable, that lack of will, that lack of movement, the interminable wait, the descent into sleepiness from which one never wakes.

Early November 7, 1996, Manning Hospital called my sister’s house where I stayed almost every time I drove over from Blair to see Mom in the hospital.  I think we had gone the seven miles east to Manning Hospital the night before to see her. That road I have been on a couple of times since Mom’s  death, but I will still mark the progress from Manilla to Manning, first Aspinwall, then a farmstead on the right with silos that has always indicated abundance to me, the Manning Golf Course, and over the last hill,  a gas station that usually has only a customer or two.

I’m sure it was not that prior evening, but it was during one of the other times when both of us made what seemed like an arduous trek up the stairs to the second floor where Mom lay in a coma, I mentioned to my sister about the numerous times we have been in hospitals; and there have been many times: the white walls, the silence particular to some rural hospitals, such as Manning’s, the antiseptic smell that moves from one room to another, the putrid smell of illness, the blank stares of patients, televisions not really loud enough to hear what’s being said or too loud for the person in the next room.  On the landing between floors, with my sister on my left, I can still see her  reaction, the same resignation as I had at that time, the repetitious action that we both knew would end soon.

Then I owned a small motel in Blair, Nebraska, a business for which I signed a purchase agreement  before April 1995, thinking that after I take over, I can be closer to the folks.    I closed on the motel November 1, 1995; but by that time my father had been dead for not quite two months.  Part of the  reason for my purchase then was moot.   I wish in so many ways that I had let the woman keep the earnest money, and walk away from the deal.  But I didn’t.  At that time I didn’t know what else I was going to do with my life.  I stayed, and from that time until Mom was taken ill, sometime in July, 1996, my mother came to visit me and I,  her.  The last time she came to visit, my older sister Betty and her husband Juan brought her.  They had returned to Iowa for a visit.  All throughout the time  they were in Manilla, Mom was sick, but she never told anyone.  It wasn’t until after they left, that Mom called me and said that she was going to the hospital for she was bleeding.  There the doctors discovered that Mom had ulcerative colitis, tough for anyone to deal with, much less a women in her early 80s.

The ambulance took Mom to Manning Hospital that day.  Solid foods were impossible for her to eat.  There she began to sleep more and more.  I don’t remember how long she was there before we moved her to Saint Joseph’s.  At Saint Joseph’s her brothers and sisters came to visit.  I think her twin even came from Washington, although I’m not sure.   What I don’t remember about that time speaks volumes of all that was happening.  I do remember one of her brothers who has now since passed being very upset that we didn’t take her there sooner.  But Mom insisted that the doctor in Manning would help her, as he always had. But this time, he couldn’t. I don’t think initially Mom wanted to go to Saint Joseph’s because of the expense, the cost, in addition to the loyalty that she had for the Manning doctor. But the doctors at Saint Joseph’s  got the bleeding stopped and released her to the Manor.

I don’t think it was me who took her home from the Manor, but I do remember one of the times that we talked while she was there.  She was dressed, with her shoes on, laying down on the bed when I came in.  I remember her saying that she’s going home.  I do remember trying to convince her not to, to stay and heal, but it wasn’t long that she was home. In a short time, however, the ambulance was called again and Mom was taken to Manning once more, where she died after being in a semi-comatose state for almost two months.

Do not preach

Do not preach 

 

Do not preach to me about death.

I saw him solid by my mother’s bed

take her breaths one at a time,

while I smoothed her hair.

 

I beheld him through thick tears

that clotted my throat.

 

He clutched his hat in his hand,

ready to exit with his bag of tricks—

blood that turns blue,

a heart that beats a second too long. 

 

I know; I counted them:

the times her chest rose and fell,

the faint pulse in the hollow of her throat,

the miniscule movement in the temple—

too much sound for me.

 

The kidneys that hardened,

swelled her body like voile in the wind

until her rings cut her fingers.

 

I soaked her hands in lotion to remove them.

