Empathy

One Saturday afternoon I drove from Omaha, Nebraska,  to Council Bluffs, Iowa,  to pick up my aunt Bobby and take her to visit her husband, my mother’s brother, in a nursing home on the Bluffs’ east side.   I had geared myself for a visit.  I dislike very much the walk towards the glass doors of a nursing home and the inordinate strength it seems to take to open them. There the desolate furnishings in the waiting room reinforced my lack of willingness to engage with those sitting in vinyl chairs around the perimeter, at tables playing solitaire, or in corners watching television.  I’m sure that after they have endured years and months of being ignored, as old ones usually are, their attitudes towards visitors like me are ones of indifference.

It’s not the residents themselves that bother me, or the sickening mix of medication, Pine-Sol and bleach that arches the nostrils as soon as the door opens; but the warehousing of people, what it says about this stage of life, what it demands of a couple who have been married so many years–separate and then fade into death, what it will say about my own latter years, the lack of a spouse who might have or might not have visited, children, who like me, reluctant to come, drive by without stopping.  It takes courage and a certain faith in something beyond.

On one of the many weekends as my parents aged that I spent in Manilla, Iowa, visiting the folks, my father at this time a resident of Manilla Manor, I took my mother somewhere.   I don’t remember exactly where or why.  Maybe it was to  Elkhorn to visit Aunt Beulah, my father’s sister, who was beginning to lose her sight, as were my father and mother.  My father’s lazy eye growing stronger as his other eye lost vision; my mother’s ever-present use of eye drops to treat glaucoma.  I’m not looking forward to my cataracts being removed next year, for when Mom’s were, the anesthesia had worn off by the time the doctor began cleaving.

As we headed back through Harlen on Hwy. 44, my mother asked me to stop at the nursing home so she could visit a friend.  We parked on the south side and entered the main door.  No one to greet us, as if there should have been.   Mom knew where she wanted to go, heading straight down the hallways, excited about seeing an old friend.  After a little jog, clear down one long beige corridor, turn right, then down another beige corridor.  Finally to a room on the left. But the bedcovers were snapped tight, the chairs empty, no television running, her friend, absent.  We tracked down a caretaker who said Mom’s friend was visiting family.  On the way back through the long corridors, we saw a small women dressed in shades of gray and brown, thin but not skeletal, wiry, her hands frantically wheeling her wheelchair, aiming for mother.  She grabbed my mother’s hand and pulled Mom towards her, begging, “Tell me who I am.  Tell me who I am. Please tell me who I am.”  Mom tried to extricate herself from the woman’s grip by caressing her hands to calm her.  The woman’s wheelchair erratic as the woman pulled my mom closer to her.  I remember the woman’s brown loafers and white ankle socks as she scurried her feet along the floor, the rests for the feet bumping into mother’s legs.  We were by a lounge, so Mom maneuvered the woman and herself there, while I tried to rescue my mother from the woman’s grasp; but no one came to our aid.  All the while, the woman frantically begged for her name.

That incident unnerved me.  My fear of having only senses but no knowledge of my history, for as I age, memory is my only comfort.  For now at least, I know I have a past, I had dreams, and squandered some, if not most.

From the little of what I overheard about Roy and Bobby, their married life was not always pleasant; the family life, as are most, fraught with those struggling to extricate with those who control.  From what I suspect, Roy demanded and Bobby responded passively.  But in gatherings of relatives there was little evidence of discord.  At the end of their lives, Bobby could not take care of Roy anymore in their home.  As is often with those with ill spouses, she desired a little peace, time enough to sleep until she woke up, not to be in the kitchen preparing a meal, not be at demand, for she too needed care.

It was in the spring of my junior year of high school, when I had enough sense to count backwards and realize that my mother was one month pregnant with me when the folks married.  I know my ignorance sounds improbable; but I never even considered that my mother and father had to get married, and I never doubted the love they had for each other.  I only remember one argument, if three days of silence can be called an argument.  Recently, however, my older sister told me that she came across a note Mom had hidden under the oil tablecloth, one that indicated that Mom was upset with Dad.  If disagreements were more than those sporadic, like many couples I know, I never felt as if my world was falling apart because of the way they treated each other, as I’m sure my children did during my divorcing their father.

