Shelter in the trees

Whenever relatives on Mom’s side visited in the summer, cousins, most of them my age or younger, few older, would congregate in a makeshift summer shelter in the trees between our Paxton home and the barn.  Some adult, my father most likely, built it for us.  There was a roof, old barn siding with holes, but only posts for sides.  The roof was shaded by elm trees that dotted the farmstead.  I’m pretty sure Dad strung a hammock between two nearby trees.   And there had to be a tire swing, for there always was a tire swing on a farm.  That sort of mock summer house caught any breeze that flowed through that valley, as did the trees.  In the center of the shelter was a small sandbox, barely big enough for a toddler or two, around which we cousins played, fought for position, drank tepid lemonade, ate cookies.  Since the only thing that our house had going for it was cleanliness–no room to speak of–the adults sat on chairs or blankets on the lawn to the east.

It was one of those Sundays when families visited families, sometimes prearranged the last time they met or to celebrate a birthday or anniversary.  No birthday that day in our family, for my sister and my birthdays were in the spring, and Mom’s in February and Dad’s in November.  Sometimes, most showed up at one person’s place or another as if guided there by some force, genetic more than likely, a kind of tick in the brain. We would travel to one place and find no one at home; then drive to the next place where all would be there.  We never went somewhere without stopping in to see someone.   By the noon meal, most everyone on one side of the family would be at a family member’s house.  Then meals and visiting and cards, not always in that order.  My mother’s brothers’ families, a sister’s family, and Grandma Hodder and her husband often came to ours.  My mother’s younger brother Roy had two boys then; one of them my age; the other, two years younger.  I had to be less than six, for in March before my sixth birthday, we moved to the Beh place.  There were more cousins there, I’m sure.  I believe Dick and Doug, Gene, LaVern, Bobby, Lois Jean; but I don’t remember.  I do know that often when Roy’s family came, his sons and my sister and I paired up by ages; my younger sister with Les; me, with Larry.

I don’t know if there was a cause, if he was upset, if a father had disciplined him, as was often the case, or if it was random, but Les or Doug or Dick tried to hang himself in that shelter. Strung a rope through the planks in the roof, put the noose around his neck, and pulled.  We kids playing around that sandbox didn’t notice, no kid chasing another did, until there was some resistance, until he tried to get his hands between the rope to breathe.  I was still sitting in the sandbox when one of the adult men ran over and cut him loose.  I don’t know why that memory has never left me, seeing a cousin flaying, fighting a rope that tightened with every twist and turn.


Paxton Place

Less than a quarter of a mile south of Grandma and Grandpa Snyder’s place, during the first few years of my life, up through kindergarten, we lived on the Paxton place.  I was probably not quite two when we moved there.  Gloria was born while we lived there, I’m sure, one week shy of two years younger than I.  Dad and Mom were tenant farmers on the 80-acre Paxton place and helped Grandpa and Grandma farm their 160 acres.  Not much of a house: four rooms, one, a long narrow passageway on the north, a slanted lean-to along the north side of the house, where in winter the only thing that kept us from freezing was the constant fire in the cast iron stove on the north wall.  Also on the north wall was a window; another on the east that overlooked the yard and garden  The only entrance door was on the west wall with a cement stoop outside; off which the sidewalk ran straight to the gate.  A large porcelain kitchen sink bolted to  the south wall, to the right of the door that led into the only other downstairs room, a sink big enough for dishpans to wash and rinse, pans full of dirty clothes soaking, butchered chickens.  Not a pure white sink, but one with dents and scratches from cast iron pans, knives being dropped.  No, there was no faucet, no running water to the sink.  Only a sink.  But there were two pumps: a small cast iron pump inside bolted on the built-in immense work able across from the sink, like a dilapidated make-shift one found in a poor handyman’s workspace; another pump outside by the cistern.