A ruby one for my sister; a worn gold band for me.

by Karen Foster

 

July 30

I think Dad was in Manilla Manor  for close to a year.  His  bed was positioned  in  the corner of the northeast wall, so he couldn’t see out the window that opened onto the Manor’s east green. All he could see, if he was awake, was the hallway through which the nurses moved, the wall on his left, and the television, often on, hanging in the  center of the south wall.  To sleep, he would face the blank wall on his right, grab the guard rail, and use it to pull himself towards it and adjust his body so that he wouldn’t feel the pull to fall back on his back.  Dad often slept even at home with one leg out of the covers; a leg, he joked, was his thermometer, and maybe it was.  As he grew older, he would often complain that his shins burned.  But his inability to walk, to exercise, at his old age, when that was all that he was used to all his life, was the cause.  Dad often had his eyes closed, even when awake.  Not sure why; maybe something to do with what all that he had seen and didn’t want to see anymore.  When he napped, when he was younger, he snored so loud at times that I thought anyone standing on the porch could hear.  On the Beh place, naps for dad was always right after the noonday meal, on the sofa in the winter time, or on the cruddy, home-for-mice soft in the brooder house, which had been made over into sort of summer palace for us kids.  Hot, yes, but there is nothing so tantalizing like heat and a little breeze to take the edge  for an Iowa farmer in those days, one reason that I believe Dad enjoyed the heat in the south porch in the middle of summer rather than the air-conditioned cool inside.

At home during the day,  if not lying down in the middle bedroom where he and Mom slept towards the end of his life instead of the far room, probably because it was close to the bathroom, less distance for the walker, Dad would be sitting on the back porch, even in the cool evenings  of fall and early spring.  In the afternoon, a can of Bud would be next to him; empties in a wastebasket lined with some sort of plastic.  A small tv sat on a shelf some distance up in a corner.  Even with the volume turned off, the picture would always be there.  Windows all the way around the porch, if sitting down, windows through which one could only see the tops of buildings and trees, a summer storm that would roll in from the southwest, maybe the top  of a neighbor who would come over or my brother coming around  the side of garage after parking his truck in the back.  When the cold weather started to chill everyone’s bones, plastic sheeting held with lathes nailed to the outside of the house kept those scenes opaque.  The sounds of birds we all could hear if the television  was off. Squirrels that moved from wire to wire and down the bark of a tree.  But then I was never certain Dad saw much as he aged.  His eyes seemed at time to be looking far away, cloudy on some days more than others, and he seldom wore his glasses except to read the paper or some letter from someone, who responded to one my mother sent,

My youngest brother, Gail, sent me a copy of a letter Dad wrote while in the service, stationed at Camp Pickett, Virginia, almost three  weeks before I was born.  “My Dearest Darling Wife,” the letter begins. In that short letter of three handwritten pages, each page the size of a card envelope, my father addressed my mother Darling five times. The last line, “Sending load \ load of love  \ kisses.”  And he signed it, “From your only one.” That kind of love makes me sad today, for it’s a love that I’ve never had, never witnessed in my own life, nor will, for reasons beyond me still to this day.  He doesn’t mention me, the baby to come, which was natural then I think, not to mention pregnancy, almost as if speaking about it would place a pall on the birth. He does ask about Betty May, my older sister, that he was going to write to her too soon.  Mom and Dad had been married since July 30, 1942.  I married my second husband on July 30, hoping in the back of my mind that this time round I would have a marriage like my folks.  But that never happened. Going through old boxes recently, whenever I came across a note written by my second ex, notes written while he was trying to make peace, I read them once more and then threw them in the trash.  There are some things that one must never keep for long, and I kept those many years longer than I should have.

I know my father wrote other letters to my mom, juicy ones that I came across one day while searching for something else in the attic of their house, ones that said that “the bed’s going to get a workout.”    I do remember my mother becoming so upset when I found them.  I also found poems that Mom had copied  in a register, poems it seems  that her first husband had written to her.  She told me when I asked about them later that she had burned them.  But I know now that after she died, my older sister Betty has them.

I don’t remember the folks ever celebrating their anniversary.  But we seldom celebrated anything back then, except perhaps little kids’ birthdays.  When I was away from home, college or married or left to my own devices, on my birthday, Mom would send usually a five-dollar bill; maybe a little more, never much though.  Grandma Snyder usually sent a five-dollar bill too, so I was rich, especially in college when my share of the rent was half of $75 dollars and I earned 50 cents an hour plus tips waiting tables.