Improbable or not, I never knew that my mother was pregnant with my little brother, who is fifteen years younger than I, until a classmate told me that she heard my mother was going to have a baby.  I remember saying, “She is?”  I’m absolutely sure that my classmate thought I had the brains of a gnat.  My youngest brother, the youngest of five children, was born a month later.

I suppose it was in the spring of my junior year, for I didn’t have on a coat, and the house was warm.  For some reason, as there usually is between mothers and teenage daughters, Mom and I were having some difficulties.  I don’t remember what for.  Stuck on that farm with my dad refusing to teach me to drive, and being someone who struggled to fit in a new school, not driving meant I was at the mercy of my parents.  When I stepped inside the kitchen after walking up the lane from the bus, Mom was on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, at times a daily task for her considering how much mud can be tracked in on a farm.  Cleaning staved off memories for her, I believe, for she often said it kept her from thinking.  When I confronted her about her and Dad having to get married, she never rose up off her knees.  But when she raised her head to look at me and sat back on her heels, the rag in her hand, ready to rinse and ring it out in the wash water and scrub another patch, she was crying.  All she said was, “Wait until your dad gets home.”  A good threat then.

After Aunt Bobby’s and my visit to see Uncle Roy, Aunt Bobby and I sat in her living room and drank coffee.  We talked about cousins, about Larry who is one month older than I, Bobby and Mom pregnant at the same time.  Both Roy and my dad were in the service.  Dad never left the states because of his lazy eye; Roy served in Italy for sure, and most likely other places. When Bobby went into labor, various Bargenquast women would take turns sitting with her.  Labor then was not like it is now with classes on relaxation and the drugs for pain.  Not even oxygen.  But when mother’s turn came to sit, my mom cried so much during Bobby’s contractions that Bobby had to comfort my mother.

When Bobby told me that, I thought about all the times I saw my mother’s tears as she read letters, as she listened to sad tales, even mine.  And I thought about what it meant to be a pregnant woman in 1943 and have to get married, the feeling of being imperfect, the fear of being ostracized.  I thought about my mother having lost her first husband and having a child age 11 when I was born and giving birth to me in a nursing home without my father around.

 

Soap

Not much I remember about my kindergarten year at Jefferson, or even if I attended an entire year, or a year and six months or so.  When tenant farmers move, they move the first of March: enough time to settle in before plowing the fields, harrowing, seeding; enough time to cut potatoes into sections, each with an eye, and tramp them eye down in holes a foot apart, in rows two to three feet apart; enough time to prepare a brooder house for chicks, to settle in heifers to calf or to gather the ones born too early in the season and move them into heated pens at the new place.  We moved to the Beh place either the spring of my kindergarten year or the spring of my first grade.  My oldest brother was born when I was five, and I turned six in the spring of kindergarten.  More than likely I did not finish kindergarten at Jefferson.

I do remember being betrayed. Of course, the betrayal had more to do with my actions than the teacher’s.  If we were lucky students then, a teacher in a country school might have four years of college in a normal school.  Most likely, two was enough for a woman to gain a certificate for teaching.  Sometimes, the only qualification that a teacher had was that she graduated from high school.  My older sister, when she returned from Washington, D.C., was asked to teach in a country school when the teacher fell ill.  Not pregnant, but ill, for pregnant teachers were thought to expose young children to the harshness of existence.  That prescription did not leave education until the late 1970s.

In a box of pictures, I have a black and white of Jefferson’s country school teacher and me sitting on a blanket in our front lawn.  Behind her is a decorative woven-wire fence, crunched in places, to her right, my left, a lilac bush, a mainstay of rural lawns.   She faced the camera while I sat beside her.  Probably the photo was taken in August or early September, right after school started.  If Mom prepared for her visit, as she did for anyone else’s, everything had to be clean and there must be lunch, more than likely sandwiches and lemonade.  I’m sure we sat outside because the interior of our home spoke poverty. I don’t remember her visit, except what it appears to be in that picture.