Over that sink my mother tended to a burn blister on my finger.  I don’t know how it got there: messing with something, more than likely a grease spatter from being too close to the stove.    Before Mom took a needle to the blister, she told Gloria not to look.  Gloria did.   I remember her peering over the sink just as Mom lanced the blister and blood and ooze dripped into the sink.  Gloria fainted dead away in a crumpled heap.  Fainting, never me.

My little sister, Gloria, was sickly for most of her childhood–pernicious anemia.  One of the cures then was forcing her to eat raw liver.  Gloria’s anemia and resulting weakness often meant that after she started school, when we lived on the Beh place, Dad had to take us to and fetch us from Greeley #1 in a horse and wagon, rather than we being required to walk.

In that passageway, next to that long table and the stove, were shelves for storing things, a porcelain Hoosier on which Mom kneaded bread dough and made pies, and an ice box.  Later Mom had the icebox cut in two and had one of the sides made into a lid.  In that porcelain-lined box, Mom kept flour.  A 50-pound bag filled it to the brim.  Mom stored the ringer washer and the washtubs on the southwest wall of the lean-to, dragging them outdoors during the spring, summer and fall.    After the clothes were washed and hung out to dry, Mom dumped the wash water on the sidewalk and scrubbed the walk clean with a corn broom.  She washed clothes in the house on cold, stormy, snowy days.  In the winter, once frozen sheets and clothes thawed on lines strung  like a cat’s cradle back and forth across the living room.

In that lean-to we kept baby chicks for the first few days.  Most of the hens cackled in the chicken house; others roamed free, dropped eggs in the grasses that we searched to find.  Roosters everywhere.  Eggs were candled in that lean-to, wire buckets full. Milk was separated, the constant hum before supper time.

Walking straight north out of the gate, a gate that didn’t keep much in, led us straight across the plank over the ditch and to Grandpa’s machine shed and granary.

Me little with the chicken again

There was only one other room on the main floor.  In that room on the other side of the kitchen wall was a player piano, left there by previous tenants.  Positioned towards the east and south of the piano, barely enough room to get around, was a large table, covered in oilcloth and that covered with lace on special occasions.  Around that table we ate our meals; the piano bench scooted next to the table for someone to sit.  Assorted dressers and end tables roamed the perimeter, chairs, and I’m sure a radio; On the west wall was Mom and Dad’s bed.  Upstairs were two rooms, one in which I slept, one that still haunts me today.

Karen Gloria little

I remember at age five Mom coaxing me to walk down the lane, then north to Grandma’s when my mother headed once again to Foderberg’s house in Manilla to give birth to my older brother.  I cried sopping tears as I kept looking back at my mother waving at me and telling me it will be alright.  That long lane down which I walked seemed endless, so did the trek to Grandma’s. At that time, after the birth, Mom was gone for a week.

In that lane I dropped an anvil on my toe.  I don’t know why I was carrying it.  More than likely I just picked it up, but I could have been told to take it to Grandpa.

The house has been torn down a long time ago, the barn before that, and any granaries. Our barn was straight across the lane in the grove of trees, where Dad milked cows, but I don’t know what else.  We had an Allis Chalmers with spoked  wheels, no rubber; later a John Deer.  Grandpa still farmed with horses most of the time.  We might have had our team of horses then, but we did have them on the Beh place.

Paxton Place the long lane my second home edited

From that barn my older sister, 11 years old than I, ran screaming.  In the hay loft above where Dad was milking cows, newly hatched garter snakes streamed down the hay into her hair.