One day while separating or divorcing my second husband, I drove home to Manilla.  I don’t remember which, for during times like these, all memory fuses together, comes in snippets,  When they come back, I’m not even sure if before or after any other event, I see them and I wonder why now, as if to make meaning of all that has happened.   The folks had long since left the county farm, a year or two before I divorced my first husband.  Dad worked then I think off and on, keeping an eye at night on the grain dryers; Mom worked cooking for the Depot or for an  other restaurant–not sure of its name then.  It was in the afternoon, more than likely a Saturday, for early Sunday, I would have to take the long trip back to Sioux Falls.   We were talking at the kitchen table.  Sitting in a chair to her left, I was confiding some things to her.  I knew my folks  liked my second husband, and I knew that they thought me wrong divorcing him; but I wasn’t.  Dad wasn’t around.  Perhaps on the back porch, but if I remember, it felt as if he was uptown or napping.  Mom said something to the effect that she didn’t understand.  She said, “You know, your father has always been my best friend.” I remember that sense of amazement with that simple statement; my father was her best friend. I know that I never can say that of anybody, much less a man. And I wonder where that lack of trust began. It must be a fungus that clogs off the airways, the means of enjoyment.

Awareness

I really don’t think there is any justice in the world, no comings-upings as an elder in my past would say. Always those who have it easy will continue to have it easy. Those with love in their lives will continue to curl up beside someone at night. I think that most of us are under the delusion that a life well lived yields results, but it doesn’t. Something becomes programmed into us with a touch, even if that touch is meant for another. A slap across a mouth, laughter in the midst of a barking dog, all sexual acts by any, even those with ill intent, become hinges to open doors through which one doesn’t peek but is shoved. We go to our graves, if there are graves, with nothing but best wishes floating down along with the dirt that’s being shoveled on top of us.

The Stroke

A rickety gray porch encircled the south and east side of the two-story 1890s farmhouse, put up in a rush when homesteading, sunk away from the gravel road that ran dusty north to south.  Straight out from the house, the kitchen on the south side, the dining room and parlor on the north, the planks of the porch projected like accordion keys on which once in a while grandpa played his accordion, one that became like detritus lost in the shuffle of families after his death.  Pillars, weathered pine and full of slivers, kept the roof fairly straight, but they caved like dominoes when the house was bulldozed.  Upon this porch grandchildren swung in a wooden swing, swung from the iron links until they were told not to, twirled around the pillars, chased chickens and each other down one side and the other, and jumped off the edges as if they were descending into caverns.  On the porch each with a bowl between their legs, a garden basket full of pods in the center, they podded peas quietly after being subdued with a soft injunction by the grandmother not to eat the peas, standing on the other side of the screen door  that opened to the porch on the east.

The Botna River slid through the farm’s bottom land like a rat snake  on a porch.  Their son  Wayne took a corn knife, berserk from serving in the Pacific, and sliced it into sections like a madman while grandchildren like sparrows watched from their perches in a tree in the yard, the corn knife a blur as it swirled and swirled in the air.  When he stopped, he shook off the fury and snuck like a dog back inside the house. Grandma took a shovel and picked up the pieces and burned them in the barrel. I remember my father and mother watching Wayne silently a distance away.  Later in bits of conversation between adults, we learned that Wayne found the swamps writhing with snakes too much for his mind. What else happened to him, I was never told.  But I was always afraid of him as a child, and grew to dislike him immensely as an adult.

Inside Grandpa and Grandma Snyder’s home, in the living room, in the summer time, an oil stove stood idle on the north wall.  In the spring of 1960, a teakettle hissed upon the pot-belly cast-iron wood stove that sat a little ways from the wall. A small little pot belly, but one that heated the entire house, almost, except for the corners of the bedrooms upstairs and the parlor in the northeast corner, whose door was always shut except when company came, sometimes on weekends to celebrate birthdays, on Christmas and holidays.

Grandpa and Grandma on some anniversary

Grandma and Grandpa called that room a parlor, not a living room. The other rooms in the house contained ordinary, everyday furniture, nothing new, all serviceable.  I don’t remember much about the table in the room with the two stoves around which we all sat if having dinner at Grandma’s place, and I don’t remember many times we all sat around that table.