Life on any farm is hard, labor intensive. Sweating becomes something that one does in spite of oneself. Salt pills are taken to keep in moisture when out in the field or gardening. On a farm, livestock don’t behave as they should, especially if one is loading them onto trucks for slaughter.  Fruit jars don’t seal, meals are burnt, milk spilt.  As an result, an occasionally swear word seeps out or is spit out of the corner of a mouth by either parent. My mother and father never used words that demeaned a person’s background or suggested sex in any way, but an occasionally swear word that invoked the name of God would ride on the summer air or hiss in the steam of a wood stove. My mother often swore in low German, never explaining to us the jest of what she said.  If Dad understood, he went on about his business, perhaps grinning a little.

One morning at school, I said the word damn. I suppose it was in imitation of a parent, for no television back then; only the radio–the words vibrating there conformed to Rockwell’s paintings. Almost immediately I was singled out, embarrassed, maybe duly, taken into the coat room where the teacher, the one who had visited our farm house that autumn, on a day during which canning was set aside while tomatoes ripened in wire baskets, in a house with fresh, stretched, and starched lace curtains, my parents’ iron bed in the same room as the dining table and the player piano, to find out who I was, and who sipped my mother’s lemonade and probably ate cheese and baloney sandwiches on Mom’s homemade white bread, washed my mouth out with pink soap.

Jefferson Township

Jefferson, the little country school about a mile north and a little east of the Paxton place, the one where I spent kindergarten, is no more; but I can still see its iconic structure, black trim with white wooden siding, shaded by huge elms and pines on two sides, a ways back from the roads on the south and the west.  Beautiful white steps, three, it seemed to me, and a playground to the east, the side that if I could move in time I would gaze at the house on the hill that we lived in during part of my sophomore and junior year, the Botna place.  I don’t know to whom we paid rent for that place.  If it existed now as it did then, it would have to be condemned by county officials, I’m sure.

The entryway was a strange geometric space. The opening to the main room where we were taught and where Christmas pageants was at a diagonal, the door only shut during blizzards and cold winds.  There was no door that set off the coat room from the rest of the school.   We would walk directly in the coat room, take off our five-buckle overshoes, if we had them on, which was always advisable, set them with their heels against the wall under the coat rack, and then hang up our coats on the pegs. A small pedestal sink with pink soap in a cradle by the faucet was on the far side of the coatroom, next to another opening that led into the one-room classroom.

At Jefferson there was only one Christmas pageant of which I was a part as were all of the other students.  Every year the students put on a Christmas show for our parents and siblings, friends, and neighbors: acting and singing, carols, games, deserts after. I  don’t think it was that Christmas pageant in which I first acted but it could have been, but I do have memories of singing “Silent Night” for every Christmas pageant except the sixth-grade one at Greeley.  The parents snuck in gifts to put under the tree as if Santa Claus magically appeared and disappeared with a nod.  That one Christmas  the only thing that I remember was this toy, a pull toy of a wooden black dog with some white spots, not a dalmatian, more like a dachshund.  It was about a foot long, its body a slinky, a string on its nose that I held onto as I pulled it around the room.  I delighted in its clackling legs.  I was my mom and dad’s first born.  My oldest sister was my mother’s from her first husband, a husband who died from tuberculosis. Betty was not at the party, as far as I can remember.

