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.