My aunt Margaret, my mother’s youngest sister, a real beauty in her day, as was my mom, married Richard, a man whom after their divorce my father ordered off Grandpa and Grandma Snyder’s farm the first day of pheasant season.  I was with my father in the car when we drove in and parked in the grass at the edge of the north cornfield. The stalks, stripped for the most part of corn; the rest, we kids would pick up, fill buckets and dump in a wagon.  Dad told me to wait in the car, he’d be back in a bit; and he walked to the edge of the triangular cornfield in the bottom land north of the Botna River and stood.  I was scared for my dad, for I knew who was there, having overheard my mom and dad talk, and he was nobody I wanted to be around.  Richard and his buddy were down past by their parked pickup near the middle of the cornfield.  They had started flushing pheasants along the fence line farther to the west, shotguns in hand.  They must have heard us drive in, for they both turned around.  As most realized, my father was a man of few words, saying what he meant at all times, unless he was teasing somebody about something or bluffing playing pinochle, pitch, or poker. Richard must have known that he wasn’t welcomed, for he and his buddy walked back to the truck and drove in the grass along the south side of the field to where my father stood.  Pheasants flapped a distance to the next field.  The conversation between the two and my father was brief.  Dad stepped aside as they drove out the field, past me.  Dad came over to our car.  He watched their car go over the hill to the west; I watched them through the rolled down window under my father’s arm resting on the roof.

From spring of my sophomore to spring of my junior year, we lived in a shack of a house south of Botna, Iowa, a town so named because of the river.   We farmed only one farm then, that of Grandpa Snyder’s, not two as we did when Mom was sick, not the Beh place.  Farming two places, or 320 acres at that time, with a three-bottom plow, a grain seeder in the back of a wagon, two-row planters and cultivators, harrows the width of a tractor taxed my father.  But without the second farm, our income shrunk to a level below poverty.  To this day, I really don’t know for sure why we moved off the Beh place.  I was told some years later that the landlady had died and that her heirs wanted to sell the farm, which seems plausible.

Our house was the last remaining remnant of a farmstead and little else, except perhaps a collapsing shed or two, a mile straight south of Botna, a hump of a town that contained a church that I’ve heard labeled Holy Rollers, a country store complete with a pickle barrel and a pot belly stove to keep customers warm, and a post office.  Still a dying town as it was then, always dying.  At the most, a handful of people lived there; my sister says if there is  more than seven now, she’d be surprised.  I wanted to attend the Holy Rollers Church, begged Mom in fact, and she let me.  But the speaking in tongues, the thrashing on the floor, the hands waving to the ceiling in some sort of mystical language, the gyrations were too much for me.  In that little white country church, I stood in the back frightened.  And I don’t remember how I got home, if Dad  came and got me, which I doubt, or if he was waiting in the store.  More than likely I walked the mile south home.

We lived on top of a hill.  A farm was straight east of us, its farmstead in the northeast corner; another, across from that one in the southeast corner.  The north, south road that went by Grandpa and Grandma’s place, came to a t, jogged east and then north.  It was the same road that went by the country school where I once attended kindergarten.  A little ways further north were Reverend Itsy and his wife, the Scotts, and somewhere past that, the Petersens.  Carolyn Scott and Everett Petersen were in the same confirmation class as I: Carolyn younger and Everett my same age.   At this house, again an outdoor toilet. Washing, drinking, and cooking water, retrieved by a pump  west of the house, kept in buckets in the kitchen. Two freezing bedrooms upstairs.  The stairs opened into a room with a pot belly stove and a dining table.  To the left of the stairs, the folks’ bedroom; to the right, a room with a sofa and a television.  During the coldest nights in the winter, we kids vacated all the rooms except the one with the pot belly stove; the folks slept in their bedroom.  Near the fire we laid on top of folded blankets on the floor and rolled ourselves in layers and layers of crazy quilt blankets.  In the kitchen, most of the time in the winter, the water froze in the buckets by the sink.

We were waiting to leave for my sister’s eighth grade graduation.  She had on a new dress.   An early summer storm was forming in the west.  It had come on suddenly, and beared watching.  At the edge of the sidewalk where the car was parked, Mom and Dad stood in tandem, watching the storm gather, the swirling of the clouds.  I’m sure that my father and mother were thinking about our bedridden grandpa, and our grandma who would never leave his side to save herself.  With injunctions to stay in the house away from the windows, we kids huddled back of the living room, I holding my youngest brother, who was then  a little more than a year old. But when silence stole our breath and when in the distance we could hear the whistling of a train, we all knew that something was coming.    The folks ordered us into the cellar northwest of the house.  We ran into it as fast as we could, for the tornado that formed within a split second had touched down a mile away.  In the cellar, we heard little else but the tornado shrieking overhead.  When all was silent, we stood together outside the cellar.  The tornado had shredded the trees past the Itsys, the Scotts and the Petersens, not sparing the trees that shaded the country school on the corner.  And it had exploded all the west windows of our home: the plate glass window on the west no more, some of the windows on the north and south. Glass everywhere.