Years later in Sioux Falls, soon after leaving my second husband, after an afternoon of garage sailing, I stopped at this one house south of McKennan Park.  My children weren’t with me, thank god.  I parked on the east side of the street and walked across into an older garage with a cracked cement floor.  Some of the items for sale were vintage toys: a metal top, the more you pumped it, the faster it would go; a slinky dog like the one I received at Christmas; old play trucks and cars.  There in the middle of that garage as I stood in front of the black slinky toy dog displayed on a chest-high table, I experienced a completely disorientating anxiety attack, one that resulted in my not remembering who or where I was.  All I knew is that I had to leave.  I stared out the opening and recognized my car, but instead of walking towards it, I backed out of the garage; then turned around and ran to my car.  Once inside I locked the door.  The separation and the impending divorce were harrowing, but I don’t think that had anything to do with the anxiety attack.  Something had happened to me as a child and the toy that I had, something that only exists in the far reaches of my memory, unable to be touched or witnessed again.

Scar

On the Botna place, we didn’t have a phone, not one at the Paxton place either.  At the Beh place, three rings and a short on a party line. Seven on that party line, I’m pretty sure.  With a hand over the mouthpiece, one could eavesdrop on conversations of the other six.   Mom listened in, not often but enough to know superficially what went on within a mile.  The wall oak telephone at the Beh place was on the south wall of the kitchen above the old trunk Mom bought at an auction, one that served as a place to store wood; at one time, a lamb, often runt pigs. The operator for all the lines was in Irwin.  The telephone operator’s place was on Main Street in Irwin, right down at the bottom of the hill on the west side, next to a confectionery store or a bar, not sure.  If we were in town during the day, I would sometimes go into her place and watch her insert one cord in one line and flip a switch and ring so that two could talk. I found the contraption amazing.  Not always busy, she was; so in between times, she would swivel around on the oak stool and visit with me. An emergency would wake her up in the middle of the night, so one had to be sure before bothering her.

Mother could call others on our party line without having to connect with the operator–two shorts, three shorts and a long, whatever. We kids only talked on the phone when given permission. Dad seldom did. Crank the handle once for the operator, or crank it for the code to connect to the Walkers, the Nordbys.  A phone call was rare and often unwelcomed. No news is good news, not like today when the latest emotional tidbits are keystrokes.  No one sat on a chair and jawed the afternoon away, for one had to stand up to talk into the mouthpiece.  One could sit down and listen, for the ear piece was almost always long enough to sit on a chair, but if rubbering –listening in–that seal between the palm and the mouthpiece had to be as tight as a drum. One also had to be careful how one lifted the ear piece off its cradle, for if there was a lull in the conversation at that moment, that tiny little click was audible.  Mom was good at both ends, but she just hated it when one of us slammed the door or started talking before checking what was happening in the kitchen.  Then she would wave as if shooing away flies, and make this god-awful grimace.

Mom didn’t listen often, but the skills  I observed became useful during my listening-in escapades to teenagers’ and ex-husbands’ conversations.

Being without a phone late at night babysitting a little brother while the folks went to town and when that little brother would not stop crying for whatever reason caused me nothing but alarm and panic.  My sister didn’t know what to do either, that is if I asked her.  And it was late, like close to midnight late.  The road that passed by our house, as were most all of the rural roads then, were often nothing more dirt ruts caused by tractors and implements, wagons and horses.  The nearest place that had a phone was the farmstead to the east and south; and I could see from the house that the lights were on.  I couldn’t go down to Grandma’s for that was over a mile away and it was pitch dark outside, a sliver of a moon and that sliver draped by clouds.  We had this old wreck of a thing called a bicycle that once in a while one of us rode around the farmstead but never on the roads–too full of ruts to negotiate.  I pulled it out of the bushes to the west of the house and headed east. Halfway there, the pedal broke off and my foot slipped off, the metal gouging a gash into my left leg right on the shin, a gash long enough that the white scar still throbs today at times.

I don’t remember if I made it to the neighbors or if I turned around and walked the bike back up the hill, but it was hell to pay when the folks returned home. I think I called, for it seemed to me that they were more upset that the neighbors knew they were in town at the tavern than the fact that my leg was cut.  No doctor, no stitches; bandages. Years later, after fishing with my soon-to-be second ex, I stepped off the boat onto the dock too soon and the sharp edge of the boat opened up that scar again.