My grandpa, Francis Snyder laid upon the bed in the one bedroom on the main floor, in the northwest corner.  In that bedroom in any time of year one could hear farm animals, especially the chickens that roamed freely around the yard most of the time.  In the summer time, the cackling of the chickens were comforting to Grandpa, I would think for those ten years that he lived mostly in that bed after his stroke.  Whenever any of us entered the house, from the time he had the stroke on the night of my oldest sister’s wedding, we first had to say hello to Grandpa.  Always the rule, not from Grandma, but from my mother.  Straight to the bedroom to say hello.  The stroke left him paralyzed on the right side, his arm dead weight.  Grandpa had some feeling in his face, for he jostled with us, teased us, asked us questions.  Often he would be sitting up when we came, or Grandma would follow us into his room and help him sit, or we would. Because of his stroke, the Grandpa’s nails would grow long and tough.  Cutting them with a clippers that seemed like one to use on pigs was we kids’ job; in fact mine most of the time.  From the time I was eight until he died, I cut his nails.  His right hand was stiff, but he could lift it out of the covers and hold it in front of my while I took the clippers and cut off the edges of his nails. The fingernails were easy; the toenails were tough.  When I was done, he often would squeeze my hands with his left one, and saw something like “Appreciate it.”

Grandpa has his stroke on the afternoon of my older sister’s wedding, but no one other than my grandmother knew.  Like all who farmed then, a wedding at night still meant that plowing had to be done when it needed to be done.  Grandpa farmed with horses, and so did my father much of the time throughout the years, until the team died, sometime in my sophomore year.  Grandpa also had a stallion that he kept in the barn.  My older sister has told me often that stallion was wild and mean, but I’m sure that Grandpa handled him adroitly.  There didn’t seem to be ever a question that Grandpa couldn’t do something, and do it in such a way that his actions were rather revered. The Grandparents’ kitchen was small, set by the door that went into the room with the pot belly stove. A cast iron stove was on the north wall, replaced in the later years with a gas one.  Grandma would take a stick of kindling and put it in the blazing fire, and not burn a tip of a finger.  I watched her and tried to imitate her whenever I could.  When I hired out in my sophomore year to a family for $10 a week for one week until my father said I couldn’t stay there no more.  Like my grandpa, my dad was a person of few words, never did explain the reason why to me, although I was uncomfortable with the man of the house.  I slept upstairs the week that I was there, but it was my job to get the fire going in the morning, and I could very well.  The man once said to me that a good woman needs to know how to make a fire.

At that table, Grandpa would drink his coffee, coffee made boiled on the stove. Not thin like some of the coffee I became used to in South Dakota but fairly robust, dark enough not to really see the bottom of the cup.  Grandma drank her green tea. Then he would stir in teaspoons of sugar, so many in fact that it seemed there was more sugar than coffee; then pour the coffee in the saucer and drink it from the saucer.  At that table, I often would play canasta while waiting for something or other to pick me up or to order me to do something.  Until I entered first grade, one of the farm places that we rented was right across the creek on the south side of Grandma and Grandpa’s.  Rather a gully that we crossed with a plank, a plank I remember that when I walked barefooted across it once, a sliver went from the ball of my foot to the pad of the heel.  It hurt a great deal.  On that place, my mother became pregnant with both my younger sister  and my oldest brother, and I was sent to stay with Grandma and Grandpa.

My oldest sister, Betty, was my half-sister, her father dead from tuberculosis when she was five.  Our mother married my father when Betty was eleven.

Arlo Nordby

The folks were tenant farmers, which means that we kept 3/5 of the crops we raised while the landlord received 2/5. Not fair at all, when one thinks of the all the hard work in grasshopper August days and in the blizzard  cold of Iowa winters, tough then, not so much now it seems.  I haven’t heard of 20′ drifts as there were when I was a teenager, drifts so high that when you walked on them, you could see the top of the grainery.  And we had to provide the machinery to harvest the corn and oats.  I’m not sure if we had to sell off the 2/5ths of the alfalfa and straw for the landlord.  I know that the profit from the runt pigs was Mom’s to keep. The livestock was our own–hogs, cattle, and chickens. Dad and Mom never owned a house until after Dad quit farming the first year I after taught high school. They bought a home in Manilla for what I remember as $5000, a home that once my brother leaves  will more than likely be destroyed, torn down, burnt.

The basement’s block, not poured, not that means a difference, but it’s dark, with a room off the side where my brother used to sleep occasionally when visiting.  The walls aren’t painted; the floor’s cement, and there are spiders. Daddy long legs and others; some hang from the ceilings until one takes a corn broom covered in an old tea towel and sweeps them away.  Some dregs of former living lay upon the cement shelf that goes part way under the living room.  There is no basement under most of the  kitchen or the bathroom, added on after.   Going down those rickety steep narrow stairs at any age, much less my mother in her later years, is an exercise in balancing, and negotiating around a cat or two that use those stairs to move back and forth between action and hiding causes one to step carefully, for they scream around one either way.  There is one handrail on the right, so if carrying something, like a quart jar of peaches or beans that one  might have been sent down for, you means caution or sweeping up glass and sopping up peaches and scrubbing clean sugar water off the cement.