After managing the Shelby County Farm, the folks moved permanently back to Manilla.  One afternoon Mom and I poured ourselves some coffee and sat at the kitchen table to visit.  Mother told me about a dream she had the night before, one that frightened her.  In that dream, in front of the barn was an old flatbed trailer, tongue dug into the dirt, pointing west, which meant that it wasn’t going to be hauled anywhere soon, big rocks behind each wheel to stabilize.  No tractor nearby that she could remember.  She said she saw the scene standing down by the end of the lane, peering through some shrubbery as if she was ordered not to be around.  Around the flatbed were men, Mom thought about three, maybe four, two for sure on the south side, all dressed in butchering clothes, which meant white, bloody aprons covered them from chest to overshoes. With huge butcher knives these men stripped  the black hide from a cow, not a steer, that Mom emphasized.  How they removed the hide from the side that laid on the flatbed,  I never asked.  Mom said she couldn’t take her eyes off the butchering.   She said  the men cut off the hide in one piece, and laid it aside on the flatbed.

Mom had been around steers being butchered since she was a child.  Her seeing such a sight should not have been usual; however, a steer is trusted up by its hooves after being knocked, throat cut, or shot in the head. Then someone would slit it from the groin to the neck two cuts and pull out all the organs, keeping the kidneys, the intestines, the heart, liver,  and when the skull was opened, the tongue and brains.  Most of the time, Dad and Mom butchered only hogs and chickens; a steer was hauled in the back of a pickup to Joe and May Price’s locker plant in Irwin.

I disliked intensely being forced to eat slices from a tongue or a heart on sandwiches, but if that was the only option, nothing could be done, especially since Mom guarded the cooking carefully.  No waste ever, and for children learning how to cook, waste was the inevitable result.  In the evening as a treat for herself, Mom would fry brains. The pungent smell permeated the kitchen.  The first time I remember asking what was frying–the mess in the pan looked like gray worms–the answer I received was just one word: “Brains.”   I don’t remember ever having to eat kidneys; maybe we did but didn’t know it.  Mom told me that when they were little, she and her brothers and sisters filled bladders with gravel or sand and used them like kick balls or baseballs to throw back and forth in a game of catch.

The last time I was around a hog being butchered was at the County Farm.  I was still married to my first husband.  He had driven me and the three kids down from Sioux Falls the weekend before and was planning to pick me up the next weekend.   There was an old shed the folks used for a garage not far from the County Farm’s north door that opened directly into the kitchen, windows across the east wall, four tables perpendicular to the windows around which the residents ate.   I remember the steer trussed up in the center of the garage, and by the time the kids were settled down to watch tv or napping, the hog had already been slaughtered and butchered, the meat wrapped, and placed in one of the three huge deep freezes.  While the beef was being butchered, it was a frenzy of stripping the hog’s intestines, cleaning them up, but not by me. I couldn’t touch the stuff.  Mom did all the work.  I tended to whatever needed to be done to feed the residents their evening meals.

Later that afternoon Mom put the casings on a sausage machine and stuffed them with a mixture of freshly ground pork and spices.  On the stove that day in a double-boiler, batches of lye soap was being made.  Rectangular cakes of soap when done were laid out on sheet cake pans, cooling and solidifying.  Mom used those for the immense number of loads of clothes that she had to wash and dry throughout the week.  At that time there were 17 residents; most of which were men.  I did help Mom with the head cheese that afternoon, boiling the head and stripping off each little bit of meat.  I still remember working around the dull eyeballs that had fallen out of the sockets.   Later Mom would boil that meat and the meat from the hooves into a gelatinous mess.