A will of his own

On the farmstead east of the Botna place lived a teenager younger than I, but almost the same age as my sister.  We all went to the same school, but his presence was of someone who, when one glanced, drifted into corners,  a foot braced against the wall, arms crossed or on the last row in bleachers, in various postures of invisibility.  If in grade school, out near the fence line, anywhere out of the way of ambush.  More than likely he feared more than any of us ever would discover or care to know.  Much of what I can remember was that he was strange and quiet, a scrawny kid, someone today who would be riding skateboards down back alleys, wearing a leather jacket with holes.  How much this young boy’s family had or how his parents treated him, I don’t know.

Teenage life in rural Iowa, as far as my experience taught me, was not something that we young ones relished.  Most of us feared most everything then, those of us who were poor at least.  It wasn’t the war before, or the Korean War, the rumbles of war in Asia, the cold war so much, unless a relative was drafted; it was all that accompanied the tentativeness of existence. If we had parents who loved us, poverty stressed them, for their silences carved holes in the heart at night.  When the father wept, he wept alone and so did the mother.  From an early age children were taught not to weep. If they were sick, to go to bed.

“Quit that bawling” was often heard in these rural households. “You have nothing to cry about,” another. “Who do you think you are,” often. “You’ll get what you deserve,” said more than once but remembered often. “Stop your sniveling,” if caught crying alone.  If a child cried, their tears were slapped out of them.  “Sit down and shut up,” more times than I could count.  Life at home was difficult for us poor.  At home one craved the quiet times and the times when company came, when one didn’t have to think or do, other than peel potatoes, stir gravy, pour coffee, clear off the table, wash dishes and rinse them with teakettles full of scalding water.  School, for a poor child, horrible. I had my share of those times, but others had it much worse.  Company meant that we were ignored, left to play alone, with the other children of course.

Living in the house south of Botna, was extremely demoralizing.  Except for my youngest brother, someone who was fast becoming someone to enjoy, life was pretty stressful, not like it would be for me when we moved to the O’Boyle place.

There during my junior year, my mother threw a book up the stairs on the changes a girl goes through.  I caught it, but never read it, never knew much of anything about sexuality until I went to college.  I do remember that my sister and I fought a lot.  I pulled a lot of hair, threw blows that landed.  I see the scrambles, the fights in corners, but I don’t know what for, except jealousy on my part.  Perhaps it was nothing more than being thrust out of one house that barely housed us into one that a puff of wind could blow down–no closets, two extremely small bedrooms upstairs, one for my brothers, and the other for my sister and me.  It was at this time that I began to associate with those I felt were poorer than I, and being embarrassed for them, and for me.

Me September 1959

Lamps to read by upstairs, not on your life: one bulb in the center of the room turned on early in the morning, shut off when one left the room and finally clicked off by the last one to crawl into bed at night. I couldn’t even escape being tormented by my older sister when she and her husband returned. She consonantly poked me in the back as a reminder for me to sit up straight.  During that time, my dislike for her husband grew.

Perhaps if Mother and I could ever talk about sex, my life would have been different.  One would think that being on a farm I would know what happened between males and females.  I do have memories of being very young and having my hand forced to the crotch of an old man in overalls.  I do remember fearing being alone with my dad’s brother, and a nightmarish one of a kitchen table squeezing me against a wall in his house–the oilcloth had red and yellow flowers all over it–and other nasty occurrences that I never told anyone until well into my adulthood.

My sister first saw the neighbor boy in the tree outside our window one warm fall night while we were getting ready for bed.  Not that we girls ever considered being naked in front of each other, we were in various stages of getting ready for bed, turning our backs while pulling on a nightgown or something.  Maybe we were putting curlers in our hair, a nightly task then.  It wasn’t that she screamed, but certainly Mom and Dad found out that someone was in a tree. Dad went outside, and in a calm voice, told him to get down out of that tree and go home.  Dad warned him that he’d better not catch him up here again.

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.

Botna

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.

Dream

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.

Runts

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.