Most of the windows are old, although the plate glass one in the living room that looks out to the north porch has lead in it.  The furnace some 20 years old or so. There’s an air conditioner that my brother won’t turn on because it costs too much. The kitchen floor leans towards the south, uneven enough that no linoleum or tile can be laid, even though both brothers say it can be done. So dirty now that I’m sure my mother haunts the place.

On one of those tenant farms, the Beh place, straight south of Manilla, but we kids went to Irwin after country school, the house was the second in which we lived, that all of us remember.  Fairly new for those days, a ranch, but not a ranch that one might find now.  A one-story is all, one story with three bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and a porch. The outhouse on the north no more than 15 yards or so; in two places there over the course of the years, but always on the north.  That outhouse I don’t remember as well as the one for the farmstead by Botna.  All I remember is that it was painted white, and I don’t think the door had anything cut out of it, like a crescent moon or something as did the Botna one, an opening like a crescent moon, although the outhouse in bare wood as was most outhouses then opened to the west.

On the farm to the east of us, one with a new home, indoor plumbing and all, immense home for two people, were Mr. and Mrs Arlo Nordby. Arlo’s gravestone says that he had children, but I never saw them around.  More than likely they went to town school or left home early.  Arlo’s wife was a fairly tall thin woman with black hair streaked with gray. She didn’t say much.  I don’t remember if she ever smiled or joked or anything.  I do remember going down there with my father for some reason or another but I don’t know why.  On that farmstead many years ago I was told once lived my mother’s family, her mother, Grandma Bargenquast who died as a Hodder, her father, and ten children, but that house was no longer there.  When we moved there, sometime when I was in first grade, the house was new.  The garage jutted out from underneath the house, not a tuck under, but one that sat in front of the house.  On top of it, on the cement room, one could, if one wanted to, lie out in the sun to read, not that I saw anyone reading there or in any other place on any farm around us.

That house contrasted sharply to ours.  Sometime after we moved in, the landlady, the only owner, no landlord at the time, must have had dirt pushed around the house, for I remember a time when the house seemed up on sticks.   I think that was when a basement was put underneath.  But other than the fact that the house was small, with bedrooms the size of today’s bathrooms, a living room almost the size of two bedrooms, and a kitchen larger than the living room, most of the time we lived there contained good memories.  In the center of the kitchen stood a cast iron stove  on which Mom cooked, one that overheated us in summer time, for Mom still baked bread and deserts then.  In the winter time, Dad hooked up the potbelly stove in the living room.   On the east side of the cast iron stove was  a table. When I was younger, the table was rectangle, about the size of a trunk.  Sometime prior to my sophomore year, a round table, almost like the one that my niece inherited from the folks.

The oven door to that cast iron stove was often kept open, especially towards the evening when the nights turned chilly.  It was one of those early afternoon evenings, chores not started yet, although the cows had been brought into the stanchions, waiting to be milked.  That job of making sure the cows were in the barn was usually one or the other of us kids.  I assume that it was me most of the time until my brother became the one that Dad relied on for chores.  But it’s one of those tasks that one did so often on the farm that remembering specifically doing one or two would be difficult.

Dad came into the kitchen. He had on his denim jacket, and was putting on a second one to begin feeding the cattle, milking, whatever chores we kids could not do.  Mom was at the sink, a porcelain one that was in the northeast corner.  We didn’t have hot water, just cold; the hot water was heated on the stove.  There was also a pump outside, and I remember using that pump when I was younger, but after the basement was put in, or the house raised up it seemed, then we had water in the house.

Father had been away part of the afternoon, so his coming back was often an event.  Not sure where he was.  If it was Friday, he might have gone to town to play cards and shoot some pool, but the trip was short. I remember standing by the stove, not sure if I had been ordered to do something, like put in some wood or take hot water out of the tank, a storage unit next to the fire that heated water.  Dad was putting on a second jacket and said to Mom who was deep in something at the sink, more than likely peeling something or other for dinner.  The final touches for dinner were started when chores started, timing essential for meal time was rather sacrosanct.  As Dad was putting on the second jacket, he said to Mom, “I saw Arlo Nordby’s wife naked, slopping hogs.”  Whatever Mom was doing, she did not do anymore.  She turned around, her hands wet with a paring knife in her hand.  The silence in that room seemed spiritual to me, for my father had said naked, and my mother might shush him, and that I didn’t want.  She said in what I thought could have been considered a normal voice, but now I know that it had an edge to it:  “What did you say?” Dad continued, but you have to know my father’s method of storytelling.  What he said he  understated, inserting a phrase here and there that might seem at first out of place, but once one thought about it, his wry sense of humor displaced caught up with us later, sometimes as late as adulthood.