When the men in Mom’s dream finished stripping the cow of its hide, Mom watched the cow sprout wings and take off, sailing over the barn, like, as it seemed to me, one of those ancient Greek mythological creatures.  I didn’t know then what it meant, knowing a tad of Jung and Freud.  Mom knew nothing of those theories, but she dreamed most every night, and remembered those dreams, sometimes writing them down.  Dad swore he never dreamed, never reached that depth of sleep in which the past comes to haunt the present.


On the Beh place during farrowing time, in back of the pot belly stove a little ways out from the living room’s north wall, one of the two sources of heat in that house, Mom kept runt pigs in a wooden box.  The box more than likely, one in which washed and candled eggs in stacked gray trays were shipped.  Mom or we kids bottle-fed the pigs; usually more than one runt in that box.  When the weather turned cold, I stood behind that pot belly stove while I dressed for school, for freezing it was in that house in the winter time.  Early, on cold mornings, my sister, my brother and I took turns behind the stove to dress in stages as best we could so to not reveal our nakedness. A scar on the back of my right arm from touching the stove-pipe still exists.

After the runt pigs with flesh on their bones stood on their feet, Mom feeling that they could survive, she ordered them moved to a separate pen in the barn.  They squealed and snorted as we lifted them out of the box by a leg and hauled them to the barn.  When of a certain weight, the folks either butchered or sold them.  Mom put aside that money. One of those runt pigs used to follow us kids around the farm,  snorting and nudging the back of my leg when I slopped the hogs.  His back was almost up to my waist in my last memory of him, I probably no more than ten, as I walked to the barn, with him trotting beside me on the left.  He loved to be scratched behind his ears, one of the best places to scratch an animal; the other being right above the tail.  The folks said they sold him, but butcher him they did.

In the barn on the Beh place, as were the barns on the Paxton place and on the O’Boyle place, prior to farrowing time, Dad would build pens for each separate sow.  We had orders during that time, separate and distinct orders, never to go in the barn without him or Mom. But I often would.  One late afternoon, I snuck in the door from the west, and saw my father slamming one of the pigs against the west wall, killing it.  I don’t know if I asked him or he told me, that it was almost dead because the mother sow had rolled on it.  I remember looking down at the sow lying on her side feeding the litter, and thinking why would she do that. Whether she did or it was a runt pig too weak to suck a bottle, I don’t know.

Even though we were around death a lot, bloated cows in the field, dead pigs, the only animals the folks let me see butchered were chickens, and that was a bloody mess.  Blood spurting everywhere once mother cut their heads off, which she usually did after their claws were tied together with twine and hung by their claws at the top of woven wire fence, the heads like a garland of nasturtiums and daisies exploding as she walked around the fence slaughtering.

Beh place adjusted

Sows and hogs in general in the right circumstances are erratic, nasty, and dangerous.  I’m pretty sure that a second cousin of mine or one somehow related to Aunt Lavonne, who is married to my mother’s brother, died from having his jugular vein torn out by a hog.  I remember the scene when I first heard about the gruesome event. My aunt, shy and soft-spoken, told me and maybe others how it happened in the hog pen of those whose home we all were visiting.

Memory is a strange beast.  I know that the farmstead where we were was at the end of a curved lane, and that my parents were there.  We were in a room off the kitchen, not a pantry, not a porch, more like a room that was made into a sunroom, and it was in the summer time, for I recall looking out to the barn while I imagined the ugly scene.  I can still see Aunt Lavonne’s face and her whispering the tale so those in the next room could not hear.

I do remember one time I saw my dad being taken down by hogs in the pig pen south of the barn.  He was feeding them or something, and one or many tripped him, and he fell backwards.  I stood frozen by the fence as Dad rode on the back of a hog, then him sliding off, and rising.  A hog can also sever the tendon of a heel.