“I saw Arlo Nordby’s wife naked, slopping hogs.” Then I could see her too, her long dark hair streaked with gray that streamed down her back, she feeding the hogs in the barn, for that’s where they feed them in the trough in the barn, light streaming in from the opening to the south into the hog pen.  I saw her as I peeked over the bottom half of the barn door, the top half latched open as they often are except in winter.  I was almost as tall as the bottom half; perhaps if she was looking she could see the top of my hair.  I put my hands on the door and stood on my tiptoes and saw Arlo Nordby’s wife naked.  She wasn’t hard to imagine, for she  dressed in jeans, something that most farm women did not.  Most farm women wore dresses as my mom did, with an apron that they changed most every day of the week, even on Sunday.  Mom’s was always something white or solid with ruffles around the edges.  The farm women who didn’t have to work outside, they wore dresses and once in a while put on an apron, for when they were preparing meals or baking; but Mom’s always was on, most of the even in the evening when she crocheted.

Now if anything was every going to get Mom upset it was nakedness or even the mention of nakedness.  Mom was not prudish, far from it, but she didn’t like public mention of something.

“Oh, Dale, you did not,” were the words that came out of her mouth.  More than likely that’s what she said, for she often said something like that to Dad. I should have figured out then that something was up.

“I’m standing here, aren’t I,” Dad could have said.  He always reinforced his statement with something that one couldn’t argue with.

“She was slopping hogs, stark naked.” And then my father told my mother that he had to get out of there as fast as he could, before Arlo came home.  And with that, if I remember right, Dad had his heavy coat on as was going out the door.

Usually if something like this occurs in our home, there’s commotion after, and as a kid one has to be prepared for that.  But it was, whatever it was, was not nearly as perfect as that image of Arlo Nordby’s wife naked slopping hogs.”

During my teaching years, I often told that story about my father telling my mother.  I told that story when I was teaching high school, when we were talking about family stories.  I told it when I taught college, when we talked about the use of dialogue.  I told it just to get a rise out of my students.  I don’t think I told it to my children. They never listened to me much then.  And the nature of sitting around telling family tales left with my generation for the most part.

In 1994, my mother could no longer take care of my father.  He was unable to clean himself, make it to the bathroom on time, and he was in pain, and the constant care that my mother did for him at her age was too much for her.   In the nursing home, Dad’s roommate for much of the time was an Alzheimer’s patient who never slept at night. The man’s rapid pacing around the room at night was another kind of torture for my father, in addition to the constant pain that he experienced in his hips. One day I had gone to Manilla to see my father. Others were there too; three or four of us sitting around on those hard chairs rustled in from other places. Dad had been placed on antidepressants by that time and combined with the pain pills, he became more talkative as his body grew weaker. I wanted him to talk about times in the past. It’s always too late to ask for stories, I felt then, when parents are dying. I should have asked for more stories when he was vibrant.

In a nursing home in a small town, almost everyone who’s there knows quite a few of the others, especially if the town is an aging, dying town. I don’t remember how we got on the subject of neighbors, but here I was with the perfect opportunity to ask and I did. “Dad, tell us about the time that you saw Arlo Nordby’s wife naked.”

Dad looked at me, puzzled; and of course I repeated the same request, but in a different way. “Remember, Dad, the day you came home from Nordby’s and you told mom that you saw Arlo Nordby’s wife naked.”

“Oh, I did no such thing he said.”

I said, “Yes, you did. You did say that.”

“I said it all right,” he said, “but I never saw her naked.”

“You never saw her naked?”

“No. I was  joshing your mother.”

I think about the over 50 years at that time that I had believed that Dad, like me in my imagination, saw Arlo Nordby’s wife naked. I think about all the times I’ve told that story, more than likely to each and every new class I taught that had something to do with telling stories; and it was totally false. Now, when I tell the story, I use it to talk about  the plausibility of fiction.